Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hypocritical American Ideals

In his book, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, Os Guinness concludes his thoughts about America under judgment:
   As I said and will say again, America stands before the world today under the judgment of her own ideals. Again and again it is Montesquieu and Madison, rather than Marx and Muhammad, whose principles boomerang back on America in world reactions to America's superpower actions. As I have heard argued by foreign admirers of the U.S. Constitution at universities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, it is hypocritical for Americans to pride themselves on checks and balances at home but to ride roughshod over international opinion, institutions, laws and other checks and balances abroad, or to talk of free-market capitalism and impose it on others in a coerced, lopsided manner favorable only to American corporations and investors.

   ...Ironically, American liberals and radicals who attack American aggression abroad often espouse the same negative view of freedom at home that they deplore abroad. In fact, what unites an otherwise disparate group that would include most liberals, almost all libertarians and most postmodern radicals is that freedom is largely a question of escaping the power of others over them. It is all about dismantling the structures of oppression and liberating the victim. 
  ...But then we are back to the core conundrum of freedom. Freedom requires a framework of order, which means restraint, yet the only restraint proper to freedom is self-restraint, which freedom undermines. 
   Whatever positions we take on such issues, these old debates about freedom are a valuable corrective to naivety and utopianism. The passion for freedom is simple and strong, but freedom itself is subtle, complex and demanding. Its defense is never simple and easy, never a matter of arms alone. While the world still turns and the boot of the powerful still grinds into the faces of the weak and poor, the human cry for freedom will never be silenced and the bell of freedom will always ring out along with the cries of suffering and anger. 
   Equally, cries for justice and for order will always blend with cries for freedom, and it will always be harder to be free than not to be free. Freedom's work is never alone and never done, which is why the founders' confidence in the prospect of a freedom that could remain free forever is so audacious and so deserving of greater attention than it is given by a free people grown complacent through the privileges of freedom.1

1.  Os Guinness, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2012] pp. 67-68

Two Concepts of Liberty

Commenting on Isaiah Berlin's four famous essays on liberty, but particularly his 1958 lecture titled "Two Concepts of Liberty," Os Guinness makes a few interesting observations:

Negative freedom, as Berlin defines it, is freedom from--in essence, freedom from interference and constraint. Positive freedom is freedom for--in essence, freedom for excellence according to whatever vision and ideals define that excellence. 
...[I]n reality the choice between the two freedoms in never either/or. Negative and positive freedoms can be distinguished in theory, but if true freedom is to flourish, they must never be divorced in practice. Indeed, one of the most difficult challenges of the modern world is to create societies that allow diverse faiths and ideologies to have the maximum of both positive and negative freedoms for each faith and ideology. No nation has so far achieved full success in this test, though some have done better than others.  
For one thing, neither positive nor negative freedom is complete without the other. They each describe complementary sides of the same full freedom, which always rests on two conditions: the complete absence of any abuse of power, which is the essence of positive freedom. In a free society understood in this way, free citizens are neither prevented from doing what they should (the denial of positive freedom) no forced to do what they shouldn't (the denial of negative freedom).1

1.  Os Guinness, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2012] pp. 61-61

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Matthew's List of the Twelve

And [Jesus] called to himself twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. The names of the twelve apostles are these:
First, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;
Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector
James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:1-4)

There are a number of interesting features concerning Matthew's list of "The Twelve." If we limit ourselves to Matthew's narrative alone, we only learn a handful of relevant facts which aid our understanding of the discourse which follows:

1)  Jesus called twelve existing disciples to himself, and he did so for a purpose which was more special than their previous position as "disciples." He called them to himself to "give them authority." He called them to himself to delegate authority to them, not to empty himself of authority or to transfer his own authority to others. 

2)  These "twelve" were men. I know this chides with the spirit of our age and it's acceptance/tolerance of "biblical feminism," but it's a matter of historical fact. Jesus chose twelve males to represent him, not twelve females. Make of that what you will. I'm merely stating what was most obviously Jesus' desire for those who represent him before others. He could have chosen a woman. He could have chosen twelve women. Instead, he chose no women whatsoever.

3)  These "twelve" men were given authority by Jesus to do the things He had been doing previously, namely casting unclean spirits out of people to heal various diseases and burdens which caused suffering. 

4)  These "twelve" are not simply "disciples"; they are now "apostles." As apostles, these men have been chosen as new rulers for and representatives of the people of Israel on behalf of Jesus, the King of Israel. They have been selected and called to represent the twelve tribes of Israel on behalf of Jesus and to "spy" out the land for giants and enemies of Yahweh, and to bring healing and restoration to those in want and need.

5)  The "first" of these twelve apostles is Simon, whose nickname was "Rocky." In Greek, the name "Peter" literally means "a Stone," along with its adjectival meaning of "Rocky" or "Stoney." Simon is always mentioned first on the lists of the twelve apostles (Mark 3:16ff., Luke 6:14ff., Acts 1:13ff.) most likely because he was considered a leader among all twelve. This doesn't mean that he was the leader -- the one and only sovereign arbiter over all twelve (or even the Christian churches). But it does clearly infer that Peter was known to be a leader among the twelve. In other words, this "Rocky" apostle had characteristics of one who functions as a leader. This shouldn't surprise us if we are familiar with the gospel narratives. All throughout the gospels, Peter is vividly portrayed as the most inquisitive and outspoken disciple, as well as the most ambitious one, the most confident one, and the one who takes the initiative most often before anyone else. Even with all of Peter's legitimate weaknesses -- weaknesses of spiritual blindness and vulnerability, doubt and skepticism, impetuous speech and zeal -- the Lord used them all to eventually shape him into a strong, mature leader of the faith. We should never forget that we often attribute faithlessness to Peter because of common misunderstandings. Even at times when Peter seems to be lacking the most faith among Jesus' apostles -- times like when he attempted to walk on water and he sank -- he is actually manifesting the characteristics of a leader. Remember, even though Peter attempted to walk on water, and sank, he was the only apostle with enough faith to get out of the boat and try!

6)  Next we learn that some of the apostles are brothers. Simon's (Peter's) brother is Andrew. The apostle John's brother is James. Matthew was "the tax collector" mentioned earlier in chapter nine. Another Simon is listed, and his nickname is given too. He is "the Zealot," or "the zealous one" (not to be confused with the first century anti-Roman terrorist group called "the Zealots").

7)  And last of all, we learn a couple things about Judas Iscariot. The first thing we learn is that Judas was the one who "betrayed" Jesus. Of course, this statement takes two things for granted: first, this Judas would eventually betray Jesus, and that, secondarily, until this man's name pops up again (and the next  time will be in chapter 26), we are supposed to keep his betrayal in the back of our minds.  We are supposed to be considering his ministry among the twelve with suspicion without having to diminish the powerful work of God through him. If the ultimate betrayer of Jesus can cast out demons and heal the sick in the name of Jesus, does that not give us the right to be suspicious about those who claim the same power and authority for themselves today? 

Also, we learn one more thing peculiar to this Judas Iscariot. This Judas is the only one of the twelve which always has his hometown annexed to his name. His "last name" (so to speak) is not Iscariot. Iscariot is simply the way our Bibles translate his surname (i.e. the name which indicates his birthplace and location among the twelve tribes of Israel). Iscariot literally means "a man of Kerioth," which is a town located in the southern portion of Judea about ten miles south of Hebron. In other words, this Judas who betrayed Jesus was from Judea. This has multiple implications for Matthew's Palestinian-Jewish audience. First, this gives the strong impression that this Judas remained intimately connected with his family roots in the land of Judea, it's capital city being Jerusalem. It also might mean that Judas was the only Judean Jew among the twelve. After all, no other apostle is ever listed with his hometown annexed to his name in order to distinguish him from the others. The other gospels also give the strong impression that the other eleven apostles are from the land of Galilee, not Judea.

Ultimately, what this list of "the Twelve Apostles" confirms is that Israel was in need of new rulers and new shepherds to lead them safely into greener pastures; but not some rogue rulers. Israel clearly needed Jesus, but Jesus was becoming burdened with too much responsibility to handle it all himself, and so he delegated rulers to represent him as they went throughout the twelve tribes of Israel to "cast out unclean spirits, healing every disease and every affliction."

Friday, April 5, 2013

Peter Leithart on "Violence"

Peter Leithart ended his lecture on "Violence" at the 2013 Theology Conference (Wheaton College) with these words:
"The Church is called to be the community that is at war with violence. But in many ways we have, ourselves, as christians become complicit with violence.  How many churches oppose U.S. military action ever? How many churches, instead, support the U.S. military and the troops as if it were a sacred duty?   ...We have to ask the uncomfortable and alarming question. Have we become the violent ones and so set ourselves in opposition to the God who hates violence?" 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

America's Nihilism

I recently started reading Os Guinness' new book, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, and so far it is outstanding. Below are some clips from the first chapter which caught my eye:
"...freedom always faces a fundamental moral challenge. Freedom requires order and therefore restraint, yet the only restraint that does not contradict freedom is self-restraint, which is the very thing that freedom undermines when it flourishes. Thus the heart of the problem of freedom is the problem of the heart, because free societies are characterized by restlessness at their core."1 
"America's nihilism of untrammeled freedom has so far been a soft and banal nihilism that flowers and fades harmlessly within the confines of the consumer paradise of the shopping mall, the online catalog, and the video game. ... no one is fully consistent to his or her own philosophy, and there is always a long stretch of the downhill slope from the adolescent stage of soft nihilism to the delinquent and then to the decadent. But such ideas in such a society will always have consequences, and when the causes of disordered freedom also spread to such vital spheres of American society as the government, the economy, law, education, medicine, science and technology, the consequences will at some point become lethal and unstoppable. The gap between the lightning and the thunder may be delayed, but such disordered freedom will one day prove disastrous when taken to the very end. It is literally irrational and irresponsible, for untrammeled freedom has no need to justify itself either by rational criteria or by any moral standard outside itself. It just is, an untrammeled will to power that is self-evident, self-justifying and self-destructive, and a mortal menace to the society that harbors it. The conclusion for American freedom is inescapable. It is not enough to espouse freedom as the essence of America and to keep mouthing its matchless benefits. Freedom must be guarded vigilantly against internal as well as external dangers. However soft and however banal it is, unbounded freedom simply cannot restrain itself by itself..."2

1.  Os Guinness, A Free People's Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future [Downers Grove, Il: IVP Books; 2012], p. 20
2.  Ibid., p. 23

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sheep without a Shepherd

There are two pet peeves of mine concerning reading. One of them is reading something -- a book, an article, the label on the back side of a tasty micro-brew -- with print that is underlined. The other pet peeve is to read something in all-caps (which, I'm told, is like adding emphasis for dummies). I think both styles of writing are obnoxious to read. But in the beginning of this post, and only in the beginning, I am going to operate on a double standard. I am going to peeve someone else by underlining two passages from Matthew's gospel. The reason why I am going to do this is because I don't want anyone to miss out on how exciting underlining can be! Just kidding. The reason why I am doing this is because there are two passages in Matthew's gospel which say the exact same thing, and as I move forward in displaying the literary structure of Matthew's gospel, the underlined information will become important to clearly identify two distinctive parts of the structure. But I PROMISE not to write in all caps. Okay, here we go. 

At the end of chapter nine of Matthew's gospel, we read:
   And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were being harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;  therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”    
   And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.  The names of the twelve apostles are these:  first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;  Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus;  Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. 

There is an interesting pattern set before us by Matthew here in 9:35-10:4. First, Matthew mentions Jesus teaching the gospel of the Kingdom, and that is immediately followed by healing. Remember this pattern: first teaching, then healing. After Jesus teaches and heals, Matthew tells us that Jesus calls twelve disciples to follow him and help him teach and heal. 

Compare this order of events with Matthew 4:18-25, where we find the first mention of Jesus teaching and healing in Matthew's gospel: 

   While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called themImmediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
   And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.  So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. 

Notice carefully that the order of events which begins in chapter 4:18-25 is reversed in 9:35-10:4. At the end of chapter four, Jesus first calls a few disciples, then afterward he teaches and heals. At the end of chapter nine, Jesus teaches and heals, then afterward he calls disciples. Certainly this structure is not accidental. And amazingly, this is also the pattern we find between the end of chapters four and nine. After we are told that Jesus "went throughout all" the land in chapter four, we find Matthew filling up two very large chunks of his gospel with teaching and healing. First he ascends a Mountain to give Israel the Law (in chapters 5-7) to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom (i.e. the "Sermon on the Mount"), followed by ten miraculous narratives (in chapters 8-9). Notice the structure below:

A)  Jesus calls four disciples  (4:18-25)
   B)  Jesus teaches and then heals throughout all Israel  (4:23-25)
      C)  Teaching (Discourse):  Sermon on the Mount  (5:1-7:27)
         D) Jesus' authority is greater than the rulers of Israel  (7:28-29)
      C’)  Healing (Narrative): 10 miracles  (8:1-9:34)
   B’)  Jesus teaches and then heals throughout all Israel  (9:35-38)
A’)  Jesus calls twelve disciples  (10:1-4)

Notice carefully that the structure of two central sections describe Jesus teaching first (C), followed by Jesus healing (C'), just as Matthew notes at the end of chapters four (B) and nine (B'). Sandwiched between these two major chunks of teaching and healing is a statement about Jesus being greater than the rulers of Israel (D):
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their Scribes.
This remarkable record of Matthew is highlighting exactly what we've been seeing as the central problem throughout the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It even highlights why the people of Israel flock to Jesus. Israel is in a state of spiritual wandering and they know it. They know it because so much of what they have been taught about the gospel of God's Kingdom by the Scribes and Pharisees is wrong when compared with the authoritative teaching of Jesus. The Scribes teach with man-made authority -- authority that misleads, ensnares, and ultimately devours the people of God. While the people wander through the spiritual desert-land of Israel, the teaching of Jesus exposes the true nature of their rulers. What we see is that their own rulers act more like wolves and serpents than shepherds of sheep. Like serpents, they have a "wisdom" that is cunning (10:16), but their doctrines are venomous, wounding even the most harmless and innocent disciples; like wolves, they are hostile towards the truth of God's Shepherd, and so they harass and devour His sheep when he's not around. 

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned his disciples that more leaders would arise among them "in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves." And the only way to distinguish them among the flock would be "by their fruits" (7:15). But the good news of these passages is that Jesus has already come as the Good Shepherd of Israel. He has come to protect the flock of Israel from false prophets in this desert-land by tearing the sheepskin off wolves and crushing the heads of serpents. Jesus has come to Israel to bring healing to God's sheep by leading them out of the wilderness and into His promised Kingdom. He has come to show compassion upon the flock of Israel because they were "being harassed and helpless" (9:36) when left to themselves in the wilderness. When left to themselves, they were, as Matthew explicitly identifies, "sheep without a shepherd" (9:36). 

Interestingly, this description of Israel as "sheep without a shepherd" is exactly what Moses did not want the people to become while they were being led through the wilderness and into the promised land (Numbers 27:17). But Israel has nothing to fear because Jesus is leading them. Jesus is the greater Moses, leading Israel out of bondage, out of the wilderness too, and into the promised land of God's Kingdom. The Father has sent His Son, Jesus, to be the Shepherd of Israel and to lead them out of the parched desert land where predators lie in wait to devour His sheep. But instead of finding predators such as literal wolves and serpents, we find Scribes and Pharisees. Without Jesus, the people of Israel would remain exactly where Moses was afraid to leave them during his ministry, namely in a place of helplessness, harm, and potential death. But things are looking well for Israel because the Father has sent His Son into the world as the Good Shepherd, and as we see in Matthew's account, the people are "astonished" (7:28) because he comes with one who has authority, not as one of the Scribes (7:29). 

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Colonizing Earth with the Life of Heaven

  The resurrection stories in the gospels aren't about going to heaven when you die. In fact, there is almost nothing about "going to heaven when you die" in the whole New Testament. Being "citizens of heaven" (Philippians 3:20) doesn't mean you're supposed to end up there. Many of the Philippians were Roman citizens, but Rome didn't want them back when they retired. Their job was to bring Roman culture to Philippi. 
  That's the point that all the gospels actually make, in their own ways. Jesus is risen, therefore God's new world has begun. Jesus is risen, therefore Israel and the world have been redeemed. Jesus is risen, therefore his followers have a new job to do. 
  And what is that new job? To bring the life of heaven to birth in actual, physical, earthly reality. ...The bodily resurrection of Jesus is more than a proof that God performs miracles or that the Bible is true. It is more than the Christians knowing of Jesus in our own experience (that is the truth of Pentecost, not of Easter). It is much, much more than the assurance of heaven after death (Paul speaks of "going away and being with Christ," but his main emphasis is on coming back again in a risen body, to live in God's newborn creation). Jesus' resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about.
  ...When Paul wrote his great resurrection chapter, I Corinthians 15, he didn't end by saying, "So let's celebrate the great future life that awaits us." He ended by saying, "So get on with your work because you know that in the Lord it won't go to waste." ...Every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit, every work of true creativity -- doing justice, making peace, healing families, resisting temptation, seeking and winning true freedom, -- in an earthly event in a long history of things that implement Jesus' own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation and act as signposts of hope, [point] back to the first and on to the second.1

1. N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2008] pp. 293-295