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.