Lifting up Jesus exposes the world’s problems.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 April

Jesus came to save the world. But not everyone wants saving.

John 3.12-21

Most Christians have heard John 3 all our lives. (Particularly verse 16.) It’s an old lesson. It’s not a hard one to grasp, either: Gotta be born again; the Father sent the Son into the world to save it; those who love the dark won’t love the light. Plus that bit about John the baptist being totally in favor of the growth of Jesus’s ministry.

So we sometimes forget: To Nicodemus this was all new. Unless the Holy Spirit had been slipping him some information in advance—so that Jesus could confirm it, and Nicodemus could believe—this is the first time he’d heard any such thing. Again, it’s not a hard lesson to grasp. But Nicodemus recognized Jesus was telling him he had to put his faith in the Son of Man to have life in the age to come. And this was a new idea. Put your faith in the prophet sitting across from you? The guy with the rustic accent, a rabbi followed by a bunch of kids, a former laborer who’d never studied in the Jerusalem schools—who could do miracles, sure, but still—this guy? This guy’s the king of Israel?

We Christians respond, “Well duh.” But that’s because we know him. Nicodemus didn’t know him yet. And any pagan presented with Jesus, who seriously consider him for the first time, are likewise gonna struggle with the idea. ’Cause they always assumed he was dead—and we’re telling them he’s alive, and all his teachings are still valid.

Easy for followers, but non-followers still have that big leap of faith to take. Not easy, ’cause they still have some stuff they’re clinging to.

John 3.12-18 KWL
12 “If people won’t believe it when I tell you of earthly things,
how will you believe it when I tell people of heavenly things?
13 Nobody’s gone up to heaven but the one who came down from heaven:
The Son of Man.” [Who’s in heaven.]
14 “The Son of Man has to be lifted up, just like Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,
15 so all who trust in him might have life—
in the age to come, 16 for God likewise loves the world.
Therefore he gave his only-begotten Son, so all who trust him might not be destroyed.
Instead they might have life in the age to come.
17 God didn’t send the Son into the world so he could judge the world,
but so, through the Son, he’d save the world.
18 Those who trust the Son aren’t judged.
Non-believers are judged already: They don’t trust the only-begotten Son of God’s name.”

We gotta put our trust in him. Not our theology; there are loads of Christians who assume we have to get all our doctrines right, and if any of ’em are out of place, we’re heretics, bound for hell. Not our religion; there are likewise loads of Christians who figure if we haven’t been baptized, if we don’t take regular holy communion, if we don’t repent and confess sins on a consistent basis, God’ll turn off his grace like a faucet. Not our knowledge, not our dedication, not ourselves. Him. Only him.

Hard to do when, thus far, you’ve only trusted yourself.

It’s hard to teach people whose minds are made up.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 April

John 3.9-13.

Nicodemus had come by night to suss out Jesus, and Jesus began their discussion by talking about getting born again. Re-generated. (Resurrected, I believe, ’cause flesh and blood can’t inherit God’s kingdom. 1Co 15.50 But we can debate that.)

It’s a deep idea, and Nicodemus balked at it.

John 3.9-13 KWL
9 In reply Nicodemus told him,
“How are these people able to be generated?”
10 In reply Jesus told him, “You’re Israel’s teacher,
and you don’t already know this?”
11 Amen amen: I promise you
we know what we’re talking about;
we saw what we’re testifying about.
And none of you accept our witness.
12 If people won’t believe it
when I tell you of earthly things,
how will you believe it
when I tell people of heavenly things?
13 Nobody’s gone up to heaven
but the one who came down from heaven:
The Son of Man.” [Who’s in heaven.]

There’s a regular theme we see in John: Jesus tries to teach people something, and the people can’t handle it. They can’t handle his teaching. Not because it’s hard to understand; Jesus uses a lot of metaphors, but the ancient Hebrews were thoroughly familiar with metaphor. (You’ve read Psalms, right? Metaphor-a-rama.) The issue wasn’t that Jesus was too deep for people, or went over their heads. It’s that he was pretty darn easy to understand—but they couldn’t handle what he taught them. Too challenging. Too contradictory to the stuff they grew up with, and took for granted. Too convicting.

And there’s another theme, which we see right here in this passage: Jesus found this rampant closed-mindedness really frustrating.

Yeah, he has infinite patience. It’s why he didn’t give up on ’em altogether, didn’t quit preaching, didn’t decide not to die for their sins, and didn’t instruct his students before he ascended, “Don’t bother with Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria. They wouldn’t listen to me, so they can all go to hell.” Ac 1.8 But he did vent from time to time: “I know what I’m talking about. So why won’t you listen to me?”

Here, Jesus uses the plural—“we know what we’re talking about.” No, this isn’t a reference to the trinity. He’s speaking of all the other prophets who legitimately hear from God. Like John the baptist—whom the Pharisees didn’t believe either. Mk 11.30-33 The Pharisees were too busy listening to their great rabbis to listen to God’s prophets. And they were gonna utterly miss God’s coming kingdom through their willful nearsightedness.

Yep, exactly like American Christians. Too often we’re too busy listening to the more famous preachers, authors, bloggers, even politicians. Not so much the bona fide prophets, who are trying to get us to repent and follow Jesus. Who are, like their Master, too challenging, too contrary, too convicting.

Some things never do change.

Creationism. (Don’t let it distract you!)

by K.W. Leslie, 18 April

When American Christians use the word “creationist,” they’re often thinking of the folks who believe in young-earth creationism (YEC for short). These people seriously believe God created the universe about 6,000 years ago.

This date isn’t deduced by observing the universe around them. If we did that, we’d notice we can see stars in the night sky which are billions of light-years away. We’d come to the natural conclusion our universe must be old enough for the light from these distant stars to make it to Earth. In other words, creation took place billions of years ago.

Why do YEC adherents insist the history of the cosmos is less than a millionth of that? Well, they claim, they’re literalists. When they read the bible, they don’t believe Genesis 1 is using metaphor, nor trying to describe creation using the view of the universe familiar to ancient middle easterners. Every day of creation is a literal 24-hour period. Every genealogical chart elsewhere in the book represents literal years; nobody skips generations like Matthew did, and none of the numbers are metaphors (i.e. “40 years” representing a generation).

So when we start from the dates we know for certain, like when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem (16 March 597BC), then work our way back to dates we sorta know (like the year of the Exodus, estimated to be around 1446BC), then add up all the ages in Genesis’s genealogies, we can roughly pin down creation at the fifth millennium before Christ. As Irish archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) did in his 1650 book Annales veteris testamenti/“Years of the Testament,” when he concluded God said “Let there be light” Ge 1.3 around 6 p.m. on 22 October 4004BC.

Seriously, dude pinned down the hour. He believed the years properly begin at the autumnal equinox, and in order for it to be evening then morning, Ge 1.5 evening’s around 6, right? I would presume he meant 6 Arabia Standard Time, not Greenwich Mean Time, which’d be more like 3. Still, it makes sense. Kinda.

Since YEC arithmetic regularly comes close to the good archbishop’s date, lots of ’em figure why reinvent the wheel? They use Ussher’s numbers—which makes the cosmos only 6,019 years old as of 2016. Bible says so.

And, insist young-earthers, if you don’t believe the cosmos is only 6 millennia old, you don’t really believe the bible. You believe scientists who tell you the universe is older, or your eyes, which show you billion-year-old galaxies through the telescope. But you’re not supposed to believe your eyes, nor any of those godless scientists: You’re supposed to only believe the scriptures. Placing anything above the bible means you’ve foolishly undermined your faith, and real Christians believe the bible first and foremost. Heretics believe in the sciences.

So this is why a lot of Christians don’t believe in science: They’ve been convinced science contradicts the bible, and they really don’t wanna go to hell for believing in science.

And this is why there’s a whole branch of Christian apologetics which fights specifically on behalf of YEC theories. Entire organizations, like Answers in Genesis and the Creation Research Institute, exist to provide Christians with solid reasons to embrace YEC beliefs… which they equate with believing in God and the scriptures.

So if you’re an old-earth creationist like me, you’re heretic. Even though most Christians fall straight into the old-earth creationist camp. And have no problem with science.

Introducing Nicodemus to the “born again” concept.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 April

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.