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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Is Allah the same as the Christian God?

Question: I heard a Christian teacher say the other day that the name Allah is the name of a demon, not God.  Not being a Muslim or an Arabic speaker, I was wondering if there’s any truth to that?

Response:  Well, I also am not an Arabic speaker... so like you I have to rely on what other people tell me about this subject.  And what other people tell me is often confusing!

For example, a Muslim scholar I read said that Allah stems from the Arabic verb “ta’allaha” , which means “to be worshiped”. Thus in Arabic, the word “Allah” means “The One who deserves all worship”.  They also made the point that Allah is fairly close to the Hebrew "El" and "Elohim" which usually refer to the one true Creator God... The difference there is that Elohim can be pluralized (Allah cannot) and so can be used for "gods" or when the context demands it,  the God, where it’s usually rendered "God of Hosts".  So it's possible that Arabic, having derived semantically from Aramaic would have derived it's meaning for Allah from "El".   When I was in Israel, I worshiped with some wonderful Arabic Christians whose Arabic translation of the Bible often used "Allah" for "Elohim".

On the other hand, if you look farther back than 6th century Arabia where Islam developed, the etymology (word origin) of "Allah" does seem to harken back to dark pagan roots - and this is how the teacher you heard made his assertion about Allah being the name of a demon.  For example, the Encyclopedia of Religion says Allah derives from pre-Islamic times, from Babylonian "Bel" which means "Lord".  The ancient Phoenician and Canaanite deity also carried this title, Ba'al, meaning Master, or Husband.  And so other Christians I know in Muslim lands specifically avoid the use of Allah for Muslim converts - because of these pagan connections.  

Not this cuts to the chase of the great question in our day with Islam in the news every night:  Is Allah the same God that Christians and Jews worship?  Well, many Muslims take great pains to defend the notion that they worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus.  This assumption can be approached from the macro to the micro.  At the macro level of broad Theism, I think they are correct: Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are Theists who believe in one, personal, all powerful Author of the universe.  Which means we are fixated on the same Being, even if we hold to different details about His being and character.  Muslims and Christians use the same arguments for God against atheists, for example.

It would be like two groups of scientists studying the Sun, one from Southern hemisphere, one from the north.  Some of their observations are different and some might even be irreconcilably different, but it's not unreasonable that despite these differences they are both studying the same entity, since so many observations match exactly: the big, hot, glowing orb that appears in the Eastern horizon every morning.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details.  And because the image of the Christian God and Allah are so different in the details, Christians often resist the idea that we are worshiping and praying to the same God.  At the micro level of the details of God's character and being, vast and irreconcilable differences appear between Allah and the God revealed in Jesus.  And so to pray or worship one is to dishonor the other by affirming that which is not true of God.

But if we understand all this, then word etymology (which might have been a big deal to the teacher you heard) is really much less important than what's going on in the person's mind who uses the word, Allah.  It is finally, just a word.  So on one hand, we mustn't think the word is "cursed" or that Muslims who use term Allah are unknowingly honoring or worshiping Satan.  That's immature.  For the word "god" after all, was never the name for the one, supreme all powerful Creator of the universe and the Christian Faith UNTIL the Roman missionaries saw the Germanic and Saxon pagans using some version of "gott" and they redefined it for them.  There is nothing inherently orthodox/beautiful/truthful about the word "God" – the way my pagan ancestors in ancient Europe used the word originally, it likely was the name of a demon!  (More on that in a second)  Yet the word was infused with NEW meaning as Roman missionaries decided it was the best word to render the Greek word "Theos" or the Latin "Deus".

But what about those differing details?  If the image of God (whatever word we use for Him) is deficient because, in our fallenness, we suppress the knowledge of God, we are guilty of idolatry.  That is, we have made up a different god (Rom 1:21-28) and projected ourselves onto it.  Well, from a Christian perspective, all idols are nothing at all, but behind every deficient view of God in the mind of the worshiper, represented by his idols, are real spiritual powers hostile to the true God. Hence, demons.  (This is Paul's argument in 1 Cor 10:20).  

And so as a Christian I do believe that the differences between Allah and the Lord are vast, and at that mirco level in the heart of the religious adherent, to worship and serve Allah is to serve a power other than the one true God - even if you believe many true things about God along with Christians.  If a person thinks this is a harsh thing to say to all Muslims, didn't Jesus think this about everyone who rejected his Messiahship?  (John 8:44)

What are the critical micro differences between Allah and the Lord?  The one Muslims are most exercised about is God's Triune nature.  When I traveled to Israel, the Muslims in downtown Nazareth had a giant banner hung in the street in front of the Church of Mary - "Allah has no sons!!"  Subtle.  But the difference that might be even more significant in our world is this: Allah loveth not his enemies, nor the unbeliever.  You can find the phrase, "Allah the merciful and compassionate" on many pages of the Koran, but in doctrine and practice, this Deity does not love the unbeliever and has no compassion on his enemies.  In complete contrast to this, the God of Christianity died for us in Christ while we were his enemies. (Romans 5:8-9)  The very fabric of Christian salvation and ethics are built on this stunningly different vision of God.

So while the claim is that Muslims worship the God of Moses and Jesus, and in the big picture they are Theists, when we press deeply this Deity is nothing like the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  And while it may be inflammatory to say so, every Christian believes (as every Muslim also believes) that those who do not see God as revealed in their religion is under some kind of spiritual deception. We don't for that reason hate those with a different view, any more than the agnostic/atheist must automatically hate all religious people.   

When it comes to the actual words for God used, if a Muslim is converted to Christ, he make look back on his use of the word Allah and say, much of what I thought about Allah has been changed by Jesus Christ, and i see Satan blinded me and much that I worshiped was a lie.  But he may also say, I had some truth, i believed in one, true, good creator God - that hasn't changed.  In either case he may not stop using the word “Allah” to refer to God, and I would have no problem if he did not drop it.  We of European ancestry can be thankful that the word “God’ itself was redeemed from paganism to carry the honor of the one true Maker of Heaven and Earth, enfleshed in the Word who was with God and WAS God.  Should one of Arabic descent feel differently about the word “Allah”?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Talk to A Non-Christian about Hell

QUESTION:  I recently had a conversation with my brother who is not a Christian, he has a very liberal "Christ Consciousness" view of Jesus and does not believe in hell. He asked me why he would go to hell and not me. I felt very uncomfortable and unprepared to respond to the question. Can you please help?

RESPONSE:  Thanks for your question, and I can appreciate the difficulty of this topic – especially when it gets out of the theoretical and into the personal.  It’s gets touchy.  In fact, just recently, Bernie Sanders, questioning a Christian nominee seemed to imply that just holding to the idea of heaven and hell is hateful!

But actually, it’s best that the topic does turn personal, not by starting with his personal eternal destiny, but rather with yours.  Before you talk about heaven, talk about this thing all Christians believe about themselves:  you yourself are qualified for hell.

You should be adamant about your conviction on this. See, you know you; you know your heart; you know your posture towards a holy God.  You are an authority on your own inner world.  And you know in your quiet heart, you’re among the people whose pride and depravity make you fit for hell.  Say it as baldly as that.  It might not immediately reduce the offense your brother is feeling about hell, but to put yourself in the cross-hairs of it, takes all the presumed arrogance and hate out of the equation.

See, the first thing you’re trying to fix is the misconception that Christians believe hell is the destiny for the especially bad people.  And conversely, that Christians believe we're the especially good people.  Add to this the safe bet that irreligious people think our confident goodness is bound up in certain political positions - positions he undoubtedly thinks are in some cases downright wicked!  Needless to say, this whole picture is offensive to outsiders to Christ.  They feel morally better than many others, including many Christians, whose sins and hypocrisies they take great pleasure in pointing out.

Well, no well-instructed Christian believes this moralistic view.  How can we?, when we read of Jesus pointing to tax collectors and prostitutes and tells the good people of his day, "they are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you."  (Matt 21:31)?  Clearly we believe something more subtle is going on than simply “good people go to heaven”.

But don't move too quickly to say, it's only those who "believe in Jesus" who go to heaven.  This is premature and offensive.  Why?  Because your brother might wonder, what is efficacious about an affirmation of belief?  What is meritorious about making a simple belief statement - especially when he perhaps questions whether Jesus even existed?  But even assuming Jesus belief is warranted, what kind of God makes eternal salvation contingent on true beliefs?  Is God also sending people to hell for not believing in Copernicus?  Are flat-earthers condemned?

Well, of course we must define what "believing in Jesus means".  When we say that those who "believe in Jesus are saved" and those that are not are condemned, what we are not saying is that they are condemned for not believing something.  No, according to Jesus himself, people's condemnation is warranted PRIOR to any beliefs we may or may not have about Jesus.  Read:
John 3:19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God's light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.
John 5:45: Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. Your accuser is Moses
Jesus was adamant that people have the light of moral goodness set before them, in Conscience and in the Moral Law, and that we have denied the light and broken the law (that's what his reference to Moses is about).  That is the assessment of Jesus.  That is really where this conversation has to start.  Does your brother feel that he is a law breaker before God?

He will likely say something like, "I'm not perfect, but I'm definitely a good person".  A good question is to then ask, how do you know that?  Ironically, a lot of non-Christians think Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is their guiding ethical code, and their pride in living by that code is what gives them confidence before God.  "I just love, like Jesus said, I think that's good enough, that's all God wants."

But this comes from not really reading the Sermon carefully.  Essentially Jesus puts the achievement of true goodness out of the reach of EVERYONE in that talk.  For it's in the Sermon that Jesus spiritualizes the Law.  Adultery is more than not sleeping in the wrong bed, it’s a heart thing too.  A simple curse (heart murder!) puts a person in danger of hell. (Matt 5:22)

This is the discussion you need to have FIRST, before you talk about "believing in Jesus", whatever that means.  EVERYONE is in danger of hell, because according to Jesus the standard is impossibly high.  Jesus says in that sermon, “be perfect.”  That rules me out.  This implies that hell is a default destiny - separation from God is not tied to your response to Christ, it PRECEDES your response to Christ.

So believing in Christ must begin with believing His assessment of our default posture before God.  Second, to believe in the mission of Jesus which he one time stated as, “I have not come for the well, but the sick.”  (Matt 9:12)  He said those words in response to some very high moral performers looking down on the sad company of losers and sinners he was hanging with.  So he's clearly talking about coming as a spiritual doctor for the morally ill.  

Is your brother one of the "sick" Jesus came for?  Or is he one of the "well"? The whole question of hell hinges on his answer to that question.  When I've asked that question of a seeker before, I got a troubled silence.  He didn't want to say he was "sick" because he believed everyone is inherently good.  But he also didn't want to say he was "well" for clearly Jesus considered the "well" outside the scope of his mission and he likes to think he's more on "team Jesus" than Christians are.  How should he answer?

Let your brother chew on this question for a bit, and it might be helpful to ask if he thinks his moral performance outshines people like Mother Teresa or Gandhi.  If he balks at being compared to two known "saints" simply point out that both Teresa and Gandhi were deeply convinced they were among the "sick".  While Gandhi never became a Christian, he was tormented by his own inner darkness.  The man your brother might say could not possibly be hell-bound wrote in his autobiography:  
"It is a constant torture to me that I am still so far from Him whom I know to be my very life and being.  I know it is my own wretchedness and wickedness that keeps me from Him."    - Gandhi

Until your brother is as convinced as Gandhi or Teresa were of their own fallenness, the very idea of hell will remain offensive.  He'll likely have host of questions about the justice of hell:
  • why eternal punishment for temporal offenses?, 
  • how could anyone enjoy heaven while hell goes on?, 
  • isn't retributive punishment inherently unjust?, 
  • why the frightful intensity of the pain? 
CS Lewis gives excellent replies to these and other objections in his chapter on Hell in Problem of Pain.  

But once he comes to the conviction that he is morally ill, and feels spiritually separated from God, these objections will fade and hell ceases to be a barbaric doctrine and becomes more an inevitable consequence of God's goodness.  Bringing him there, however, is not your job, as Jesus made clear:
John 16:8: "When [the Holy Spirit] comes, He will convict the world about sin"
At the moment when one experiences this conviction, not from false humiliation or human shaming but from God, the game changes.  A person so convicted gets humble, and desperate.  And this desperation begins to show what it means to "believe in Jesus".

Believing includes many ideas, the most elementary of which is to believe in the bare historical facts about him.  But the more significant ideas of "belief" include
  • CONFESSION: Coming to see yourself as Jesus sees you.  Wholly unable to save yourself, wholly self condemned.  
  • REPENTANCE, a repudiation of a life lived loving our own way, seeking our own godhood.  This would include acts of evil done for selfish pleasure, as well as acts of moral righteousness done for selfish pride.  
  • TRUST, the total casting of oneself onto the mercy of God through Jesus work on the cross to receive his absolution for sin.
Why then would you go to heaven and your brother would not?  Not because you’re better than him.  In one sense, because of the opposite - because you clearly feel yourself to be worse off before God than he does.  You believe you have a mortal ailment, he feels he is one of the "well".  So you grasped, by confession and repentance and trust, the healing that was offered to you by God through Jesus Christ.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Is The Prohibition Against Cross Dressing in Deut. 22:5 Still Valid?

QUESTION: Is Deut 22:5 prohibition on cross dressing no longer a law for Christians since Jesus came and fulfilled the law?  

Deuteronomy 22:5:  A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this. NIV

RESPONSE:  You correctly understand that the ceremonial Law of Moses is no longer binding on God’s people.  In fact, the cross lifts all the duties of the Law as a means to be made right with God.  The moral duties, however, remain as a guide for Christian discipleship.  The question for this passage then is, does it fall completely within the ceremonial law which has been abrogated by Jesus work, or is there some moral content which remains that aids Christian maturing?

To find out let’s remember that all the Law is about “being holy as I the Lord am Holy” – and “holy” has a sense of separation as well as moral purity.  So very often, the ceremonial restrictions of the law are about maintaining separateness while there seems to be no moral content to the command itself.  But because a LACK of separation would LEAD to impurity, the two are tied together.

For example, the Israelites were not to shave their heads above the ears (Lev 19:27).  There is no moral content in this command – it’s about hair!  This is ceremonial law with no ongoing responsibility for the Christian believer.  Ah, but if we know the context of ancient Canaanite pagan worship, we see God doesn’t give the command without any moral concern whatsoever. 

In Canaan, many of local priests would shave their heads in devotion to Baal.  So the hair command is about maintaining strict separateness so that Israel will not be like those who worship false gods.  And when we think about all the moral issues that went along with that worship (adultery, family breakdown, disease, prostitution, infanticide), suddenly the weirdly restrictive rules are given a moral imperative.

It’s the same with Deuteronomy 22:5.  A little bit of research reveals that almost every pagan culture has practiced some form of cross-dressing in worship rituals.  Theodore Burgh, in his book “Listening to the Artifacts” said that in ancient Mesopotamia, transvestites, men dressed like women, played and danced in the cult of Ishtar, performing erotic dances and pantomime.

In Canaan religion, their god Baal had a consort, the goddess wife Asherah and worshipers would engage in ritual prostitution with male and female cult prostitutes at hillside shines.  This was to encourage these gods to mate and make the earth fertile.  The Bible indicates that these cult prostitutes has specific dress (2 Kings 10:22; 23:7) for such ceremonies, as they played out the orgies of the gods.

So, the command against cross dressing likely had this in mind.  It was meant to keep Israel away from all practices that had anything to do with pagan worship – which, as mentioned above, led to every kind of evil that destroys people, children and society.

Since we don’t live in Canaan where such pagan rituals thrive, what is there to take from such a command?  First, this command confirms that there is male and female dress codes in all cultures and all times.  Second, this gender dress-coding is independent of the actual styles or modes of dress.  Which is to say that what exactly constitutes male and female dress is a culturally bound thing, but having differences in male/female dress is universal. 

For example, we can’t just think of pants as male, and dresses as female (as my grandma used to think).  Ancient peoples wore robes, both men and women, which to us all look like dresses or skirts, but somehow they knew the difference between male and female robes.  Dress codes change constantly, but everyone in all cultures knows when someone is trying to dress like the opposite gender.

Now, if we don’t follow the dietary restrictions of the Law, should Christians ignore this concern for gender distinction in clothing?  

When it comes to sex and gender Jesus taught us that the lasting moral designs of God are embedded in the creation account… which supersede Mosaic restrictions and permissions (Deut 24:1).  There we see God’s sexual design infused into the duality of human gender, male and female.  He makes us distinctly bifurcated into two and yet both are made in his Image.  So the difference is as sacred as the Image itself.  When Eve is made from Adam, we see God in their diversity – but then this very diversity is blended into a communal oneness of marriage when the “two become one flesh”.

All of this is holy. 
  • The Image,
  • The separating of the Image into Two,
  • The blending of the diverse image bearers into marital oneness again.

This all is holy because it is like God.  God is a unity of diversity.  So any world where one or all of these three things are diminished or denied is a world of weakened human flourishing.  Because it’s a world where the beauty of God’s unity-in-diversity design is marred.

Ironically, the modern doctrine of gender fluidity destroys the beautiful complementarity between the genders, while at the same time invoking the sacredness of gender to do so!!  How?  Well, the message today is that you can pick your gender.  But when you express a different gender than the one assigned to you at birth, everyone knows exactly the mold you must fit into in order to be that gender!

If a man wishes to be a woman, he mustn’t simply declare it.  He knows instinctively what he needs to do to express that gender: soften his skin, surgically shave his brow and chin, acquire breasts, wear softer, more colorful clothing, soften his voice, grow his hair long and paint his nails and face.   In other words he must conform himself to instinctual patterns of femininity.  “Gender is a social construct,” we hear, therefore the line between male and female must be very blurry indeed.  But if we wish to cross that line embrace this ancient gender archetype!

Well, Christians believe that these gender archetypes are so enduring and inescapable precisely because they relate to our spiritual makeup.  Thus masculinity and femininity are sacred because they both, in complementary ways, express the Image of God.  That’s why Christians treat them as inviolable and resist transgenderism (even if we readily acknowledge and have compassion for that real and troubling psychological condition).  God speaks through Nature and human nature is clearly built on male and female, therefore we Christians don’t presume to challenge that or erase what is inerasable.

But it’s not surprising that when cultures suppress this truth, sex starts to become a free for all (see Romans 1).  Ideas have consequences, and if a society carries the idea that sex is not designed and carries no implicit higher meaning, then whatever makes you feel good sexually becomes our only guiding principle.  In such a world, unlimited sexual experimentation would not only be allowed, it would be encouraged because we are now the gods who get to invent meaning.  We get to take this accidental outcome of Nature (sex) and express it however we want (even while we bow to these inbuilt gender archetypes!).

So, we may not live where priests cross-dress to incite sexual intercourse that spills the bounds of committed, monogamous, heterosexual love - but given our current doctrines on gender, perhaps we do live in Canaan after all!  To this extent, Deut 22:5 may not be binding on believers, yet it hints strongly at the beauty and inviolable duality of human gender from Creation.

Now let me be clear:  this doesn’t mean Moses should be used to dictate any particular modes of dress for male or female Christians today.  Styles are very culturally relative and similar modes can have male and female versions.  Even so we affirm gender distinction, expressed in our clothing, built on the sacred masculine and sacred feminine and the dance of Oneness between them.  This duality reflects God back to us so beautifully, Christians cannot go along with  any way of thinking or dressing that intentionally tries to blur it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

How Old Were The Disciples?

QUESTION:  About the disciples, the question seems to come up often about how they could have written 30 or more years after the crucifixion of the Christ. However, since men started to work at an age that today would be considered inappropriate perhaps as young as 12 - perhaps approximating their ages would provide an answer. So how old were they? (Not exact ages of course.)

RESPONSE:  This question has a surprising answer, as you rightly deduce.  The disciples, likely, were very young.  The question you seem concerned with is how the disciples could be alive and writing about the events of Jesus as late as 95-100 A.D. (as in the case of John).  Even the other authors of the New Testament, like Matthew, Peter and Paul, seem to be (based on common assumptions) too old to be writing when they do, in the mid 60’s and beyond – especially given life spans at the time.

Why do we assume this?  Because we’ve been far more formed by Bible movies
Peter - Movie "Risen"
than by the Biblical data on hand.  Watch almost EVERY Jesus movie ever produced and see how they paint the disciples of Jesus as mostly older than Jesus.  Jesus, everyone agrees, was about 30 years old during his ministry, based on Luke’s explicit aging in 3:23.  But after that, the consistent picture of the
Peter: Movie "Passion"
disciples is of an older Peter and James with long beards, some gray hair, or balding heads, clearly middle aged, and clearly older than their strapping young Rabbi.
Thomas: Movie "Son of God"

Now, there is no indicator in Scripture of a specific age for any disciple, but the clues from the Gospels and from a little research into 1st century Jewish culture tell us that this idea, depicted over and over in movies and pictures, is almost certainly wrong.

Let’s go to the Mishnah, the oral interpretations of Torah (law) at the time of Jesus.  It shows a very regimented educational/life path for young boys in Judaism:
 “At five years old [one is fit] for the Scripture, at ten years the Mishnah (oral Torah, interpretations) at thirteen for the fulfilling of the commandments, at fifteen the Talmud (making Rabbinic interpretations), at eighteen the bride-chamber, at twenty pursuing a vocation, at thirty for authority (able to teach others)."
So, in the time of Jesus, almost all Jewish young men were married, and usually by age 18.  But in the Gospels, Peter is the only disciple known to have been married (Matthew 8:14-15).  No other disciples’ wives are ever mentioned.  So this tells us that the disciples may have all been under 20, with some as young as 15.

What bolsters this case is the educational pathway of that time.  Education for the Jewish child concluded at the age of 15.  But just as every parent today would be proud to have a son or daughter do much more education to become a high-status medical doctor or professor, Jewish parents would desire their boys to be selected for Rabbinic training. 

If you were 15 and done with your basic training in Torah, a boy who was bright enough, (or whose parents were rich enough) would find a rabbi to take them on as a student.  You’d have to show proficiency and it’s assumed many students had very large portions of the Law and Prophets committed to memory.  Paul’s case may have been like this, where an extremely bright Jewish student from Tarsus, is sent by his rich parents to Jerusalem to study under a great Rabbi (Gameliel).

If your son didn’t merit this honor, they would enter the workforce by their mid-teens, and in almost every case, apprentice under their fathers in the family trade. 

So this explains a few things we see in the Gospels. 

One, it means that if most of the disciples are apprenticing at their trades when called, as in the case of James and John working in the family fishing business, they must have been older than 15.  But, because they are also unmarried, likely not older than 20.  Peter is the exception to this, but because his brother Andrew is not married, and they’re working with James and John (Luke 5:10 - perhaps their two families have a joint business venture), it stands to reason they are roughly the same age.  It would be odd to have a brother twice as old as you, for example.

Two, because we find them working in trades at the time Jesus calls them, none of the disciples likely were “star students”.  After their formal education was complete, they were not taken for mentorship by any local Rabbi.  And so, being passed over as teenagers, they are perhaps shocked to be considered worthy of apprenticeship with a traveling Rabbi who was beginning to gain a reputation at that time. 

The great honor of being chosen for Rabbinic training, especially after being passed over, would compel most Jewish boys to jump at the chance to leave blue collar work behind (Luke 5:11).  The fact of their being passed over for classic training explains why after the resurrection, the Chief priests note they're level of education.  They clearly hadn’t passed muster for special Rabbinic training, but having been with Jesus for 3 years, and seeing him alive again, gave them special qualifications:
Acts 4:13:  When they observed the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed and knew that they had been with Jesus. HB
Three, it explains why Peter is painted as the spokesman for the disciples – he’s the only one married, so therefore probably the oldest.  But, as I said, we don’t have to infer that he was THAT much older, since his brother Andrew is still unmarried and he works with close friends James and John, also unmarried.  So positing an age for Peter of no more than 25 is very plausible, in stark contrast to the 45 - 55 year old Peter in most plays, movies and other depictions.

Four, the Mishnah explains why Jesus didn’t start his ministry until age 30 even though his mission of redemption by death could have been accomplished at any age.  Why not go through with it sooner?  Well, no Rabbi would take disciples until age 30, and no disciples would seek out a Rabbi younger than that.  Additionally Jesus had to take students to steward the Church when he was gone.  So really, Jesus begins at the very moment it was possible to begin - when it was culturally appropriate to assume authority and take on disciples.

Now, the only other disciple besides Peter who might have been outside his teens was Matthew, who likely needed to be an established adult to be an independent contractor with the Roman government as a tax collector.

But think of other indicators of the youthfulness of the disciples:

In Matthew 11:25, Mark 10:24, Luke 10:21, and John 13:33, Jesus calls his trainees “little children” or “little ones”.  As the Incarnate Word/Son of God, we think Jesus can make a paternal reference to any human and it would be fitting… and yes it would.  But let’s not void Jesus human nature and the nature of his patriarchal cultural.  Older men, were treated with respect as fathers.  Calling his disciples “children” may indicate they were mostly – gasp! – children! Or at least much younger than their Master.

Also, John and James' mother Salome wanted to arrange where her boys would sit with Jesus at the Kingdom table.  Imagine this scene if the brothers were grown men (Matthew 20:20-24)!  But if her boys were teenagers when chosen, it would explain her lack of resistance to them leaving the family biz ("finally we’ll have a doctor in the family!") and her maternal pushiness on their behalf.  Remember also that Jesus nicknamed them “Sons of Thunder” because they were probably either loud or bold, characteristics of youth.

Here’s something else.  In Exodus 30:14-15, we read that every male over the age of 20 was to pay a tax to maintain the “Sanctuary” or Temple.  In Matthew 17:24-27, we read that when questioned about this tax, Jesus instructs Peter to pay this tax – but only for “me and you”.  But all the disciples are present (“they came to Capernaum” vs 24). We might reasonably conclude that the others were under age 20 and did not need to pay.

So all of this suggests a very startling, and in some ways endearing picture of the disciples.  They're boys!  Mostly older teenagers, young Jewish bachelors, and not blue-chip Harvard stars either.  Nevertheless, they are honored to be taken for apprenticeship by a Rabbi perhaps more than 10 years older than they.  Don’t our hearts go out to them more as they struggle to grasp all that Jesus is saying to them?  Don’t we cheer for them more as these young 20 year old's buck a corrupt priestly system and boldly declare a New Kingdom on planet earth?  Don’t we have more patience with their blunders and pride?  As a father to 2 young men in this age bracket, I tear up with pride thinking about the stands they have made for this same Kingdom, and how Jesus is pleased to choose and use the likes of these (Matt 11:25).

And as to the plausibility of them being young enough to still be around to write about all this in the 60’s – 90’s, there is no problem at all.  Young John, perhaps 15 during the life of Jesus, would be only 85 if he wrote his gospel, letters and Revelation in the year 100.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Should Christians Always Bear the Burdens of Others?

QUESTION: Hey Rick! questions...... I feel like I tend to be the "white knight" in a lot of relationships in my past... some find their way to codependent relationships with me and others are just a season and then the person can mend their wound and walk on their own. I feel like I always thought this was the Christian thing to do because we are called to "bear with one another and help when people ur weak or hurting". I feel like maybe I'm wrong in this. I've been challenging my thinking in this area. Thoughts?
p.s. I've been reading "boundaries" by Cloud and Townsend. LOVING it! 

RESPONSE: Well, glad you found that book already because I would send you straight to “Boundaries” if you hadn’t. I can’t add much more to that good message…

Except to underline the importance of finding the balance between saving and serving.  Only one saves, Jesus. We are called only to serve. And the Bible says serving is sometimes best done by bearing a burden and other times by stepping back from developing dependency on you as the "White Knight".

The best Scripture to underline this balance is Gal 6:1-5 -
Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted also. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he is deceiving himself. But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load. HB
The most obvious question about this passage is the juxtaposition of two similar words in 5 short verses.

What’s really cool is when you look at two Greek words which are translated here as “burden” (verse 2) and “load” (verse 5). The old KJV, with its very limited vocabulary, translated them both with the same English word, "BURDEN". And that sort of created a dichotomy or contradiction for Christians. How am I supposed to carry my brother's burden but then we’re all supposed to carry our own burdens?

The answer is that these are two different KINDS of burdens.  The first is the word for that kind of burden that is a crisis that no one can carry by themselves. The root idea is “weight”.  Something too heavy for one person to bear.  The second word (vs 5) is for that kind of burden that is more like cargo or freight. Something we all have to carry day to day.

So the impact of these verses is this: “help carry the burdens for each other that are too heavy to bear alone, and let no one expect others to carry the responsibilities and duties that are his alone.”

Now, this will take discernment to implement for surely it’s a sliding scale which burdens fit into which categories. For children, it’s a moving target. What was a burden too heavy to carry this year, will be responsibility they must carry themselves next year.  Parents are wise to see that their “interventions” in burden-bearing are moving gradually less and less as the child ages.  (This is, I think, more demanding a call to moms than dads!)

But then, with friends, seasons of loss, grief, crisis or tragedy put them into a mode where some of the simplest responsibilities which they ought to always take on themselves (making food, finding shelter) are too heavy for them, and the law of Christ calls us to step in.

So, use discernment.

But what this passage says in no uncertain terms is that is it NOT a blanket Christian response to others in any kind of need, that we rescue, help, pick up after or save. Yes, compassion, and servanthood should be our calling cards, but sometimes “helping hurts” (the title of a GREAT book!) – so we are called by Scripture to avoid that, for “love does no harm to its neighbor”.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Does the NIV Mistranslate "Homosexual" to Attack Gays?

Question: Why does the NIV use the word "homosexual"?  I've heard the original word doesn't mean anything like "homosexual".  Is this evidence of a scheme of translators trying to attack gays through mistranslation?  What DOES the original text say regarding homosexuality?

Answer: Thanks for the question.  To begin an answer, I’ll cut and paste a portion of our white paper on homosexuality that deals directly with word meanings in the relevant passages.  You can email me and I'll gladly send the whole doc.
"I CORINTHIANS 6:9-11 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (NIV)
There is again, no special place given to homosexuality.  It is the same as any other sin. 
However, is Paul even talking about homosexuality per se, or something else?  He uses two key Greek words.  The first, “Malakos” here translated ‘male prostitutes’ means literally “the soft”, sometimes translated as “effeminate.”  This is a reference to men and boys who allowed themselves to be used homosexually.[1]  Or “men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners”[2]
The second word "Arsenokoitai" is a compound word, "arsen" which means “male” and "koitai" which means "bed" or "lying" - a word with clear sexual connotations.  So the straightforward meaning is men who bed or lie with other males.  Or “a male homosexual, or sodomite.”[3]  Another lexicon defines the word as “one who lies with a male as with a female.”[4] Strong's concordance defines the word as simply “a sodomite.”[5]
I cite several lexical sources here for some authority on the meaning of these two words, since much ado has been made of their translation.  In fact, a lot of very late scholarship uses the ambiguity and uniqueness of these words to suggest that they do not refer to homosexuality at all, or at least not to homosexual practices per se.
Arguments are made by liberal scholars that “arsenokoitai” refers only to male prostitutes or that “malakos” refers perhaps to a slave boy kept for homosexual purposes – a common Greek practice (the implication being that Paul has nothing to say about male on male sex in general.)
But upon inspection, the two words side by side leave little doubt that Paul’s meaning is that homosexual practice is intrinsically wrong, not merely wrong because of the age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money between the participants.
In fact, “malakos” has a corresponding Latin term ("molles") which Philo uses to describe effeminate males who desire penetration by men.  Apparently Philo’s (and other ancients') problem with such men did not center on their exploitation of others, age difference, or acts of prostitution, but rather, around their attempted erasure of the masculine stamp given them by God/nature[6].  And if this term only refers to boys (or girls) abused sexually by older men as claimed, one wonders why they are on the list of the "wicked" at all, and not the exploiters alone.
"Arsenokoitai" is likely a word invented by Paul [7].  It appears nowhere in literature before this usage in 1 Corinthians.  But that doesn’t mean Paul’s meaning is unknowable.  The structure of the word (man + bed/lying), clearly links it with the Mosaic restriction in Leviticus 18:22 – “do not lie with a man as with a woman.”  In fact, the Greek version of the Old Testament in use by early Rabbis used the exact same terms to translate the Hebrew.  In Paul's Rabbinical circles these very words were used to stress God’s absolute prohibition on homosexual behavior, in contrast to the very lenient attitudes of  the Greco-Roman period[8].
We can sympathize with those who suggest that any translation (such as the NIV) which render these words using “homosexual” may be misleading.  Clearly “homosexual” is a loaded modern term (unavailable to Paul in the 1st century) and it doesn’t convey the literal meaning of the words Paul uses.  In our context the word “homosexual” often carries a heavy connection to modern understandings about orientation. Thus a person may feel this passage is condemning something beyond our control  whereas these two words are actually condemning sexual practices not orientations. 
Perhaps other, better English words might be used to render Paul’s terms, but it would be hard to be as explicit as Paul without being vulgar.  He could hardly be more clear about what he's condemning: the two roles involved in male homosexual sex:  The first (malakos) gives himself to be used by the second (arsenokoitai).  Those who engage in such practice, willfully repudiating God’s good creation design, along with ALL those involved in ANY unrepented pattern of sin (see the expansive list), are not eligible for the Kingdom."
So like many other instances of translation, "homosexual" is a fair but imperfect rendering of Paul’s meaning into English.  It might be that the evolution of attitudes about homosexuality requires more precision - not to conform the meaning to modern sensibilities, but to better communicate the meaning to changing modern sensibilities.

For example, as stated in our paper, if "homosexual" is taken to include the psychological condition of homosexual orientation, then that does mean that "homosexual offender" (NIV) is not a good translation.  In fact, if that's how people take it, "homosexual" is misleading and harmful.  Reason being it would convey that to be homosexually oriented is the offense in God's eyes, and yet no Scripture ever addresses orientation. Paul here addresses behavior.  And the behavior being addressed is clear, even if the Greek words have some ambiguity.

So, if we wanted to get more literal and stay away from any allusion to orientation, we could easily ditch the term "homosexual" (since Paul surely didn’t know that term).  A very rough paraphrase of "malakos" might be: "a man who acts like a woman in sex acts".  The second word is best understood simply as "those men who sleep with other men."  Of course you can see what that gains in accuracy it clearly loses in economy.

So while the use of "homosexual" is debatable, what is not is that any accurate transference of these terms into English cannot escape referring to homosexual practices per se.  The context is clear this can't be a reference merely to pedophilia (Paul did have that term available to him - chose not to use it) or temple prostitution (when the Bible wants to address that, it does so explicitly, not implicitly – Deut 23:17-18).  Instead we have here a simple reference to all male homosexual activity (Romans 1 deals with female homosexual activity.)  It is clearly condemned as sin - not conforming to God's good design - along with other things like greed and slander.

But the hope of redemption for all "the wicked" is made perfectly clear.  You can put Yours Truly on that list, of those who were in that category until they were "washed, sanctified and justified".  What amazing hope for all!

[1] Arndt, William R. and Gingrich, F. Wilbur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1957, pg 489.
[2]  Gagnon, “Why the Disagreement over the Biblical Witness on Homosexual Practice?, pg 10.
[3]Ibid, p 109.
[4]Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pg 75.
[5]Strong, James, Strong’s Greek-Hebrew Dictionary, Riverside Book and Bible House, pg 16.
[6] Gagnon, “Why the Disagreement over the Biblical Witness on Homosexual Practice?, pg 10
[7] Ibid, pg 10.
[8] Ibid, pg 10.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Was Nostradamus a Prophet?

QUESTION: What’s your take on Nostradamus?  Was he a prophet?

RESPONSE:  First, we should ask what a prophet is.  Every culture and worldview system has its predictors of the future, because there’s always a market for prognostication.  Why?  Well, if you could truly get accurate knowledge of the future, it would have a lot of handy applications:  Comfort, direction, betting advice.

But being a Jewish prophet was different than your run of the mill shaman, witch-doctor, soothsayer, tea-leaf or palm reader.  They all claimed to know the future through trances, or reading the flights of birds or the entrails of animals or the position of stars.

Thus the pagan had no objective basis for confidence, it was all mystery and fatalism.  The Jew on the hand shunned necromancy, and spiritism of all kinds because only if their omniscient, eternal God was real, was real prophecy a confident possibility.

Thus Isaiah will say:
Isa 8:19-20: When they say to you, “Consult the spirits of the dead and the spiritists who chirp and mutter,” shouldn’t a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?
Of course, the Jewish approach to prophecy means God is in the driver’s seat.  He reveals what he wants, not what WE want.  And God’s purpose in revealing the future was always for courting or building relationship with us.  Meanwhile, the pagans thought clairvoyance was about reading the predetermined script of Fate, for no larger purpose than personal gain or banal curiosity.

Despite all these differences in the source of prophecy, the real proof, as they say, is in the pudding.  Which mode of prophecy has proven trustworthy?  Here too we see a difference in biblical prophecy, because the Jewish Scriptures are not at all fuzzy about the accuracy standard:  100%.
"If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him" (Deuteronomy 18:22).
A lot of “prophets” (I’m looking at you National Enquirer) would have lost all credibility (and income) if we applied this standard.  This standard made the ancient Jews a thinking, non-superstitious people.  Fear of the occult was pervasive back then, but God specifically wants to allay these fears with a simple standard:  prophecies, in order to be verified, must be specific and detailed enough to be shown undeniably true.

Now, with this standard in mind, how does the Bible fare against Nostradamus?  I’ll list just a few predictive prophesies made by Bible prophets that were fulfilled.  Then we’ll see how Nostradamus compares.
  • Ezekiel 26 predicted, 250 years in advance, how Alexander would conquer Tyre.
  • Psalm 22:16 would predict that the Messiah would be pieced in hands and feet – clearly alluding to a mode of execution (crucifixion) that hadn’t been invented when the prophecy was made.
  • Predicting Messiah would not decay in the tomb (Ps 16).
  • Predicting Messiah would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
  • Predicting Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).
  • Predicting Messiah would be a Nazarene (Isaiah 11:1), and many others.
Of course Jesus shows up fulfilling all these predictions, but then he ALSO makes prophetic predictions himself – the most startling of which was predicting the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple within a generation of his life.  In 70 AD the Roman general Titus leveled the city fulfilling Jesus word to the letter. (Luke 21:5-6)

Now, let’s turn to Nostradamus.  Is there anything like this kind of detail with specific fulfillment?  What follows is a few examples that show either Nostradamus is so vague and unclear that his accuracy could never be assessed confidently OR when he is very specific and clear, he is proven false.

For example, this passage is believed by some to foretell the 9/11 attacks:
"In the year of the new century and nine months, From the sky will come a great King of Terror. The sky will burn at forty-five degrees. Fire approaches the great new city."
The problems with this “prophecy” are numerous.

  • First, this isn’t taken from a single section, but rather it’s a collection of statements culled from different sections to make a more cohesive sounding prediction that is made to match an historical event.
  • Second, terror coming from the sky matches 9/11, but not this reference to a King.  The “king” (Bin Laden?) stayed home that day. 
  • Third, it’s not buildings that burn for Nostradamus, but rather the sky that burns at “forty-five degrees”.  What does that mean?  No one knows. 
  • Finally, New York City has the word “new” in its title, but in 2001 it was the oldest city in the country.  In what sense is it new?
We can admit that collected artificially in this way, there’s some similarity - albeit very figurative - to 9/11.  But taking these bits of Nostradamus out of context (as if everything he wrote was somehow magically predictive, but in a way unconnected his own flow of thought or logic) strains credibility to the breaking point.

Another example:
The young lion will overcome the old one,
On the field of war in single combat:
He will burst his eyes in a cage of gold,
Two fleets one, then to die, a cruel death.
Allegedly, this has reference to the death of France’s king, Henry II.  He was wounded in a jousting contest in 1557; he died ten days later. Well, here’s what actually happened:

Only six years separated the ages of Henry and his opponent in the tournament; it was hardly a contest between the young and the old (Henry was only forty). The accident occurred during a friendly sporting event, not on a battlefield.  There is no evidence that Henry was wearing a gilded visor (cage) of gold. Also, the king’s eyes were not damaged; a splinter from the lance pierced his skull and entered the brain. The reference to “two fleets” is utterly unconnected.

These are just two examples of how extremely vague Nostradamus' writings are. This provides an opportunity for wild speculation and "retroactive clairvoyance."  Many have made him a genius by squeezing modern events into the very large openings provided by his imprecision and ambiguity.

However, there is one instance when Nostradamus was less vague and refreshingly clear. In his preface to “The Centuries” – a letter to his son – Nostradamus finally writes in unambiguous terms:
From the time I am writing this [1 March 1555], before 177 years, 3 months and 11 days, by pestilence, long famine, and wars, and more still by inundations, the world between this day and that, before and after, shall be diminished, and its population so reduced that there will hardly be hands enough to attend to agriculture, and the lands will be left as long without culture as they have been under tillage.
The deadline for this prediction is easily tallied:

             Day      Month     Year
Start     1            3              1555
Add      11          3                177
Total     12          6              1732

June 12, 1732.

The truly apocalyptic destruction and depopulation predicted here is very specific and the effects very long-lasting.  So we can say with confidence that none of this has occurred and yet the deadline passed by long before the United States became a nation.

So, when I compare Nostradamus to the incredible line of specific and fulfilled prophecy of Scripture, I find him untrustworthy.  And it leads to this question – why would we want to trust him?  Especially knowing that we have the markers of authentic prophecy in Scripture affirmed and crowned by the long-predicted Christ.