9 Jul 2014

Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees

0802822215In Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Everett Ferguson has a really good summary of the Pharisees and Sadducees, especially in the sense that he moves past a lot of unhelpful oversimplifications of the Pharisees (i.e., the idea that all Pharisees were hypocrites).

I really liked this summary statement of what separated Jesus’ views of the Hebrew Scriptures from that of the Pharisees and Sadducees:

[The] interpretation of the law in terms of fundamental principles distinguishes Jesus from the rival groups in Judaism of his day. According to him the Sadducees were right in exegesis—the Scriptures did not mean what the Pharisees made them mean—but they were wrong in relegating Scripture to the place of an archaic relic with less and less relevance to the present. The Pharisees were right in trying to keep Scripture applicable, but were wrong in their method by making tradition superior or equal to the written word.

Jesus offered a corrective to both viewpoints. The written word is authoritative, but the great fundamental principles therein take precedence and provide the standard by which it is to be interpreted and applied.

(p.518)

8 Jul 2014

The Role of the Individual Person in God’s Universal Plan

0802822215For an upcoming grad school class, I have been reading Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity. It is a bit of a dense work, but I am enjoying it: Ferguson is brilliant, and is unparalleled in his knowledge and understanding of early Christianity. I read as much of his stuff as I can.

In Backgrounds of Early Christianity, he has a discussion of apocalyptic literature that I really enjoyed. Apocalypse was a certain literary form that was very popular for a few centuries on either side of the life of Christ. We are familiar with it in the Bible largely through the Book of Revelation and portions of Daniel (and small sections of a couple gospels), but there are a lot of extrabiblical works which feature apocalyptic writing as well.

We tend to equate apocalyptic literature with eschatology (which refers to teaching about the last days or end of the world), but it’s not always or even primarily focused on that. Here are Ferguson’s words:

Although much study of apocalyptic literature has centered on its eschatology, its authors’ main concern was with revelation (as the word apocalypse indicates) rather than eschatology. Events are marching toward a predetermined goal; but while history is under divine control, individual decisions are not. There is both a universalism and an individualism in apocalypticism. God’s plans are universal, but the individual (not the nation as a whole) decides whose side he is on and so where he will stand in the final cataclysm.

(p. 476-77)

Put in other words, works like the Book of Revelation aren’t about providing us with a detailed map of future events. Rather, they are meant to underscore that God is ultimately in control, and things will unfold according to His plan and will. For us as individuals, it is imperative that we choose to follow that will, and be on His side.

5 Jul 2014

The Validity of the Ideal

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Some fireworks over Bentonville, Ark., on July 4, 2014.

Thomas Jefferson penned the famous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, which was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Those are beautiful words, and they describe an ideal that, in practice, our country has sometimes failed to live up to. We haven’t always treated all men as equals: African Americans were enslaved and then later discriminated against via Jim Crow laws. Native Americans were tricked and strong-armed off of their lands and herded to less desirable areas. Women were denied a political voice. The failure continues today, as we certainly don’t treat our unborn infants as being equal to those who want to dispose of them so easily.

Yes, we have failed and continue to fail to live up to the beautiful words quoted above. But our failure to live out that ideal in no way undermines the validity of it. May we continue to seek the ideal: all people are created equal, because they all bear the Image of the Creator Himself.

1 Jul 2014

How to do a Bad Word Study in the Bible

biblestudyA while back, I came across an excellent article on a blog called, “7 Ways to Do a Bad Word Study.” The author does a great job of highlighting some common traps that preachers, Bible class teachers, and would-be scholars frequently fall into as they try to delve into the original languages of the Bible (primarily Greek and Hebrew).

I had the article bookmarked for a long time, but I ultimately decided that it was so helpful that I would share it, in full, on my blog. To be clear, I did not write the content below, but I am quoting from the blog linked above because I figured more people would read it here than click through and read it on the original page.

This week has been a fascinating walk through the world of “Word-Studies”. My guess is, you’ve encountered some sort of word story in the last couple of months: a Bible study, a sermon, a commentary, a quip about agape love or a defense of a biblical viewpoint you’re not sure of. But sometimes it’s hard to wade through the muck and know when you’re being short changed. How can a lay person (or pastor) know whether a word study is legitimate? Here are some bad ways to do a word study, courtesy of Dr. Jennings of Gordon Conwell and Dr. Grant Osborne of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School:

1. The Root Word Fallacy. You’ve heard this: “The word ekklesia is a Greek word for the church that literally means, “called out ones””. Technically, this isn’t true. While combining the two root words (“called out from”) does indeed create something like “called out ones”, the truth is, the word ekklesia is never used that way in the New Testament or its contemporaries. In fact, ekklesia was used to refer to a group of philosophers, mathematicians, or any other kind of assembly in the Greco-Roman world. So unless we’re supposing that actors and gladiators were called to a holy lifestyle by assembling together, we can’t create a relationship between holiness and ekklesia necessarily. While it’s true that the church is composed of “called out” ones – that’s not the particular point of this word. It just means “assembly” or “gathering”.

2. The Origin Fallacy. If a commentary ever drives you back 50-100 or more years to find the origin of a particular word, steer clear. 50 years ago, “gay” meant something totally different in America than it does today. I would hope someone living 300 years from now wouldn’t pick up a newspaper and say, “Aha! The debate about gay-marriage in the early 2000’s is, in fact, a debate about whether marriage ought to be ‘happy’. Just look at the word’s origin!” The meaning of a word can change very quickly over time, so any legitimate word study won’t find much help by going back to the “origin” of a word, or even looking too to the future.

3. The “Everything” Fallacy. John writes “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” The word “world” or “kosmos” is one of John’s favorites. But the word kosmos has a flexible meaning – it can mean man, mankind, humankind, world, universe, or dirt. So which meaning did John intend? We can be sure of this: John did not intend all the meanings. In other words, John didn’t mean to say, “God so loved not just sinful mankind, but the entire creation, even the dirt we walk on!” No – John uses the word “kosmos” in a very particular way in all of his writing, and by knowing John’s writing, we know that he meant “the sinful world”, not “all of the above”. While certain Bible translations might lead you to believe that we can pick and choose any one among a number of alternate meanings (ehem…maybe just one translation) this is a recipe for a Bible that means whatever we want it to mean.

4. The Lexical Fallacy. While it might be tempting, pointing to the lexical definition of a Greek word doesn’t tell you what the word means in a particular context. Consider sentence: “I know a pilot who likes to fly, who went camping and put a fly over his tent, went fly fishing, then realized he was late for a plane and had to fly to an airport, where he realized he didn’t look very fly because his fly was undone, and just at that moment a fly landed on his nose (Thank you, Dr. Jennings!).” There’s one word used seven times in seven different ways, and my guess is you had no question what I meant each time I used it. Words have meaning only in relationship to other words; for this reason, a lexicon can only tell you potential meaning, not actual meaning.

5. The Word-Argument Fallacy. No matter what anyone tells you, don’t suppose that the definition of one word can solve a theological argument. As a general rule, resorting to the meaning of a particular word to make a theological point is unhelpful at best, destructive at worst. If I need to appeal to the meaning of a word in a certain verse to settle a theological debate, I’ve already lost. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes word studies are great aids to good theology. But if my whole argument hinges on one flexible word, I’m probably off.

6. The Authorless Fallacy. Not every author speaks the same way. James doesn’t use the word “justify” the same way Paul uses the word “justify”. By the same token, the same author usually speaks the same way. So when Jesus says to Peter, “Do you agape me? or “Do you phileo me?” is he making a giant distinction between selfless love and romantic love that can only be seen in the Greek? Actually, no. John uses the word phileo and agape interchangeably in his narrative to refer to Jesus’ love for his disciples, their love for them, etc. To make a credible case we’re going to need to cite the same author’s use of the same word to justify its definition.

7. The “Webster’s Dictionary” fallacy. First, Noah Webster didn’t write the Bible. Secondly, taking a Greek word like “Dunamai” (I have power, or authority) and saying, “This is where we get our word for “Dynamite”, which Webster defines as “a high explosive, originally consisting of nitroglycerin mixed with an absorbent substance, now with ammonium nitrate usually replacing the nitroglycerin’ is just plain abusive. Its a backward way of defining a term. Just because we borrow from the Greek doesn’t mean there’s a univocal relationship between root words and modern terms.

If you are someone who preaches or teaches from the Bible, I urge you to take note of the problems described above and seek to avoid them. As readers of this blog are aware, I have spent the last three years involved in intensive study of Greek and Hebrew as part of my graduate school program, and that study has made me much more careful in the way I teach about these languages.

The information above is perhaps overstated at times and confusing in one or two places, but on the whole is extremely helpful.

27 Jun 2014

Wealth, Discipleship, and American Christians

deSilvI continue to read David deSilva’s An Introduction to the New Testament, and to be really impressed by some of the things he has to say. In a discussion of Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, he says,

“The pursuit of wealth is a driving force of Western society, the key to what many people regard as the path to “life,” to the fullness of what life as to offer. The author warns us that, in the end, it does not deliver what it promises.

“Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.…[I]n their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” (1 Tim 6:9-10 NRSV)

To attain financial goals, as they are often called, both husband and wife often work, or one of them must work obscenely long hours. Those who are now young children suffer more and more from a lack of parenting. Is amassing wealth worth such piercing of hearts? The amount of time and energy invested in attaining our financial objectives, if these are set on wealth, often leaves very little time for discovery and exercise of those gifts that God has given each one of us for the nurture of the church and the care of others. The drive for acquiring more money means that seeking God and putting ourself at God’s service recedes. We serve a new master. That lifestyle is a path of pain—the pain of never acquiring enough to fill the void inside (because only God and meaningful investment in other people can do that), the pain of throwing away our lives for things that cannot give life, the pain of regret at the end of life, when our 20/20 hindsight will be our friend or our accuser.”

(p.773)

I think deSilva hits the nail on the head here. As a youth minister, I have watched parents who focus so much energy on their jobs in an effort to provide for their families (financial goals) that they end up actually neglecting their families because they deprive them of their time and influence (lack of parenting). As a minister in general, I have seen very talented people who are of almost no benefit to the church because they are so busy from working extra hours or extra jobs that they have little time for the Lord.

And, for what it’s worth, ministers are not immune to these problems. We are paid to be involved in the work of the church, so that part isn’t too difficult, but it is easy to be so involved in our work that our families are neglected. Furthermore, just because professional ministry isn’t a high-paying field doesn’t mean that ministers can’t also be too focused on money. Sometimes promising ministries are left and churches and families are damaged because a minister is looking for a higher salary. Sometimes a minister stays in a low-paying job, but as a result of that spends considerable worry and energy thinking about how little he has and how he can get more.

Whatever your situation is, money is a terrible master, and it can tear our loyalty away from God. That is a fact, regardless of whether we call our master “greed”, “financial goals”, or “providing for our families”. Serve God and use your money to glorify Him. Don’t serve money and be used by it.