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25 June 2019

The street-corner show-off.

Matthew 6.5-6.

Throughout history people have prayed publicly for various reasons. Some noble, some not.

And a regular problem throughout history has been the person who gets up and prays publicly, not because they legitimately wanna talk with God, or call to him for help. It’s because they wanna be seen praying. They wanna look religious. Usually so they can look more religious than they actually are. In other words hypocrisy.

Nothing annoys Jesus like hypocrisy, which is why he tries to discourage his followers from doing this. Although you know some of us do this anyway.

Matthew 6.5-6 KWL
5 “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites who enjoy standing in synagogues and major intersections,
praying so they might be seen by the people. Amen! I promise you all, they got their satisfaction.
6 When you pray, go into your most private room with the door closed.
Pray to your Father in private. Your Father, who sees what’s private, will satisfy you.”

Standing was how the ancients prayed. They didn’t kneel, bow their heads, and fold their hands; that practice arose in the middle ages ’cause it’s how European kings wanted to be approached, and since Jesus is a king it seems appropriate. They stood, looked to the sky (where they imagined God is) raised their hands to get his attention, and spoke with him. This posture made it really obvious someone was praying. Don’t need to get loud; just assume the position.

And Jesus notes the folks who prayed in really public places. Like synagogue. Which is not a Jewish church; it was a Pharisee school, where you went to ask rabbis questions. Prayer times, before and after and during the lesson, would be short. But people would stand right outside the building and make a public display of prayer, “getting right with God” before going in. Or similarly praying this way after the lesson, ostensibly to thank God for the wisdom they just got… or maybe to ask him to straighten out some wayward rabbi. Whatever; the point was they were making it nice ’n obvious they talked with God a lot.

“Major intersections” is how I translate ταῖς γωνίαις τῶν πλατειῶν/tes goníes ton plateión, “the corners of the wide streets,” namely the avenues where there was lots of room between buildings for people to shop, interact, people-watch, and otherwise hang out. Street corners were obviously where people were coming in from other streets—so the busy parts, busier than our own major intersections.

In both cases people were on their way someplace, and wouldn’t have had the time, nor spent the time, listening to this petitioner with his hands in the air. That wasn’t the point anyway. They didn’t care about being heard. Not even by God. They wanted to be seen.

The way we pray nowadays, doesn’t assume the ancient posture. Usually it’s heads bowed, eyes closed. Sometimes hands get raised, if the folks in the group have any Pentecostal influences in their background. But generally we’re not as noticeable when we pray. Unless we get loud… or unless there are a lot of us, like when a bunch of people pray in front of public buildings or around a flagpole.

But in those places, same as with the people Jesus critiqued, the point was to be seen and noticed by other people. Not so much God. And that’s what Jesus objects to.

24 June 2019

When the unclean spirit leaves a person…

Matthew 12.38-45 • Luke 11.24-26.

Previously I wrote about how some Sadducees and Pharisees in Dalmanuthá approached Jesus demanding a sign, and Jesus’s response was to say they’d get the Jonah sign, and nothing more.

But Matthew has a second version of this story, where Pharisee scribes approached him for a sign, and Jesus likewise said they’d get no more than the Jonah sign—then tacked on an odd little story about an evil spirit leaving a person, and coming back later. Luke tacks this lesson to when people accused Jesus of throwing out evil spirits with Satan’s power, and it seems to fit rather well there. It’s a little more odd when this lesson is placed together with the people who requested a sign.

People who are fascinated with evil spirits and demons—and paranoid about the possibility of being possessed by these creatures—have spent the past 20 centuries trying to glean information from this bit about how devils work.

I’ve decided to include Jesus’s Matthew statement so you can see its context. But yeah, I’ll explain what Christians have historically taught about this bit, and what Jesus actually means by it.

Matthew 12.38-42 KWL
38 Some of the scribes and Pharisees replied to Jesus, saying,
“Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 In reply Jesus told them, “An evil, adulterous generation pursues signs—
and a sign won’t be given them other than the prophet Jonah’s sign.
40 For just as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights,
likewise the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
41 The men of Nineveh will rise on Judgment Day with this generation and condemn it:
They repented at Jonah’s message, and look, more than Jonah is here.
42 The queen of the south will rise on Judgment Day with this generation and condemn it:
She came from the end of the earth to hear Solomon’s wisdom, and look, more than Solomon is here.
Matthew 12.43-45 KWL
43 “When the unclean spirit leaves a person, it goes past waterless lands seeking rest, finding none.
44 Then it says, ‘I’ll go back to my house which I left.’
It comes to find the person vacant—swept out and set right—
45 then goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself.
Entering, they live there,
and the last situation of this person is worse than the first. Likewise is this evil generation.”
Luke 11.24-26 KWL
24 “When the unclean spirit comes out of the person, it goes past waterless lands seeking rest.
Finding none, it says, ‘I’ll go back to my house which I left.’
25 On coming, it finds the person swept out and set right—
26 then goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself.
Entering, they live there,
and it happens the last situation of this person is worse than the first.”

Now y’notice Matthew doesn’t separate the “When the unclean spirit leaves a person” bit from the rest of Jesus’s statement about the Jonah sign. It’s not a separate story. It’s fully part of it. Either Jesus taught ’em together, or the author of Matthew was entirely certain they belong together. So we can talk about the Jonah-sign stuff separate from the unclean-spirit stuff, ’cause Mark does. Mk 8.10-13 But we ought not talk about the unclean-spirit stuff separate from the Jonah-sign stuff.

19 June 2019

“What’s God’s secret, evil plan for my life?”

In seminary I was introduced to the Calvinist idea God has two wills. Sometimes it’s called a “twofold will.” (As if that doesn’t also make him sound a little schizophrenic.)

There’s the will he’s revealed to everybody in the bible. This’d be found in the Law, expounded upon in the Prophets, interpreted by Jesus’s teachings and the apostles’ instructions. It’s the stuff he expects us, his followers, to do. So get out that bible, look it up, and obey.

But there’s apparently a second will: God’s plan for the whole of creation.

From the time he first made the world, to the point he’s gonna restore it, to our infinite eternal future with him, God’s set a plan in place for everything. But unlike the first will—the one he revealed to everybody—God hasn’t revealed this second will. Oh, he revealed he has a plan. He just hasn’t told us any of its details. It’s none of our business. True, if he feels like it, he may sometimes choose to reveal bits and pieces of the plan to his prophets, just to let ’em know he’s got this. Otherwise he keeps it to himself.

The revealed will, which contains all God’s precepts in the bible, they call God’s will of precept. The other, God’s grand scheme for the universe, would be God’s will of purpose. My theology professor described ’em like so. (Well sorta; I shortened his big long sentences, and put them in my own words.)


God’s “two wills.” Assuming you believe he’s double-minded.

If you’re not familiar with these terms, you might’ve heard them called other things.

“WILL OF PRECEPT,” A.K.A.…“WILL OF PURPOSE,” A.K.A.…
“Should Be”“Shall Be”
“Preceptive Will”“Purposed Will”
“Commanded Will” or “Will of Command”“Decreed/Decretive Will” or “Will of Decree”
“Revealed Will”“Unrevealed Will” or “Secret Will” or “Hidden Will”
“Permitted/Permissive Will”“Efficient Will”
“Moral Will”“Sovereign Will” or “Absolute Will”
“Voluntas signi” (will of sign)“Voluntas beneplaciti” (will of good pleasure)

In short, the stuff he commanded, and his other plans for the universe which he keeps to himself.

Sounds good? To many people it totally does. It’s why this view is so popular. It explains why we can say “God’s will can never, ever be frustrated”—even though people sin constantly, which appears to be a clear violation of God’s will. It also makes God’s plan feel absolutely, certainly guaranteed: God is in such careful control of the universe, our sins and plans can never ever stop him. His plan will happen. Take it to the bank.

But. The big, big problem with the will-of-purpose concept is it means God is evil. Seriously. Follow my logic:

  1. Everything in the universe—seriously, everything—is part of the will of purpose. God sovereignly controls everything in the universe, and because God determines how everything in the universe is gonna go. It’s all in the plan. All.
  2. And our fallen world is full of evil. Not just a little evil; not just a few bad apples. Humanity is profoundly, totally corrupt. We’ve corrupted the world right along with us. If everything’s part of the plan, our evil is part of the plan. That’s a lot of evil. Every murder, every rape, every lie, every act of violence and oppression.
  3. The will of purpose isn’t merely permitting or allowing things to happen. It’s always described as an active, creative will. God has decided all these things will happen. He’s actively making them happen. Including, y’know, all the evil.

So while the commands make God sound all moral—’cause he defines sin, and tells us not to commit any—the will of purpose puts him behind the scenes, triggering all the sins humanity commits. And then he comes round and condemns us for the sins he made us do… and if we don’t repent (because, I remind you, he programmed us not to!) he sends us to hell. So it seems God’s a bit of a hypocrite too. Wasn’t hypocrisy the one thing that annoyed Jesus more than anything?

Now, when you present these objections to Calvinists, they’ll immediately object right back: God is not secretly an immoral monster. Because the bible says he’s not!—and they follow the bible. Okay, so they can’t reconcile how the bible says God is good, with their will-of-purpose idea. But since they figure both must be true, it’s therefore a mystery, a paradox we can’t explain because God hasn’t given us the details we need to sort out the discrepancies; we just have to trust him on this.

Calvinists regularly pull the “It’s a mystery” card whenever their doctrines violate bible. Way easier than admitting they’re wrong. And we can do it too, for fun! “Yeah, I know Jesus tells us to be generous, but I’m gonna give nothing to the needy and spend it on myself. because my doctrine says I don’t have to. How’s that reconcile with Jesus’s teachings? Well it’s a mystery!”

Not really. Self-centeredness is usually the root cause of all such “mysteries.” We’d love to live in a universe where we pull every string; in our fantasies, we usually do! We incorrectly imagine we’re a lot like God—and God should’ve created a universe like that, right?—so we project our desires upon God, and imagine he pulls every string, and find a bunch of proof texts in the bible to back our idea up. But if such a universe existed, it most certainly can’t be this one. Way too much evil.

18 June 2019

The storehouse of merit?

“Treasure in heaven” does not mean your accumulated good karma.

Jesus tells us to stash our wealth in heaven. Actually he said it this way:

Matthew 6.19-21 KWL
19 “Don’t hoard wealth for yourselves on earth,
where moths and corrosion ruin it, where thieves dig it up and steal it.
20 Hoard wealth for yourselves in heaven,
where neither moth nor corrosion ruins, where thieves don’t dig, nor steal:
21 Where’s your wealth? Your mind will be there too.”

If our wealth consists of material possessions—like homes, cars, electronics, jewelry, cash—we waste way too much time stressing about its upkeep and safety. We hoard more, “just in case.” We encourage laws and business practices which let us keep our wealth… and, all too frequently, aren’t charitable with others. The love of money becomes the underlying cause of all sorts of evil. 1Ti 6.10

Thing is, people skip this whole idea of de-prioritizing material wealth, and focus on the idea of treasures in heaven. Which, because humanity believes in karma, isn’t necessarily a cache of wealth waiting for us in New Jerusalem; mansions and streets of gold and a diamond-encrusted Bentley. Instead it’s a giant stash of karmic wealth: All our good deeds mean God owes us a few favors. A few thousand favors. And someday we’ll cash in on them.

Which is why I actually know certain Christians who don’t request things of God. Not because they think he can’t or won’t come through for them: They’re saving up their favors. At some point, they figure, they’re really gonna need something from God, and that’s when they’re gonna call in their chips. “Santa… I mean God, I’ve been such a good little boy. Can I have what’s on the top of my wishlist?”

God’s kingdom doesn’t work like that. Never did. It runs on grace and nothing else. But karma is a very old, very well-ingrained idea in humanity, and sometimes it’s just gonna leak into our dealings with God. It shouldn’t; it paints a very messed-up picture of him. It makes him sound like he runs on merit—like a congressman.

The point of treasure in heaven is not so we have something with which to purchase prayer requests. Your heavenly wealth is meant for you to enjoy—in kingdom come, sure, and to some degree now. But the idea we’re racking up favors for God is ridiculous. What can we give God that he doesn’t already have, that he can’t already create from nothing with a minor thought? What can we dangle in front of him that a billion other Christians won’t already freely give him?

But of course the folks who think of their treasure in heaven as a storehouse of merit, don’t realize how foolish they’re being. Sometimes it’s ’cause they haven’t experienced enough grace in their lives, so they just assume God thinks like they do—and like everyone else. Sometimes they grew up with a lot of bad preaching—the kind which tells them God loves them so much, values them so much, doesn’t wanna live without them, which is why he sent his Son to die for them—they get the warped idea they can hold God hostage by threatening to deprive him of them. Which ain’t love, you know.

Yep, there are many ways human pettiness and selfishness tends to distort our relationship with God. Turning our treasures in heaven into a karmic bank is one of them.

17 June 2019

Demanding a sign from Jesus, and getting the Jonah sign.

Mark 8.10-13 • Matthew 12.38-42, 16.1-4.

I grew up among cessationists, folks who think God has multiple dispensations, and think he turned off the miracles in the dispensation we’re in. Which is a hard view to maintain, ’cause God still totally does miracles. But they try; they insist their anti-supernatural doctrines are more important than God’s revelation. They know better than he does—although they’d never ever phrase it that way.

So whenever they wanted to defend their worldview, they’d pull up this passage, and spin it to mean Jesus rejected and rebuked miracles. Even though he did miracles. Even though he deliberately did miracles as signs to foster belief. Even though God did ’em all the time to foster belief. It was the entire point of the first miracles Moses ever did!

Exodus 4.1-9 KWL
1 In reply Moses said, “Look, the Hebrews won’t believe me, won’t hear my voice:
They’ll say, ‘The LORD didn’t appear to you.’
2 The LORD told Moses, “What’s this in your hand?” Moses said, “A stick.” 3 The LORD said, “Throw it to the ground.”
Moses threw it to the ground. Now it was a snake!—and Moses fled from its face.
4 The LORD told Moses, “Reach your hand out and grab its tail.”
Moses reached his hand out, grabbed it—and in his hand it was a stick.
5 “In order to believe the LORD God of their ancestors appeared to you—
Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, Jacob’s God.”
6 The LORD told Moses again, “Please put your hand to your chest.”
Moses put his hand to his chest, then held it out: Look, his hand was leprous, white like snow.
7 The LORD said, “Return your hand to your chest.”
Moses returned his hand to his chest, then held it out: Look, the flesh was restored.
8 “If it happens they don’t trust you, don’t hear the voice of the first sign,
the Hebrews will trust the voice of the last sign.
9 If it happens they don’t trust these two signs, don’t hear your voice: Take water from the Nile.
Pour it into something dry, and the water which you took from the Nile will be blood in the dry vessel.”

God’s okay with giving us signs. Okay with people asking for signs. Jg 6.36-40 What he’s never okay with, is hypocrisy—is people who ask for a sign, but have no intention of believing or recognizing it. He sees no point in providing signs for such people. They’re not worth it.

Cessationists fall straight into this category. Doesn’t matter if you perform a miracle right in front of them. They’ll just do as certain Pharisees did, and claim Satan empowered it to deceive them. (Apparently in this dispensation, God can’t do miracles, but Satan can. Wait, which of them is Almighty again?) Jesus warned those Pharisees they were blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but good luck warning cessationists they’re committing the same sin: They’re vaccinated themselves against that accusation by redefining “blasphemy” so they’re not really committing it. Then they keep right on committing it. I’d really hate to be them on Judgment Day; I’m pretty sure they’re gonna try to psyche themselves into thinking the entire experience of getting judged by Jesus is also a devilish trick.

Anyway here’s the passage they pull out of context: When certain Pharisees in Dalmanutha requested a sign from Jesus, and Jesus, who knew no sign would work on them, blew ’em off.

Mark 8.10-13 KWL
10 Quickly getting into the boat with his students, Jesus went to the border of Dalmanuthá.
11 Pharisees came and began to debate Jesus, requesting a heavenly sign from him, testing him.
12 Groaning deeply in his spirit, Jesus said, “Why does this generation ask for signs?
Amen, I tell you if anyone gives this generation a sign…”
13 Getting into the boat again, Jesus left the Pharisees
and went to the far side.
Matthew 16.1-4 KWL
1 Approaching Pharisees and Sadducees asked Jesus for a heavenly sign to show them.
2 In reply Jesus told them, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It’s red; clear sky.’
3 And in the morning, ‘Storms today, for the sky is red and gloomy.’
So you know to interpret the face of the sky—and can’t interpret the signs of the day?
4 An evil, adulterous generation pursues signs—and a sign won’t be given them other than Jonah’s sign.”
Leaving them, Jesus went away.

The Textus Receptus adds ὑποκριταί/ypokrité, “hypocrites,” to Matthew 16.3. Which is fair; it’s precisely what the problem was. These folks had every intention of watching Jesus do a sign, or point to an existing sign… only so they could debunk and dismiss it. They didn’t want proof. They wanted to set him up to fail.

If we ever approach God with the same lousy attitude, of course it deserves condemnation, and we shouldn’t expect God to take such requests seriously, ’cause he won’t. But cessationists treat all requests for a heavenly sign as if they deserve condemnation. ’Cause to their minds, they do: God turned off the miracles, so how dare we ask him to switch ’em back on for our selfish, petty reasons? And so forth.

Basically cessationists are preaching out of their unbelief. But enough about them today.