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05 August 2019

When Jesus said he wouldn’t go… and did.

John 7.1-13.

If you read the synoptic gospels (meaning Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the three which sync up a lot), you might get the idea Jesus only went to Jerusalem once—to get arrested and crucified. That’d be historically inaccurate. Jesus obeyed the Law, and the Law decreed every adult male should go to temple three times a year for the festivals. Dt 16.16 Meaning Jesus went to Jerusalem a lot, and John—which largely takes place there—fills in the blanks of what happened during those many Jerusalem trips.

Including when Jesus cured that one blind guy. The context of that story was when he went to Jerusalem one year for Sukkót. That trip began a few chapters back; since I skipped that part I figure I’d better backtrack. Here y’go.

John 7.1-13 KWL
1 After these things, Jesus traveled the Galilee.
He didn’t want to travel in Judea, because the Judeans sought to kill him.
2 Sukkót/Tents, a Judean festival, was near, 3 so Jesus’s brothers told him,
“Leave here and go to Judea, so your students will also see you and the works you do.
4 Nobody who seeks publicity, works in private: If you do things, reveal yourself to the world!”
For Jesus’s brothers didn’t yet believe in him either.
6 So Jesus told them, “My moment hasn’t arrived yet.
Your moment is always ready. 7 The world can’t hate you.
It hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.
8 You go up to the festival. I’m not going up to this festival: My moment isn’t fulfilled.”
9 This said, Jesus stayed in the Galilee.
10 As Jesus’s brothers went up to the festival, Jesus then also went up—not publicly, but privately.
11 So the Judeans were seeking Jesus at the festival, and said, “Where is that person?
12 There was much grumbling about him in the crowds.
On the one hand, some said he’s good; others said, “No, but he misleads the crowd.”
13 Even so, nobody spoke openly about Jesus, for fear of the Judeans.

I’ll admit right now: This story has always kinda bothered me. ’Cause y’notice Jesus initially told his brothers, “I’m not going up to the festival; you go.” Then, one verse later, he did go. But “as it were in secret,” as the King James Version puts it. On face value, it totally looks like Jesus lied to his brothers and snuck to the festival.

I know, I know: Christ Jesus never sinned. He 4.15 I’m not claiming otherwise. I don’t think the passage is claiming otherwise either. Certainly no Christian is gonna interpret it that way. But anybody who honestly looks at this passage—including skeptics who have no qualms about accusing Jesus of all sorts of things—are gonna come right out and say, “Looks like Jesus deceived his brothers.” (That is, once pagans get over their initial surprise: “Wait, Jesus has brothers? I thought he was an only child!”)

So instead of letting little doubts poke at the back of our minds for no good reason, let’s deal with this bible difficulty today.

02 August 2019

We’re not the only ones who do grace, y’know.

Scott Hoezee told this story in his 1996 book The Riddle of Grace.

The story is told that, many years ago, a conference was convened to discuss the study of comparative religions. Theologians and experts from various fields of religious studies gathered from all over the world to tackle certain knotty questions relating to Christianity and its similarities or dissimilarities to other faiths. One particularly interesting seminary was held to determine whether there was anything unique about the Christian faith. A number of Christianity’s features were put on the table for discussion. Was it the incarnation? No; other religions also had various versions of the gods coming down in human form. Might it be the resurrection? No, various versions of the dead rising again were found in other faiths as well.

On and on the discussion went without any resolution in sight. At some point, after the debate had been underway for a time, C.S. Lewis wandered in late. Taking his seat, he asked a colleague, “What’s the rumpus about?” and was told that they were seeking to find Christianity’s unique trait among the world religions. In the straightforward, no-nonsense, commonsense approach that was to make Lewis famous, he immediately said, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” As the other scholars thought about that for a moment, they concluded that Lewis was right: It is grace. No other religion had ever made the ultimate acceptance by the Almighty so absolutely unconditional. In other faiths, there is usually some notion of earning points. Whether it was karma, Buddhist-like steps among the path to serenity, or some similar system, the idea was that to receive the favor of the gods one had to earn the favor of the gods.

Not in Christianity, at least not in true Christianity. Hoezee 41-42

Philip Yancey was so impressed by it, he retold the story in his 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace? which is where I first heard it. Hoezee says he heard it from Peter Kreeft, in a speech Kreeft gave at Calvin College. I’ve no doubt he did.

Too bad it’s gotta be bunk though.

Told to make C.S. Lewis sound clever. Smarter than those religion experts, who somehow never read anything G.K. Chesterton wrote about the uniqueness of Christian grace. But Lewis, and any religion scholar who’s not a chauvinistic ninny, would know full well grace is found in other religions.

Grace is in Judaism, ’cause grace is all over the Old Testament. The LORD rescued the Hebrews from Egypt, not because they were a great and deserving people who merited salvation, but purely out of his love. Dt 7.7-8 The LORD gave them Palestine, not because they deserved it, but because he promised it to Abraham and their ancestors. Dt 9.5 We make the same mistake Pharisees did, and confuse the Law with the foundation of their faith. But the foundation is Abraham—who trusted the LORD, and the LORD graciously considered his faith to be righteousness. Ge 15.6

Grace is in Islam. Those whose only experiences with Islam is with its legalists, assume it’s not. They assume Muslims struggle to follow Islam’s rules because it’s how they earn heaven. It’s not. Muslims are quick to remind people we can follow the rules perfectly, yet still not know whether you attain heaven, ’cause heaven has nothing to do with the rules. Only God decrees who’s going to heaven or not, and it’s entirely based on his grace. The Quran begins, Bismi Allahi alrrahmani alrraheemi, “In God’s name—most gracious, most merciful.” Muslim prayers regularly address him this way. They’re continual reminders of his grace.

Grace is even found in Hinduism. Karma only gets people so far, y’know. But Hinduism’s gods can be appealed to, intervene, and push people ahead a little further. Apparently they can be gracious.

That’s the thing: Scratch the surface of every religion, and you’ll find despite any legalism they might have, they also have grace to grease the wheels. Otherwise their wheels can’t turn.

Nope, Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on mercy, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and grace. In fact many’s the time Christians don’t practice these things… and other religions do, and frustrated Christians see this, quit Jesus, and go try those other religions.

Yeah, I’ve heard many a Christian apologist claim we’re the only ones who do grace. We’d sure like to think so, wouldn’t we? But we make that claim only when we don’t know squat about other religions. (Or we hope our debate opponents don’t know squat—and lying to win such debates is evil, Dt 5.20 so don’t do that.)

01 August 2019

The books in your bible.

The bible’s an anthology, a collection of books and letters about God. (We tend to call ’em “books” either way.) There are two major divisions: The Old Testament, and the New Testament.

The Old Testament is the book collection assembled by the ancient Hebrews. For the most part they were written in two variants of ancient Hebrew: Early Biblical Hebrew, which is what the “books of Moses” and the Deuteronomistic history and the Prophets was written in; and Late Biblical Hebrew, which much of the rest was written in. Late Biblical Hebrew has some heavy influences from Aramaic, the language which had replaced Hebrew by 500BC, which was around the time the last of the OT was written.

The apocrypha isn’t actually one of those major divisions. They’re the books which were added to the OT when it was translated into Greek in the 400s BC. These Greek bibles, which get called the Septuagint, were considered the bible by the early Christians, so the additional books were part of their Old Testament till the 1400s. Still are, in Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches.

And the New Testament is the collection put together by the ancient Christians. They’re written in Koine ki'ni, commonly 'kɔɪ.neɪ, a first-century form of “common” Greek spoken outside Greece.

Christians should know the books of our bible. Partly so we don’t get confused when people bring ’em up; partly so we can find them in a print bible (or “analog bible,” as I like to call ’em). Unfortunately the book order is neither alphabetical nor chronological. The Old Testament was bunched in order of when they were written, and still is in Jewish bibles, but the Septuagint re-sorted them into genres (law, history, poetry, prophets) and that’s the order Christians still follow. The New Testament is likewise sorted into genres (gospels; apostles, sorted by book length; apocalypse). So you’re just gonna have to memorize the order. Sorry.

31 July 2019

Put some bible in your brain!

There are certain bits of bible which need to be embedded in a Christian’s brain. Need to be.

No, this isn’t a requirement before God can save you. But it’s extremely useful to be able to quote various verses and passages which remind us of God’s love and grace and goodness, of Jesus’s teachings and commands, of the thinking behind God’s acts and our beliefs, and of promises, encouragements, and expectations. We need to put some verses into our memories.

So here’s how we get started.

Lots of Christians insist there are particular verses every one of us ought have memorized, like the Lord’s Prayer, or “the Lord’s my shepherd,” John 3.16, or Romans 6.23, or Romans 10.9. (People tend to refer to verses by their addresses. That’s sorta annoying for those of us who mix addresses up. I’m one of them, by the way.)

No, I’m not going to go through the entire list of Christians’ favorite memory verses right now. I’ll bring one or another up from time to time. If you’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer, hopefully you’ve got it in your head by now anyway.

Me, I prefer this technique: It’s a little more natural.

1. Read your bible.

Because you are reading your bible, right? If not, don’t feel bad; just start.

So as you go through the bible, likely you’re gonna find a sentence or saying which really stands out to you. Something you think is especially profound. Something you’d want to quote later. Something you’d share with other people; you might even think right away of certain people to share it with. You might want to tweet it or otherwise put it on social media.

Well, there’s your memory verse. If it’s worth remembering, it’s worth memorizing.

And yeah, there’s a ton of bible worth memorizing. If you’re on the lookout for memory verses, you’ll find plenty. Dozens every day. Sometimes you’ll think, “Holy shnikes, I should memorize this entire chapter!

Okay, calm down little buckaroo. Don’t drive yourself crazy. If you’re on the lookout for memory verses, chances are you’re gonna overexaggerate the importance of every verse you find. Not that these verses aren’t important; they were important enough for the authors of the bible to write down, and for later believers to include in the bible. But maybe it’s better to not read the bible so you can specifically mine for memory verses. Just let ’em come to you naturally. If a statement strikes you as really significant, keep that one.

Don’t use a highlighter; that doesn’t help you memorize anything. (And somebody tell this to college students.) Write it down someplace. Write it a few times.

Yeah, you might only find one significant verse a day. Sometimes none. Sometimes ten, on a really good day. But you shouldn’t have to try very hard. So don’t try very hard.

Remember: If it’s something you’ll want to quote later, or share with others, that’s the one you keep.

30 July 2019

Prayer… and morning people. (Groan.)

Some of us are morning people: We bounce out of bed every morning ready to tackle the coming day. It’s the best time of the day!

Some of us are night owls: We don’t mind staying up late to have fun, to get work done, to do whatever. That’s the best time of the day.

I’m a night owl. And for one semester in seminary, I lived with a morning person. Thank God he wasn’t one of those annoying morning people—the sort who thinks everyone should love mornings just as much as they do, and all it’ll take to convert us is getting a good night’s sleep. I used to work for such a person. She was so chipper every morning, I wanted to stuff her into one. But I digress.

My morning-person roomie believed in starting every morning with God in prayer. Makes sense, right? But he had to take it one step further: Start every morning with sunrise prayer. He and some eager friends would wake at the crack of dawn, head to the chapel, and pray.

They chose to pray in the chapel’s prayer room. It was a little room in the basement of the building, open 24 hours a day for prayer. (Well supposedly for prayer. Various students found it was a great place to make out, unobserved. So I guess it kinda needed the prayer.) The prayer room had no windows… which meant they didn’t see the sunrise, which still makes no sense to me. Isn’t that the whole point of sunrise prayer?

More than once, he invited me to come along. I went once. That was enough. I had no problem going to Epsilon Delta Kappa’s all-night prayer vigils; I had no problem watching the sun rise that way. But rising at dawn? The only reasons I bother is when work requires it, when I go to bed really early, or insomnia. I’d make a lousy monk.

In contrast, King David was clearly a morning person. ’Cause he sang about early-morning prayer. Ps 5.3 And since his psalms are bible, many Christians are convinced everybody oughta practice early-morning prayer. My roommate was one of them. What kind of selfish Christian chooses his comfortable bed over our Lord?

“Look,” I tried to explain, “my prayers are gonna suck when I’m sleep-deprived.”

’Cause back in my Fundamentalist days I was involved in ministries where early-morning prayer wasn’t voluntary: Everybody was expected out of bed bright ’n early, and off we’d go to morning devotions. And my prayers really sucked. First 10 minutes consisted of my complaining to God about being up so God-damned early in the morning. Followed by many apologies for saying “God-damned” to God, of all people. And for my rotten attitude. And for not really being able to focus on anything, much less God.

Really, all this grousing and apologizing was time wasted. I could’ve just prayed when I was awake.

“Besides,” I joked to my roommate, “you don’t need to be awake to talk to God. Ever heard of prophetic dreams?”