Dreaming of Daniel

April 19, 2018

daniel-facts

The book of Daniel is fascinating on many levels. It shares the compelling story of Daniel along with his friends as they overcome great obstacles to their faith in a strange and oppressive culture. It includes incredible stories of God’s rescue and of dreams and visions. It offers answers to some questions while leaving others open to a vast array of interpretations. Overall it presents a message of hope—to all generations—of God’s ultimate rescue for his people—things may seem hopeless, but better days are ahead.

Then and There

To understand Daniel, the book and the prophet must first be understood within the context that produced both. Daniel shared his prophecy primarily for his immediate audience—those in his time and place. Ripping the stories out of that context is not helpful to discovering their meaning.

Daniel’s story begins right after Babylon’s first attack on Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 24). Among those things seized in this attack were “some of the articles from the temple” (1:2) such as gold and silver cups (5:2). Also taken were people from the royal linage of David including Daniel and his three friends (known best by the names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) who play a significant role in the book. This was not an uncommon practice for conquering nations—take back the best the defeated country has to offer to serve the center of the empire at home.

The bigger picture in which Daniel was caught up was the fact that Judah was done. All of the previous prophecy and warning against impending doom was coming true. Because of their rebellion and sin, God’s people were being punished. Babylon was God’s chosen instrument. For the next seventy years, Judah as a viable nation would not exist. Many of her people would live in exile pushed to serve foreign gods in a strange land. What would become of these people? Did there remain a word from the Lord to them? This was the then and there. This is specifically what Daniel addresses. Everything that flows out of the book flows out of this context.

Faithfulness in Exile

Two of the most well-know Daniel stories focus on unwavering faith in the face of immense pressure. From the start Daniel and his friends established their commitment to remain true to the Torah (chapter 1) and as a result gained some favor. But this did not shield them from future pressure to compromise their faith. Both the fiery furnace (chapter 3) and the lion’s den (chapter 6) were the result of them not caving into pressure but rather remaining faithful to their God and his will. In both cases, God rescued them dramatically—sending a powerful message to the Babylon king and to anyone else who may have been listening.

God has not forgotten his people. God will reward faithfulness even in exile. God is not cowered or neutered by Babylonian might. The Babylonian king—regardless of how it may appear—is not the most powerful force in the world after all. God is still very much at work in the world to bring about his ultimate will.

One message is clear from these stories (and all of Daniel’s stories)—hope remains. Do not give up. Remain faithful. God is planning a rescue.

Dreaming of Better Days

King Nebuchadnezzar did not realize it but that is exactly what he was doing—not for himself and Babylon however, but for the people of God. His dreams (chapters 2 and 4) along with his son, Belshazzar’s “hand” written message (5) and Daniel’s own dreams and visions (7-11) all serve a similar purpose. While each contain different details, they all serve to further this story within the Story by proclaiming God’s ultimate deliverance of his people into a kingdom that far overshadows any that has come before it-including the mighty Babylonian empire

They all establish several significant truths:

  • There is only one God and none of Babylon’s kings is it. Regardless of how exalted these kings thought they were—God was more so. It took Nebuchadnezzar some time in the pasture to discover this while his son, unfortunately for him, never discovered it.
  • Human kingdoms will almost always turn beastly. Images of beasts and horns are aplenty in Daniel. Don’t get lost in them. They all signify human arrogance and abuse of power. Nothing about this has changed since Daniel’s day. Power continues to corrupt governments. Nations still arrogantly act as if all history depends upon them. If Daniel teaches us anything—it is that this is to be expected.
  • No kingdom but God’s is forever, however. Human kingdoms come and go (Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Roman—to name those covered by Daniel) but God’s kingdom outlasts them all—including whatever kingdoms exist now and in the future. God will tame all of these beasts.
  • “The Story” remains God’s focus—and he is active in pursuing it. Daniel speaks of the “Son of Man,” “the Ancient of Days,” “Gabriel” and “Michael, the great prince” all participating in the story he was sharing. That story was about “The Story”—the coming kingdom of God in which true redemption would be found. It was the promise of those better days ahead in Christ Jesus. We should expect God continuing his work today among the nations to continue writing “The Story” in us.
  • Like Daniel (chapter 9)—we must learn to be patient in the midst of our place in the story, and to trust God to ultimately bring full justice to this world—once for all establishing his eternal kingdom in his timing.

“A Pattern and a Promise”

This could be how best to consider Daniel’s story. Perhaps instead of trying to pinpoint each vision; each prophecy; and each dream to some point, place or person in history—maybe Daniel should be understood as a message for all of history as we find ourselves living it. Jesus referred to Daniel to address corruption in his day. John uses Daniel to confront the oppression in his time in the Revelation.

Daniel offers us a pattern, that is, as long as the earth stands, evil people will seize power, corrupt nations and oppress God’s people. He also offers us a promise—through this, God will never forget his people, always be working to finish The Story and ultimately one day slay all the beasts. Then his kingdom will flourish forever. Like Daniel and his contemporaries—we remain in the journey—as aliens and foreigners in this world. Again, like him, our call is to remain faithful in the exile.

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A Marriage Theology

March 15, 2018

marriage-prep

In his first correspondence with the “church of God” at Corinth, the apostle Paul dives waist deep into the Corinthians marriage troubles. These were not typical marriage troubles—more like extreme marriage troubles, as in an extreme misunderstanding of what constituted holiness within a marriage.

Two overriding circumstances drive Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7—both are vital to understanding this text:

  • Apparently the Corinthians somehow had come to a conclusion that all sexual activity was immoral—even within marriage—that abstaining from sex even when married was the best choice to avoid defiling God’s temple, the body. This is what Paul first responds to (7:1—not to “touch” means not to engage in sex with), which provides the framework for the rest of the chapter.
  • “The present crisis.” It is crucial to realize that Paul’s answer to their marriage questions were framed by some type of urgent crisis—specific to that situation. The crisis is not identified for us. Some have speculated it could have been famine, persecution or some other challenging circumstance. Whatever it was, Paul makes clear it would be easier faced alone if at all possible. Perhaps if this crisis had not existed at that moment, his answers might have been different. There is no way for us to know, but this does have significance to unpacking this section of Scripture.

Moving into the text, it is vital to know how these two points inform and frame every bit of marriage theology Paul shares.

Enjoy the Marriage Bed (1-9)

Immediately Paul counters the idea that sex even within marriage is unholy. The extreme idea of the Corinthians that sex was somehow too dirty even for husband and wife was incorrect. Rather—couples have a responsibility to one another in this regard. They belong to each other in this way, so enjoy—do not withhold sex from one another. What they were promoting was not holiness—it was dangerous. Satan could seize it and create real trouble.

Understanding the nature of the flesh and of Satan, this was Paul’s best advice. He did not command it so, but conceded it. In his opinion the best practice was celibacy, but he knew not everyone shared that gift with him. (At this writing Paul was single, but he might not always have been so—Acts 6:10; Philippians 3:4-6.) To those who did not share this gift—the “unmarried and the widows” Paul advised them to marry rather than “burn with passion.” The overall point of this section—enjoying sexual relationships within marriage is a natural part of that relationship. While singleness may be preferable considering the current crisis, marriage is preferable to singleness if temptation and lust are the alternatives.

One note—the word rendered “unmarried” in verse 8 is only used by Paul in Scripture and only used here in this text—four times (verses 11, 32, & 34 also). He uses it to differentiate the unmarried from the widows (who obviously are unmarried). The meaning of the word for Paul would have likely included those who had been divorced. Our versions translate it using our broad term for all unmarried, but contextually Paul seems to use it in a different way, which would have included those divorced.

Christian Couples (10-11)

Out of the idea that abstaining from sex within a marriage might be a godly approach, some Christian couples apparently took it a step further to consider dissolving their marriages altogether. Paul speaks to this next. He references Christ’s teaching (Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12) to reinforce the marriage bond. Absolutely these couples should honor their marriage vows—no reason to consider divorce even under the current distress. Even if separation occurs—work it out or remain single. No drastic changes needed to occur considering the circumstances.

Mixed Marriages (12-16)

The next question Paul considers is the validity of marriages in which a Christian is joined to an unbeliever. Are these marriages sacred? Should a Christian remain in them? Paul answers in the affirmative—if at all possible—except in this situation he has no direct teaching from Christ to reference. Instead he offers his apostolic advice based upon the overall circumstance and what is best for the family. The presence of the Christian within this type of marriage brings a sanctifying aspect to the union—to the unbelieving spouse and to their children, if present. Like the leaven Christ mentioned—the believer could be God’s instrument to bring salvation to the rest of the family. So Paul instructs the believer to stay within that marriage. Of course the unbeliever may see things differently and abandon the marriage. If so, Paul advises the believer to accept that for the sake of peace. In this situation the believer is not bound to the departed unbeliever and would be free then to pursue remarriage.

Stay Where You Are (17-24)

After answering their specific questions Paul offers some general advice to all of the Corinthians. Again, considering the overall context of the crisis, he suggests the best course is for everyone to remain exactly as they were when called by Christ. If married—stay married. If single—remain that way. Don’t try to abandon your ethnicity—nothing to gain in doing so at this point. He even advises slaves to not seek their freedom unless an obvious opportunity arises. From Paul’s perspective this was the least complicated situation from which each person could most effectively serve God. He stated this was his rule for all the churches, but he also knew not everyone would be able to keep it. Already in the text he has make exceptions and he will continue to do so.

Never Married? (25-35)

Now Paul addresses the “virgins” or those never married. Once more he has no direct word from Jesus to consider, so he offers his own judgment based upon the “present crisis” and encourages those never married to stay that way if at all possible. He realizes not all can accept this and once more allows for marriage (while again instructing those married to remain so), but foresees potential trouble for such marriages. This could mean the coming of persecution; the effects of a famine—whatever the crisis was—Paul thought it to be impending and being single with no dependents would be the best way to face it. Being single under these circumstances would also be the best possible way to serve God with “undivided devotion”.

To Those Engaged (36-38)

Some in the Corinthian church were engaged. What about them? Paul leaves that decision up to those in that relationship. If for reasons of conscience, age, or self-control, the decision to marry is made, so be it—marry. But if the decision is made to not marry, that too, is permissible. Couples should feel no compulsion—in such stressful times—to honor their engagement. Both are good, but being consistent, Paul concludes being single is the better option.

Christian Widows (39-40)

He concludes his marriage Q&A in the same manner. Christian widows would be best served to remain single—she would be “happier” is his judgment. He acknowledges their freedom to remarry, instructs them if they do so to only marry another Christian, but fortifies his instruction to remain single by speaking as one who has “the Spirit of God.” This was Paul’s way of putting the divine, authoritative apostolic seal on his teaching in this text. In his ministry Christ did not address all of these specific situations, but Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God has the authority to do so—creating a marriage theology consistent with and flowing from that of Christ.

Now?

As we go about applying these teachings to our own current situations, it is imperative that we understand their context of impending crisis. The takeaways for us remain: It is less complicated to serve God as a single person. Not all have the gift of celibacy. Marriage is holy and honorable including the sexual component—commit to make it work in every way. However if abandoned or widowed—the marriage bond is broken. Remarriage is possible, but don’t rush and if desired–find a good Christian mate. The overall goal is to make sure God is served first whether married or single.

 


End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018

Jtemple

In Mark 13 we find Jesus in Jerusalem having just left the Jewish temple with a group of his disciples. This temple—marvelous in scope and structure—was the pride of the Jewish nation having been fabulously rebuilt by Herod the Great beginning around 19-20 BC (and not finally completed until 65 AD). Some of the disciples noted its size and magnificence (perhaps with an eye toward ruling from it with Jesus?). To this Jesus replied, “Do you all see these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” This statement sparked their curiosity. So later four of them approached him privately to find out more information. They asked, “Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus provides them a lengthy answer—an answer that even now continues to be widely and variously interpreted.

Many take these words of Christ as a vision for end times and certainly Jesus uses eschatological language, but there also seems to be more going on than just that. He says at one point, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vs. 30). If he was speaking exclusively about end times, then how does this statement fit into that context? Obviously, we are still here and still waiting for his return. So, just what is he saying? Is it about the end times or something else?

Another Perspective

Mark wrote his account of the life of Christ around 65-66 AD. Let’s consider another perspective from someone who shared this same story a few years after Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel in the early 70s AD. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the disciple’s query to Jesus. He records it this way:

Tell us, they said, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3; Luke also gives his account in Luke 21.)

There is a nuance here in Matthew not obviously present in Mark. Matthew’s account seems to indicate that, yes, actually there is something else going on here. The same eschatological language is present indicating an “end of the age” conversation, but also there is something more immediate to consider, that is, when these huge stones are going to be turned upside down (along with any possible signs connected to either event).

So, as Matthew indicates, Jesus actually answered separate questions. The first is all about the temple stones being overturned and if any signs were to accompany that. The second is about end times. Why Matthew offers this slightly clearer account has to do with timing. He wrote his gospel after the first event—the destruction of the Jewish temple—had occurred. Mark wrote his before.

“The Abomination that Causes Desolation”

Politically, Israel had long been a hotbed of rebellion against Roman rule. Jewish terrorists or zealots continued to be a thorn in the side of Pax Romana. This led to an explosive confrontation during the sixth decade of the first century. In 66 AD the Jewish nation was in full revolt against Rome and managed to vanquish the Roman presence from the temple and make other small gains. Emboldened by these limited victories they continued to openly defy Rome. Eventually Rome had enough. Under General Titus troops were sent to crush the rebellion and crush it they did as brutally as possible. One of their targets was the Jewish temple—not only the pride and symbol of Jewish patriotism but one of the strongholds of the résistance. After they finished demolishing it in 70 AD, not one stone was left standing on the other—just as Jesus had foretold. In all of this destruction, chaos rampaged through Jerusalem. Jews savagely turned on Jews. Horrific events unfolded. It has been estimated that over one million died during this period. It indeed was an “abomination that causes desolation” as Jesus had said.

This is what happened before that generation passed away—about 40 years after Jesus spoke the words. Luke phrased it this way: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This then explains and puts into context his statements within the text such as “flee to the mountains;” don’t “enter the house to take anything out;” how “dreadful” it would be for “pregnant women or nursing mothers;” or “pray that this will not take place in winter.” If it were truly end times, why would any of that even matter?

As for signs of this impending doom, he shared several—wars and rumors of wars, persecutions; false prophets and the gospel being preached to the “world” (which according to Paul in Colossians 1:23 had occurred prior to 70 AD). He uses figurative language of judgment (Mark 13:24-27) to illustrate the total devastation that was to come for the Jewish people and nation. In fact, this was God’s judgment upon them. Never again would they have a temple. Never again would they be his exclusively chosen nation.

The End

After this discourse, Jesus responds to their other question about end times. About “that day” no one knows except the Father in heaven. There are no signs to foreshadow it. Matthew has Jesus speaking about it in terms of Noah’s flood. Everything will be as it usually is. He leaves his disciples (and us) with a warning—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Separate questions and separate answers. It is about the end times, but it is also about something else.

Other Viewpoints

But as might be expected, not everyone interprets this text the same way. Variations abound. One of the most interesting is called “preterism.” Full (or hyper) preterism interprets Mark’s story (along with all of Revelation and NT prophecy) as totally being fulfilled within the 70 AD time frame—including the second coming of Jesus. According to this view, he literally came during this judgment of Israel. What yet remains is the final coming of Christ and eternal judgment.

To further extrapolate, there is also a partial preterist viewpoint—which includes almost everyone else. This approach understands some of Mark 13 to apply to 70 AD, but not all. Partial preterists interpret the book of Revelation differently also—taking a-millennial, pre-millennial and post-millennial stances. With “end times” understanding, it can get complicated! The best advice is Christ’s: Always be alert and be ready!


Judgment and Hope

January 25, 2018

prophetisaiah

The prophet Isaiah lived in quite extraordinary times and penned quite the extraordinary book. It is divided into two main sections. The first is chapters 1-39. The second is the remainder of the book—chapters 40-66 (of which there is much discussion about Isaiah’s authorship). Overall Isaiah addresses two main themes—God’s judgment upon his people Israel and Judah and beyond that judgment, hope in the Immanuel.

The world of Isaiah was one of trouble and transition. The tribes of Israel in the south were in a desperate situation. Mighty Assyria (then the world power) was in the process of sweeping them away. Isaiah spoke to that from his position in Jerusalem. He identified it as God’s judgment upon them for their rejection of him. Assyria was also a threat to the tribes of Judah in the north. Like their sister nation they, too, had rebelled against their God. A godly king, however, rose up within them, begged God for mercy (37:14-20), and saved Judah from Assyrian destruction. But King Hezekiah’s actions would only delay the inevitable. “The Day of the Lord” was coming to Judah as well, Isaiah foretold. Another power would rise up—Babylon—and be used by God as his purifying agent of judgment (39). Only this time (unlike that of the tribes of Israel) there was hope beyond the judgment. A remnant of God’s people would remain; exiles would eventually return to their homeland; from among them Immanuel would be born (7:14). This “little child” (11:6) would lead and restore Zion to its rightful place among the nations. Eventually a “new Jerusalem” (65:17) would replace the old to be what God always intended for it to be.

Judgment and hope—this is the word from the Lord Isaiah speaks to his people, and now to us.

Startling Rebellion

Isaiah does not hold back. He presents a stark image of God’s people in full rebellion. Instead of being a light to other nations—corruption, injustice, idolatry, greed, violence and immorality defined Israel. Their worship was empty, meaningless, and burdensome to God. He could no longer tolerate it.

Instead of fulfilling God’s will among them, they turned to idols, practiced oppression, were corrupted by evil desires, chased after godlessness, became “brawlers and revelers,” confused good and evil, and denied justice. Isaiah phrased it like this:

They have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the works of his hand. (5:12)

This was true of both Israel and Judah and God had had enough. Isaiah proclaimed:

Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. (5:25).

Judgment was coming. The “Day of the Lord” would take place, first for Israel and then for Judah. Isaiah leaves no doubt about it. God simply could no longer tolerate their startling rebellion. A “fire” would scorch the earth (and not just for Israel and Judah), cleansing it, but also preparing it for something better to follow.

Isaiah’s Call

To illustrate this—Isaiah is called before the presence of the Lord (chapter 6). He quickly realizes just how out of his league he is, standing before the holiness of God. He fears his own doom until being touched on the lips by a burning coal. The coal, however, was not one of judgment but one of cleansing. This represents the purpose of God’s judgment—to cleanse his people in preparation of the Immanuel; the shoot of Jesse that will rise up out of the charred stump of Judah after the Day of the Lord comes.

It was Isaiah’s mission to be sent by God in order to “Go and tell” this news to his people. This is the way, then, the entire book of Isaiah plays out—judgment followed by hope; exile and return; old Jerusalem being swept away replaced by New Jerusalem-God would not forget his people, even though they forgot him.

Isaiah’s Word to Us

The sins of Israel were many, but at their core was a failure to seek and live out the righteousness and justice of God. Without this at their center, it opened them up for the corruption, idolatry, immorality, and greed that followed. Isaiah identified it early:

Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (1:15-17; see also 1:23; 3:14-15)

Even as they worshipped God—their disregard for God’s justice and righteousness made their worship unacceptable to God. What is the word from Isaiah to us on this and from the story of his prophecy?

  • God calls upon his people to see after the oppressed, not to be the oppressors. Nothing about this has changed from Isaiah’s time—James 1:26-27. Unless we do-it will undermine our ability to be God’s people and leave our worship void of meaning and purpose.
  • God guides The Story—using people, nations, events, etc. to accomplish his divine, redemptive will. Sometimes judgment is necessary. If God could use nations/peoples to carry it out then, he can do so now. The key is—to listen! Something those in Isaiah’s day did not do.
  • Judgment is still coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10) but hope remains (2 Peter 3:8-9).
  • The “little child” is leading us to that New Jerusalem where the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God will define everything and everyone; where people from every nation, tribe and tongue will flow; where God will be glorified above all (Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-12; 65:17-5; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21)

The purpose of God’s judgment is to cleanse, reset and renew hope among his people. This is the story of Isaiah within The Story.

 


The Kingdom Response

December 4, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #11

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2)

Revolutions typically bring about the unexpected. Think about this definition of revolution: “a sudden, complete or marked change in something.” Being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” definitely fits into this definition. Jesus certainly lived it out. His resurrection literally changed everything and following him—as his disciple while living out his revolutionary teaching will make us over completely his image. This then empowers us to go out to “test and approve” the will of God in our lives—demonstrating the sudden, complete and marked change the kingdom has made within us.

And one way to very noticeably demonstrate this transformation is in how we react and respond to circumstances around us—particularly when those circumstances are not so favorable.

Good and Evil

Since the fall in the garden the story of mankind has played out amid the tension between good and evil. We conform to the “pattern of the world” when evil triumphs over good in our lives. Everyday we deal with some type of temptation. We all know the struggle—a struggle we would surely lose if not for Christ. The revolution he started overcame the enemy (1 Corinthians 15:58). Christ in us is greater than he “who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

Having thus been made over and empowered by his grace and through his presence, we are to continue to carry out the revolutionary tactics of not repaying “anyone evil for evil,” but overcoming evil with good. This is the divine guidance of Paul, which frames our text of study in Romans 12:17-21.

There are several layers to unpack connected to this teaching and it all has to do with our kingdom witness to the world. They, indeed, are watching. They are interested to see if our actions match our teachings—especially when we face evil hostility. How will we react? What will be our response?

I believe this set of teaching to be very critical to our living out the kingdom revolution. Like in the Corinthian lawsuit situation—our natural inclination is not to turn the other cheek, but to retaliate in kind and hurt those who seek to harm us. Yet, this is not part of the revolution of Christ. When we conform to the pattern of the world in this manner it completely undermines our ability to be revolutionaries—to bring about that marked and complete change in Christ. Returning evil for evil only perpetuates evil and changes nothing. It entrenches the damage evil does and passes it along. In Christ there is a revolutionary alternative.

The Kingdom Response

As Paul details it in this text:

  • Stop the vicious circle of evil by overcoming it with good. Don’t allow evil’s influence to warp our perspective and guide our thinking. Actually internalize the values of the kingdom to the point that they become our nature—our first response. So that when evil happens we can naturally respond with the grace and goodness of God. It takes that eternal outlook guiding us to not get lost in the momentary situation, but it is what fuels the revolution. It is Jesus stopping evil by overcoming it on the cross. It is us speaking blessings back to those who curse us. It is not responding like the world responds.
  • Doing what is right in the eyes of everyone. This speaks to our kingdom witness; to actually living out what we proclaim; to being that revolutionary in front of all. Hypocrisy undermines any attempt at revolutionizing a culture for Christ.
  • Not seeking revenge. All of these are tied together in this text. Doing right means a different response to evil. We do not strike back; we do not seek vengeance; we simply do not respond in any violent or threatening way. We leave all of that up to God who ultimately will bring justice to all. Instead we do the unexpected—the revolutionary.
  • Bless our enemies. Once more we see the influence of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount in Paul’s teaching. He also quotes Proverbs 25:21-22 to fortify his point. Instead of seeking to destroy our enemies, we offer them food and drink—revolutionary indeed! Again, nowhere else outside of the kingdom of God will this idea be found. Why? Because it is how evil is overcome by good; how the kingdom of God can make over the destructive world; and how we can demonstrate the response of God’s kingdom to evil to bring about positive change. The imagery from the Proverb demonstrates it vividly. The kingdom response to evil can generate a response of its own—an uncomfortable and perhaps even painful response like coals burning on our head—which then can give our enemies pause. It is a kingdom statement that can radically reverse the natural order of things even to the point of changing an enemy into a friend—and into a friend of Christ.

Contextually it is not difficult to see why Paul taught this to the Romans. Due to their infighting and judgmental attitudes toward one another, they were not consistently responding the kingdom way. It was time for them to do so—just as it is for us.

 

It is Not Okay

 

It is never right to return evil for evil. Period. No amount of justification can make it so. It is always the kingdom way to do what is right in all circumstances—overcoming evil with good. It is not impossible to do. It flows out of the transformation—the complete and marked change Christ creates within us. It can happen through his power and strength radically making us over as kingdom revolutionaries. Once made over we can discern the good and pleasing will of God in all situations—even the challenging ones—and put into practice his revolutionary teachings. Such is our calling as kingdom revolutionaries.


Social Revolution: Neither Slave nor Free

September 25, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #3

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28

Slavery in the Roman Empire

Slavery within the Roman Empire was not racially based. Slaves were primarily made up of people from conquered nations who were sold into the slave networks that supplied much of the labor that fueled the continued expansion of the empire. Piracy (through raiding and capturing) also added to the slave rolls. Claiming abandoned babies (unfortunately a rather common practice known as “exposure”) for the singular purpose of selling them (when of age) in the slave markets also contributed to the slave supply. And there were also generational slaves—the offspring of slaves who continued to belong to the house that owned their parents (slaves were by law not allowed to marry).

Slaves were a commodity within the Roman Empire. The empire depended upon the labor they provided to function. According to various estimates slaves made up approximately 30-35% of the population throughout the empire. They had no legal rights (until the latter stages of the empire—an important note); could not own prosperity; and belonged completely to their owners—considered nothing more than property by them. One historian noted:

Slaves were the lowest class of society and even freed criminals had more rights. Slaves had no rights at all in fact and certainly no legal status or individuality. They could not create relations or families, nor could they own property. To all intents and purposes they were merely the property of a particular owner, just like any other piece of property – a building, a chair or a vase – the only difference was that they could speak…Slaves were, for many of the Roman elite, a status symbol and, therefore, the more (and the more exotic) one had, the better, so that wealthy Romans very often appeared in public accompanied by an entourage of as many as 15 slaves. (Mark Cartwright; Slavery in the Roman World on the “Ancient History Encyclopedia” website.)

The circumstances of slaves varied according to their abilities and owners. Slaves who were educated and/or skilled in a craft would fare better than others. They would typically be owned by wealthier families in cities—serving as tutors or using their skills to earn money for their master (and even for themselves—slaves were allowed to earn money and could even purchase their own freedom, which was called “manumission”). Those without skills often would work in harsher conditions in rural areas on farms or used in brothels. The owners always dictated daily life for slaves—some could be kind; others could be cruel.

For the most part slaves accepted their lot in life in the Roman Empire. On occasion some would rebel. Perhaps the most famous such rebellion took place in 73 BC led by a gladiator slave named, Spartacus. It ended with the rebellion crushed by General Pompey; Spartacus dead; and 6000 of his fellow slaves rebels crucified along a 120 mile section of the Appian Way between Rome and Capua. Choosing between crucifixion and slavery—most chose slavery. Again the historian notes:

The entire Roman state and cultural apparatus was, then, built on the exploitation of one part of the population to provide for the other part. Regarded as no more than a commodity, any good treatment a slave received was largely only to preserve their value as a worker and as an asset in the case of future sale. No doubt, some slave owners were more generous than others and there was, in a few cases, the possibility of earning one’s freedom but the harsh day-to-day reality of the vast majority of Roman slaves was certainly an unenviable one. (see above reference.)

Neither Slave Nor Free

It was into this culture that Paul spoke these words to the Galatian churches—and quite revolutionary words they were. It was nothing short of a social revolution. As noted, slaves were property—not people. The idea that there was no difference between slave and owner; that owner and slave were somehow equals; that they would sit down as brothers and sisters—was outrageously scandalous—socially in every way. The socio-economic gap between slave and owner within the Roman Empire was just too vast; too culturally entrenched; even too politically significant to be bridged, but yet here is Paul saying, that in Christ, it can be. To understand and accomplish this took an entirely new and revolutionary way of ordering things. It took the kingdom way.

Paul and Slavery

It is quite notable that the apostle Paul never called for the end of slavery or for the emancipation of slaves. Certainly he recognized its unjust, cruel, dehumanizing, and exploitative nature, yet he was not divinely directed to end it. How could his words to the Galatians be reconciled to this? How could there truly be no slave or free if slavery continued to exist? In answering this question the true revolutionary nature of the kingdom is revealed.

Much like Christ—whose teaching, while not overtly political, deeply subverted the cultural norms—Paul subverted the accepted slave/owner relationship. He does so by calling upon slaves to see their work for their owners as working for the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8; Colossians 3:22-25), which was quite a revolutionary thought. Doing that would be a game-changer in that slaves would give full effort in their labor, not hold back, rebel, or steal from their owners (see also Titus 2:9-10). It would reorient the slave and redefine his purpose. His purpose now became a kingdom purpose. His owner now became someone to win for Christ and working for him as if he was working for the Lord was his venue to do it. This is why Paul concluded his Titus teaching to slaves by saying, “so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our savior attractive.” Slaves as evangelists to their owners? Subversive indeed. So much so that Paul could ask slaves to even reimagine themselves as free—free to serve God through the purchase price of the blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).

Interestingly enough he also asked those who were free to reimagine themselves as slaves in the same text—their purchase price being one into slavery to serve the higher cause of Jesus. Christ is the great equalizer in this situation. God is not respecter of persons in this regard. Being clothed with him changes identities—that of Christian slave owner as well. Paul commanded them to not mistreat, be harsh or threaten their slaves, but to be fair and just—treating them kindly—while reminding them that they too have a Master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). And then there is the way he seeks to resolve the conflict between Onesimus, a runaway slave, and his Christian owner, Philemon. He appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a brother and reframes the value of Onesimus not in market terms, but in kingdom terms. If the institution of slavery was to change for the better within Rome or eventually end, this is the way it would. Not through rebellion would it happen. Rome would and did brutally crush those. It would change when slave owner and slave began relating to one another through the revolutionary teaching of the kingdom of God. Then and only then would everything change—and it did. While slavery did not end completely, slaves eventually gained more legal rights within the empire. Was this chance or did the growing influence of God’s kingdom have something to do with it? No where else would you see slave and owner sitting together as one—brought together in Christ Jesus. No longer wearing the clothes of a slave or owner, but of Christ.

“Class warfare” or “identity politics” only serve to heighten and further social divisions. The kingdom of God serves to help us overcome such social constraints and unite in the common cause of Christ; to understand that our value is not tied to our socio-economic status or political identity in our particular culture. If Christ can remake the slave/master relationship, there is no social barrier he cannot overcome. The kingdom is for all and welcomes all to unite in Christ.


Five Steps to Effective Bible Study

December 9, 2014

I’ve quite often heard how Bible study can be intimidating–and I get that. Everything about the Bible–its length; its historical time-frame; it’s language; it’s subject matter; Bible-studying-theit’s message; its divine inspiration–makes it not only unique but also incredibly challenging for many just to pick up and read.

If someone were to decide to randomly start reading the Bible and flipped it open to, say, 1 Chronicles 26 or Revelation 18, well, good luck with that.

It is not that these biblical texts cannot be understood–they can. But unlike a novel or a good historical read or even a text-book, to effectively read, study and understand the Bible takes some preparation.

And that is not as big a deal as you might think. With all of the resources we have available now in biblical scholarship, preparation is frequently just a click away. It is now easier than ever to find the Bible study tools needed to assist us (such as introduction information on individual books of the Bible; historical and cultural background information on biblical cities; biblical language helps; etc)

Of course I am sort of a geek when it comes to Bible study. It is something I truly enjoy and I know not everyone shares this passion. But regardless of your passion (which I believe would increase with more effective study) or knowledge level here are five steps to help you to enjoy more effective Bible study.

  • Never approach text with an agenda. Yep, I start with a negative. Far too often we open up our Bible to find a verse to support something we think we already believe. This does not engender healthy Bible study. No text was ever written simply as a “proof text” for us to parse and use to win a debate or prove a point. When we bring our agendas into Bible study Scripture gets twisted and taken in all sorts of never-intended ways. Granted it is difficult if not impossible to go into Bible study unfiltered. We all have our biases to sort through, but appropriating biblical text to use for our own personal agendas is not a profitable Bible study method.
  • Let text speak in context. This is the key that unlocks the amazing teaching found in the Bible. In order to understand what Scripture is teaching now, we must understand what it first taught then–when it was originally written. To do so means digging into context–all about the original recipients; their situation; the world in which they lived; about the person who wrote the book and their purpose in writing; and what is going on in the surrounding text itself. (This is where all those resources mentioned earlier help out.) It is too easy to take Scripture out of context and make it mean anything we want (see first point). By anchoring text in context we can avoid that while unpacking a treasure trove of teaching within the text of our study. Scripture comes alive by realizing it was first given to real people struggling to live out their faith.
  • Get to know the Bible one book at a time. Recently we had a guest speaker, Dr. Cecil May, Jr. make this point at my church. Instead of bouncing around all over the Bible–take it one book at time. Let that book’s text speak in its context. Get to know who wrote the book; why it was written; the folks who first received it. Learn their story and the story in the book. It is a wonderful approach.
  • Then understand that there is a greater narrative within the Bible. In one sense the Bible is one story–an incredible narrative about the Christ. Each book in both testaments tell something of his story–some more than others, but it is undeniable that his story is the Bible’s story. So as you journey through the Bible one book at a time you will begin to see the connective thread of the story of Jesus. Understanding this larger narrative will open up the Bible in new and exciting ways.
  • Wrap up Bible study in prayer. To borrow a phrase, Bible study and prayer go together like “peas and carrots.” Pray before you start; during; and after. “Pray without ceasing.” To borrow another phrase, pray that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for those who believe” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

Bible study can be exciting, enjoyable, enlightening, and even entertaining. The Bible is an amazing and surprising book. The reasons to study it are eternal. It is forever God’s inspired Word (2 Timothy 3:16). It is one way we get to know him. I hope these five steps will encourage you to study and help you get more out of your time with God’s Word.