Well-meaning people make up stuff about Jesus

[From the archives.]

A recent study reported that people who like a company sometimes write reviews on products the person has never bought, owned or used. You think they’re writing favorable reviews in order to promote the product, right?

Wrong. They’re writing negative reviews.

In essence, the professors explain in their report, the customers were acting as “self-appointed brand managers.”

“They are loyal to the brand and want an avenue to provide feedback to the company about how to improve its products,” the report explains. “They will even do so on products they have not purchased.”

People think they are helping the company by making things up about products. I bet the companies think otherwise.

Making Up Stories About Jesus

Well-meaning people make up stuff about Jesus, too. Don’t believe me? What image comes to mind when you read the word “Footprints”?

I bet you thought of this.

That cheesy poem is firmly entrenched in bad doctrine because if that “Footprints” poem says anything it says God helps those who help themselves. You walk for as far as you can on your own, and when you can’t take another step, then Jesus will carry you. Yeah, like that’s in the Bible. Check the Book of Hesitations.

I’d rather read the alternative story: “Dragprints.” That one describes a set of footprints going down the length of the beach with two drag marks alongside. Instead of picking you up and carrying you when you got tired, Jesus tells you he had to drag you along through life.

It is no more biblical, but it is a lot funnier.

I think most people who make up these types of stories do it because they haven’t read the truth about Jesus, at least not carefully. The Bible contains all we need to know about Jesus in order to understand him and our need for him.

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31.)

I’ll summarize that: The Bible doesn’t tell us everything about Jesus, but it tells us what we need to know about him.

I’m not making this up.

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The Da Vinci Cod and the Reliability of Scripture

[From the archives.]

What happens if you take a book’s title and drop a letter somewhere? The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s best seller about secrets and intrigue in the Vatican, might just become The Da Vinci Cod, described as

“Thrills, spills and gills as a Harvard swimbologist tries to catch a murderous albino monkfish. A load of pollocks but better than Brown’s original.”

Just try to crack that cod’s secrets

Many of the twenty retitled books’ descriptions are even better than their titles. And who says you can’t judge a book by its cover? Look at the way the cover art for Of Ice and Men evokes a certain insouciance, or cast your gaze on the steely eyed stare of the title character from Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crow.

Getting Things Wrong is Nothing New

In 1631 the printers of a new edition of the 1611 King James Bible, also known as The Authorized Version, made a little three letter mistake with Exodus 20:14. By leaving out the letters n, o, and t, they printed a well known verse so that it read “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

Oops. No wonder they call this version The Sinner’s Bible.

The misprint so incensed the Archbishop of Canterbury that he declared:

I knew the time when great care was had about printing, the Bibles especially, good compositors and the best correctors were gotten being grave and learned men, the paper and the letter rare, and faire every way of the best, but now the paper is nought, the composers boys, and the correctors unlearned.

Modern Bible translations seem to be more accepting of error in transmitting God’s word down through the centuries. It’s not that modern translators are careless about error, but that they recognize it exists in the ancient manuscripts. The NIV’s notes, for example, cite repeatedly the instances of discrepancy between ancient texts and attribute them to possible scribal error.

Is this a problem for modern readers who want to know if the Bible is reliable? After all, the Bible claims about itself:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17.)

How can we trust that claim if we don’t know we have an accurate record of what was originally written? It comes down to recognizing that the discrepancies are on points that do not concern basic doctrinal issues.

We don’t have one ancient manuscript that says God is love and another that says he isn’t, for example. Nor do we see one source claiming that God created all there is and another that claims God is actually part of that creation.

On all points of doctrine that I can think of, the texts are consistent. This gives me confidence that the Bible really is as authoritative as it says it is.

But if you do happen to find an ancient manuscript that tells you “Thou shalt commit adultery”, don’t tell the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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The Lie of the Heavy Yoke: Debi Pearl’s corruption of God’s character

When you think of Christianity and the metaphor of the yoke, is this the imagery that first comes to mind?

A woman married to a Command Man wears a heavier yoke than most women, but it can be a very rewarding yoke. In a way, her walk as his help meet is easier because there is never any possibility of her being in control. (Debi Pearl. All quotes from Ms. Pearl are found in the blog post linked in her name.)

This Command Man is one of the three types of men –  along with Mr. Visionary and the Steady Man –  that Ms. Pearl says all men fall into. Her position is that in these three types the character of God is revealed for the good of women and the world. Here’s how she describes being married to a Command Man:

  • “They are known for expecting their wives to wait on them hand and foot. Most of them do not want their wives involved in any project that prevents them from serving him.”
  • “We receive very few letters from wives of Command Men. These men have less tolerance, so they will often walk off and leave their clamoring wife before she has a chance to realize that she is even close to losing her marriage.”
  • “Command Man will not yield. He is not as intimate or vulnerable as are other men in sharing his personal feelings or vocation with his wife. He seems to be sufficient unto himself. It is awful being shut out. A woman married to a Command Man has to earn her place in his heart … .”
  • “She is on call every minute of her day. Her man wants to know where she is, what she is doing, and why she is doing it. He corrects her without thought. For better or for worse, it is his nature to control.”

Sounds ominous. Yet she thinks not. To her, it’s a blessing:

If you are blessed to be married to a strong, forceful, bossy man, as I am, then it is very important for you learn how to make an appeal without challenging his authority. …

A woman married to a Command Man has to earn her place in his heart by proving that she will stand by her man, faithful, loyal, and obedient. When she has won his confidence, he will treasure her to the extreme.

Unwavering obedience and fealty will win his heart, she says. Only after she has earned his love will he treasure her.

What a heavy, ungodly, horrifying burden she places on people.

Laying Your Burdens Down

Jesus never asks anyone to carry a heavy burden. Instead he invites you to give up your wearying burdens and put on his yoke, that is, to give up the crushing ways of the world and find ease and rest in his ways.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30.)

When it comes to people like Ms. Pearl giving pseudo-religious instruction, Jesus calls it out:

“And you experts in the law [that is, religious teachers], woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46.)

What would be better teaching for Ms. Pearl? She should tell men to stop trying to run their wives as if they were puppet masters making their spouses dance on a string. But in Ms. Pearls’ world women can’t tell men anything except how wonderful they are and how much they want to obey them. Anything else and a wife should expect her husband to leave her and the kids behind.

By the time she realizes that there is a serious problem, she is already a divorced mother seeking help in how to raise her children alone.

According to Ms. Pearl, it’s all the wife’s fault.

God’s Love Comes Before Your Love

Remember, this is the man Ms. Pearl admires as the Command Man, a necessary member of society that any woman would be blessed to be married to. All she needs is to earn his love by unerring loyalty and obedience to all he says and does. After all, as Ms. Pearl says, he won’t treasure her until she succeeds in pleasing him.

How different from the love of God:

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:19-21.)

First comes God’s love, then ours. And then we are to love one another because of God’s love, not because of each others’ love. A failure to love one another like this, John says, is a failure to love God. Anyone who says God created some husbands to withhold caring for and treasuring wives until they earn it is teaching an ungodly doctrine.

One verse Ms. Pearl relies on to support her rules for wives married to a Control Man is James 3:1.

Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

She should read that verse again and apply it to herself in light of how her teaching contradicts God’s word and his love for people.

God loves you and he wants you to love one another. There is nothing to be earned, no heavy yoke to bear. Remember, as you are in relationship to one another, Jesus offers you rest rather than rules.

Rest in his love as you love one another.

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Fierce Opponents with a Great Friendship – G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw do it right

[From the archives.]

G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were great friends who rarely saw eye to eye in their personal philosophies. Note in this passage from his book Heretics how Chesterton praises Shaw’s good sense while criticizing his inability to grasp what most people understand: humanity is worth something but progress for the sake of progress is a waste of time.

After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake.

If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks not for a new kind of philosophy but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window and ask for a new baby.

These two men would debate each other on stage and then dine together afterward, admiring the intellect and integrity of the other. Chesterton’s part in this friendship, as you can see in the quote above, was not to blindly boost Shaw no matter what he said or thought. Rather, he saw this friendship as a place where he could talk things through, hash things out, and come to disagreement if warranted.

Do you have friends like that, friends you can come to disagreement with? I think the Bible tells us this is a good type of friendship.

Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. (Proverbs 27:5-6.)

And as Paul tells us under the New Covenant, there is grace when believers disagree even on doctrinal issues:

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. (Philippians 3:15.)

I admire Chesterton for many things: his clarity of writing, his intellect, his incisive wit. But I also admire him for his example of what real friendship looks like. I want to be like him.

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John Piper tells Fathers to Be God in their Families

I am God to my children until they know better. (John Piper.)

That quote is from a post John Piper’s ministry published yesterday in apparent anticipation of Father’s Day. Parts of the post are innocuous and parts are troubling. The part I quoted is blasphemous. 

Here’s why:

You shall have no other gods before me. …

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God … . (Exodus 20:3, 5.)

Fathers are never God to any child. Not babies, not toddlers, not teens, not grown children. If any child seems to mistake their father for God, the father should correct that mistake as lovingly and quickly as possible. 

But don’t play God.

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Jesus’ Unnatural Inability to Perform Miracles

Jesus described himself as a prophet without honor in his own home. What people often miss is he was also a prophet without power there as well.

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:4-6.)

So he left.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:6-7, 12-13.)

The contrast is striking. At home Jesus could do little. Once they left the confines of Nazareth and traveled around in Galilee, Jesus was able to empower his followers to heal many.

It’s when they left Galilee altogether that things got really interesting.

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret [to the far northeast of Nazareth] and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed. (Matthew 6:53-56.)

Gennesaret was located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. (Wikipedia)

Jesus had no problem performing miraculous healings in Gennesaret. It wasn’t just some miracles as in Nazareth, or many as in the villages of Galilee, but all the sick in this land to the north who merely touched the edge of Jesus’ clothing were healed. They had great faith in him.

Mark is getting at something more than mere chronology by placing these events in proximity in his gospel of Jesus. He’s speaking of faith.

  • Nazarene faith led to few being healed.
  • Galilean faith led to many being healed.
  • Far-off faith led to all being healed.

This is the opposite of what might be expected. In ancient Israel, going back to the time of the Judges, one’s tribe dictated one’s allegiances. This continued into the era of the Kings, with the northern tribes splitting off from the southern tribes over who would rule them.

Granted there is not as much emphasis on tribal affiliation in the time of Jesus’ ministry, but the connections were not altogether lost. Anna is identified as a prophet from the tribe of Asher, and Saul/Paul is a Pharisee of the tribe of Benjamin. (Luke 2:36-38, Philippians 3:4-6.)

Yet when Jesus is among his own family and friends, he is ridiculed. As Mark puts it in the opening lines to this set of scenes:

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:1-3.)

They were amazed, resentful and took offense at Jesus.

What does this tell you about Jesus and your own relationship with him? Perhaps it’s a lesson that in sharing his love with those around you, don’t be surprised if those you least expect are the people who appreciate it most.

Expect the unexpected to happen. Love even if you have no idea how it will be received, whether you are loving those you know best or someone you know only because God has placed them in your life in that very moment.

And spread it around. That’s what Jesus did.

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The Impossibility of a Christian Nation

What if Nations (Instead of People) Were Christians

Some people talk about Christian businesses as if businesses themselves could be Christians, but there’s really no such thing. When someone claims they run a Christian business what they mean is the business is run by a person who is a Christian and – one hopes – tries to act like a person who honors Jesus in every single aspect of their business activities.

What about a Christian nation, then? People talk about them in a way that also seems to suggest nations can be Christians. But people are Christians – not nations or businesses. Yet if nations could be Christians what might that look like?

A Christian Nation Would Be the Servant of All Other Nations

The nation would:

  • Care as much for foreigners as its own citizens.

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9.)

  • Never neglect the needs of widows and orphans.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:17.)

  • Not lord itself over other nations.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you.” (Mark 10:42-43, continued below.)

  • Serve other nations, not seek to come out on top.

Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45.)

  • Not think more highly of itself than it should.

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3.)

  • Turn the other cheek when other nations hurt it.

If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39.)

  • Love its enemy nations.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:44-45.)

  • And over all this and more, exhibit fruit of the Spirit at home and abroad.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. … Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23, 25.)

Anyone reading that list would see it’s impossible to fulfill.

People who say America is or has been or should be a “Christian nation” don’t mean they want America to fulfill that list either.* That is because a nation that’s a Christian would be one that serves all other nations, always seeking their good before its own. That’s not what people want out of their government.

They don’t want to live in a nation that would love its neighbors that much.

Impossibly Christian

The real issue, though, is that people, not nations, are the ones who can be called Christians (Acts 11:26) because they, not nations, are indwelt by Christ and are thus able to live by faith.

Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20.)

Yet even people find it hard (or should I say impossible?) to carry out everything in those passages above. It’s a good thing God is the one working in us to fulfill his will.

“… for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13.)

The Christian life, then, is the Holy Spirit living through you, bringing you into Christ’s kingdom.

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.  (Romans 8:11.)

Christians then are people who belong to Christ and in whom the Holy Spirit now lives.

But a nation cannot be a Christian. So when someone speaks of a Christian nation, they speak of an impossibility. And if what they mean (as in the example of a “Christian business”) is a nation made up entirely of Christians who run the government in a manner dedicated to fulfill the passages above in how they treat all other nations in the world, then the answer is no one has ever seen a Christian nation. Ever.

And you won’t until Jesus comes and changes the way everything works.

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:5.)

Jesus on the throne ruling lovingly, with grace and mercy, over all creation – that is when you will see a Christian nation.

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*For America’s history as not being a Christian nation ever, see Why America Has Never Been A Christian Nation.

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Faith: the difference between doubt and indecision

To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation. (Yann Martel, Life of Pi.)

The Bible draws a distinction between doubt and indecision, and the quote above from Life of Pi helped me see why: Doubt can be useful as it brings us closer to God, but if instead we use doubt as a means of avoiding movement at all then it’s not really doubt but indecision.

Doubt is the easy one to point to in the Bible, because everyone who writes about doubt and faith relies on Mark 9.

“Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not. … But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-18, 22-24.)

And then, as everyone who writes on doubt and faith points out, Jesus healed the man’s son. Jesus helped the man embrace his doubts and rely on God in spite of those doubts, so that everyone viewing could see that God is bigger than our doubts. Jesus points us to God, taking the focus off our own doubt-filled limitations. God is not bothered by our doubts when they bring us to him, as this man’s doubts brought him face to face with Jesus.

Indecision, on the other hand, can be a real problem.

Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

But the people said nothing. (1 Kings 18:21.)

Reading the entire passage may lead you to conclude that Elijah’s listeners weren’t so much undecided as unwilling to admit they’d already chosen to align themselves with Baal.

Centuries earlier, Joshua called on the nation of Israel to make a choice for God as well.

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14-15.)

Choosing one way or another is important to God, and lukewarm faith is an abomination.

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15-16.)

Harsh, right? And those words are from Jesus himself. Yet this is the same Jesus who gently led a grief-stricken father from doubt to trust. God doesn’t criticize doubt; he uses it to draw people to him.

So when you are at the intersection of Doubt and Indecision, you know which way to go.

Doubt – who knew it would lead to God?

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Seeking Approval in All the Wrong Places

When I was growing up, I wanted approval from the people on top. I wanted my parents’ approval, I wanted my teachers’ approval, and I wanted the cool kids’ approval. Usually the last one was more important to me than either of the other two.

You would think that by the time I became a Christian just before my 24th birthday I’d have outgrown this. I didn’t. Instead my desire for approval rested on those in church leadership. And the cool kids. Still the cool kids. But now the cools kids were the ones favored by church leadership.

How different this is from Jesus.

The difference with Jesus

The religious leaders of Jesus day hated what he did and taught. They hated him so much they were willing to align with powerful political leaders to take him down.

Permanently.

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.

He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1-6.)

The Pharisees were the religious leaders and the Herodians were politically aligned with King Herod, the man appointed by the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, to manage Rome’s affairs in Galilee, the region Jesus came from. The Pharisees were interested in restoring Israel to a theocracy as in the time of David and Solomon, while the Herodians sought political independence from Rome with a member of the Herodian dynasty on the throne.

These leaders had little in common except to see this man from Galilee as a common threat to their goals. They had been looking for an excuse to move against Jesus; his act of healing on the Sabbath gave it to them. After all, healing is work and work is prohibited on the Sabbath even if the healing is a miracle from God who gave us the Sabbath.

Jesus asked the Pharisees if they thought it was right to kill on the Sabbath. By way of answer, they started plotting his death immediately upon leaving his presence.

God’s work, approved or not

Jesus continued to pursue the work God gave him to do.

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.

Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. (Mark 3:7-10.)

As Jesus traveled by the lake, that is, the Sea of Galilee, the people came to him. Not just fellow Galileans but people from Jerusalem and Judea to the south sought him out. Galilee and Judea were considered part of the Jewish homeland, of course, but what about all those other people?

  • Idumea was the Roman province to the south of Judea, the region formerly known as Edom. The Edomite kingdom was a perpetual enemy of Israel dating back millennia.
  • The regions across the Jordan were non-Jewish as well. This would include the Decapolis (a confederation of ten cities and their surrounding villages) the most prominent of which was Damascus, former capital of the Assyrian Empire which had defeated, ravaged, and exiled ancient Israel.
  • Tyre and Sidon were cities on the coast north of Galilee, originally part of the Phoenician Empire but later independent kingdoms. At the time of King David there was a good relationship with Tyre. They later aligned themselves against Israel and came under God’s curse according to the Old Testament prophets.

Judea (Ieudaea) and surrounding regions in the 1st Century (Wikipedia)

For Jesus to include these peoples among those receiving his healing might have offended the Pharisees and Herodians even more than performing miracles on the Sabbath. Jesus announced the Kingdom of Heaven to all who would hear, whether Jewish or not. As he said repeatedly:

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9.)*

It’s a practice Jesus’ followers took to heart.

Seeking approval

Peter and John found themselves jailed by the religious leaders for teaching about Jesus and performing miracles in his name. The morning after their arrest they were hailed into the religious court.

Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18-20.)

Later, Paul knew his message of the gospel of grace was being challenged by teachers who tried to influence the Galatian church in his absence, but even though their legalistic teachings were gaining approval by the church members he stuck to preaching the true gospel as the way to serve God.

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10.)

The approval we have from God is ours because of who Jesus is and what he has done. As Jesus explained about himself:

For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. (John 6:27.)

Those who belong to Jesus are approved because of him. Why look for approval anywhere else? None of that matters. Jesus prefaced his words about himself with:

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. (John 6:27.)

Your relationship with your loving Father in heaven is eternal. Everything else spoils.

And remember, Jesus approves of you.

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*For more instances of Jesus using this phrase, see Matthew 11:15, Mark 4:23, Luke 8:8, Luke 14:25, and Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:29, 3:6, 3:13 and 3:22.

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In Which JK Rowling Teaches Us to Read the Bible

[Today’s guest post from Brittany K. Hale explores reading Scripture as it was meant to be read, even with 21st Century eyes.]

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Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start (indeed). When you read you begin with A B C, yes? Yes, but it is not a simple step from learning an alphabet to advanced reading comprehension, not even in one’s first language.

Children learning “the quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” must have some concept of foxes and dogs, not just know their letters, to understand the basic statement this pangram is making. Before a child can move from Little Golden Books about pokey little puppies to the Harry Potter series, she must also learn about the society in which she lives, and if she is not British, then a touch of information about that society would help. She must know about school, trains, bullies, good versus evil, and how chocolate makes one feel.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
(image Entertainment Weekly, original Mary GrandPre’ cover design)

She must also have a very elementary grasp of genre: Harry Potter is fiction meant to entertain. It is also meant to encourage young minds to think deeply about things like love, honor, courage, fear, anger, selflessness, friendship, etc., yet she does not need to be aware of this effect on her to properly read the series. The Harry Potter books are not textbooks on how to become a wizard. This all may seem quite obvious, but these truths are often taken for granted, especially when it comes to reading the Bible.

I am not saying the only way a person can properly read and understand the Bible is to first learn Hebrew and Greek, and then take seminary courses on ancient Israelite society, Greco-Roman society, and historical/literary methods of analyzing scripture (although I do highly recommend this). I am pointing out that comprehension of whatever one reads first requires basic knowledge of the society/culture in and/or for whom it was written, as well as the intended genre. Interpretation comes next.

As I said above, a child can properly enjoy the Harry Potter series without ever realizing that JK Rowling is simultaneously teaching her about life, love, and friendship. Adults tend to pick up on those lessons in fiction, but they do not confuse fiction that teaches truth with a text that teaches fact (at least, not if they understand how genre works). Furthermore, not all adults agree with JK Rowling’s perspective. Both the author and the reader see with their own metaphorical set of cultural and personal lenses which tint how they understand what is written and read. Many people have had such awful experiences with forms of witchcraft in the real world that they resent Rowling for using magic to delight young minds in her quest to tell a story which actually has nothing to do with magic.

In the Harry Potter series the existence of magic is merely a literary device. The books are not meant to be propaganda for the pursuit of magic in the real world. The magical context allows Rowling to take what is so familiar as to be taken for granted and cast it in a fresh light, to make the reader see in fiction what she has become blind to in her daily life: the very fabric of our society, our cultural expressions, the framework of our political philosophies, etc.

This is true of all fantasy and science fiction works (I highly recommend reading the introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Hermione’s fight for the freedom and dignity of house elves is nothing less than a fight for civil rights. Children who read learn empathy, and children who become empathetic to house elves and Hermione will grow into adults who stand for the civil rights of disenfranchised groups in real life.

Magic is not the point, love is.

Reading literally can be confusing

If we read these books “literally,” then everything gets confused. Likewise, if we disregard genre and context when reading the Bible, then we easily confuse metaphor with literalism, poetic truth with scientific fact, or descriptive statements with prescriptive, universal commands.

Much of Jesus’ teaching is focused on correcting misinterpretations of Israel’s scriptures, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”, etc., because bad theology kills. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus criticizes Israel for killing the prophets sent before him (Luke 11:45-52). He, too, is killed because Israel fails to recognize him.

His entire conversation with the men on the road to Emmaus is one long lesson in scriptural interpretation. In the Acts of the Apostles (aka the Gospel of Luke, vol. 2), Peter calls Jesus “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22). The Israelites were expected by God to use their reason and experience with Jesus to help them understand the holy scriptures and ancient traditions which had been passed down to them. They ignored that his healings and other miracles were all obviously good works of God, and instead accused him of conspiring with the devil because they read that it is a sin to do work on the Sabbath, it is unclean to touch a leper, etc., and so they killed him.

Next time someone says personal experience is not a valid lens through which to interpret scripture, I would remind them that 1) it is impossible to be purely objective, and 2) God expects us to pay attention to what we experience (like God working through women preachers, or God using a LGBT Christian to be a neighbor/Good Samaritan to her fundamentalist coworker), in order to help us better interpret scripture.

If I had to choose the most valuable lesson from my undergraduate studies in literature, and my graduate studies in theology, it would be the importance of knowing how to read, and learning to be self aware as I am reading. The Christians who tend to be slower to quarrel with those of differing theological perspectives are those who recognize the poverty of their own “knowledge” about God. Those most fiercely committed to their theological views are more likely to equate themselves being potentially wrong with the truth in scripture being potentially false

Their love and devotion to God and “the w/Word” are genuine, but their inability to distinguish between their limited comprehension of the scriptures and the mystery of God’s will for the scriptures is where the real theological problems are bred. We all do this to some extent. The more careful we are to balance socio-historical analysis with literary analysis as we seek to interpret scripture, the less resistant we will be to recognizing our own potential mistakes, and the more gracious we can be to one another.

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Brittany K. Hale has her BA in Literature, and is in the processes of completing her MA in Theology and Biblical Studies. She is fascinated by the intertextuality of the scriptures, and takes Proverbs 25:2 as divine permission to be a student for life (“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings”). Brittany’s main interests include feminist theology, LGBTQ theology, intertextuality studies, narrative theology, and really any musings which force us to reexamine our assumptions about our life, faith, and place in this world. Her ideal day involves reading with her Great Dane, Brody, by her side, and coffee or wine in her hand. You can exchange clever gifs or engage in witty banter with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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[Here is another post on reading the Bible literarily rather than literally.]

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