The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Theology (page 1 of 41)

Imitating the Devil

Introduction

A central Christian teaching is that for those who are in Christ, our lives are spent in the process of sanctification—in conjunction with our own efforts and desires, God’s Spirit works in us to transform our lives into conformity with that of Jesus Christ. In short, we seek to imitate Christ, and the Spirit helps us to do that.

While this is the goal, the sobering reality is that if we aren’t careful, we can find ourselves imitating someone very different—the Devil. That perhaps seems like a sensationalistic claim—what Christians actually set out to imitate the Evil One? By intention, it may not happen, but by action, it happens all too frequently. Let me explain.

Titles, Not Names

It will be surprising to some to hear that the Evil One mentioned in Scripture is nowhere given a name; he is repeatedly given titles and descriptions: the dragon, the serpent, the devil, the father of lies, etc.—even Satan is not a name—in the original language, it is used with a definite article (“the Satan”).[1]

What I think is helpful about realizing that this murky character is only described with titles is that these titles tell us something about his character—a character that Christians can emulate if we are not careful.

The Father of Lies

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

(John 8.44)

This one is pretty obvious: the Evil One is a liar. We see it in his deception of Adam and Even in the Garden, and we see it on a regular basis as he whispers to us that the ways God has laid out for us aren’t really the best ways, or that we are too broken to be loved by our Creator and to be used by Him. He is a liar and the father of lies.

And here is the scary part: when we lie, not only do we fail to imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the father of lies. Being people of integrity is such a fundamental characteristic of Jesus’ disciples that He specifically addressed it in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.33-37), but we easily resort to being people of evasion, partial truths, and outright dishonesty. When we do this, we may not be intentionally imitating the Devil, but in our lack of careful intention to be people of absolute integrity, we imitate him nonetheless.

The Devil

This one may be less obvious to us because we tend to associate devil with a red creature with horns and a pitchfork, but really, the Greek word that is translated devil is διαβολος (from which we get our word diabolical), which means “the slanderer.” Obviously, this term is also related to the notion of dishonesty, but slander is more specific. Slander is “the utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.”[2]

Interestingly, this same word is used in Scripture to describe people:

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

1 Timothy 3.11

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

2 Timothy 3.1-5

Depending on translation, this Greek word can be rendered as “slanderers” or “malicious gossips,” but the basic idea is clear enough: talking bad about people is diabolical. The Evil One is a slanderer. He is the Devil.

And here is the scary part: when we slander, when we talk badly or share untrue statements about people, we do not imitate Christ, but we are actively imitating the Devil. Being people who consistently speak in God-honoring ways is a huge challenge for followers of Jesus, and Scripture is full of admonitions regarding how we use our tongues and words (Ephesians 4.15; Colossians 4.6; James 3.6). This does not mean that we can never say anything negative about another person, but I do think it means that we should refrain from saying things about people that we wouldn’t say to them, that we should make sure that what we say is true, and that we should make sure that what we say is said in love. 

The Satan

This one may be the hardest of all for us to see initially, because we are so used to thinking of Satan as a name. But it is actually a title. Ha satan (הַשָּׂטָן) literally means “the adversary” or “the accuser”. It can be used in a general sense:

And the LORD raised up an adversary against Solomon, Hadad the Edomite.

(1 Kings 11.14a)

The Angel of Yahweh is referred to this way:

But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary.

(Numbers 22.22a)

But when the term is used with the definite article (“the”) before it, it specifically refers to the rebellious spiritual being who has set himself in opposition to the will of God. This is how he is described at the beginning of the Book of Job, as he brings the case of Job before God and stands as an adversary against Job, accusing him of possessing a love for God that is shallow and deficient. We see a similar characterization in the Book of Revelation, where the evil creature variously described as the great dragon, the ancient serpent, the devil and Satan hurls accusations against God’s people day and night (Revelation 12.9-10). The Evil One is an adversary of God’s people, who lobs accusations against them.

And here is the scary part: when we oppose and accuse God’s people, we are not imitating Christ, but rather, are actively imitating the Satan. This is challenging for me. There are a lot of believers who are different than I am in various ways. Some of these differences are significant, and at times it is tempting for me to magnify the differences and question the hearts and motive of people with whom I disagree. But this is dangerous spiritual ground to occupy. I am sometimes humbled by the words of Jesus in Mark 9.40: “For the one who is not against us is for us.” I struggle at times to know how to apply these words, but I know that my perspective is often closer to that of the disciples than Jesus. And I know that I don’t want to be an accuser or adversary of God’s people. I don’t want to imitate the Satan.

Conclusion

This has not been an exhaustive post—there are other titles of the Evil One (like, for example, “Evil One”!) that we could look at, but I think the general point has been established. Rather than talking about an evil figure named Satan, Scripture uses lots of titles to describe this character. These descriptions let us know what he is like and what his motives are, and should also provide conviction for us that, if we are not careful, we can in a very real sense imitate the Father of Lies, the Devil, the Satan. For those of us who are instead called to be imitators of Christ, this obviously will not do.

Father of mercies,

Forgive us our sins and shortcomings.

May your Spirit,

Day by day,

Transform us into the image of your Son, Jesus Christ.

Amen.


[1] I don’t have issues with people using Satan as a name; I am just pointing out that this is not a name in Greek or Hebrew, and is not how biblical authors used it.

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slander

The Full Tomb

Christianity is, fundamentally, about an empty tomb. Following His crucifixion, Jesus was raised from the dead, and as I have written before, this changes everything. This is the central feature of the Christian faith, and the veracity of any of Christianity’s claims depend upon this, first. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, then our faith is worthless.

Having said all of that, I think we are sometimes so quick to emphasize the empty tomb that we fail to truly appreciate that there was a time—even if it was a relatively brief time—when the tomb wasn’t empty. It was occupied. It contained the beaten, battered body of Jesus, and the shattered hopes and dreams of His followers.

We like to rush from the crucifixion to the resurrection, and I guess that makes sense, because the in-between time wasn’t easy. For those who had left all they had to follow Jesus, a Jesus in the tomb meant that they had backed the wrong horse; they had gambled everything and lost. The One who they thought was the long-awaited Messiah was just another in a long line of failures.

We live in an in-between time, too, and it isn’t easy, either.

The resurrection of Jesus is the first-fruits of our own, and points ahead to a time when sin, Satan, and death will be defeated, and every tear will be wiped from our eyes. But in the present, many of us mourn beside tombs that are as full as the tomb of Jesus was prior to His vacating it. Many of us stumble through our days, staggering under the weight of shattered hopes and dreams.

Just as Sunday came for the disciples of Jesus, and Jesus Himself was vindicated as the risen Savior when it did, so, we, too, await the coming of a Someday when our faith will become sight, and all of God’s faithful will rise as Jesus did.

But until then, it is worth reflecting on the fact that there are many full tombs, that evil maintains a foothold in our world, and that we weep with those who weep.

Resurrection is coming, but you have to wade through the in-between time first.

Jeroboam and the Lure of Political Power

The Story of Jeroboam

Jeroboam is one of the Bible’s incredibly tragic characters. He was a man who God granted an amazing opportunity, and he squandered it away. 

Jeroboam’s story begins with King Solomon, who himself was a tragic character: a man who was given wisdom, power, and great wealth by God, but who turned away from God and began to worship other gods (1 Kings 11.1-8). Because of this, God ultimately determines to divide the kingdom of Israel in the days of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son. Rehoboam remains king over two tribes in the south (creating the Southern Kingdom of Judah), while Jeroboam is established as king over the remaining ten tribes (creating the Northern Kingdom of Israel).

The story is absolutely clear that God, in His grace, has offered a covenant agreement to Jeroboam: God will bless him, make him king over Israel, and give Him all that he desires if he will listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways like David did. And moreover, God promises to build Jeroboam a house or a dynasty like He did for David. 

Jeroboam’s rise to power was the work of God’s providential hand, and Jeroboam knew this. And yet, as soon as he sits down on the throne, Jeroboam’s thinking seems to shift from providential to pragmatic: the question Jeroboam asks himself is, “What do I need to do to stay in power?” 

Ironically, Jeroboam already had the answer—God had told him he simply needed to listen to God’s commands and walk in His ways as David did, but Jeroboam ignores that answer and pursues his own plans instead.

After some initial efforts to fortify some of his cities, Jeroboam makes his big mistake. He reasons that if the citizens of the Northern Kingdom return to the Jerusalem Temple (in the Southern Kingdom) to offer sacrifices as they are supposed to, it will draw their hearts back to Rehoboam king of Judah, and then they won’t want to follow Jeroboam anymore, and will overthrow him and return to Rehoboam and Judah. So Jeroboam gets what he thinks is a brilliant idea, and he makes two golden calves; he sets one up in Dan and another in Bethel, representing the northern and southern borders of the territory of the Northern Kingdom.

Scholars debate whether Jeroboam is trying to get the Israelites to worship another god by doing this, or, rather, if he is simply introducing an innovation in the way in which they worship Jehovah/Yahweh. I tend to think it is the latter, but calves are so closely related with Canaanite pagan religion that it is hard to be sure.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. Even if Jeroboam was not setting up worship of a new god (and thus not violating the first commandment),  he was still guilty of creating an image to serve as a symbol of God (which violates the second commandment). So at the very least, he perverted the worship of the true God. Jeroboam’s disregard for the religious statues that God had set up did not stop there, as he also created alternate worship sites on high places at Dan and Bethel, put in place non-Levitical priests, and instituted his own feast day. These actions broke God’s commandments, and also revealed Jeroboam’s feelings that civil matters were more important than religious conviction.

Jeroboam has not been on the throne for long, but already he has dramatically departed from God’s instruction to walk in all His ways as David did. Instead, Jeroboam seems to have forgotten Who placed him on the throne in the first place, and rather than obey the real Power behind the throne, takes matters into his own hands to secure his position by his own power.

In 1 Kings 13, a prophet comes from God and condemns what Jeroboam has done, also predicting that judgment will come upon him because of it:

O altar, altar, thus says the LORD: “Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.” And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: ‘Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’”

(1 Kings 13.2-3)

Not surprisingly, Jeroboam isn’t a big fan of this message and stretches out his hand: “Seize him!” But as soon as this happens, his hand “dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself” (1 Kings 13.4). Ironically, in this very act, Jeroboam actually gives credibility to the prophecy—clearly, there is some power behind it because Jeroboam’s hand shrivels up, and furthermore, the altar was torn down as the prophecy said. Jeroboam asks the prophet to entreat God for him that his hand might be restored, and the prophet does so, and Jeroboam is healed.

Jeroboam is probably grateful to the man of God for his healing, and invites him to dine with him, but the prophet refuses because God had commanded him to return directly after his mission was completed. It is possible that dining with the king would have made the prophet appear to approve of the religious apostasy that Jeroboam was promoting.

Here, the narrative takes leave of Jeroboam and follows the young prophet and his strange interaction with an old prophet from Bethel. Since our focus is on Jeroboam we won’t dwell on this, but it is a tragic story of the young prophet from Judah being deceived by the older prophet from Israel, disobeying God, and dying as a result. This may seem like strange information to include in an extended narrative on the reign of Jeroboam, but it reinforces the idea that God expects to be obeyed, and severe consequences fall upon those who refuse to do so.

Regardless of this cautionary tale, 1 Kings 13 ends by saying:

After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.

(1 Kings 13.33-34)

So this story also shows us that Jeroboam remains unrepentant—he is determined to continue his disobedience to God. 

The rest of Jeroboam’s reign isn’t very happy. His son grows sick, and when he enquires of a prophet of God to determine if his sone will recover, he learns that not only will his son die, but because Jeroboam had incited the wrath of heaven by leading the Northern Kingdom into idolatry instead of being faithful to the covenant God had offered him, judgment had been pronounced not just on Jeroboam, but on every male from his house—the line of Jeroboam will be wiped out.

We also know that he was a man of war, and that he warred constantly with Rehoboam, and also fought against Rehoboam’s son, Abijam/Abijah and was defeated by him (2 Chronicles 13) and never recovered the level of power he had previously had. 

And that is basically what we know about Jeroboam.

Sacrificing Principle for Political Gain

Jeroboam is one of the truly tragic characters of Scripture. His legacy is that he is the man who “made Israel to sin”—this lamentable epitaph is mentioned over 20 times in Scripture, and his sinfulness really summarizes the entire period of the Divided Kingdom. I think there are a lot of things we can learn from the sad story of Jeroboam, but I want to focus on just one that I believe is particularly relevant for a lot of people today.

Jeroboam’s blessing, security, and power rested in his obedience to God. Instead of trusting in God, however, he chose to do the pragmatic thing. He made religious changes for political reasons, thinking that this would ensure his longevity as king. Instead, it led to the downfall of his kingdom. Jeroboam’s power and position rested on his faithfulness, not his politics. 

If there is a lesson that I think American Christians need to hear in 2019—a time of rampant political division and rabid political devotion—it might be this one: political power is not the means by which Christians are called to change the world. 

As most of my readers know, I am a part of Churches of Christ, which find historical roots in the American Restoration Movement. Our heritage has an interesting and diverse relationship with politics. Some Restorationist voices were highly involved in politics: Alexander Campbell, one of the key early leaders in the movement, served as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1829-30. James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, was a Restoration Movement preacher. 

Others had a much different view of politics. David Lipscomb, the longtime Gospel Advocate editor and a major leader in Churches of Christ in the decades following the Civil War, was avowedly apolitical. He was a pacifist who didn’t think Christians should serve in the military or even vote. J.N. Armstrong, the first President of Harding College, was strongly influenced by Lipscomb and had similar views.

 

I take this brief historical detour as a way of saying that I think that, in the spirit of Romans 14, the Christian’s relationship to politics is one of those areas where we are to do our best to follow the teachings and ethics of Jesus and be careful not to judge the scruples of others. 

Having said that, when it comes to politics, let us never sacrifice principle for political expediency.

In the crisis of the moment, it might seem like a good thing to do, but as Jeroboam learned, it never pays off. I think Jeroboam’s disobedience was largely motivated by fear—he was afraid of what would happen if he let the people go to Judah to worship, so out of his fear, he made a politically expedient decision. 

We live in an environment where political fervor always seems to be at a fever pitch. If we aren’t focused on a current or coming election, we are enamored with the latest political scandal or partisan feud.

In the last Presidential election, I heard a lot of fear from Christians (regardless of their political views) about what was going to happen. Speaking for myself (again, in the spirit of Romans 14, I am not placing judgment on those who disagree), I found myself unable to vote for either major party candidate. Both candidates had been in the public eye for a long time, and I knew plenty about the kind of people they were and the sort of character they had, and I didn’t feel like I could vote for either one. What really bothered me, though, was how often I was told or read from other Christians who supported one candidate or the other (because I got this from both sides of the aisle), that I basically needed to ignore my principles and vote for the “lesser of two evils” (whoever that may have been depending on the person I was talking to at the time), with the implication being that if I didn’t, our next President would likely bring about the end of the world.

You know, I don’t care who you vote for, but it does bother me:

  • When Christians encourage others to choose the lesser evil…because we aren’t supposed to choose evil in greater or lesser varieties!
  • When Christians encourage others to ignore their principles…because we aren’t supposed to ignore our principles!
  • When Christians suggest that the future hinges upon some human ruler…because God is the one who is in charge! When Pharaoh ruled the world, God freed His people from Egypt! When Nebuchadnezzar ruled the world, God saved three Hebrew teenagers from a fiery death! When Nero ruled the world, God orchestrated the greatest growth in the history of the church!

It is up to you to choose what your relationship with politics will be, and in my personal opinion, our political voice is an opportunity that we have to glorify God. However, let us never make the mistake of thinking that political power is the means by which Christians are called to change the world, or that it is acceptable for us to sacrifice our principles for the sake of political expediency.

The lure of political power is strong, and it can easily deceive us into thinking that the ends justify the means. But as Jeroboam learned, they do not. 

Reading in 2018

It’s that time of year again, when people talk about their reading from the previous year and the best books they read. As someone who (a) tries to thoughtfully reflect on things and (b) obsessively keeps lists of things, I always enjoy reading lists from other people and sharing my own.

Here is my own list from 2018:

  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowling
  2. Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan
  3. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, by N.T. Wright
  4. Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, edited by John Dillenberger*
  5. The Marburg Colloquy, edited by Hermann Sasse
  6. The Knowledge of God the Creator (from Institutes of the Christian Religion), by John Calvin
  7. The Necessity of Reforming the Church, by John Calvin
  8. The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, translated by Anthony Mottola*
  9. The Racovian Catechism*
  10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
  11. The Reasonableness of Christianity, by John Locke
  12. A Discourse of Miracles, by John Locke
  13. Proposals to Correct Conditions in the Church in Pia Desideria, by Philip Jacob Spener
  14. Decision Points, by George W. Bush
  15. Divorce, by John R.W. Stott
  16. Afro-American Religious History: A Documentary Witness, edited by Milton C. Sernett*
  17. Woman in the Pulpit, by Frances Willard*
  18. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling
  19. Jesus: A Study of the Life of Christ, by Shane Robinson
  20. The Five Books of Moses & The Former Prophets, by Bibliotheca
  21. The Making of George Washington, by William H. Wilbur
  22. Creating a Lead Small Culture: Make Your Church a Place Where Kids Belong, by Reggie Joiner, Kristen Ivy, and Elle Campbell
  23. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
  24. The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, by Michael S. Heiser
  25. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
  26. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day, by Justo L. Gonzalez
  27. The Faith of the Presidents, by Anne Schraff
  28. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien
  29. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, by Tim Tzouliadis
  30. The Latter Prophets, by Bibliotheca
  31. Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, by Michael Wear
  32. Havana Bay, by Martin Cruz Smith
  33. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  34. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee
  35. A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, by J. Richard Middleton
  36. The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace: God’s Antidotes for Division within the Churches of Christ, by Jay Guin
  37. Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman?, by Eleanor Updale
  38. The Perilous Road, by William O. Steele
  39. History and Background of the Institutional Controversy, by Steve Wolfgang
  40. Crispin: the Cross of Lead, by Avi
  41. The Ghost Hollow Mystery, by Page Carter
  42. Letters To The Church, by Francis Chan
  43. The Writings, by Bibliotheca
  44. Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors, by Monte Cox
  45. Alexander Campbell, Apostle of Truth, by William Blake
  46. The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place, by Andy Crouch
  47. The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
  48. How To Be A Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide To Flawless Spiritual Living, by The Babylon Bee
  49. Priceless, by Jeremy Myers
  50. The Apocrypha, by Bibliotheca
  51. The New Testament, by Bibliotheca
  52. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard
  53. Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ, by C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes
  54. Traces of the Kingdom, by Keith Sisman

A few observations before I talk about my favorite books of the year:

  • My reading total increased from 52 books in 2017 to 54 books in 2017. And this included a couple of very large volumes of 650-800 pages. I see other people who read 100 books or more a year, but at this stage of my life, it seems that somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 is my limit.
  • I enjoyed my reading in 2018 more than in 2017.
  • There were two big disappointments in my reading this past year. The first was the Bibliotheca series, which I used to do my daily Bible reading in 2018. There was a lot of fanfare about this translation when it came out, and indeed, it has many admirable qualities: an elegant typeface, beautiful binding, and a page layout that should lend itself to readability. However, the translation itself was wooden and awkward, and I simply did not enjoy it at all. Also, Traces of the Kingdom was a book that I had looked forward to for a few years, but I really struggled with it. Although the author puts you in touch with some extraordinarily rare primary sources that are hundreds of years old, the writing is poor, and much of the logic and argumentation is stretched. It was a disappointment.

My favorite books from 2018.

Regarding my Top 10 books for the year, here are some brief thoughts on those (presented in order of when I read them, not ranked 1-10):

  • Beneath a Scarlet Skyby Mark Sullivan: This is a novel, based on a true story, set in WWII Italy. It is a gripping tale of a teenage boy seeking to navigate the warring factions of Nazis, Mussolini’s Fascists, Allied forces, resistance fighters, partisans, and the Catholic church. It is a gripping tale and compelling read. Fans of All The Light We Cannot See will appreciate this book, which is better.
  • Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Senseby N.T. Wright: N.T. Wright is the preeminent living Christian thinker, and this is his basic presentation of the Christian faith (it has been called the Mere Christianity for modern times). In my opinion, nothing that Wright writes is truly “simple,” so, despite his intentions, I can’t say that this is the easiest read for the average Christian, but it is a great book.
  • The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bibleby Michael S. Heiser: Heiser makes the basic claim that modern believers do not read/hear the Bible in the way that ancient believers did, who believed in a robust array of spiritual beings who operate “unseen” and greatly influence the lives that we experience. This becomes the prevailing paradigm for how he interprets Scripture, and especially if you are not familiar with the biblical motif of the Divine Council, much of what he says will shock you. Ultimately, I think Heiser draws some conclusions that are not warranted, but on the whole, I think he makes a very compelling case. This book has been somewhat of a game-changer for me.
  • The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russiaby Tim Tzouliadis: During the Great Depression, thousands of down-on-their-luck Americans were lured to Stalinist Russia with the promise of work and prosperity available to all in the Communist Utopia. Within a few short years, they (along with millions of others) would be killed in the Stalinist purges and, adding to the tragedy, they were largely abandoned by the US government. Not to get too political in a brief book review, but in an era when I increasingly witness many people (especially those generally around my age or younger) pay lip service to the idea that socialism and even communism are benign or even preferable politico-economic systems, this was an important read for me. When it came to murdering people, Stalin made Hitler look like an amateur, and I don’t say that lightly.
  • A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatologyby J. Richard Middleton: Middleton argues that the Biblical text teaches that God will redeem and restore His creation and will dwell with His people for eternity on a New Heaven and New Earth. This is not some form of premillennialism, but neither is it the popular notion of the Christian hope being getting to escape from this earth and “go to heaven when we die.” This interpretation will be challenging for some, but I am convinced that this perspective is fundamentally correct, and Middleton’s treatment of it is excellent.
  • Letters To The Churchby Francis Chan: This was a convicting read for me. Chan is a Restorationist’s Restorationist, and this book basically encourages Christians to thoughtfully return to the model of the church as described in the pages of Scripture. Simply put, there are some basic ways of “doing church” that really need to be evaluated and, quite possibly, jettisoned. This book left me uneasy in a good way.
  • Significant Others: Understanding Our Non-Christian Neighbors, by Monte Cox: Dr. Cox was one of my favorite teachers at Harding, and this book is basically a written version of his “Living World Religions” class (one of my favorite classes). It is a helpful overview of various world religions, and would make an excellent resource for a Bible class.
  • The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Placeby Andy Crouch: Technolgy is increasingly present in our lives, and for all of its positive benefits, there are negative side effects as well. Crouch offers some helpful (and at times, extreme) perspective on how families should treat technology and strive to create home environments that cultivate wisdom and courage.
  • The Great Divorceby C.S. Lewis: I’m not sure that I have ever read something by Lewis that I didn’t like, but this is one of my favorites. Lewis’ allegorical take on hell is, in my opinion, both brilliant and helpful.
  • A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Clayborne Carson and Kris Shepard: I had really not read/heard much from Dr. King before, other than his “I Have a Dream” speech or snippets of quotations from other sources, and that was a mistake, because King’s speeches evidence not only beautiful eloquence, but also profound theological insight. I plan to do additional reading from (and on) Dr. King in the future.

That was my reading for 2018. For comparison’s sake if you are interested, you can see my reading lists from previous years:

As always, I have a bunch of books lined out to read in 2019, and am already in the midst of two good ones right now.

What are some of the best books you read this past year?

*Books that I did not read in their entirety, but read significant portions of.

Scripture As Story: Women at the Well

Introduction

In the Scripture as Story series, we have been talking about how God reveals Himself to us in a story. That is true in the sense that the Bible itself is a grand, overarching story about who God is and what He is doing in the world, and we best understand Scripture when we look at it as the ongoing story of what God is doing and how we supposed to respond to what God is doing, how we connect our story with God’s story.

But it’s also true that God reveals Himself to us in a story in the sense that God inspired humans to write Scripture as literature, and we read the Bible better and more faithfully when we read it as literature and when we pay attention to what the authors are trying to tell us. We talked about some of the specific techniques that we see biblical authors using, and we have also looked at a couple of case studies to help illustrate some of those techniques.

In this, the conclusion to the series, I want to present another case study to help us see Scripture as story, which is the repeated motif we see in multiple places in Scripture of men and women meeting at wells. That might seem like an obscure and random biblical detail, but we’re going to do is look at four different stories in the Bible, notice the repeated patterns, the differences, and then hopefully, see something significant that Scripture is trying to tell us about who Jesus is and what He came to earth to do.[1]

Isaac and Rebekah

The first story we want to look at comes from Genesis 24, which relates the story of Isaac meeting Rebekah. I am not going to include the whole chapter here because it is over 60 verses long, but will instead summarize it briefly.

Abraham is old and is concerned about what is going to happen after he is gone, and he wants to make sure that his son Isaac has a wife and specifically, not a wife from the land of Canaan, but rather, from one of his relatives from back in the old country.

So he sends his servant on a mission to travel to a distant country to find a wife for Isaac. This is a big task for the servant to do and he is feeling some pressure, and he goes to the city of Nahor (where Abraham’s family lives—the town is actually named after his brother) and he takes his camels to a well of water outside the city. It’s evening time, when women go out to draw water, and the servant prays to God for help in finding the right woman for Isaac.

I am not exactly sure what it is that makes the well the ideal place for finding a wife. As we’re going to see, it happens a lot in the Bible so I don’t think it was a coincidence. Today, there are several stereotypical places where people go to meet their spouses: church, bars (unfortunately), online dating sites…it seems like wells were kind of a dating spot of the ancient world.

Abraham’s servant prays, “Let the right woman be the one who, when I ask for a drink, she not only gives me a drink but offers to water my camels as well.” And immediately Rebekah, who is the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor, comes up with her water jar, and the Bible tells us that she is beautiful and unmarried, and the servant asks her for water and she gives him some and then waters his camels as well.

Of course, the servant is excited and tells Rebekah what is going on, and she invites him to stay at her family’s house, and then she rushes home to tell her family about all of this. The chapter goes on and we get a report of the family showing hospitality to the servant and he tells his story again, there is a betrothal, and eventually, Rebekah travels back with the servant and Isaac and Rebekah get married.

So what we have here is a betrothal story of two people getting engaged, and here are some of the key features:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Genesis 24; we now move on to our next story.

Jacob and Rachel

Our next story comes a few chapters later, in Genesis 29, and centers on Jacob, who is the son of Isaac and Rebekah. And Jacob is on a journey as well, because back in Genesis 28, Isaac had sent him specifically to Paddan-Aram, where Rebekah’s family lived, to find a wife there.

So Jacob travels there, and he goes to a well (perhaps his mother had informed him that this was a good place to find available bachelorettes!). There is a large stone over the mouth of this particular well, and apparently, the people would wait until all the flocks gathered there and the shepherds would get together to roll the stone away from the well so all the animals could be watered.

While Jacob is there waiting for this to happen, Rachel, the daughter of his uncle, comes up with her sheep. This is one of those places where we need to try not to read the text through our 21st-century Western eyes. For us, we realize that Rachel is Jacob’s first cousin and immediately we think that this makes her off-limits. But we have to realize that for Jacob, this actually makes Rachel a great candidate for marriage because he was specifically looking for a relative—he wasn’t supposed to marry a Canaanite girl. When Jacob sees Rachel and realizes who she is, he goes and by himself rolls away the huge stone from the well, and waters Rachel’s sheep (apparently the practice of men showing off for women in order to impress them is an ancient one!). Then Jacob kisses Rachel and weeps aloud, and tells her who he is. Rachel runs home to tell her father, Laban, and he comes out and welcomes Jacob into his home, and they make arrangements for Jacob to marry Rachel.

Of course, there is more to the story and Laban is a pretty shady character and Jacob ends up with two wives and stays with Laban for longer than he bargained for, but that is basically where we will leave off.

Let’s notice again the basic characteristics of these well betrothal stories:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well  ✓
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Genesis 29; we now move on to our next story.

Moses and Zipporah

Our next story may not be quite as well known; it comes from Exodus 2. Moses himself is famous, and the early parts of Exodus 2 are most likely very familiar: Moses is born, and in order to hide him from the wrath of Pharaoh, his mother puts him in a basket in the Nile River. Moses is eventually adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian. After he grows up, Moses one day sees an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew and he gets angry and strikes him and kills him. Pharaoh finds out about this and Moses runs away, fleeing to the land of Midian, and once he is there, he sits down by a well.

At this point, if you are a Jewish person who has grown up hearing the scriptures and knows the scriptures well, or, alternatively, if you have been reading this blog post with any sort of attention, you should have some expectation of what is going to happen next, at least in a general sense.

And sure enough, while Moses is sitting there, seven young ladies, daughters of the priest of Midian, come to the well and draw water to water their father’s flocks. Some shepherds come to drive them away, but Moses stands up and saves the girls, and waters their flocks for them.

Then the girls go home and tell their father what happened. Their father tells them to go find Moses and invite him to their house so that they can feed him and show him hospitality, and Moses comes, and he becomes engaged to Zipporah, one of the man’s daughters, and she becomes his wife.

Again, let’s review the basic characteristics of these well betrothal stories:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows

This is what happens in Exodus 2; we now move on to our next story.

Jesus and a Samaritan Woman

Our final story comes from the New Testament, from John 4, and it is the famous story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well. This is a wonderful chapter and there are a lot of different parts we could examine closely, but for the focus of this post, we just want to sum up what happens and look at that in light of what we have already discussed.

John 4 begins with Jesus on a journey. Because of some trouble from the Pharisees, Jesus is traveling from Judea up to Galilee, and He passes through Samaria on the way. He comes to a town called Sychar, and he is tired, so Jesus sits down by the well.

Now, as a side note here, we need to remember that John is writing His gospel to a Jewish (Christian) audience who knew the Old Testament Scriptures. By now, the pattern that occurs with these well stories should be very familiar to us, and it would have been familiar to John’s audience as well. So we have certain expectations of what is supposed to happen next. 

Sure enough, a woman from Samaria comes to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. But instead of giving Him a drink, the woman responds in shock because she can’t believe that Jesus had spoken to her as a Samaritan woman, because Jews and Samaritans don’t get along at all. Jesus then begins speaking to her about this living water that He has to offer and how people who drink it will never be thirsty again, and the water will become a spring welling up to eternal life, and the woman doesn’t really know what He’s talking about but that sounds good to her and so she asks for some of it.

And this whole conversation is a little strange and not really what we were expecting based on our previous well stories. Jesus then abruptly says, “Go, call your husband, and come here,” and the woman responds, “I have no husband.” If you’re hearing this story for the first time, perhaps you think, “Aha, she is not married—she is a good candidate for marriage after all, so maybe the story will turn out as we expected.”

But then Jesus tells the woman her whole marital history: yes, you’re not married, but you have been married five times before, and the guy you are with now isn’t your husband. This blows the woman away: how can Jesus know this? He must be a prophet! Then they proceed to talk a little bit more about the religious differences between Jews and Samaritans and the woman says that she is waiting for the Messiah to come, and Jesus says that He is, in fact, that Messiah.

The woman gets excited about this and she leaves her water jar and rushes back away to the town to tell the people about this strange man at the well who might be the Christ. In the meantime, Jesus’ disciples show up and they are confused that Jesus is talking to this woman, and then they try to give Him some food, but Jesus declines it, saying that He has all the food He needs, in that He is doing the will of the Father and is accomplishing His work.

And the disciples are completely clueless about what he means. Bless their hearts.

Many of the Samaritans from the village believe in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, and they ask Jesus to stay with them for two days, and many more come to believe because of His words, and they tell the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

At this point, we should review the key characteristics of these well betrothal stories that have been talking about, and we will quickly notice that John 4 has a lot in common with the others, but that there are some key differences:

  • Travel: the leading character of the story travels to a foreign country
  • Woman at well: he encounters a woman at a well
  • Water: someone draws water from the well Jesus asks for it; prompts a discussion on living water
  • Report: the girl rushes home to bring news of the stranger’s arrival
  • Hospitality: the stranger is invited to the girl’s home and shown hospitality Yes, but the only food that is mentioned is Jesus’ spiritual food
  • Betrothal: a betrothal and marriage follows No, at least, not in the way we would expect

Jesus the Bridegroom

So what is going on here? Why is this set up like a betrothal story? What can we learn from the differences?

(1) Water: Jesus probably was thirsty, and He does ask the woman for water, but it seems that what He was actually doing was creating an opening for a spiritual conversation. He was moving the woman away from a discussion of a menial chore that she had to do day after day, and instead was addressing the deepest need of her heart: a life-giving spiritual water that only He possessed, which would lead to eternal life.

This living water was available to her. It was hers for the taking. Jesus gives rather than takes. He offers rather than receives.

(2) Food: In the other stories food is mentioned each time: the main character or protagonist is fed by the woman’s family. But in this passage, food is discussed by Jesus and His disciples. The disciples are trying to give Jesus food to eat, but He says He doesn’t need it; He has eaten already. He is satisfied, He is fed, by doing His father’s will, and by accomplishing the mission that His Father has sent Him on. So clearly, what has just happened is an example of Jesus fulfilling His mission: He has revealed who He is to the woman, and has extended His offer of living water to her.

And in that process, He has been made full.

(3) Marriage: This is the big one, and to see what is going on here, we actually need to flip back a chapter, to John 3. This is one of those instances where the chapter divisions in our Bibles (which were added much later) are not always helpful because they break up the surrounding context of what is happening.

Here we have a story of Jesus and His disciples baptizing, and John the Baptist was also baptizing. Some of John’s followers come to him to tell him that Jesus is baptizing more people than John is, and more people are beginning to follow Him, and isn’t John upset by this? But John tries to correct their thinking: 

[28] You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ [29] The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. [30] He must increase, but I must decrease.” 

(John 10.28-30, ESV)

Did you hear what John called Jesus? He called him a bridegroom. John refers to himself as the friend of the bridegroom—the best man—if you will, but he calls Jesus the groom. And John’s point is that at a wedding, the best man doesn’t get upset that the groom gets more attention—he celebrates! He is there to celebrate the wedding of the bride and the groom.

So just before a story that follows the pattern of the Well Betrothal story, John the Baptist explicitly says that the reason people are flocking to Jesus is because He is the bridegroom receiving His bride.

This language of Jesus as a bridegroom is based on a repeated metaphor from the Old Testament of God as the husband and Israel as the wife in their relationship. In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah says:

“[1] The word of the LORD came to me, saying, [2] “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. [3] Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest. All who ate of it incurred guilt; disaster came upon them, declares the LORD.” 

(Jeremiah 2.1-3, ESV)

The prophecy goes on to describe how the people of Israel had been unfaithful to God, how they had committed spiritual adultery by worshipping other gods, and as a result, the people were going to be punished. God actually describes in Jeremiah 3.6-8 how, because of the continuous unfaithfulness, God was divorcing His bride and sending them away. We call this the Exile: both the nations of Israel and Judah were conquered and the people were captured.

And yet, this isn’t the end of the story. In Jeremiah 3.14:

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion.

God has not given up on His wife; even though He had sent Israel away, He will come after her and bring her back. In a literal sense, a remnant of the people are allowed to return to the Land of Israel following the Exile, but still, Jeremiah points even further to the future:

[31] “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

(Jeremiah 31.31-34, ESV)

With all of this background in the Hebrew Scriptures, we can see what John is doing as He sets up this episode from the life of Jesus as a betrothal story. Jesus is the ultimate bridegroom who has traveled into a foreign land to secure a bride for Himself—not literally, but in a figurative sense: He is identifying Himself with God’s mission to call His people back through the giving of a new covenant, written on the heart.

Jesus’ mission is to restore His bride—to reconcile God’s people back to Him.

There are other places in the New Testament that teach us the same thing. The church is referred to as the bride of Christ in the Book of Revelation; in Ephesians 5 the relationship between a husband and wife is compared to the relationship between Christ and the church. 

But here, in John 4, this same idea of Jesus as the bridegroom is told in a clever and powerful way, through the story of His meeting with a Samaritan woman at a well.[2] 

Conclusion

I hope that, throughout this series, you have come to see benefits of paying close attention to Scripture and reading it as a story, and looking for the ideas and theological claims that the biblical writers are suggesting by the way that they write.

In this final installment, we have seen the repeated use of the well betrothal stories in the Bible, and how John uses a similar story to make an astounding claim about Jesus: He is here to accomplish God’s mission of restoring His bride, as He claimed He would do hundreds of years before. As a husband, Jesus will go to extraordinary lengths to love and protect and save His bride; as a husband, Jesus expects absolute devotion and faithfulness from His bride.

The implications for us are clear: God loves us, and He pursues us because He wants a relationship with us. He wants to care for, protect, and save us. But also, He wants us to be faithful—devoted to Him exclusively.


[1] To my knowledge, the motif of well betrothal stories was first pointed out in Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981).

[2] When studying this initially, I saw the clear connection between John 4 and the Old Testament well betrothal stories, but I was unsure of exactly what the connection meant. Unfortunately, I have lost my notes and am unaware of which source helped point me in the right direction. So, I want to publicly state that the conclusions above are not original to me, and I regret not remembering to whom full credit belongs.

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