Peter Enns: Christianity 101 for Politicians

A spot-on analysis by Dr. Enns, who has never been afraid to speak his mind. If you read his whole piece, don’t read it as an anti-Republican polemic. It’s not. It’s a critique of how political parties and politicians misuse God for their own purposes, and the Republicans certainly do not have a monopoly on that. See what you think.

Every Christian who wants to become a political leader should be forced to study the book of Revelation for a year and then pass a test of one simple question: “True or False: The Christian hope will be realized through political means.” Whoever says “true” should be forced to watch N. T. Wright videos about the kingdom nonstop for a year (starting with this one) and then take the test again every year until they get it right.

The book of Revelation is weird because it is full of ancient Jewish symbols of apocalyptic disasters and such. Teasing out what all those symbols mean is not for the weak, but neither is it necessary to get the gist of the book as a whole.

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The main message of the book is all about how wrong it is when an earthly power (the Roman Empire, for this ancient writer) claims a divine stamp of approval and divine authority.

Despite what it might look like to the naked eye, Rome, with its powerful armies and emperors, is not in charge. Rather, paradoxically and counterintuitively, the slain Lamb of God—the crucified and risen Jesus—is in charge.

Therefore—and I can’t stress this enough, people—Revelation is a call to God’s people at any time to be faithful to Christ over and against the “world system.”

As biblical scholar Michael Gorman puts it in his book Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation, Revelation is a critique of “civil religion”—of tying the Gospel to any political system.

Instead Christians are called to practice “uncivil religion” where Jesus is not tied to the state or aligned with any wanna-be king, and God is not dragged down into our political squabbles as if the Creator has chosen sides. Rather, followers of the slain Lamb stand firm in God’s kingdom and call earthly powers to account.

When I juxtapose the unholy prayer of civil religion at the RNC with the political tone of the Bible (and we’re just scratching the surface) is really makes me think Christians have lost their minds if they can’t see through how very sub-Christian—even anti-Christian—the Republican rhetoric is.

Read it all. (HT: Jesus Creed)

Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

Understanding the Bible, 103.

Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)

CT Book Review: Reading Esther in the Shadow of ISIS

Reviewer: Gerald McDermott. Some really good insights in this review. Looks like a fascinating book as well. See what you think.

51Nfg7bFvoL._SX140We know from the story that God’s plan to deliver the Jews from annihilation succeeded. But was it an act of God that overruled human freedom? Or was it an act of human courage and political genius that God observed from a distance?

Hazony argues that too often Jews (and, I would add, Christians) have treated this as an either-or question. They think that if God were in control, then humans would be mere pawns; or if humans make the right decisions, then God is merely the observer and not the cause. (Hazony maintains that this is a “God of the gaps” theory that thinks of God “intervening” occasionally to change things that otherwise go on without him.)

The biblical authors, he counters, would have none of this. Their principal metaphor for the human-divine relationship was brit, the Hebrew word for “covenant,” where God acts through human choices. Both are totally involved. As Jonathan Edwards put it, “God does all and man does all.” Edwards was paraphrasing the apostle Paul: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:12-13).

Read it all.

A Very Early Account of Why Christians Suffer Persecution

Below is a reading from a very early source—early 2nd century (the letter was written around 124AD). Not much has changed over the years, no?

Pay attention to several things. First, what would explain the Christians’ willingness to suffer? Mass delusion simply doesn’t cut it as an answer. Second, how would you explain Christians using their suffering as a badge of honor? Again, mass masochism doesn’t work. So what’s the power behind it all? Last, Notice how their faith gives them meaning and purpose of living, even under duress. Would that we tap into that kind of power today because it is still available to us!

The short answer to the above questions is of course Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven where he rules over the cosmos and who is actively involved with his people and available to them in the power of the Spirit. The critics scoff and mock. But their mocking and scoffing are symptoms of closed minds and hard hearts. They will surely not have the last laugh. Check it out and see what you think.

iuChristians are indistinguishable from others either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of human beings. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

Christians love all people, but all people persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the World, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the lofty and divinely appointed function of Christians, from which they are not permitted to excuse themselves.

Letter to Diognetus [c. 124]

Kostenberger and Taylor: April 3, AD33

It certainly is plausible. See what you think.

In our new book, The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived, we assume but do not argue for a precise date of Jesus’s crucifixion. Virtually all scholars believe, for various reasons, that Jesus was crucified in the spring of either a.d. 30 or a.d. 33, with the majority opting for the former. (The evidence from astronomy narrows the possibilities to a.d. 27, 30, 33, or 34). However, we want to set forth our case for the date of Friday, April 3, a.d. 33 as the exact day that Christ died for our sins.

To be clear, the Bible does not explicitly specify the precise date of Jesus’s crucifixion and it is not an essential salvation truth. But that does not make it unknowable or unimportant. Because Christianity is a historical religion and the events of Christ’s life did take place in human history alongside other known events, it is helpful to locate Jesus’s death—as precisely as the available evidence allows—within the larger context of human history.

Read it all.

An Account of How Good Friday was Observed in 4th-Century Jerusalem

[On Good Friday] following the dismissal from the Cross, which occurs before sunrise, everyone now stirred up goes immediately to Sion to pray at the pillar where the Lord was whipped. Returning from there then, all rest for a short time in their own houses, and soon all are ready. A throne is set up for the bishop on Golgotha behind the Cross, which now stands there. The bishop sits on the throne, a table covered with a linen cloth is set before the bishop, and the deacons stand around the table. The gilded silver casket containing the sacred wood of the cross is brought and opened. Both the wood of the cross and the inscription are taken out and placed on the table. As soon as they have been placed on the table, the bishop, remaining seated, grips the ends of the sacred wood, while the deacons, who are standing about, keep watch over it. There is a reason why it is guarded in this manner. It is the practice here for all the people to come forth one by one, the faithful as well as the catechumens, to bow down before the table, kiss the holy wood, and then move on. It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest there be anyone who would dare come and do that again.

All the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on. No one, however, puts out a hand to touch the cross. As soon as they have kissed the cross and passed on through, a deacon, who is standing, holds out the ring of Solomon and the phial with which the kings were anointed. They kiss the phial and venerate the ring from more or less the second hour [8am]; and thus until the sixth hour [noon] all the people pass through, entering through one door, exiting through another. All this occurs in the place where the day before, on Thursday, the sacrifice was offered.

When the sixth hour is at hand, everyone goes before the Cross, regardless of whether it is raining or whether it is hot. This place has no roof, for it is a sort of very large and beautiful courtyard lying between the Cross and the Anastasis [the Lord’s tomb]. The people are so clustered together there that it is impossible for anything to be opened. A chair is placed for the bishop before the Cross, and from the sixth to the ninth hours [noon-3pm] nothing else is done except the reading of passages from Scripture.

First, whichever Psalms speak of the Passion are read. Next, there are readings from the apostles, either from the Epistles of the apostles or the Acts, wherever they speak of the Passion of the Lord. Next, the texts of the Passion from the Gospels are read. Then there are readings from the prophets, where they said that the Lord would suffer; and then they read from the Gospels, where He foretells the Passion. And so, from the sixth to the ninth hour, passages from Scripture are continuously read and hymns are sung, to show the people that whatever the prophets had said would come to pass concerning the Passion of the Lord can be shown, both through the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, to have taken place. And so, during those three hours, all the people are taught that nothing happened which was not first prophesied, and that nothing was prophesied which was not completely fulfilled. Prayers are continually interspersed, and the prayers themselves are proper to the day. At each reading and at every prayer, it is astonishing how much emotion and groaning there is from all the people. There is no one, young or old, who on this day does not sob more than can be imagined for the whole three hours, because the Lord suffered all this for us. After this, when the ninth hour is at hand, the passage is read from the Gospel according to Saint John where Christ gave up His spirit. After this reading, a prayer is said and the dismissal is given.

As soon as the dismissal has been given from before the Cross, everyone gathers together in the major church, the Martyrium, and there everything which they have been doing regularly throughout this week from the ninth hour when they came together at the Martyrium, until evening, is then done. After the dismissal from the Martyrium, everyone comes to the Anastasis, and, after they have arrived there, the passage from the Gospel is read where Joseph seeks from Pilate the body of the Lord and places it in a new tomb. After this reading a prayer is said, the catechumens are blessed, and the faithful as well; then the dismissal is given.

On this day no one raises a voice to say the vigil will be continued at the Anastasis, because it is known that the people are tired. However, it is the custom that the vigil be held there. And so, those among the people who wish, or rather those who are able, to keep the vigil, do so until dawn; whereas those who are not able to do so, do not keep watch there. But those of the clergy who are either strong enough or young enough, keep watch there, and hymns and antiphons are sung there all through the night until morning. The greater part of the people keep watch, some from evening on, others from midnight, all doing what they can.

—Egeria, Abbess and Pilgrim, Pilgrimage 17

N.T. Wright: What Palm Sunday Means

r1405901_20102708The extraordinary twist in this story is that, having announced judgment upon Jerusalem for refusing God’s way of peace, Jesus went ahead, embodying simultaneously the love and the judgment of God himself, to suffer the Roman horror he had predicted for his people.

That dark royal story lies at the heart of all subsequent Christian understanding of the cross, though it is a truth so strange that few hymns or liturgies plumb its depths. Theseus and Oberon are one and the same. Good Friday, itself a form of Roman street theatre, was taken up paradoxically within God’s street theatre, the play within the play within the play that explains everything else.

But, even without that sequel, the questions of Palm Sunday itself force themselves upon us.

First, the questions of which story we are living in, and which king we are following, remain urgent within our culture. As our public institutions are less trusted than ever, and our behaviour at home and abroad is more confused than ever, the stories which used to make sense of our lives have let us down.

We thought we knew how the play worked: get rid of tyrants, and people will embrace democracy, peace, love and flower-power. How quickly things have moved from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The so-called Arab Spring has turned back to winter, as we have no idea what to do about Syria, about Israel/Palestine and, of course, about Ukraine. We have run out of stories, we have run out of kings of whatever kind; all we think we can do is trust the great god Mammon, as though our fragile economic half-recoveries would trickle out into the mountains of Syria or the deserts of South Sudan. Give me Psalm 72 any day.

But that’s where the second question comes in, a personal question. If the Palm Sunday street theatre means what Jesus meant, it challenges all his followers, then and now. The crowds may have been fickle, but they were not mistaken. The two on the road to Emmaus had hoped he would redeem Israel, and they were hoping for the right thing – God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven, a this-worldly reign of justice and peace – but they had not glimpsed the means by which Jesus would bring it about. Right story, wrong king.

Sooner or later, this happens to all of us. We start out following Jesus because we think we know the story, we know what sort of king we want him to be – and then things go badly wrong, he doesn’t give us what we wanted, and we are tempted to wonder if we’ve been standing on the wrong side of town, watching the wrong procession.

Jesus warned us this would happen: we all have to live through a Holy Week, a Gethsemane, a Good Friday of one sort or another. That happens in personal life, in vocational life, as well as in public life.

Read it all.

Jason Micheli (Jesus Creed): Squeamish About the Bible’s Blood Speak

This is part of an ongoing review of Fleming Rutledge’s new book, Crucifixion. This post is excellent.

Screen-Shot-2016-02-09-at-9.19.00-PM-198x300A year and a half ago Hannah Graham, a UVA student from my parish, went missing near her campus. Weeks later her body was found. She’d been assaulted and brutally murdered.

Theologically, I’ve always been committed to the sheer nothingness of evil. Rather than a thing with any substance or subsistence of its own, the tradition holds that evil is absence. Maybe evil is the privation of the good, as Augustine thought it, but during the prayer service I led in the days when Hannah was still missing, when everyone hoped for the best but suspected the worst, the presence of sin and evil was felt palpably throughout the sanctuary. In the months since then the devastation and trauma felt from her murder have grown and festered. I’ve watched with sadness and something like righteous anger as many of Hannah’s friends in my congregation continue to struggle with depression, despair, and a loss of faith. Two weeks ago, when it was reported that Jesse Matthew, her accused murderer, had decided to plead guilty, I rejoiced confident that God rejoiced too now that Hannah would receive at least this measure of justice.

My takeaway from this experience:

A vital refrain of scripture gets obscured when we individualize and moralize sin.

Sin costs something.

Sin must be atoned for.

Yes, Jesus enjoins us to forgive as much as 70 x 7 times, but sin, like the sin done to Hannah and the entire community who loved her, requires justice too. As my mother used to tell me, ‘Saying sorry doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to repair the damage you’ve done.’ Even for my mom, repair required sacrifice.

It’s right, even holy, to rejoice that Jesse Matthew will pay for the damage he’s done.

Sin costs something. This is the convicting acknowledgment running through the rituals of sacrifice in the Book of Leviticus. Counter to the popular complaint about traditional atonement theories which asks, flippantly, ‘Why can’t God just forgive?’ the fundamental presupposition of Leviticus is that there must be atonement for sin. Put aside distracting conceits like God’s offended honor and simply focus on the concrete, real-world devastation wrought by sin.

Read it all.

Scot McKnight: One More Time, What Kind of Literature is a Gospel?

Precisely. Thank God for faithful theologians and scholars.

Now my response, and I will use Brant’s own logic from the previous discussion about authorship. Inasmuch as there is no evidence the Gospels were anonymous since in the early church there are no anonymous Gospels (that is, using the early church evidence), so I make this claim: there is no evidence the Gospels were called “biographies” in the early church either. Therefore… that absence matters.

This matters for genre. Why? The Gospels were not called “biographies” but “gospels” and they were called “gospels” because they were a unique kind of communication (gospeling) that becomes a different kind of literature (a genre). That is, they were called “gospels” because they were designed not simply to tell the life of Jesus but to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord, the living, crucified, and resurrected one.

The Gospels, I contend, have traits of biography but they are more than biographies. They are gospels.

Read it all.