Tuesday, November 18, 2014

 

Evidence for the Exodus


Both Egyptian chronology and the chronology of the Exodus are matters of ongoing scholarly dispute. Most scholars date the Exodus to c. 1208 BC, under Ramesses II (the ‘late date’ view). However, many scholars argue for dating the Exodus to c. 1446 BC (the ‘early date’ view - in which case the pharaoh of the Exodus was Amenhotep II) and a few argue for an even earlier date of c. 1525 BC. Archaeologist James K. Hoffmeir comments: ‘Until some firm archaeological or textual evidence emerges to support one of these theories, or an alternative, scholars will continue to disagree about the dating. An accepted time range for the exodus, then, is 1250-1447 BC, sometime during the New kingdom period.’ - The Archaeology of the Bible (Lion, 2008), p. 50.

Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen points out that it is unreasonable to expect much by way of archaeological confirmation of the Exodus story: ‘The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again. Even stone structures (such as temples) hardly survive… practically no written records of any extent have been retrieved from Delta sites… A tiny fraction of reports from the East delta occur in papyri recovered from the desert near Memphis. Otherwise, the entirety of Egypt’s administrative records at all periods in the Delta is lost… and monumental texts are also nearly nil. And, as pharaohs never monumentalize defeats on temple walls, no record of the successful exit of a large bunch of slaves (with loss of a full chariot squadron) would never have been memorialized by any king, in temples in the Delta or anywhere else.’  - On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003), p. 245.

Archaeology does demonstrate that, consistent with the Biblical story of Exodus: 1) Semitic people lived in Egypt in the 19th century BC, and that 2) the nation of Israel existed in the land of Canaan by 1208 BC:

Joseph’s Canal:

A canal running into lake Quarun has a traditional name that links it with the pre-Exodus story of Joseph in Egypt: ‘between 1850 and 1650 B.C. a canal was built to keep the branches of the Nile permanently open, enabling water to fill Lake Quaran and keep the land fertile. This canal was so effective that it still successfully functions today. There is no record of who built the canal, but for thousands of years it has only been known by one name. In Arabic it's the Bahr Yusef. This translates into English as The Waterway of Joseph.’ – BBC Religions, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism/history/joseph.shtml

Tomb of Rekh-mi-re (15th century BC): ‘A wall painting in an Egyptian tomb in the Valley of the Nobles at Thebes shows foreign slaves making mud bricks, recalling the enslaved Israelites’ forced brickmaking (Exodus 1:14:5:7).’ – cf. www.gci.org/bible/digging cf. Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003), p. 247.

The Soleb Hieroglyph: ‘Among ancient Egyptian designations for types of foreign peoples in the New Kingdom Period (1550–1070 BC), the term Shasu occurs fairly frequently. It is generally accepted that the term Shasu means nomads or Bedouin people, referring primarily to the nomadic peoples of Syria-Palestine. There are two hieroglyphic references in New Kingdom Period texts to an area called “the land of the Shasu of Yahweh.” Except for the Old Testament, these are the oldest references found in any ancient texts to the God Yahweh… The term Shasu is almost exclusively used in New Kingdom texts for semi-nomadic peoples living in parts of Lebanon, Syria, Sinai, Canaan, and Transjordan, and for people groups clearly identified as Semitic herders… The New Kingdom inscriptions which refer to “the Land of the Shasu of Yahweh” are found in two topographical lists. The lists are found inscribed on the walls of temples, one at Soleb and the second at Amarah-West. Soleb, a temple dedicated to the god Amon-Re, was built by the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III around 1400 BC… Amarah-West, which is also located in Sudan, is a construction of Ramses II in the 13th century. The section of the Amarah-West topographical list which contains the reference to “the land of the Shasu of Yahweh,” is not original with Ramses II, and was almost certainly copied from the earlier list at Soleb. Egyptologists in general do not question the appearance of the name Yahweh in these two ancient lists.  For example, Donald Redford writes of the reference to Yahweh at Soleb: For half a century it has been generally admitted that we have here the tetragrammaton, the name of the Israelite god "Yahweh;" and if this be the case, as it undoubtedly is, the passage constitutes the most precious indication of the whereabouts during the late 15th century BC of an enclave revering this god.’ - cf. www.assistnews.net/Stories/2010/s10010053.htm

Israel Stele (13th century BC): ‘The name Israel is inscribed in hieroglyphs on a stone slab found in 1896 at Thebes. It is the only mention of Israel in all Egyptian records discovered so far, and the oldest evidence outside the Bible for Israel’s existence. Israel is listed as one of the peoples in western Asia during the reign of Ramses II’s son, Merneptah (c.1213-1203 B.C.), offering evidence that the Israelites were already settled in Canaan (the Promised Land) by that time.’ – cf. www.gci.org/bible/digging

External Evidence

Many details of the Exodus account ring true when compared to extra-biblical sources.

For example, ‘from the Louvre Roll it is evident that special religious holidays were granted to the workers, and work rosters from the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medineh report men being off work to “offer to their god.” This latter point seems to indicate that Moses’ request for the Israelites to have time off to worship Yahweh was not unprecedented and may have been standard procedure (Exod. 5:1).’ – James K. Hoffmier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 115.

Again, we know that ‘Egyptians regularly practices snake charming that allowed them to put snakes into a kind of catalepsy, whereby they would remain as stiff as a rod until wakened. This trick is still practised in Egypt today.’ – NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan, 2005), p. 96.


Internal Evidence

There is also internal evidence to take into consideration. The basic story of the Exodus seems to pass both the historical criteria of multiple testimony and the criteria of embarrassment. As Kenneth A. Kitchen argues: ‘the phenomenon of an exodus-deliverance recurs all over the biblical corpus… If there never was an escape from Egyptian servitude by any of Israel’s ancestors, why on earth invent such a tale about such humiliating origins? Nobody else in Near Eastern antiquity descended to that kind of tale of community beginnings.’ – Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003), p. 245.

The Miracles of Exodus

In his book The Miracles of Exodus (Continuum, 2003), Professor Colin J. Humphreys argues that ‘we have a natural scientific explanation for all ten plagues, which follow a logical, connected sequence… that is highly consistent with the biblical account.’ – p. 143.

Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen observes that ‘the impact of various plagues can be understood as devaluing or denying Egyptian beliefs.’ – Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003), p. 253.

For example: ‘A massive unruly and destructive Nile flood, red in hue, bringing death, was the opposite of Hapi (deity of that flood), who was normally bringer of new life by its waters… Frogs were a symbol of abundance (…personified as Heqat), but here again they brought death… the deep darkness eclipsed the supreme sun god, Re or Amen-Re. Pharoah was traditionally entitled “Son of Re,” and his patron was made invisible… Death of so many throughout the land… would probably seem to Egyptians to have negated the power of the gods completely, and the king’s personal and official key role of ensuring their favour.’ – On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 253.

How the wind drove back the waters…

‘A new computer modeling study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research… and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) shows how the movement of wind as described in the book of Exodus could have parted the waters… a strong east wind, blowing overnight, could have pushed water back at a bend where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon along the Mediterranean Sea. With the water pushed back into both waterways, a land bridge would have opened at the bend, enabling people to walk across exposed mud flats to safety. As soon as the wind died down, the waters would have rushed back in… Other researchers have focused on a phenomenon known as "wind setdown," in which a particularly strong and persistent wind can lower water levels in one area while piling up water downwind. Wind setdowns… have been widely documented, including an event in the Nile delta in the 19th century when a powerful wind pushed away about five feet of water and exposed dry land.’ – ScienceDaily.Com, 2010 www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100921143930.htm


Recommended Resources

Video:
‘Internal Evidence for the Historicity of Exodus’ http://youtu.be/hiw5t276QxM
‘The Exodus from Egypt, a Lecture with Dr James Hoffmeier’ http://youtu.be/m2vhrK6Wczs
Lecture - Dr James Hoffmeier – Egyptologist’ http://youtu.be/GBWWO8dCeY0
‘Lecture Q&A - Dr James Hoffmeier – Egyptologist’ http://youtu.be/u3HUJbZsf-w
(DVD) True U, Truth Project – 02 – Is The Bible Reliable? Building the historical case (Tyndale/Focus on the Family, 2011)
Papers:
Gary Byers, ‘The Beni Hasan Asiatics and the Biblical Patriarchs’ www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/09/09/The-Beni-Hasan-Asiatics-and-the-Biblical-Patriarchs.aspx
ScienceDaily, ‘Parting the waters: Computer modeling applies physics to Red Sea escape route’ www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100921143930.htm
Rabbi Ken, ‘Archaeology and the Exodus’ www.aish.com/print/?contentID=48938472&section=/ci/sam
Archaeologist Allan Millard, ‘How Reliable Is Exodus?’ http://fontes.lstc.edu/%7Erklein/Documents/how_reliable_is_exodus.htm
Who Was Moses? (2003) http://youtu.be/IwnrjU67Dag
Books
NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan, 2005)
Alfred J. Hoerth, Archaeology & The Old Testament (Baker Academic, 1998)
James K. Hoffmier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Lion, 2008)
James K. Hoffmier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2005)
James K. Hoffmier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1996)
Colin J. Humphreys, The Miracles of Exodus (Continuum, 2003)
Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003)

 

Sermon - Psalm 70

This is my Remembrance Sunday sermon from the 8 am service at Highfield Church, Southampton. Audio of the sermon is available here.


Psalm 70 (New Revised Standard Version)



To the leader. Of David, for the memorial offering.

1 Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
    O Lord, make haste to help me!
2 Let those be put to shame and confusion
    who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonour
    who desire to hurt me.
3 Let those who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’
    turn back because of their shame.
4 Let all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
    say evermore, ‘God is great!’
5 But I am poor and needy;
    hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
    O Lord, do not delay!


Psalm 70 claims to record a Psalm ‘of David’, King David that is. A decade or so ago scholars could truthfully claim that they didn’t know of any evidence for a historical King David outside the Bible. Given how little survives from the 10th century B.C, such a state of affairs really wasn’t surprising. Nevertheless, those with a bias against trusting the Biblical evidence in the absence of external corroboration made much of this absence – thereby ignoring British Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen’s famous maxim that ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’.

However, several artefacts have since been discovered that confirm the historicity of King David. For example:

1) The Tel Dan Stele - an inscribed monument erected by an Aramaic King in ancient Syria sometime before 800 B.C that makes reference to ‘Jehoram son of Ahab, King of Israel’ and ‘Ahaziahu son of Jehoram, king of the House of David’. Both Kings are biblically attested (2 Kings 9-10) and the language of the ‘House of David’ parallels biblical language about the Davidic Kingdom. (cf. www.bible-history.com/archaeology/israel/tel-dan-stele.html)

Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology WingDSCN5105.JPG
The Tel Dan Stele

2) The Mesha Stele - a Moabite monument found in 1868 that, it was later noticed, probably mentions ‘the house [of Da]vid.’ (cf. www.bible-history.com/resource/ff_mesha.htm)

P1120870 Louvre stèle de Mésha AO5066 rwk.JPG
The Mesha Stele
  
3) The Shoshenq Relief is a carving from the temple of Amun in Thebes that describes Pharaoh Shoshenq’s raid into Palestine in 925 B.C. In a list of places Shosenq says he captured a phrase appears that Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen translates as ‘heights of David’. (cf. http://theophilogue.com/2009/04/24/extrabiblical-evidence-for-king-david/)

It is also interesting to note that ‘From the viewpoint of… textual preservation, Psalm 70 is one of the finest.’ (Harper Collins Bible Commentary, revised edition, p. 420.) Hence, there’s good reason to believe, when we read Psalm 70, that we are reading song-lyrics written by King David nearly three thousand years ago. Moreover, given what the Bible tells us of David’s adventurous life, it’s easy to see that in Psalm 70 David is writing out of personal experience.

Despite the obvious urgency of his situation, whatever that was, note how David asks God to be pleased to deliver him, rather than trying to demand or command God to deliver him. David rightly assumes that God may or may not deliver him.

It’s so very easy for us to lay expectations upon God that are rooted in our personal preferences rather than being rooted in the promises of God. We might wish it otherwise, but the promises of God concern our ultimate safety and fulfilment rather than our worldly comfort. Indeed, Jesus promises his disciples that: ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33, NIV.) Those who build their lives upon the rock of Christ have a firm foundation to see them through the flood-waters, not a talisman to help them avoid the flood-waters (cf. Matthew 7:24). Indeed, Jesus himself asked if he could forego his own cup off suffering and was told that he could not.

David’s attitude in Psalm 70 puts me in mind of Daniel’s three friends: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Their lives are threatened by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon when they won’t bow down to the golden idol he has set up. They declare: ‘If we are thrown into the flaming furnace, our God is able to deliver us; and he will deliver us out of your hand, Your Majesty. But if he doesn’t, please understand, sir, that even then we will never under any circumstance serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have erected.’ (Daniel 3:16-18, TLB.) Their confidence in God expresses itself in a confidence that God ‘is able to deliver’ them and, indeed, that on this particular occasion God ‘will deliver’ them; but their confidence in God does not depend upon God delivering them. If God does not rescue them, they will still worship God and no one else simply because of who God is.

This attitude towards God, of worshipping Him simply because He is God, is exhibited by David in Psalm 70 when he writes:

Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation say evermore, ‘God is great!’

For David, rejoicing and being glad in God simply for being who He is comes before praising God for doing what He does, even though focusing upon God’s actions would be understandable under the pressure David feels bearing down upon him from those who ‘seek his life [literally, who seek his ‘soul’]’ and who ‘desire to hurt’ him.

It would be understandable, wouldn’t it, if David called upon God to give ‘an eye for an eye’, to take the lives of who seek his life, to hurt those who want to hurt him. But he does not.

Indeed, while David calls upon God to humiliate his enemies, he asks that his enemies thereby be brought to a turning point in their own lives:

Let those be put to shame and confusion
    who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonour
    who desire to hurt me.
Let those who say, “Aha, Aha!”
    turn back because of their shame.


The third clause here doesn’t seem to mean that David’s enemies should ‘turn back’ from harming him ‘because of their shame’ as the previous phrases describe their shame as resulting from their public failure to harm David. Rather, David’s prayer appears to be that the shame that will result from publically failing to harm him might lead his enemies to ‘turn back’ to God, such that they can be included in the rejoicing of verse 4. Indeed, the American Standard Version renders verse 3 as ‘Let them be turned back by reason of their shame.’ This is how focusing upon God and God’s nature first and foremost, despite his troubled circumstances, leads David to treat even his oppressors. As Jesus commands us in Matthew 5:43-48:

There is a saying, ‘Love your friends and hate your enemies.’ But I say: Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way you will be acting as true sons of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust too. If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even scoundrels do that much. If you are friendly only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even the heathen do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (TLB)




Monday, September 22, 2014

 

Sermon - Matthew 9:9-13 (The Calling of Matthew)


An audio of this sermon is available here.


Matthew 9:9-13 (Holman Christian Standard Bible):

9 As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” So he got up and followed Him.
10 While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”


File:The Calling of Saint Matthew.jpg
Calling the Apostle Matthew. Artist A.N. Mironov.


Matthew’s gospel was probably published in the late 50’s or early 60’s of the first century AD, within thirty years of Jesus’ crucifixion in AD 33. Atheist Richard Dawkins claims that ‘Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus.’[1] Concerning the New Testament gospels, Dawkins is sure that ‘not one of them’ was written ‘by an eyewitness.’[2] However, according to New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg: ‘a good case can still be made for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the Gospels that have traditionally been attributed to them’.[3]

For example, despite being one of the twelve apostles, Matthew - ‘Levi son of Alphaeus’ (cf. Mark 2:13-17) - was hardly a leading figure, and he’d been a tax collector, which meant he’d collaborated with the pagan forces of the occupying Romans and had probably lined his own pockets in the process. By contrast, ‘the later second-through fifth-century apocryphal Gospels . . . are all (falsely) ascribed to highly reputable, influential early Christians to try to make them appear as authoritative and credible as possible.’[4]

New Testament scholar Timothy Paul Jones agrees the evidence suggests the source behind Matthew’s gospel was indeed ‘a tax collector named Matthew. . .’[5] Jones goes on to note that: ‘Tax collectors carried pinakes, hinged wooden tablets with beeswax coating on each panel. Tax collectors etched notes in the wax using styluses; these notes could be translated later and rewritten on papyrus.’[6] So, when Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus calling Matthew, when it describes Jesus ‘reclining at [Matthew’s] table’ with other ‘tax collectors and sinners’, and when it recounts Jesus’ sarcastic response to the disapproving Pharisees, we‘ve reason to believe we are in touch with an eye-witness report.

What does Matthew’s report tell us about Jesus’ diagnosis of the human condition? And what does it tell us about Jesus’ self-understanding?

Jesus diagnoses humanity as suffering from a ruptured relationship with God. The presenting symptoms of this rupture are plain to the judgmental, pointing fingers of the Pharisees, displayed for all to see in the ‘tax collectors and sinners’ to whom Jesus daringly extends table fellowship. And the Pharisees are right. Matthew and his tax collecting friends had no pretension to being ‘holier than thou’. The ‘sinners’ reclining at the table with Jesus really were sinners. Indeed, the term translated as ‘sinners’ means people who openly impugn or neglect the Law, and as Matthew 21:31-32 indicates, that probably included prostitutes.

Yet the sinful neediness of these ‘tax collectors and sinners’ led them to accept the counter-cultural invitation to dinner with Rabbi Jesus. When we look deeper into Jesus’ habit of extending table-fellowship to social outcasts, we see that Jesus was foreshadowing the heavenly banquet at which he will dine in a radically inclusive fashion with followers from all the people-groups of the world. Blomberg explains:

one could speak of these meals as enacted prophecy or symbolic of the kingdom’s surprising inclusions. . . no one is saved apart from repentance and faith in Jesus. But precisely to enhance the possibilities of genuine repentance for those alienated by standard Jewish separationism, Jesus ‘mixes it up’ with the notorious and the riff-raff of his world. Scarcely fearing that he will be morally or ritually defiled by them, in many instances he winds up leading them to God and to true ceremonial and spiritual wholeness.[7]

The Pharisees don’t like Jesus’ inclusive approach to ‘sinners’, and that’s where they go wrong. The Pharisees do have pretensions of being ‘holier than thou’, pretensions that speak of the sinful pride at the heart of the ruptured relationship between man and God. That pride presents differently in the Pharisees than in the ‘tax collectors and sinners’, but there is it, hollowing out their ‘holier than thou’ religion. And so Jesus tells the Pharisees to reflect upon a quotation from the 8th century B.C. prophet Hosea, an appropriate source in the situation given that Hosea was commanded by God to marry a prostitute and to forgive her adultery. Here is Hosea 6:4-6 (NIV):

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

Jesus wanted the Pharisees to see that going through the religious motions without the sort of loving acknowledgement of God that flows through your life as mercy or love for others – avails nothing. In other words, the Pharisees need to agree with G.K. Chesterton’s famous letter to the Times:

Dear Sir: Regarding your article ‘What's Wrong with the World?’ I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton.

For as Jesus says in Matthew 5:3-7:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.

So, Jesus diagnoses the heart of the human problem as a problem of sinful pride that blocks relationship with God. His application of this diagnosis to religious people as well as to ‘tax collectors and sinners’ should drive us all to those opening words from the ‘Sermon on the mount’ in Matthew 5.

But what of Jesus’ self-understanding? Jesus clearly casts himself in the role of God. Jesus extends table fellowship to sinners as a parable of God’s kingdom in which he takes the role of host. Having described himself as ‘a doctor’ for ‘the sick’ who has ‘come to call . . . sinners’ into God’s kingdom, Jesus references Hosea (whose very name means ‘He saves’). Consider Hosea 6:1-3 (NIV):

Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”

Thus the Son who would die and rise ‘on the third day’ announces he has come to ‘call sinners’ into his kingdom. Amen.




[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Bantam), p. 122.
[2] Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true (London: Bantam, 2011), p. 262.
[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Leicester: Apollos, 1997), p. 365.
[4] Craig L. Blomberg, Making Sense of the New Testament, p. 24.
[5] Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2007), p. 119.
[6] Timothy Paul Jones in Why Trust the Bible? (Torrance, California: Rose, 2008), p. 72.
[7] cf. Craig L. Blomberg, ‘Jesus, Sinners and Table Fellowship’ www.ibr-bbr.org/files/bbr/bbr19a03.pdf

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Monday, July 28, 2014

 

Sermon - Matthew 13:31-33


An audio of this sermon is available here.

Discussing Jesus' use of parables, theologian Robert H. Stein notes that: 'Jesus repeatedly used illustrations from daily life. These often contain a distinctly Palestinian or even Galilean flavour. This was originally intended to make the parables more understandable to Jesus' audience, but today it serves also to authenticate them. It is clear, for example, that the Sower [Matthew 14:4 ff.] reveals a Palestinian method of farming in which sowing preceded plowing.' (Bruce M. Mezger & Michael D. Coogan ed.'s, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, p. 567-568.) Hence 'most scholars agree that in the parables one stands on the bedrock of authentic Jesus tradition.' (Ibid, p. 568.)

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he said:

…you should pray like this:
‘Our Father in heaven,
Your name be honoured as holy.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Matthew 6: 9-10, HCSB)

First, note that this teaching gives us a definition of 'kingdom'. Your 'kingdom' is where 'your will is done'. God's kingdom is where his perfect will (not just his permissive will) is done.

Second, notice that to a certain pre-Christian may of thinking, this might appear to be a very strange teaching. What sort of a god proclaims that he has a kingdom that isn’t really here yet? What sort of a god tells those who believe in Him to ask that His will be done on earth as in heaven, rather than simply imposing his will with some smiting (preferably with brim stone)? As it turns out, the sort of god who gives these strange teachings is the sort of God that Jesus claims to reveal and to be. As Psalm 103:3 says: 'The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.' (KJV) He is the sort of God who becomes incarnate of a virgin teenage mother and is born in backwater Bethlehem. He is the sort of God who prefers to elicit our loving obedience by suffering for us than to have us suffer the ultimate consequence of our sin. As Joel 2:13 puts it: 'Let your remorse tear at your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful. He is not easily angered; he is full of kindness and anxious not to punish you.' (TLB)

Jesus' use of parables - in what we might call a Socratic teaching style - is wholly in keeping with his suffering-servant-king approach to the task of revelation. parables are designed not to force a message upon the casual listener. whilst yet revealing their meaning to those with sufficiently humble ears to hear. jesus would much rather entice the humble than browbeat the lofty. The Pharisees demand a miracle of Jesus for their personal satisfaction. He calls them a 'wicked and adulterous generation' who will be given no sign 'except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.' (Matthew 12:39-40, NIV.)

Jesus tells the parables of growth in Matthew 13:31-33 in the midst of rejection. He wants to encourage his disciples not to judge the kingdom of God by present appearances, for the kingdom is a growing reality. As theologian R.T. France explains:

the… parables of growth focus on the paradox of insignificant or hidden beginnings and a triumphant climax. In Jesus’ ministry this was a real issue: for those outside the disciple group it affected the credibility of an announcement of God’s reign which had apparently little to show for it; for the disciples there was the natural impatience to see God’s kingdom in all its glory, and the total eradication of all that opposed it. (Matthew, IVP Academic, 1985, p. 231.)

These parables deal with the inaugurated but not yet fully flourishing nature of God’s kingdom on earth. And despite the intervening centuries, this is a reality that Christians face as inhabitants of God’s kingdom today:

31 Jesus told them another story:
The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a farmer plants a mustard seed in a field. 32 Although it is the smallest of all seeds, it grows larger than any garden plant and becomes a tree. Birds even come and nest on its branches.
33 Jesus also said:
The kingdom of heaven is like what happens when a woman mixes a little yeast into three big batches of flour. Finally, all the dough rises. (CEV)

At the present moment, the kingdom appears small, but it's greatness will be seen. At the present moment, the gospel is opposed by many for failing to agree with their worldly agendas; but the gospel is God's blessing for the whole world and will lead to the transformation of the whole world in the new heavens and earth. At the present moment, even today, the kingdom can look insignificant, like yeast compared to flour by volume when baking bread. Three measures of meal was about 40 liters, which would make enough bread for 100 people. So, just like yeast, the kingdom of God has a powerful effect over time.

We experience this in our own lives and communities of discipleship as we put on the glory of Christ over time: 'we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.' (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV.) As Jessee Jackson once said: I am not a perfect servant. I am a public servant doing my best against the odds. As I develop and serve, be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet.' (www.searchquotes.com/search/God_Is_Not _Done_With_Me_Yet/.)

The mustard seed was proverbially minute, though not literally the smallest seed; and Jesus literally says it grows ‘greater than the vegetables’, contrasting the full-grown shrub of about 3 meters with other garden produce. Indeed, Jesus’ imagery calls to mind Daniel 4:10-12 (HCSB):

10 In the visions of my mind as I was lying in bed, I saw this:
There was a tree in the middle of the earth,
and its height was great.
11 The tree grew large and strong;
its top reached to the sky,
and it was visible to the ends of the earth.
12 Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit was abundant,
and on it was food for all.
Wild animals found shelter under it,
the birds of the air lived in its branches,
and every creature was fed from it.

In other words, the kingdom of God will provide refuge not just for Jews but for Gentiles as well. Its fruit, the fruit of the Spirit, the fruit of eternal life, is meant for all. At the present time that fruit may seem insignificant, but it is ripening, and the great harvest is coming. Thanks be to God for his word!


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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

 

Sermon - John 3:1-15


An audio podcast of this sermon is available here.

Today’s gospel reading is John 3:1-15, but I think the best way to unpack this passage is to incorporate it into my comments:

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Him [Jesus] at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Extra-biblical literature tells us of two first century Jewish Nicodemus’s, both belonging to the Gurion family. The portrait of Nicodemus in John corresponds well with what is know of this family. John’s Nicodeumus might well have been uncle to one Naqdimon ben Gurion mentioned in the Talmud.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. This has often been interpreted as a secret assignation, but may simply refer to the natural time for Torah study. Either way, Nicodemus had seen the miraculous signs and he wants a better understanding of the message to which those signs point.

Many find themselves in Nicodemus’s sandals; intrigued but baffled by Jesus, needing time to get to grips with his message, but willing to spend that time because they see enough about Jesus to think that time spent trying to understand him will be time well spent.

What follows won’t make much sense unless you know that in Greek the words for ‘again’, ‘anew’ and ‘from above’ are the same word: ‘anothen’. With that crucial bit of information in mind, here’s the rest of the passage:

Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born anothen, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
“But how can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked Him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?”
Jesus answered, “I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus.
“Are you a teacher of Israel and don’t know these things?” Jesus replied. “I assure you: We speak what We know and We testify to what We have seen, but you do not accept Our testimony. If I have told you about things that happen on earth and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about things of heaven? No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven - the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.

So you see what happened: Jesus was saying that in order to see ‘the kingdom of God’ Nicodemus had to be ‘born anew’ or ‘from above’ by allowing God’s grace to forgive him and raise his human nature (his ‘flesh’) up into the spiritual life of God in a transformative relationship.

Jesus’ reference to water doesn’t refer to the first birth, or to baptism, but recalls the imagery of spiritual cleansing and re-birth in Ezekiel 36:25-27:

‘I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.’

So, according to Jesus, salvation isn’t a matter of being born into the right tribe or ethnic group, nor of slavishly practicing a set of predictable legal rules in order to pass a heavenly graduation test. Rather, salvation is a matter of allowing oneself to being caught up into the wind-like spiritual freedom of God’s spirit. Here it helps to know that the Greek word for ‘wind’ and for ‘spirit’ is one and the same word (pneuma).

Nicodemus objects that he can’t be literally ‘born again’. Some readers suppose Nicodemus is simply being rather thick and cloth-eared at this point; but I wonder if he isn’t being deliberately evasive. As John 1:11 says: ‘his own did not receive him.’ In either case, Nicodemus’ misunderstanding ironically led to the modern phrase about being ‘a born again Christian’, a phrase that metaphorically means just what Jesus meant by being ‘born anew’. Jesus uses a different metaphor in John 15:4-5:

Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.’

Likewise, seeing ‘the kingdom of God’ is yet another way of talking about relationship with God in and through Jesus. The ‘kingdom of God’ is where-ever God’s perfect will is being followed, and ‘seeing the kingdom’ is equivalent to the more familiar expression in John of having ‘eternal life’. Jesus defines what he means by ‘eternal life’ in John 17:3: ‘This is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and the One You have sent—Jesus Christ.’ Note that this isn’t a matter of merely knowing about God and Jesus as His Christ, but of actually knowing God and knowing Jesus as His Christ or Messiah.

With the phrase ‘eternal life’, the concept of unending duration is present, but it isn’t the main idea. The main idea is a certain quality of life seen in Jesus: ‘Christ is Himself both the personification and guarantee of this life.’ (Zondervan Bible Commentary). Theologian Alister McGrath comments that:

‘The “eternal life” in question must not be thought of as if it were some kind of infinite extension of everyday existence. Rather, it refers to a new quality of life, begun here and now through faith, which is consummated and fulfilled through resurrection. This eternal life is only made possible through the love of God, which is shown in the astonishing fact that he loves his world so much that his only Son should die for it.’ (NIV Bible Handbook, p. 369.)

It’s interesting to observe that Rabbinic tradition speaks of one of Jesus’ disciples being called ‘Nakkai’ or ‘Buni’, which is a Hebrew equivalent to the Greek name ‘Nicodemus’.  Moreover, Christian tradition says that Nicodemus was martyred sometime in the 1st century. This certainly chimes with the fact that, although Nicodemus didn’t receive the message of Jesus in John 3, John later tells us how Nicodemus stood up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-52) and how he helped Joseph of Arimathea entomb Jesus, buying the myrrh and aloes for the burial. As John 1:12-13 says:


Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.’

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Sermon - James 1:13-21


An audio podcast of this sermon is available here.

James the Apostle by Peter Paul Rubens.



Today’s gospel reading is James 1:17-21, but to give it some context, I’m going to start at James 1:13:

No one undergoing a trial should say, “I am being tempted by God.” For God is not tempted by evil and He Himself doesn’t tempt anyone. But each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death. Don’t be deceived [or ‘led astray’], my dearly loved brothers. Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning. By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the first fruits of His creatures. My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you.


The major concern of James’ letter of wisdom is encouraging Christians to persevere with integrity as they ‘experience various trials’ (James 1:2). Current events remind us that even today being Christian can mean facing literal trial and persecution. Remember Dr Meriam Ibrahim, condemned to hang by a court in Sudan this week after she refused to renounce her faith in Jesus. Remember the school girls abducted by ‘Boko Haram’ in Nigeria. A video from their captors shows about a hundred girls dressed in hijabs, chanting verses from the Koran. The terrorist leader says: ‘These girls have become Muslims.’

Such events naturally raise questions in our minds about God and evil, and it’s good to wrestle with such questions. However, James isn’t a book of philosophy. It’s a pastoral letter to Christians under pressure. James isn’t addressing the question: ‘How can God allow hardship?’ He is addressing the question: ‘What attitude should Christians adopt towards the hardship in their lives?’

Although the word for ‘trials’ and ‘temptations’ is the same word in the Greek, it seems clear that verse 13 signals a shift in James’ topic, from the outward trials of persecution to the inner trials of temptation, from our holy trials to our unholy trials as it were. Douglas Moo comments:

‘God, James has said, promises a blessing to those who endure trials. Every trial, every external difficulty, carries with it a temptation, an inner enticement to sin. God may bring, or allow, trials; he is not, James insists, the author of temptation.’

God doesn’t entice us to do wrong. But doesn’t Genesis 22:1 say ‘God tempted Abraham’? Well, no, not in the majority of translations it doesn’t. Genesis 22:1 says God ‘tested’ Abraham. When God tests someone, He is providing them with an opportunity to rise to the occasion and He isn’t willing or desiring them to fail the test. Whether or not our trials are intended by God as part of his perfect will, or merely allowed by God as part of his permissive will, God isn’t deliberately trying to trip us up.

In verses 14 and 15 James lays out our problem with temptation and sin: ‘each person is tempted when he is drawn away and enticed by his own evil desires. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death.’ In verse 17 James begins to lay out the solution: ‘Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights; with Him there is no variation or shadow cast by turning.’ There are two main points here. The first point isn’t that God and only God is the source of all and only good things. The word translated here as ‘every’ has a range of means, including ‘all manner of’. The point is simply that God is a generous giver of all sorts of good gifts, including the physical cosmos. The second point is that, by contrast with the unreliable, varying light given to us by the sun and moon, God’s gift-giving is characterised by a reliable consistency. The word translated here as variation is used in Greek for the setting of the teeth in a saw or for the alternation of seasons. James is saying that God’s desire for our salvation doesn’t wax and wane like the seasons or the phases of the moon. God doesn’t act against his own purposes as if he were double-minded.

Several commentators note that the phrase ‘the Father of lights’ echoes the Jewish morning prayer, which moves from acknowledging God as creator to God as redeemer, so it comes as no surprise when verse 18 re-introduces God’s gift of salvation for those who ‘look into the perfect law of freedom and continue in it’ (James 1:25). The gospel is part of God’s perfect will – The NRSV translates the start of verse 18 ‘He, in fulfillment of his purpose’ - and God won’t give with one hand whilst taking away with the other.

God’s clear intention is that we be the figurative ‘first fruits’ of the earthly creation. In 1 Corinthians 15:20 the Old Testament image of the ‘first fruits’ of the harvest, which were dedicated to God in remembrance of his faithfulness, is applied to Christ. Here in James the image is applied to those who are ‘in’ Christ. Again, the emphasis is upon God’s faithful provision for his people.

In the light of God’s character and provision, it makes no sense for us to say ‘I am being tempted by God’. Of course, we can say ‘God is allowing me to be tempted’; but we can’t absolve ourselves of moral responsibility by noting that God has permitted us moral responsibility! Nor should we dissolve the foundation of our best hope and motivation in the face of temptation by falsely portraying God as actively opposing his own gospel intent.

When we face temptation it is of course true to say ‘you win some, you lose some’. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul celebrates how ‘We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.’ On the other hand, Paul laments in Romans 7:21: ‘I want to do good, but in practice I do evil.’ (J.B. Phillips)

Sometimes we endure temptation by not giving in to it. At other times we don’t endure, and our evil desires give birth to sin. The important thing to grasp is this: if you feel guilty because you failed to endure temptation, then your sin isn’t yet ‘fully grown’. Rather, your guilt, that pained sense of failure, is itself a new trial, a new temptation trying to draw you away from the forgiveness and transforming power of God. The new temptation is to give up the good fight, to stop enduring and persevering in the process of humbly receiving the implanted word. It’s the temptation to say ‘Surely God won’t forgive me again’. It’s the temptation to feel, ‘God can’t fix me, so why bother trying? It’s the temptation to say ‘I am being tempted by God.’ So let us not be led astray, my brothers and sisters, but let us ‘humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save’ us. Amen.

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