Introducing Nicodemus to the “born again” concept.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April

Jesus and Nicodemus meet, and talk theology.

John 2.23 – 3.10

The bible didn’t originally come in chapters, y’know. Cardinal Stephen Langton is usually credited with dividing it up that way in the late 1100s.

They do come in handy when we wanna find stuff, but some of the divisions get in the way of the story. When people dive straight into John 3, they often totally miss the verses which came right before. And they’re kinda important.

John 2.23 - 3.2 KWL
23 When Jesus was in Jerusalem at Passover for the feast,
many believed in his name, having seen the miraculous signs he did.
24 But Jesus himself didn’t believe them. He knew them all.
He had no need for anyone to testify about these people. He knows what’s in people.
3.1 A person named Nicodemus, a Judean senator, was sent by the Pharisees.
2 Nicodemus came one night to speak to Jesus, and told him,
“Rabbi, we’ve known you were sent from God as a teacher.
When God isn’t with them, nobody’s able to do these miraculous signs you do.”

Because of the signs Jesus showed people, he got really popular, and they claimed to believe in him. But he didn’t believe in them. He knew exactly how petty we humans can be. Love you one day, turn on you the next. Shout hosanna when you triumphantly enter Jerusalem; shout “Crucify him!” five days later.

Hence when Nicodemus told him, “Rabbi, we’ve known you were sent from God as a teacher,” Jesus knew better than to consider this an official endorsement by the Pharisees. Maybe Nicodemus believed this. Maybe not. Jesus needed to feel him out a little more.

This is why, when we read further in John 3, we notice Jesus is prodding Nicodemus, going a little over his head. It’s profound stuff; it’s many Christians’ very favorite part of the bible. But when someone isn’t pursuing God, doesn’t accept Jesus as the absolute authority on God’s will, John 3 confuses and irritates them to no end. I suspect that was Jesus’s intent.

The lenses we use to do theology.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 April

We don’t just use the bible to develop our theology. Don’t kind yourself.

 

Verses cited:
Matthew 23.8, 10.
John 1.18.
John 14.9.
John 14.26.

Do you have friends in your church?

by K.W. Leslie, 13 April

If the people in your church are nice enough people, but not really friends, I can understand not wanting to go.

Christians tend to go to church for four reasons.

  • Worship. They love music, or love ministering to the needy.
  • Teaching. They wanna learn about God and Christianity, or otherwise love a good sermon.
  • Sacrament. They wanna pray together, or practice any of the other rituals we can only do as a group.
  • Fellowship. They wanna see their friends.

At some other point I’ll write about the churches whose primary focus is on one of those four. Today I’m gonna bring up the fellowship thing—because it’s a way bigger deal than a lot of Christians realize.

Well, some of us already realize it’s a big deal. It’s why certain churches structure things so people will interact with one another a lot. They push their small groups. They extend their “meet ’n greet” time. They have potlucks and pizza parties and movie nights and other social functions. They don’t charge for the coffee.

It’s not for any ulterior motive: That’s the motive. They want the people of their church to make friends with one another. Jesus ordered us to love one another; Jn 15.12 they’re trying to make it happen. You’re not gonna love one another when you don’t know one another. You’re not gonna make friends with your fellow Christians when they’re nothing more than the other people who go to your church.

Yeah, there are fringe benefits to the people in your church making friends with one another: They’re gonna come to church to see their friends. Or, to put it shorter, they’re gonna come to church.

That’s what got me coming to church, back in my young-hypocrite years: My friends were there. The church services, I could do without: The music was lame, the sermons shallow. (Coincidentally, I and my faith were also lame and shallow, so more likely it was just me.) I would’ve had no problem with sleeping in Sunday mornings, like every other pagan. But I looked forward to sitting in the back of the church auditorium, quietly goofing off with my buds, whether it was Sunday morning or Thursday night youth group.

I grew out of the hypocrisy, but it’s still true: Lotta times I don’t feel like going to church. But my friends are there, so I do. When I don’t have any obligations that day, and I find out my friends are gonna be absent—they gotta work, or they’re on vacation, or otherwise won’t attend—sometimes I’ll attend anyway, and sometimes I won’t. And I’m far from the only one.

Knock the temple down?

by K.W. Leslie, 08 April

Did Jesus ever threaten to knock down the temple? Nope. He told them to do it.

John 2.18-22

First Passover we read about in John, this happened:

John 2.15 KWL
Making a whip out of ropes, Jesus threw everyone, plus sheep and cattle, out of temple.
He poured out the money-changers’ coins, and flipped over the tables.

In the other gospels, Jesus took critique for it the next morning, Mt 11.27-33, Mt 21.23-27 or days later. Lk 20.1-8 In John it appears to have happened right after. Now it could’ve happened some time later. The author wasn’t always too concerned with chronology (as you’ll notice from his brief flash-forward where the students recall this event after Jesus rose from the dead). John sticks to themes, not timeline.

Still, let’s get to the story.

John 2.18-22 KWL
18 So in reply, the Judeans told Jesus, “What sign are you showing us so you can do this?”
19 In reply Jesus told them, “Break down this shrine. In three days I’ll re-raise it.”
20 So the Judeans said, “This shrine took 46 years to build, and in three days you’ll re-raise it?”
21 Jesus was speaking about the shrine of his body.
22 So when Jesus was raised from the dead, his students remembered he said this.
They believed the scriptures, and the word Jesus said.

Jesus showed up in temple and started knocking stuff over and bossing people around. And this being the Hebrew religion and the temple of the LORD, it leaves us with two possibilities: The new guy is either a nut, or a legitimate judge, a God-sent leader authorized to command his people and sort their problems, with as much authority as a king.

In the United States, because we separate church and state, we don’t officially recognize God’s right to appoint leaders independent from our political system. If God wants you to run the country, he needs to get you elected. Otherwise you have no more power than any other citizen—which is quite a lot, but still. You can’t just storm into a public building and start driving people out. If this temple were in the U.S., Jesus would’ve been arrested quickly. This wasn’t; to the Judeans, there was a possibility Jesus had every right to do as he did. They never knew when God might send ’em judges. Or the Messiah.

But their test for whether Jesus was a judge or Messiah was a pretty stupid one. “What sign are you showing us?” They wanted a sign. Like Moses turning his staff into a snake, or spontaneously sprouting leprosy, or turning water to blood. Ex 4.1-9 God never said signs would be the usual way he’d confirm his judges, but Pharisees made it mandatory, so that’s what the Judeans insisted upon. Like I said, it’s stupid, ’cause any magician can perform these tricks too. Ex 7.10-11, 21-22 Signs, no matter how impressive, really prove nothing.

What does prove Jesus’s authority? Well, good fruit primarily, and the tests for a valid prophet secondarily. So that’s what Jesus gave as his “sign”: A prophecy. Knock down ton naón túton/“this shrine” (notice he didn’t say ton yerón túton/“this temple”) and in three days he’ll put it back up.

“You take that back!”

by K.W. Leslie, 07 April

How curses freak Christians out.

Curse /kərs/ n. Solemn utterance, meant to invoke supernatural evil, punishment, or harm.
2. v. Invoke supernatural evil, punishment, or harm.
3. n. Cause of evil or suffering.
[Curser /'kərs.ər/ n.]

Some Christians are mighty sensitive about curses. (Also mighty sensitive about “cursing,” by which we mean profanity, but I already discussed that.) Sometimes they call ’em “word curses,” which means precisely the same thing: You used your words to curse something. (How else are you gonna curse something? Waving one’s hands? Magic wands? Yeesh.)

For certain dark Christians, any negative statement—or anything they can interpret as a negative statement—counts as a curse. Fr’instance, I could say, “Hmm, cloudy day; looks like rain.” And to their minds, I just cursed the sky. Seriously. “You take that back! Don’t you call down rain on us!” As if my casual observation has the power to call down rain—and y’know, if it could, I’d make a fortune.

See, according to these folks, our words, even our idle words, spoken into the atmosphere, have the power to create or destroy. ’Cause we humans are made in God’s image. Ge 1.27 And since he has the power to call things into existence, supposedly we have the power to call things into existence. Good things or bad. Because I’m a semi-divine being, my uneducated weather forecast can actually make weather.

Which is rubbish, but you’d be surprised how many Christians believe this rubbish.

Don’t get me wrong. The spoken word isn’t a powerless thing. Words can build up; words can tear down. I can make someone’s day by giving ’em a compliment; I can ruin their life by criticizing ’em at the wrong time. That’s what Solomon meant when he wrote death and life are in the tongue. Pr 18.21 For this reason, Christians need to watch what we say. We never know the direction we’re influencing people.

But the idea my words have magical power that might trigger a reaction in nature around us, and create all sorts of unintended horrors: Not biblical. Ridiculous. And illogical, too: You’ll notice all those Christians who fear accidentally destroying stuff through their “word curses,” never worry about accidentally blessing stuff. “Gee, it looks like the weather today will be really nice!” never seems to force the clouds to dissipate. Nope. Blessings gotta be intentional, but curses can be accidental.

Meaningless things.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 April

“Everything happens for a reason” doesn’t describe our God at all.

Ecclesiastes 9.11 KWL
I came back. I saw this under the sun:
The fastest don’t win the race. The veterans don’t win the battle.
Even the wise don’t earn bread. Even the intelligent don’t get rich.
Even the experts fall out of favor. Dumb luck happens to them all.

Et va-fegá/“time and accident” tends to be translated “time and chance,” like the KJV has it. I went with “dumb luck.” ’Cause that’s the concept the author of Ecclesiastes was going with. Dumb luck. It exists; it’s why the best and brightest aren’t guaranteed success, no matter what our culture insists.

Dumb luck grates on those Christians who insist nothing happens outside God’s evil plan. He’s got it all mapped out; he’s got everything under his thumb; even evil and chaos and destruction and sin are part of the arrangement. Dumb luck, they insist, can’t exist in the realm of our sovereign God. There’s no such thing as luck. Everything happens for a reason.

They hate when I point ’em to Ecclesiastes. ’Cause it’s part of our Holy Spirit-inspired bible, yet its author relentlessly insists plenty of things happen for no reason. At all. It’s the entire premise of his book.

Ecclesiastes 1.1-3 KWL
1 The words of “Qohelét” ben David, king of Jerusalem:
2 “Vapor of vapors,” says Qohlelét. “Vapor of vapors. It’s all vapor.
3 What profit is all the trouble of humanity, laboring under the sun?”

I’ve actually had people try to explain Ecclesiastes away, as if the book’s “pessimism” no longer applies or matters in the Christian era. Supposedly the author (a descendant of David who called himself Qohelét/“preacher”; most folks assume it’s Solomon) wrote it when he was depressed, and because he lacked revelation of God’s grand will of purpose, he didn’t know God has a plan for everything. So he wrote it out of his faithlessness; and it’s in our bible as a warning to people who likewise lack faith. You know, like Job’s friends. Don’t be like these guys.

That’s just how dead set certain Christians are in insisting upon their worldview: Let’s overturn entire books of the bible by claiming they’re ironic.

But the reason the Spirit inspired this book, and the reason we kept it in the bible, is ’cause it makes it clear: God isn’t behind every fumble, every failure, every accident, every coincidence. He’s behind a whole lot of things, but not all. Some things aren’t him. Some things are havél havalím/“vapor of vapors,” not just the breath you can see on cold days which quickly disappears, but the breath of that breath. Here one instant, gone the next. Can’t hold it, can’t catch it, can’t chase it. It’s empty, unimportant, meaningless. “Vanity,” the KJV puts it—implying it’s less than meaningless, ’cause time spent on it is time utterly wasted.

Does anything happen for a reason? According to Qohelét, anything God does happens for a reason. But everything else? Vapor.

The prophet Jesus of Nazareth.

by K.W. Leslie, 05 April

Part of following Jesus is using him as our example of how to prophesy.

Jesus of Nazareth is a lot of things. Christ/Messiah/King of Israel, and King of Kings; rabbi/teacher and wise man; savior and healer; God incarnate, and second person of the trinity; and rumor has it he’s particularly good at woodcarving. But listed among these job titles and abilities is prophet. He shares what God told him. Arguably, he never taught anything else. Jn 12.49 That makes him a prophet.

Problem is, every single time I teach Jesus is a prophet—but I fail to refer to him by the usual job titles, “prophet, priest, and king,”—I get blowback. Lots of Christians feel the need to point out he’s not just a prophet. Well duh. He’s all those things I mentioned in the first paragraph. And he’s a prophet.

And the funny thing is, I don’t get this reaction when I teach Jesus is our head priest. Or Jesus is our king. Or Jesus is our teacher. It’s only when I state Jesus is a prophet. What’s up with that?

It’s about despising prophecy. 1Th 5.20-21 The average Christian doesn’t think very highly of prophets.

Some of it’s because they’ve met too many cranks who claim to be prophets, but they’re fake, or they’re sloppy and get it wrong. Or they’ve seen too many nutjobs on TV talking about the End Times, making wild predictions which will never happen, and making the rest of Christian biblical interpretation look foolish and stupid.

Some of it’s because there’s a large number of Christians who believe in cessationism: God turned off the miracles back in bible times, and that includes prophecy. So all present-day prophetic ministries are no different from fortune-tellers and psychics. Calling Jesus a “prophet” invokes ideas of those phonies, so it’s not a compliment.

And to be fair, some of it’s because pagans have no problem saying Jesus is a prophet—but won’t call him Lord. So they wanna make sure I’m not going that route myself.

In the end it’s usually, “Okay, Jesus is a prophet. But he’s more than that. He’s better. Call him something better.”

Remember: Just as Jesus’s behavior is high above the behavior of any of us would-be followers; just as Jesus’s fruit is far more abundant than that of the people who claim allegiance to him; just as Jesus’s character is way more consistent than people who claim to be Christlike; so he’s a better prophet than any and every Christian prophet. Even the good ones.

The “What do I lack?” prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 April

Just in case we’re sinning and unaware of it, or we’ve left anything undone.

Matthew 19.16-20 KWL
16 Look, someone came to Jesus saying, “Teacher, what good deed could I do
so I’d have life in the age to come?”
17 Jesus told him, “Why do you ask me about goodness?
The One God is good. If you want to enter life, keep his commands.”
18 This teenager told him, “Which kinds?”
Jesus said, “Don’t murder, adulter, steal, nor testify falsely;
19 honor father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
20 The teenager told him, “I follow all these. Am I missing anything?”
21 Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions. Give to the poor.
You’ll have treasure in heaven! Come follow me!”

This comes from the “rich young ruler” story: A wealthy neanískos/“teenager” (KJV “young man”) whom Luke identifies as a ruler Lk 18.18 wanted to know how to be part of the age to come, and was astute enough to know following God’s commands wasn’t gonna be enough. Something was lacking. He had a blindspot, and didn’t know what it was. He figured Jesus would know, and went to him for a diagnosis.

As we know from this story, this particular teen really needed to ask this question. He did have a deficiency—a lack of generosity, and too much dependence on his worldly possessions. Mt 19.21-24 True, at the end of the story the teen went away, and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. I hope he repented, but the gospels don’t say.

Anyway. His sad story besides, he reveals a type of prayer which we make to God from time to time. Lots of Christians call it an examen, a formal examination of the conscience, a fearless moral inventory: What am I missing? What blindspot do I have? What actions have I left undone?

Psalm 139.23-24 KWL
23 Search me, God. Know my heart. Test me. Know my worries.
24 See whether there’s a path of pain in me. Lead me in the eternal path.

Usually they’re sins of omission. Stuff we should be doing, but don’t realize we should. We don’t realize they’re among our responsibilities. Like the teenager: He didn’t realize he should also be giving to the poor. A lot of wealthy Christians likewise don’t realize that, ’cause they’ve bought what our wider culture has taught us: “People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Don’t give them anything; it won’t help them but harm them and make them dependent. Besides, only losers and parasites take charity.” Christians call it “good stewardship” instead of stinginess, but we know what we mean by it. And Jesus identified it as a work of the flesh; exactly the sort of poisonous attitude which’ll keep people out of his kingdom.

Profanity, and why Christians get freaked out by it.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 April

People mean three things by “swearing”: Oaths, curses, and profanity. Today I’m writing about profanity, meaning stuff that’s obscene, or stuff people consider irreverent towards God. Either various words or practices which are considered forbidden in polite company, or forms of “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” as popularly (and incorrectly) defined.

Since the beginning of human history, different cultures have had certain taboos. Stuff that’s forbidden. Or forbidden to children. Or forbidden to one gender and not the other: Men can go shirtless in public and women can’t; women can wear dresses in public but men can’t; that sort of thing.

Some of these taboos are for very good reason. Forbidding sex with children: Obviously it discourages people from exploiting children. Forbidding people to poop just anywhere: If it weren’t taboo, people would poop just anywhere, and this keeps their elimination practices in private. Where we prefer it. ’Cause ewww.

Because of the taboos against the practices, it even extends to the words. There are people who get offended by my bringing up the idea of poop. And of course, using the word—even though I used “poop” instead of the popular Anglo-Saxon word which you can say on basic cable, but not American broadcast television. Starts with S. You’ve heard of it.

In English, a lot of the “profane” words are the Anglo-Saxon words. The “proper” terms (like defecation) came from Anglo-Norman. Those two languages (and a ton of loan words) came together to form the English we speak today—but again, even if I use the word “defecation,” certain people will flinch like I poked their funny bone. The taboo is just that strong with ’em.

Five main taboos you’re gonna find in the English language:

  • Sex talk. Particular acts, the body parts used to perform ’em, and paraphernalia.
  • Bathroom talk. What comes out of you, how, and cleaning up after.
  • “Blasphemy.” Whatever treats God lightly.
  • Hell talk. Anything about evil in general, the devil, its tempters, and eternal punishment.
  • Prejudice. A relatively new category: Slurs against gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual preference.

Most of us recognize that, under certain circumstances, we have to discuss these topics. Fr’instance children need to be educated about sex; otherwise they’ll do it wrong.

When Jesus got out the whip.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 April

Yes, it’s a critique of capitalism: There’s a place for it, and temple isn’t it.

John 2.12-17

In the other gospels, Jesus kicked the merchants out of temple during Passion Week. Mk 11.15-17, Mt 21.12-13, Lk 19.45-46 In John, it’s a different year, another Passover.

The debate amongst scholars is whether Jesus kicked the merchants out of temple once, and one (or three) of the gospels don’t have their facts straight; or whether Jesus did it twice—once at the start of his mission, and once again before he was killed. It is an awfully similar story; might even be the same story.

The most common theory—even the inerrantists I was raised among would teach it—is this event happened once. During Passion Week. They wouldn’t overtly teach it that way: What they’d do is teach on Passion Week, teach on Jesus tossing the merchants out of temple, and in order to fill in any blanks in the story, start quoting John. ’Cause you know that bit about Jesus using a whip to do it? Not in the other gospels. Seriously, look:

Mark 11.15-17 KWL
15 They came to Jerusalem. Jesus entered temple and began to throw out all the sellers and the shoppers in temple.
He overthrew the coin-changers’ tables and the pigeon-sellers’ seats.
16 Jesus didn’t permit anyone to carry containers through temple.
17 Jesus taught, and told them:
“Isn’t it written that ‘my house will be called a prayer house for all nations?’ Is 56.7
You’d made it a thieves’ cave.”
Matthew 21.12-13 KWL
12 Jesus entered temple, and threw out all the sellers and shoppers in temple.
He overthrew the coin-changers’ tables and the pigeon-sellers’ seats.
13 Jesus told them, “It’s written, ‘My house will be called a prayer house.’ Is 56.7
You make it a thieves’ cave.”
Luke 19.45-46 KWL
45 Jesus entered temple and began to throw out the sellers,
46 telling them, “It’s written, ‘My house will be a prayer house,’ Is 56.7
and you made it a thieves’ cave.”

But man they loved that whipping imagery. So they’d deliberately swipe it from John. Didn’t matter if they believed the story in John happened at another time; they just couldn’t pass up the idea of Jesus giving the merchants a good whipping. I leave it to you as to whether prioritizing the whip over the textual integrity suggests something sorta demented about them.

The less-common variation of this theory is it still happened only once, but following John’s timetable: At the beginning of Jesus’s mission. Not during Passion Week—but the synoptic gospels moved it there ’cause it’s more dramatic.

My view: John has it right. And the other gospels have it right. Jesus kicked the merchants out of temple more than once. Heck, for all we know Jesus kicked ’em out every time he went to temple. Maybe that’s why he had a whip in John, but not the other gospels: “Aw crap, it’s Jesus the Nazarene again! Run before he gets the whip out!” By Passion Week, they’d learned their lesson.