Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advent is for the lowly

During a recent Lessons & Carols event, two passages of Scripture stood out to me: Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:6. At first they stood out to me because they sounded very similar. I thought I was hearing the same thing twice in the same event. But immediately I remembered that Matthew refers to Micah 5:2. That was nothing new to me. What was new to me was its presentation. It had never occurred to me, until recently, that Matthew does not cite Micah 5:2 as another one of his "fulfillment" passages (for example, as he does with the virgin birth citation from Isaiah 7:14). Instead Matthew cites Micah 5:2 in order to teach what the chief priests and scribes of Israel believed. For those who have been following my lengthy series on Matthew's gospel (found here), this is pretty significant when compared with every other mention of Israel's religious rulers in the same gospel. 

To appreciate the significance of this, it's important to recall Micah's prophecy in its original context. Micah 5:1-6 reads as follows:
Now muster your troops, O Daughter of troops! Siege is laid against us! With a rod they strike the judge of Israel on the cheek!
But you, O Bethlehem-Ephrathah, who are too insignificant to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be Ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from days of old. 
Therefore He shall give them up until the time when She who is in labor has given birth; then the remainder of His brothers shall return to the sons of Israel. And He shall stand and shepherd His flock in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God. And they shall remain because now He shall be great to the ends of the earth; and He shall be their peace. This One will be our peace. 
When the Assyrian invades our land, when he tramples on our palaces, then we will raise against him seven shepherds and eight princes of men. They shall shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod at its entrances, and He will deliver us from the Assyrian when He comes into our land and tramples our border.
The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea, whose ministries both decry the moral corruption and ungodly social disorder of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Both prophets pronounce judgment upon them with frightening descriptions as well. In a similar manner, Micah comes to complement their messages. He begins his "book" with the soon-coming judgment upon Samaria, the northern kingdom. Then he moves on to the southern territory, addressing Jerusalem directly. Jerusalem, of course, is the great city of Israel. It's the place where Yahweh dwells in the midst of His people. It's the place where the King of Israel is enthroned above the cherubim. It's the place in which Yahweh built a house for His own name to dwell. It's also the place in which Ahaz, king of Judah, presently reigned during Micah's ministry.  

In Micah 5, Israel is given a charge. That charge is to prepare Daughter Israel for battle against the invading Assyrians. No one knows for sure which particular Assyrian attack this is describing, because there were a few around the same general time, but Zion is nonetheless warned to prepare for suffering as they encroach upon Judah's borders. Daughter Israel is portrayed as vulnerable and She knows She is. The king of Assyria is arrogant, intent on eventually laying siege to Jerusalem, the city of Israel's Great God and King, thereby striking the Judge of Israel on the cheek. Daughter Israel knows this too. It's only a matter of time before the destiny of the northern kingdom becomes the destiny of the southern kingdom. Assyria trampled the northern kingdom under foot, demonstrating how weak and embarrassing their king was. Now Jerusalem is to be assaulted. But will it be destroyed? Will Judah's king (Ahaz) also prove to be embarrassingly weak? That's part of the message of Micah's prophecy, but that's certainly not all. Yahweh promised to raise up a deliverer from this foreign invasion, from those who trample Israel's borders. Yahweh promises to act as their Deliverer and Chief Shepherd, appointing an adequate amount of "under-shepherds" to overthrow their oppressors, establishing peace in the land again. Micah even says that the land of Nimrod, i.e. the land of Assyria during the confusion of Babel before Israel was formed, would be conquered and possessed by Israel because of Yahweh's shepherding deliverance. The fulfillment of this promise is another major part of Micah's message to Israel.

Why then do the chief priests and scribes interpret Micah's prophesy as reaching its fulfillment in their own day (Matt. 2:5-6)? 
They [the chief priests and scribes] told him [Herod], "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 
'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are certainly not the least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel'"

The answer to this question is not as complex as it may seem, and actually has tremendous relevance understanding future portions of Matthew's gospel. But it's also relevant for the way Christians live year after year, commemorating and embodying the message of Advent year after year. 

The first thing I suggest we do is notice the differences between Micah and Matthew's translation of this passage. Micah says that Bethlehem is too insignificant to be among Judah, whereas Matthew says that Bethlehem is certainly not the least among Judah. At face value, it looks like a blatant contradiction. [It also doesn't help that there is no textual tradition to support Matthew's translation. It's unlike both the Hebrew and Greek translations of Micah, and it's not found among other early Jewish writings either.] 

Also, notice carefully that Matthew is not quoting Micah directly, and so whatever translational differences there are between Micah 5:2 and Matthew 2:6, those differences are not between old and new Scritural traditions. Instead I'm going to suggest that Matthew is setting his audience up to notice the difference between the traditions of the religious leaders of Israel and Jesus' leadership over Israel. (In other words, it's not necessary to think that Matthew is adapting Micah's words or inventing history in order to present Jesus as Israel's Messiah.) Matthew's seems to be painting a picture (with words) of what Israel's shepherds and princes believed and taught concerning their promised Messiah. And the more I review the beginning of Matthew's gospel, the more obvious this becomes. The scribes and chief priests are quoting Micah directly as though they believed Israel was still in exile and awaiting Yahweh to finally raise up His great Davidic King from Bethlehem, which Micah described as the "least significant" of all cities among Judah. In their eyes, however, Bethlehem could not certainly be the least among the remnants of Judah because Israel was still in exile, but Bethlehem still remained in Judea even after their return from Babylon. Therefore, instead of buying into the silly notion that Matthew is revising history in order to make Jesus appear to be Israel's Messiah, Matthew is presenting, right from the outset --in broad daylight, as it were-- the most fundamental hope of the chief priests and scribes of Israel who would eventually betray and crucify their Messiah. 

Matthew uses various means to set his audience (us) up to see this. Matthew begins his gospel with a three part genealogy of Israelite rulers, beginning with God's promise to Abraham and the fourteen generations following in his line. He then moves on to the Davidic dynasty and its fourteen generations, upon whose throne Yahweh promised to shepherd his people (as seen also in the quote from Micah above). From that point on, Matthew does something remarkably odd. Matthew begins his last phase of fourteen generations, not with a specific king, but with a specific event. That event was the "deportation to Babylon" (Matt. 1:11-12). He begins a new phase of fourteen exiled princes wherein the promised throne of David's descendants had, in fact, remained eclipsed (Matt. 1:17). This is especially startling in light of this gospel's ending. One might sooner expect the chief priests and scribes, who would eventually betray and crucify Jesus, to interpret Micah's promise of deliverance as fulfilled in Micah's day, or even at the end of the Babylonian captivity. But there is no indication within Matthew's gospel that they ever did change their mind. Instead Matthew paints a picture of Israel's rulers heartening their hearts in the face of their promised King, and King whom they knew, but did not want to acknowledge as true because Jesus stood in opposition to their cherished  idolatrous traditions. 

As an example of how they could have interpreted Micah's message, they could have viewed Hezekiah as the king of Judah appointed by Yahweh to successfully resist Jerusalem's Assyrian oppressors, thereby bringing peace to the land. But Matthew clearly describes the theology and eschatology of Israel's leaders as pointing to some One else, some King beyond the reign of Ahaz and Hezekiah (1:9-10). In Matthew's eyes, the chief priests and scribes have a clearer Messianic picture in mind. They see themselves as the shepherds and princes of an Israel which remained in exile up to their own day. But this too is strange because Israel did return from exile. Long after Hezekiah, Israel did return from the Nimrodic borders of Babylonian exile as prophesied by Micah's contemporaries, and at that time Yahweh did use His own "messiah" (מָשִׁיחַ, "anointed one") and "shepherd," Cyrus by name, to lead another exodus from captivity back to the promised land (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1; II Chron. 36:23). In fact, by the time Matthew wrote his gospel, many Israelites had been living within the land of Judea for a long time because of what Cyrus, their "messiah" and "shepherd," had done. If Cyrus had not conquered the territory of Assyria and Babylon, the people of Israel would not have been worshipping Yahweh in the temple Herod had built for them in Jerusalem! Shouldn't that "messiah" and "shepherd" have been a possible (if not likely) interpretation of Israel's scribes and chief priests when confronted with incarnation of Jesus Christ?

Matthew's gospel teaches us that during Israel's advent the religious leaders didn't think so. Matthew's gospel also implies that they had a great amount of confidence in their own eschatological role too, not unlike many fundamentalist Christians today, who view themselves as the only "true" shepherds and rulers of God's people while, at the same time, imposing ungodly traditions of their own (allegedly from the Bible too) and persecuting those who challenge their long-established traditions. 

If it is true that the scribes and chief priests believed Bethlehem was certainly not the least among the clans of Judah because Israel's kingly "messiah" would arise from there, this means the people of Israel learned to anticipate this as well. In fact, all throughout Matthew's gospel Jesus is correcting and critiquing the teaching of Israel's shepherds --the scribes, Pharisees, and chief priests--  because the people of Israel were lost according to their directions. As it was during the days of Ahaz, the rulers of Israel in Jesus' day were thoroughly corrupt, embarrassingly weak, and ripe for God's visitation. No doubt the rulers of Israel believed and taught the message of expanding conquest, victory, and peace as promised by Micah, but Matthew presents their faith as being unable to let go of one caveat: they, and no one else, would be the ones with adequate faithfulness to identify Israel's Messiah. They certainly believed Yahweh would raise up a king from Bethlehem to deliver them from exile again, making it out to be a very significant clan among Judah. However, they considered themselves to be the faithful "under-shepherds" of Yahweh, and any king arising from Bethlehem would need to be on their side, following their standards of faithfulness to Yahweh, drawing near with sacrifices in their temple.

If what I suspect is accurate, this has many implications for Christians today, not the least of which is learning the important lesson of history that kings of nations and bible-leaders rise and fall, many times believing important truths about God along the way too, but none of them ever match up to the faithfulness of Jesus the Christ, the second Adam, who reversed the order of rising and falling by taking upon himself the likeness of sinful flesh in order to fall and then rise again. And unlike the first Adam, whose descendants perish under the old creation, Jesus took the fall upon himself so that a new creation could rise with him. 

Another important lesson we learn is that God is faithful to the promises of His expanding conquest, victory, and peace, even when ungodly rulers attempt their own conquest and promote their own idolatrous gospel of peace. Our Lord's message through the prophet Micah isn't that much different from the message of Matthew's gospel, nor is the opposition they received. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, whether people like His rule or not, and Christians should find hope and comfort in that reality. 

We also learn from this that God can and does raise up rulers who are faithful to Him --rulers like Hezekiah and Cyrus-- even though all of them will fail at some point, in some way. Once upon a time the chief priests and scribes of Israel were faithful, but eventually became full of their own traditional faithfulness. Then God raised up many faithful rulers to follow Jesus, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He commanded them. The fact that God remains faithful even when previously appointed rulers no longer are, should not discourage us. When our rulers are leading Gods people astray, provoking the Lord's wrath, all of that is still according to Gods promise. Everything is still right on schedule even when we, His people, need to repent of our sins, turn away from our cherished idols and back toward Him. 

These perspectives are essential to understanding Advent. Advent is not for the high and mighty, self-righteous, self-appointed under-shepherds whose savior dons the same wide phylacteries as they do. Rather, the season of Advent is for the lowly who acknowledge their need for Jesus to be their deliverer. Advent is for the lowly who want Jesus enthroned over all, invading all the Nimrodic entrances and toppling all Babelic towers which attempt to reach the heavens without Him. Advent is not for pietistic and cowardly kings like Ahaz or for arrogant and confident ambassadors like Assyria's Rabshekah. Rather, the season of Advent is for the Hezekiah's and David's who understand that Yahweh's name will most certainly be great to the ends of the earth, so that He will be their peace. Advent is for the lowly, like the disciples of Jesus who reformed their lives, put away their idols, gave up everything prized among the proud, sold their landed inheritance, and held all things in common so they could distribute to the poor and persecuted brethren among them. Advent is for the lowly who carry a cross and follow Jesus wherever He leads, even if that means storming the very gates of Hell. Advent is for the lowly in God's sight. The lower a sinner recognizes himself to be the greater glory there is for the Christ who saves him. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Peter Leithart on the Parables of Matthew 13

Peter Leithart, president of the Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical, and Cultural Studies, has recently posted an article on the Trinity House blog about the parables of Matthew chapter 13. My hope is that his insights will help us probe even deeper into appreciating the parables of Matthew's gospel in their original historical context, as well as help supplement (and justify) much of my own exegesis of Matthew's gospel. My blog posts on the parables of Matthew 13 can be viewed here. The link to Leithart's post on the parables of Matthew thirteen can be found here.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Cultivating the Kingdom (Matt. 13:24-43)

Continuing where we left off in this series, we arrive at the next section of Matthew chapter thirteen's literary structure (as found here in layout #2). Jesus begins this next section with three parables about cultivating the kingdom (verses 24-33). The first parable describes weeds, or "tares" according to the KJV (v. 24-30). The second parable describes a mustard seed (v. 31-32). The third parable describes leaven (v. 33). All of these parables are about "the kingdom of heaven," which I discussed in detail in an earlier post (here). 

The first thing of interest to us should be the difference between the parable of the Sower (in the previous section) and this parable of the weeds. In the parable of the Sower, the seed sown is the "word of the kingdom" (v. 19), but in the parable of the weeds the seeds are "the sons of the Kingdom" (v. 38). The parable of the Sower transitions from sowing the message of Christ's kingdom on earth to his disciples cultivating that message in the world.  

In the parable of the weeds, seeds are sown within the Sower's field. When the crop starts bearing fruitfulness the Sower's servants come to him and ask where the weeds come from. His answer is that an enemy had done so. However, in order to preserve the fruit from his sowing, both wheat and weeds are then left to grow together until harvest time. 

In verses 36-43 (section C2) Jesus explains to his disciples what this imagery is all about. The one sowing the seeds is the Son of Man, Jesus (12:37; cf.  8:20; 9:6; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8, 32, 40). The seeds are Christ-following Israelites, the children of the Kingdom (v. 38). The enemy planting weeds is Christ's adversary, Satan. The harvest, contrary to modern eschatological daydreams, is not at the end of the physical universe or the end-times of global human history. The harvest is "the end of the age" (v. 39). The age referred to here is the age in which Jesus' disciples lived, the end of the age in which the old covenant was administered, the end of the age in which heaven and earth met together in a Temple in Judea. The reapers of this harvest are said to be "angels," messengers commissioned from above to administer the Lord's sentence upon evildoers, gathering out of the kingdom "all causes of sin and all law-breakers" (vv. 39-41). The destiny of such law-breakers is the fiery-furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 42). The righteous, however, will fulfill the prophecy of end times described in Daniel 12:3. They will "shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Matt. 13:43). "Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness in the heavenly-expanse (Hebrew, raqia)... like the stars forever and ever" (Dan. 12:3; cf. raqia in Gen. 1:6-8, 14-17).

The next two parables about the mustard seed and leaven follow along this same trajectory. "The Kingdom of Heaven," Jesus says, is "like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field." The Kingdom of heaven grows incredibly large, larger than all the garden plants, extending even to the point in which others are attracted to it, like birds of the air which come and nest at home in its branches (v. 31-32). The Kingdom of Heaven is also said to be "like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened" (v. 33). Three measures (Greek, saton) of flour is about thirty liters of flour, which implies that an astonishingly immense bread-baking operation is about to take place in the Kingdom of Heaven. If the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven hid inside this immense amount of flour, the most obvious implication of this Kingdom coming near is its subsequent rise in proportion to the immensity of the flour itself. The Kingdom of Heaven may start out out small, but when it leavens this mountain of seeds ground into flour the Lord will have prepared enough bread to feed the world.    

In verses 34-35 (section B2) Matthew explains why Jesus spoke to the crowds in nothing but parables. Matthew says, 
This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: 
"I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world."
This quotation comes from Psalm 78:2, a Psalm that reviews much of Israel's exodus, especially Yahweh's faithfulness to his covenant through every act of Israel's stubborn rebellion during that exodus. Psalm 78 says that Yahweh established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a Law in Israel, which He commanded their fathers to teach to their children, so that generation after generation would set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments (Ps. 78:5-7). But Israel repeatedly rebells against Yahweh, testing Him and acting treacherously toward Him (vv. 56-57). They did not keep Yahweh's covenant, and refused to walk according to His Law. They forgot His works and even the wonders He has shown them (vv. 10-11). But instead of utterly casting off Israel altogether, Yahweh shows them loyal love, generation after generation. Yet they sinned still more against Him (v. 11). They did not believe in Yahweh or trust His saving power (v. 22). Therefore that generation died in the wilderness at Yahweh's hand (v. 31). Only when Yahweh killed them did others among them seek Him earnestly (v. 34). But even still, their heart was not steadfast toward Him. They flattered Him with their mouths and lied to him with their tongues (vv. 36-37). Yet Yahweh, being compassionate, atoned for their iniquity and did not destroy them all. He restrained His anger often and did not stir up all His wrath (v. 38). Instead he chose the mustard grain-sized tribe of Judah and built His sanctuary-kingdom there, a sanctuary wherein the "high heavens" and earth would meet (vv. 68-69). He also chose David His servant and took him from the sheepfolds to guide them with his skillful hand (vv. 70-72). It is all of this which Matthew quotes from, saying that Jesus' parables to the crowds of Israel fulfill the parabolic history of Israel presented in this Psalm. Its as though the people of Israel are again about to go through another exodus, led by the Son of David. 

Up to this point in Matthew's gospel, the sheep of the house of Israel are lost and perishing because of the corrupt leadership in Israel. In chapter thirteen, Jesus is presented as the greater son of David, the greater Solomon, to guide Israel with his skillful hand, even speaking wisdom to them in parables. But to begin to know Wisdom, and to understand His words of insight and His proverbs about the exodus awaiting that generation, they must fear the Lord (Prov. 1:1-7; 9:10). Only fools would despise such wisdom and instruction. Like Israel under Solomon's reign, the crowds of Jews before Jesus are instructed in parables--parables which describe the end of that age, the generation in which Israel lived at that time. Wisdom incarnate is presented before their very eyes, uttering parables out of His mouth, and that message is nothing new to the Israel of faith. Interestingly the Masoretic (Hebrew) text of Psalm 78 says that Yahweh speaks parables to Israel about those things which they have heard and known, and their fathers had told them. Matthew quotes from the Septuagint (Greek) text of Psalm 78 instead, paraphrasing it a bit too, and he describes Yahweh speaking parabolically about what has been hidden from the foundation of the world. What's the deal? Has Israel heard and known the wisdom of Yahweh revealed in this Psalm, or has it been hidden from them since the beginning? 

In a sense, both are true, because not all of Israel is the Israel of faith. All are God's covenant people, but not all of Israel was faithful and obedient to God's covenant. But perhaps Matthew is paraphrasing Psalm 78 to refer to the Kingdom of Heaven near to Israel in the days of Jesus. That kingdom would incorporate all nations through the seed-sowing of faithful Israelites. Israel had heard and known, and their fathers had told them, but Jesus was forming a new Israel for himself, a new Israel which incorporated Gentiles that had Wisdom hidden from them since the foundation of the world. 

By speaking in parables, Jesus leaves his Jewish audience with proverbs to ponder. Would they too flatter Him with their mouths and lie to him with their tongues? Would they too forget His works and the miracles He showed them? 

Jesus, being compassionate, would atone for their iniquity and would not destroy that entire generation. He would give Israel 40 years to repent before destroying their city and their precious temple, thereby ending the old covenant administration. Only the fools who despised Wisdom would be destroyed. But among the mustard grain-sized seed which feared the Lord, would there be an immense growth. The Lord would tabernacle in the midst of those people and there, in Him, heaven and earth would meet.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The flame of Yah

Out of all the laws of God, the Law's requirement to love is most radical. Love embraces the impoverished, widow, fatherless, and orphans. Love cares for the downtrodden, helpless, destitute, and oppressed. Love supports the weak, encourages the disadvantaged, and protects the vulnerable. 
Love is more willing to give than we are to receive. Love is also not blind. Loves sees sin and covers its multitude. Love sees frailty and brokenness but then strives to piece it back together. Loves see idolatry and removes its high places. Love sees darkness and dispels it with light. Love doesn't just live until death parts it. Love conquers through death, for love is as strong as death, and it's jealousy as unrelenting as Sheol. Its flames are flashes of fire, the very flame of Yahweh, fueled from above by the baptism of spirit and water; fed down below at a table of bread and wine.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thankful for Turkey Day

Everyone is preparing for Turkey Day, the great day of "Thanksgiving." But not everyone is thankful. In part this is because not everyone knows what to be thankful for. What's so special about this holiday, some might ask? Why this day, as apposed to some other day? And why should I care? Some don't even go that far, connecting thankfulness with the holiday itself, partly because they've never been taught the historical significance behind the official holiday, but also because the history is meaningless to them anyway. For many American families, the children have been raised their whole life in an environment of unthankfulness and bitterness, so Turkey Day has become just another day to remain consistent with their upbringing. Other than having a day off work with holiday pay, life sucks, so why be thankful? Eat, drink, and be merry about the holiday pay, but let thankfulness to God remain an expendable option. People like this have been raised to be dirty, so the last thing they want is a holiday commemorating their need for a bath, and a house-party full of people expressing their thankfulness to Jesus for soap.

The major problem with unthankful people lies in the human heart. The fact that they don't want to give thanks at all is very telling. At best they just want to be left to themselves, laying quietly in the coffin of their own selfishness. At worst they want to be given thanks. They want attention, but they want most of it, or, at least to be the center of it. They want to be coddled, petted, and admired.

The apostle Paul had a name for people like this. He called them fools. In Romans 1:21 Paul describes the unbelieving, unrighteous landscape of mankind as knowing the living and true God (gnontes ton theon), while choosing to neither honor Him nor give Him thanks. Such thanklessness is foolish. Such thanklessness is also sin. But this is also nothing new to the history of fallen humanity, which is why Thanksgiving Day has transformed into Turkey Day over the last century. Sure, Turkey Day is still a day of feasting and celebration for many people, but many of them are not giving thanks to God, which is what this Thanksgiving holiday was originally about. Fast-forward 200 plus years and "Thanksgiving" has become a celebration and feast to America's god: their belly; their altar: a kitchen table (or couch); their sacrifice: a steaming turkey.

Like Israel of old, people feast in the Lord's courtyard and go through the motions of worship, offering one turkey after another. Burnt offerings are continually before Yahweh, as though that's what He really desires (Psalm 50:8). But there is a remedy for all of this. There is a remedy for all of the foolish, ignorant, selfish, unbelieving festivity which exchanges the truth of God for a lie. That remedy is prescribed by God too, part of which is offered to us in Romans 1, and another part is offered in Psalm 50.

After Paul describes the fool of Romans 1, he concludes with a comment about why God gives such fools over to greater foolishness. It's because "they did not see fit to acknowledge God" (Rom 1:21). In other words, they placed themselves in the seat of judgment, determining Gods worthiness to receive thanks. They determined God's thank-worthiness. Much like Israel of old, God graciously delivered people from bondage and blessed them to the point of maintaining an annual celebration of thanksgiving, rendering unto Him their sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection, for His signal and manifold mercies, for the favorable interpositions of His providence, and for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which they had enjoyed and He provided. The great fault of people of all ages --among Israel, those in Paul's day, and even up to our own day-- is that we place ourselves in the throne of God, judging Him to be worthy of our thanks. Far too often we think of God as one of us (Psa. 50:21). This is a sin which the people of this land need to repent of, for even when we give God thanks, if we are the ones remaining in the seat of judgment, seeing if God is fit to receive our expression of thankfulness, we're off at the wrong start.

Another part of the remedy is in Psalm 50. This Psalm is about covenant renewal, and it describes all the people together sacrificing to Yahweh in his courts, very much like people do today across America today on their holy-days ("holidays"). Among many of those who gave thanks to "god," much of it was mere lip-service. God the confronted them, describing their life this way:
You hate discipline. You cast My words behind you. If you see a thief, you're not bothered by him, and the same is true with your company of adulterers too. You give your mouth free reign to speak evil things, and your mouth frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother. You even slander your own mother's son! You've done all these things while I watched silently. You thought that I was one like yourself. (Psa. 50:17-21) 

He then says to them:
The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies Me. To the one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God.
Earlier in the same Psalm, this was said as well:
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and perform your vows to the Most High...

Striving to maintain a day of "Thanksgiving" in a faithless and Godless culture is like trying to shepherd the wind. It's futile and fleeting in a world that is faithless and Godless. And by Godless I mean Christless. What this Christless world needs is true thanksgiving, a giving of self that performs vows, a giving of thanks from one who orders his way rightly. What this world needs is Jesus Christ, who modeled the perfect giving of thanks in a thankless world. Jesus performed every vow faithfully to his Father, and he gave thanks. Jesus ordered his way rightly, and he gave thanks. After ordering his way rightly, and after paying all his vows, Jesus then gives himself as a thank-offering. In contrast with a world whose god is their belly, Jesus emptied himself and took upon himself the form of a servant, humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:7-8). For that reason God highly exalted Jesus and bestowed upon him a name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The Church therefore celebrates this thank-offering of Jesus in weekly eucharist, weekly "thanks-giving" (which is what eucharist means in Greek: to give thanks). In turn the weekly eucharist, ordered rightly, prepares the body of Christ to give thanks to God in all times and places, especially in those times and places where a national holiday of thanksgiving to God is commemorated. 

So, if you want to give thanks to God this holiday, here's where people should start. Start by remembering that Advent season begins three days after Thanksgiving Day. Continue that thought with humble adoration of the Son of God who lived and died and rose from death to life for you. After that, keep in mind that the Son of God became man to enable men like you to become sons of God. Acknowledge that your Father in Heaven has placed His Son upon the seat of judgment, not you, and be thankful for that. Be thankful that as sons, your Heavenly Father is more willing to give than you are willing to receive. Be thankful that as sons, your Heavenly Father graciously and repeatedly calls you to renew your covenant with Him, so you can perform your vows; so you can order your way rightly before Him. Don't just eat turkey and say 'thanks.' Render unto Him their sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection, for His signal and manifold mercies, for the favorable interpositions of His providence, and for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which you have enjoyed--that He provided. These are the things which were publicly acknowledged by George Washington, President of these United States of America, on the first national Thanksgiving celebration, issued October 3rd, 1789. That public address can be read here

Be thankful for turkey, and be thankful for holiday pay, but prove that thankfulness of yours to Jesus Christ by cleaning up your life, fearing God, paying your vows to Him, and trusting that He is more willing to give than you are to receive. Repent of whatever unwillingness to receive there may be on your part, but then thank Him for His willingness to give even more still. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your path. 

Thanksgiving Day Address

The very first national thanksgiving celebration issued October 3rd, 1789, by George Washington was as follows: 

Whereas, it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge Providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor; and, whereas, both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me 'to recommend to the public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness;'
Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the twenty-sixth day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the Beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country, previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of His providence, in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors, which He has been pleased to confer upon us.
And, also, that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science, among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best. Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

Citation is from William J. Johnson, George Washington the Christian [Abingdon Press: NY; 1919], pp. 173-174; See also Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington; Vol. XII, 1834; p. 119.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Book Review: Through New Eyes, By James B. Jordan

Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend of mine once described James Jordan's Through New Eyes as a book which teaches how to eat, drink, and dream in a language called "Bible." After reading this book a couple of times, I find myself agreeing with that opinion. Scarcely a month goes by when I don't peek into this book to see what Jordan said about a given passage or symbol in Scripture. Even in significant areas where I once disagreed with Jordan’s interpretation, I find myself agreeing more and more as long as I continue to immerse myself in the text of the Bible itself. For that very reason, I commend Jordan for his ambitious attempt to teach the language of the Bible from the Bible itself.

Jordan divides this book into four parts: 1) The nature of the world, 2) The features of the world, 3) The transformation of the world, and 4) The movement of history. The first part is an attempt to clarify not only how Christians ought to view the Scriptures, but how Christians ought to view the world in which they live. For Jordan, one major key to viewing the world properly has been missing among Christian scholarship in the 20th century, and that is the need for viewing the world (inside and outside of the Bible) as a fundamentally symbolic creation. Because creation as a whole is fundamentally symbolic, the theological point of the Scriptures is not to reduce the data about the world contained therein to a mere set of ideas, but rather to reveal who God is; and God has revealed Himself in a world of symbolism.

In this first part, Jordan demonstrates that through the lens of Scripture the purpose of the world is two-fold: first, it reveals God (p. 20). Secondarily, and just as important, its purpose is also to reveal man (p. 25). “All of this can be boiled down to a simple fact:” Jordan writes, “The universe and everything in it symbolizes God. That is, the universe and everything in it points to God” (p. 23). Following this “simple fact,” Jordan concludes: “it inescapably follows that just as the world symbolizes God, so also the world must symbolize man, the image of God.” (p. 26).

The second part is an attempt to answer why God created mountains, rivers, seas, wildernesses, men, angels, animals, plants, trees, fish, birds, rocks, and even the sun, moon, and stars. In brief, it’s an attempt to answer why God has given man—his image bearer and symbol maker—a cosmic blueprint from which to work. For those students of Scripture in need of a lexicon for the symbolic language of this cosmic blueprint, I can’t think of a better place to start than with this second part of the book. The Scriptures most definitely portray a symbolic world, and to remain unfamiliar with its own symbolic message of mountains, trees, stars, birds, angels, and man—all working together for the glory of God—is a real tragedy.

The third part is an attempt to view man’s place within God’s world in it’s proper Biblical perspective. In this part, Jordan summarizes how man functions in a three-fold manner as both prophet, priest, and king in this world, and how this world is also a “three-decker universe,” (p. 144) understood through the lens of the triple-layered Paradise in Genesis, the Holy Mountain of Sinai, and the holy altars of ascension to Yahweh. As Jordan notes: “The Bible uses these images to express its worldview, according to each stage of history” (p. 163), and “each of these pictures a social or human environment” (p. 161) that is “absolutely fundamental to Biblical imagery” (p. 163).

For me, the fourth part of the book is perhaps its most ambitious aspect. It is an examination of each stage of history in light of the Bible’s own imagery. In no other single book (that I’m aware of) can someone find a connected narrative of symbolism from Eden to Ark to Altar to Sinai to Tabernacle to Zion to Mount Moriah to the World of Exile to the World of Restoration to the New Heavens and New Earth. Nowhere else can you find, in one place, a historical development from the kingly role of Adam in the Garden/Land to Judges and Kings, and then to Nations and Empires, or even the priestly role of Adam developing toward Priests & Seers to Synagogues, Churches, and Elders.

This book does have its weaknesses though. Some sections seem out of place and don’t seem to fit the logical flow at hand, which indicates to me that they may have been better off receiving more attention in an appendix to the book if a more suitable placement for them can’t be found. To list a few examples, the “Three Special Symbols” (p. 33) and “Secondary Symbols” (p. 34—35) don’t seem to be essential to the message of the first part of the book, and even the entirety of chapter ten, titled “Breaking Bread: The Rite of Transformation,” seems to be more applicable as the starting point of part four, instead of where we currently find it (starting the third part of the book).

Of course, with differing minds there will always be differing interpretations of historical events and their symbolism, and I myself have found a handful of the arguments to remain tenuous without further explanation. For example, Jordan asserts that “Jethro was a Noahic priest-king,” citing Exodus 2:16; 18:12 in defense of this claim. But do those Scripture references really justify his claim? Even more surprising, from that premise Jordan concluded that “for forty years Moses had observed Jethro managing a nation (Acts 7:30)” (p. 202). Even if we were to grant that Jethro functioned as a priest-king from the Noahic dispensation, can we really deduce—without any doubt—that Jethro managed a whole nation? This isn’t the only place in which Jordan makes dogmatic assertions without providing sufficient clarification. Based on the limited Scriptural support that he presents, I’m also not convinced that the freestanding pillars named Jachin and Boaz represented the Courtyard, Holy Place, and Most Holy Place and the trunk, neck, and head of a symbolic man (pp. 231—233). It seems to me that Jachin and Boaz represent the angels guarding the garden-gate (and maybe a symbolic man also), but not the boundaries of the tabernacle.

In the end, must we treat our understanding of Jachin and Boaz, or even Jethro’s national reign as a Noahic priest-king, as vital for developing a Biblical view of the world? I don’t think we must, especially if Jordan’s work is preliminary for preparing future generations of scholarly research on the subject. And so, even when Jordan sometimes fails to fully justify certain claims, that should not hinder the student of Scripture from immersing himself (or herself) in this book in order to learn how to eat, drink, and dream in a language called "Bible."