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"That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, con
cerning the word of life -- the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it ...." I John 1:1-2 (RSV)

"After his resurrection the disciples saw the living Christ, whom they knew to have died, with the eyes of faith (oculata fide)." Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III, 55, 2 ad 1, as quoted in D. M. Stanley, Jesus in Gethsemane (New York, Paulist Press 1980).

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris November 13 and George Eldon Ladd's The Gospel of the Kingdom

After what just happened in Paris, today is a good day to reflect on the words of Jesus in the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13, Matt 24 and Luke 21).   George Eldon Ladd wrote:

The Kingdom is assaulting the kingdom of Satan. This conflict will last to the end of The Age. Final victory will be achieved only by the return of Christ. There is no room for an unqualified optimism. Our Lord’s Olivet Discourse indicates that until the very end, evil will characterize This Age. False prophets and false messiahs will arise and lead many astray. Iniquity, evil, are so to abound that the love of many will grow cold. God’s people will be called upon to endure hardness. “In the world you have tribulation” (John 16: 33). “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14: 22). We must always be ready to endure the tribulation as well as the kingdom and patience which are in Jesus (Rev. 1: 9). In fact, our Lord himself said, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24: 13). He who endures tribulation and persecution to the uttermost, even to the laying down of his life, will not perish but will find salvation. “Some of you they will put to death.... But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21: 16, 18). The Church must always in its essential character be a martyr church. As we carry the Gospel into all the world, we are not to expect unqualified success. We are to be prepared for opposition, resistance, even persecution and martyrdom. This Age remains evil, hostile to the Gospel of the Kingdom.
The visible Church, we are told, is to be completely leavened by evil doctrine. Apostasy is so to pervade the Church that only a small remnant will be found faithful to God’s Word. The closing days of This Age will be the Laodicean period when the entire professing Church will be nauseatingly indifferent to eternal issues. In such a portrayal of the last days, God’s people can expect only defeat and frustration. Evil is to reign. The Church age will end with an unparalleled victory of evil. Sometimes so much stress is laid upon the evil character of the last days that we receive the impression (unintended, to be sure) that the faster the world deteriorates the better, for the sooner the Lord will come. It cannot be denied that the Scriptures emphasize the evil character of the last days. In fact, we have already made this emphasis. The evil which characterizes This Age will find a fearful intensification at the very end in its opposition to and hatred of the Kingdom of God.
George Eldon Ladd - Credit babelio.com

This does not mean, however, that we are to lapse into pessimism and abandon This Age and the world to evil and Satan. The fact is, the Gospel of the Kingdom is to be proclaimed throughout the world. The Kingdom of God has invaded This present evil Age. The powers of The Age to Come have attacked This Age. The last days will indeed be evil days; but “in these last days (God) has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1: 2). God has given us a Gospel of salvation for the last days, a Gospel embodied in One who is Son of God. Furthermore, “in the last days it shall be,” God declares, “that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (Acts 2: 17). God has spoken for the last days; God has poured out His Spirit in the last day to give power to proclaim the divine Word. The last days will be evil, but not unrelieved evil. God has given us a Gospel for the last days, and He has given a power to take that Gospel into all the world for a testimony unto all the nations: then shall the end come.

Ladd, George Eldon. The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God  (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959) (from chapter 9, titled,  “When Will the Kingdom Come?”).

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Newbigin - The Christian Congregation

This is a Bible blog.  But compare the importance of activities such as Bible study, or blogging, with the importance of the Christian congregation.  Lesslie Newbigin, in  The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), at page 227 writes: 
"I have come to feel that the primary reality of which we have to take account in seeking for a Christian impact on public life is the Christian congregation. How is it possible that the gospel should be credible, that people should come to believe that the power which has the last word in human affairs is represented by a man hanging on a cross?
I am suggesting that the only answer, the only hermeneutic of the gospel, is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel– evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature, conferences, and even books such as this one.
But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.”

Monday, July 13, 2015

Feed My Lambs - Agnes Sanford

Peter loved Jesus and told him so, as we read in John 21.  The response of Jesus was, "Feed my lambs."  Jn. 21:17.   This order that Christian leaders should help people, should feed the lambs, inspired Agnes Sanford to to do her work.    I'm reading Sanford's books again, which brought to mind this post from 2012:

Healing of Memories
          In a previous post dated July 10,2012, I thought of  Peter who had to live with memories of his denials of Jesus.  Jesus intervened  after his resurrection by assuring and challenging Peter as described in John chapter 21.   This John chapter 21 encounter raises a good issue:  Do the healing effects of new life in Christ include healing of bad memories?  

           The place to start here  is with new creation theology.   In 2 Cor 5:17, St. Paul writes, "So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come" (NAB).  We see this in the words and deeds of Jesus as well, in John chapter 3,  where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs a new birth.  When a person converts to Jesus, all is new.  The past does not matter.  But how deeply into the mind  does the healing light of Christ penetrate?
           One fascinating response to this question comes from the famous spiritual healer, Agnes Sanford (1897-1982).   I remember reading her autobiography, Sealed Orders (Bridge-Logos 1972)  in 1976 when I was 20 years old.   At that time I knew a few people who thought they had the gift of healing and who made prayers for  "inner healing" of bad memories part of their ministry.  That was not for me.  But I was enthralled with Sealed Orders.  It is the great story of a hopeful Christian who writes with the descriptive skills of a novelist.
          Sanford was raised in China as  the child of a missionary.  After she married an Episcopalian pastor she lived in New England.      At 20 years old, I did not have much theological sophistication, or ability to scrutinize the pros and cons of the spiritual healing ideas of Agnes Sanford.   Many  have been critical. See  http://hbcdelivers.org/?p=732   (concluding that Sanford's  inner healing is a dangerous combination of psychology and new-age spirituality). But at that time I missed the new-age issue.   For me reading Sealed Orders  was an experience of reading simple and beautifully stated  eyewitness testimony, describing people who saw their emotional lives turned around for the better after Sanford's  prayers to Jesus for this kind of spiritual healing. 
          My memories of reading  Sealed Orders  35 years ago are  of a person frustrated with Christians who lived as though Jesus never rose from the dead.  She believed that Jesus is alive, and that he offers his healing touch today just as he did during his public ministry on earth - a touch  that included this "inner healing" of bad memories.  If Agnes Sanford had lived in the days of Acts chapter 6 I bet that  she would have gone over with  the Hellenists who with their  free spirits and visioning of the risen Jesus (Stephen)  felt constrained and limited by the Jerusalem church.   See Martin Hengel,  Between Jesus and Paul: Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity,  Trans. John Bowden.  LondonSCM, 1983 [German essays 1975-83].
          Yes, the church rightly puts a check on those who would claim the ability to solve complicated mental health issues with prayer.   But if Jesus,  the Lord of heaven and earth,  can be surprising in the ways that he heals and changes people,  then even if I may not go along with all of their ideas I like to keep an open mind and  listen to the voice of healers like Agnes Sanford. 
         Here is Agnes Sanford  thinking back to her  days in China  when she first considered the possibility that healing was part of the Christian life.  She recalls wondering if as a young girl  she with prayer could have helped a women who  suffered from severe depression:  

It would have been easy to heal this lovely lady even as I long afterword was healed.  If only some one of God's ministers had known that he himself was a channel for God's power and had laid his hands on her and prayed for the love of Jesus to come into her and lift her out of darkness into his light!   All my life I have grieved that no one knew how to pray for her.   But for the first time now, as I write this down, I wonder:  could I myself have prayed for her and channeled God's power into her?   I knew nothing about healing.    …
Could I have prayed for her daily in silence and in secret as I prayed for the young man?  Was that what God wanted me to do? 

Perhaps the reader is thinking, “Well, of course!”  But in those days it was not, “Of course.” We were fundamentalists. That meant that we believed implicitly in every word in the Bible, yet we did not believe in healing through prayer. We were supposed to obey Jesus in every word that He said. Yet, when He said, “The works that I do shall ye do also,” we  didn’t obey Him, and indeed considered it heresy that any one should try to do His works.”  

Sealed Orders, p. 49.

         Today if you use the word "channel" in Christian circles, there will be raised eyebrows, and I suppose there should be.  But in 1972 Agnes Sanford thought of herself as a channel not as a new-ager but as a matter of  simple obedience to Jesus.   When St. Francis said, "Make me a channel of your peace," nobody questioned his orthodoxy. 
         This subject is not a matter for  intellectual curiosity or theological speculation.  We are talking about people's lives here.  After writing about Agnes Sanford I got home to find the July 23, 2012  issue of the TIME magazine on the kitchen counter, and I saw on the  cover  “One a Day - Every day one U.S. soldier commits suicide."   In the TIME story by journalists Mark Thompson and Nancy Gibbs, they write:  “The U.S. military seldom meets an enemy it cannot target, cannot crush, cannot put a fence around or drive a tank across. But it has not been able to defeat or contain the epidemic of suicides among its troops.”     Agnes Sanford says about the Chinese woman, “I have grieved that no one knew  how to pray for her.”  And now with these children of our friends and neighbors who have served our country,  do we still not know how to pray and reach out with a healing touch?

A version of this blog post was originally on this blog site  July 13, 2012.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Word of God and People of God - Rabbi Sacks

What we call the OT has inspired many, even no-nonsense "unspiritual"  intellectuals like Hobbes:

However, if we look at the “birth of the modern” – at figures like Milton, Hobbes and Locke in England, and the founding fathers of America – the book with which they were in dialogue was not Plato or Aristotle but the Hebrew Bible. Hobbes quotes it 657 times in The Leviathan alone.
This too is the meaning of Isaiah’s remarkable statement: “You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord, “that I am God” (Isaiah 43:12). In its collective fate and destiny, Israel will constitute the most compelling evidence of divine involvement in human history. It will reach heights of achievement, and sometimes depths of degradation, that have no counterpart in the fate of other nations. As Tolstoy once wrote, “The Jew is the emblem of eternity.”

Jonathan Sacks,  Covenant and Conversation   Exodus: The Book of Redemption (Maggid Books 2010). Although I am not Jewish, I agree with Rabbi Sacks that the  Hebrew Bible and the history of the Jewish people are compelling evidence of God's involvement in human history. 

Friday, May 1, 2015

After Egypt - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In the Book of Exodus God calls his people to leave Egypt, and set out on a journey to a better place. It's a mysterious journey because the destination is mainly  "beyond the horizon" but not totally so. Because of the "Sabbath"  experience  along the journey the covenant people get a a glimpse of that destination every week.  Rabbi Sacks puts it this way:

There is thus every indication in Exodus that freedom will involve a long journey. It is fair to say, thirty-three centuries later, that we have still not arrived at the destination. But freedom is not a blind journey, a road without a map. The destination is clearly signalled, though it lies beyond the horizon. It is the promised land, flowing with milk and honey, the land Moses spent his life leading his people towards but was not privileged himself to enter. One of the underlying themes of the book was best stated in a later age by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not for you to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it.”

The path to freedom is travelled one step, one generation, one era at a time, never losing heart or forgetting our aim. The key to Exodus politics, as it is to Judaism as a whole, is what elsewhere I have called “Utopia now.” That is the significance of Shabbat, whose presence looms large in the book. It was the first commandment the Israelites received in the wilderness. It holds a pivotal place in the ten commandments. It is repeated immediately before and after the episode of the Golden Calf. It is central to the politics of freedom. On Shabbat we rehearse utopia, or what Judaism came later to call the messianic age. One day in seven, all hierarchies of power are suspended. There are no masters and slaves, employers and employees. Even domestic animals cannot be made to work. We are not allowed to exercise control over other forms of life, or even forces of nature. On Shabbat, within the covenantal society, all are equal and all are free. It is the supreme antithesis of Egypt. 

Jonathan Sacks,  Covenant and Conversation   Exodus: The Book of Redemption,  13-14 (Maggid Books 2010).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Moses and the Stone Tablets - Inspiration from Below

Exodus 34:1 states:  "Carve out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke."    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks finds great meaning here:

Hence the paradox: the first tablets, made by God, did not remain intact. The second tablets, the joint work of God and Moses, did. Surely the opposite should have been true: the greater the holiness, the more eternal. Why was the more holy object broken while the less holy stayed whole? This is not, as it might seem, a question specific to the tablets. It is, in fact, a powerful example of a fundamental principle in Jewish spirituality. The Jewish mystics distinguished between two types of divine-human encounter. They called them itaruta de’l’eylah and itaruta de’letata, respectively “an awakening from above” and “an awakening from below.” The first is initiated by God, the second by mankind. An “awakening from above” is spectacular, supernatural, an event that bursts through the chains of causality that at other times bind the natural world. An “awakening from below” has no such grandeur.  It is a gesture that is human, all too human.

Yet there is another difference between them, in the opposite direction. An “awakening from above” may change nature, but it does not, in and of itself, change human nature. In it, no human effort has been expended. Those to whom it happens are passive. While it lasts, it is overwhelming; but only while it lasts. Thereafter, people revert to what they were. An “awakening from below,” by contrast, leaves a permanent mark. Because human beings have taken the initiative, something in them changes. Their horizons of possibility have been expanded. They now know they are capable of great things, and because they did so once, they are aware that they can do so again. An awakening from above temporarily transforms the external world; an awakening from below permanently transforms our internal world. The first changes the universe; the second changes us.

Jonathan Sacks,  Covenant and Conversation   Exodus: The Book of Redemption,  271-272 (footnotes omitted)  (Maggid Books 2010).

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Isaiah 53 - Surprised by God

The Torah, and especially the  Book of Leviticus and its teaching on the many kinds of sacrifices for sin,  prepares the mind for the servant's  offering of vicarious suffering in Is. 53. The Akedah, or "Binding of Isaac," in Gen. 22: 1-19  where Abraham, at the command of God, takes his son, Isaac, to be offered as a sacrifice is a very mysterious foreshadowing  of the kind of  sacrificial offering offered by the Is. 53 servant, although God put a stop to the sacrifice of Isaac, as a clear statement against the horrific practice of human sacrifice in pagan religion.  The writer of Is. 53 may be alluding to this previous scripture, but the offering of suffering by the servant in Is. 53 still comes as a shock.     

I have been studying Isaiah chapters 40-66 for Lent, and now I am in the middle of this amazing chapter 53.   At verses 4-5 we read: "Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted, But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed."   New American Bible. Is. 53:4-5.  As stated in the New American Bible notes, "One notes the element of surprise, for such vicarious suffering, in the form described here, is without parallel in the Old Testament."   New American Bible. Is. 53:4 (note).   Because these footnotes to chapter 53 clearly put this offering in the context of OT teaching as a whole, I will quote them in part here: 

* [53:4] Struck down by God: the Bible sees suffering as a punishment for sin (e.g., Ps 6:232:15), yet sin sometimes appears to go unpunished and the innocent often suffer (cf. Ps 73; the Book of Job). In the case of the servant, the onlookers initially judge him guilty because of his suffering but, in some way not explained, they come to understand that his sufferings are for the sins of others. One notes the element of surprise, for such vicarious suffering, in the form described here, is without parallel in the Old Testament.
* [53:6] The LORD laid upon him: the servant’s suffering is no accidental or casual matter, but part of God’s plan; see also v. 10. The bystanders’ speculation of v. 4 is verified, but not in the sense intended by them.* [53:1011] Reparation offering: the Hebrew term ’asham is used of a particular kind of sacrifice, one that is intended as compensation for that which is due because of guilt. See Lv 5:1426 and note. Justify: the verb means “to be acquitted,” “declared innocent,” but since the servant bears “their iniquity,” an effective rather than simply legal action is suggested.

 New American Bible. Is. 53 (notes).

Monday, February 16, 2015

Messiah Primer - History of the Idea

The Messiah (Hebr., "Ha-Mashiaḥ"; Aramaic, "Meshiḥa" = "anointed one") is the  title of  the ideal king of the Messianic age.   Check the the Jewish Encycloclopedia's online article at http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10729-messiah#anchor4       
Temple Mount - Credit Wikipedia Commons 
It is an excellent primer on the history of this idea.  But for those who want a quick glance from a Jewish perspective  at the history of the idea of the Messiah right up to the present, this article from jewishvirtuallibrary.org is a great read: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/messiah.html


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Law of the Altar - No Stairway to Heaven

Exodus 20: 22-26 in the NRSV  says this:

22 The Lord said to Moses: Thus you shall say to the Israelites: “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. 23 You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24 You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.25 But if you make for me an altar of stone, do not build it of hewn stones; for if you use a chisel upon it you profane it. 26 You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”

Exodus 20: 22-26 (NRSV).   Lawyers are fascinated by specific rules which come from general rules (key ideas).   The key idea  is that there shall be no idolatry.  Here in verses 22-26 is a case law application of that.  The law prohibiting idols applies  as God’s people,  who are  out in the wilderness before there was a temple,   address this issue:  How do you build an altar?  God tells them  not to make gods (images) of silver or gold and,  as I read verse 24,  not to put  silver or gold into their altars.  And, they are not to use “hewn stones” or use a chisel,  and may not have a stairway to the altar.  

            Avoiding silver and gold is simple advice to keep the people from building  idolatrous structures and images.   But why avoid the hewn stone, the chisel and the stairway?  Iain D. Campbell offers these helpful comments:

An altar is a place of sacrifice and worship. God is to be worshipped only in the way that he demands and requires. He forbids idols of silver or gold to be crafted, because he is a spirit. His altar must be made either of earth or of uncarved stones, and there must be no elaborate stairway or step up to the altar. The emphasis is on simplicity, plainness and earthboundness.

Iain D. Campbell,  Opening Up Exodus (Day One Publications 2006).

            Verse 26 states,  “You shall not go up by steps to my altar, so that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.”   Sarna’s comment shows that this is a statement against pagan rituals and against connecting worship with sex: 

The altar must be so designed as to permit access to it with suitable propriety. This contrasts with many scenes in ancient Near Eastern art that feature priests officiating in the nude. Ritual nudity is a phenomenon known to many religions. It is symbolically associated with both death and rebirth, and it also has a variety of magical uses.  The instruction is clearly intended for the layman at a private altar ….

Nahum Sarna,   The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus שמות (Jewish Publication Society, 1991) (also explaining that this is directed at laymen at a private altar, not priests, because priests had linen clothing which covered up nakedness). 

            The worship of God must be pure and simple, and have no connection with sex.  God is a spirit, and as Sarna says, “God is content with a simple earthen altar and requires no elaborate structure.” 

            I have titled this post, "Law of the Altar," but Exodus 20:22-26 is much more than law.  Verse 22 says in part:  “You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven."  This whole section, verses 22-26,  expresses the idea  that when God speaks from heaven he is making a momentous statement about himself, and about what he expects.   By communicating through his voice rather than from some visual image, God makes a statement that he is above all gods.   The people experience the voice, and that's a spiritual experience which radically opposes the idolatrous spirituality which the people knew from life in Egypt where they worshiped man (Pharaoh) and animals, and  earthly places and things,   The voice from heaven naturally leads to the law of the altar.  The voice is a statement against idolatry, and the law of the altar flows out from that.

            This scripture opens up huge areas for application today, which are beyond the scope of this post.  But one thing can be said:  We have just as many idolatrous forces in our world as they had in the days of Moses.   This scripture at verse 24 teaches that God "will come to you and bless you," but this promise of blessing assumes that the person seeking God has made the right disconnections from these other forces.