Does the Bible Contradict Itself? Part Two.

When I was reflecting on what title to give to these posts, I initially thought about calling them, “Can the Bible Contradict Itself?”  Certainly, many Christians would say, “no.”  If the Bible is God’s Word, then surely it must be true, and if it is true, then it must also be perfectly consistent, without flaw or error.

The problem with this approach is that it compels us to read the Bible, not in a spirit of openness and discovery, but cautiously and circumspectly, ever alert for apparent contradictions which we must at all costs explain away.  So, for example, we must find a way to fold the creation story in Genesis 2 into Genesis 1, or to shoehorn the shepherds (mentioned only in Luke) and the wise men (mentioned only in Matthew) into one Christmas narrative.  The result may well be that we are no longer reading the Bible, but the web of rationalizations we have spun over the Bible. How can we be ready for the Holy Spirit to show us something we have never seen before if we already know the answers, and are only open to hearing what we already know to be true?

Early this year, scientists around the world watched through their telescopes as, in another galaxy, a star exploded in a supernova (the bright dot marked with the arrow in the photograph above).  Astronomers labelled this particular stellar explosion SN2014J. They had thought that they understood this process fairly well:

One expected result of this stellar explosion, their models predicted, should have been the production of X-rays: the same radiation that doctors use to examine our bones beneath our skin.  But when the telescope on NASA’s orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory was trained on SN2014J, it saw this:

Nothing.  Absolutely nothing!  They were wrong. But rather than trying to cover up this evidence, or explain it away, astronomers were thrilled and delighted by this opportunity to learn something new about the universe.  It is my hope and prayer that we can read the Bible with that same spirit of openness, excitement, and discovery.  God has something new to say to us in Scripture, this day and every day.

Last time, we began considering some of the alleged and actual contradictions in Scripture cited by Daniel G. Taylor at his website, Following David O’Dell’s classification of those contradictions into three groups, we looked first at apparent contradictions that aren’t really contradictions at all, and second at contradictions concerning matters of fact such as names and places.  Most troubling, however, is David’s third group:

I know that verses often don’t stand alone very well; that we have to read a fair amount to get the context. But even then, I have a tough time comparing, for instance, Mat 26:51 with Mat 10:34 and Luke 12:51 and Luke 22:36. To sword or not to sword? There are similar verses regarding judging — do I judge or not judge?

When the Bible’s teaching regarding faith and morality seems conflicted, what are we to do?

Let’s look at the passages concerning judging first. Both Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37 warn that we should expect to be treated no differently than we treat others.  So, Luke says, “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

In both Matthew and Luke, this saying leads into a famous parable of Jesus:

Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye?  You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye (Matt 7:3-5).

The point, then, is not that we cannot exercise moral judgments–we must do this.  However, we ought not hold others to a standard that we are not willing or able to meet ourselves.  If we want to be treated mercifully (and anyone with any self -knowledge at all knows that we need this, desperately!), we must show mercy in our treatment of others.  With this insight, we can see that there is no conflict with other passages concerning the exercise of proper moral judgment.  There is, however, a stern warning against self-righteousness, which pumps us up while belittling and abusing others.

The sword sayings present a different problem.  Matthew 26:51-54Mark 14:47-49, and Luke 22:49-51  all describe one of the people with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane drawing a sword against those who came for Jesus, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave; John 18:10-11 says that the assailant was Peter, and that the slave’s name was Malchus. In all of these passages, Jesus opposes this violence.  Indeed, in Matthew 26:52, Jesus says, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Yet, in Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”  Luke’s version of this saying reads, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division“–apparently an interpretation of what “the sword” means in this context.  In both gospels, Jesus goes on to describe how families will be torn apart by his message, as some accept it and others vehemently reject it–as well as their own kin.  Luke’s interpretation seems correct, then: the sword in Matthew is a metaphor for the violence and opposition Jesus’ message will stir up, even within families.  Jesus is not calling for his followers to take up the sword against their opponents.

But then, there is Luke 22:35-37:

Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?” [see Luke 9:3]

They said, “Nothing.”

Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a wallet must take it, and likewise a bag. And those who don’t own a sword must sell their clothes and buy one.  I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in relation to me: And he was counted among criminals [Isaiah 53:12Indeed, what’s written about me is nearing completion.”

This saying, found only in Luke, conflicts with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere–as Jesus himself acknowledges.  The following verse does not make interpreting this passage any easier.  The disciples run a quick inventory, and tell Jesus that they have two swords.  Jesus replies, Hikanon esti: “It is enough.”  But what does that mean?  Is Jesus saying that two swords will be sufficient?  Or, as the CEB has it, is he calling an end to the discussion, indicating that the disciples have understood him too literally: “Enough of that!”  Either way, later in this chapter comes the encounter in the garden of Gethsemane: in Luke, the disciples ask, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” (Luke 22:49). When they do so, Jesus rebukes them (see the discussion above)–in fact, in Luke, Jesus heals the slave’s wounded ear (Luke 22:51).

What is going on here?  Could Luke 22:36 be a fragment of an old tradition remembering that Jesus did call for his followers to take up the sword against Rome?   Reza Aslan’s book Zealot makes this claim.  On the other hand, the reference to Isaiah 53:12 in this passage, where the Servant of the LORD is “numbered with rebels,” could lead us to Luke’s point: Jesus needs to be taken from among armed resisters in accordance with this Scripture–though their resistance is only a token, meant symbolically to fulfill the prophecy.  Or, it may be that the message about laying up food and money and buying weapons concerns the difficult days ahead, when the Jewish resistance to Rome will erupt into a disastrously failed rebellion.  In any case, whatever Luke 22:35-38 may mean, it is clear that Jesus opposes the use of the sword even here.

This raises a question for believers: can the use of the sword–that is, of military force–be justified? Paul, for one, legitimates the use of force by the state (Romans 13:4). Some in Christian tradition have upheld the idea of just war: that while war for conquest is always wrong, defensive war aimed at protecting the innocent is justified.  Recently, when Pope Francis was asked about military action (specifically, bombing) directed against the terrorists slaughtering Christians in Iraq, he said, “In these cases where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war, I say stop by some means. With what means can they be stopped? These have to be evaluated. To stop the unjust aggressor is licit.”  The question “to sword or not to sword” is not an easy one.

The Bible is a big and complicated book–as it must be.  After all, life is complicated, and truth too is complex.  Those who ask, “Do you believe the Bible, or not?” deny this complexity: as though truth was always straightforward, either/or rather than both/and.

In an earlier blog, I argued that truth of Scripture is not propositional, but relational:

I propose that the Bible is a love letter from God–an invitation to relationship calling for our commitment, not a list of propositions requiring our assent.  This reading of Scripture has its problems, too–in particular, one might argue that if the Bible is not a rule book, then we have no basis for any rules: the only alternative is an “anything-goes” morality.  I do not accept that conclusion.  As we come into relationship with the God revealed in Scripture, we grow into God’s love, and desire more and more to live in accordance with that love: that is, to love what God loves, and as God loves.

The conflicts and contradictions in Scripture are not distractions to ignore, or problems to be explained away.  They are part and parcel of the Bible’s complex message.  They point us toward the  history of the many communities of faith that have, over generations, come into contact with God.  The meaning of Scripture is found when we too come into relationship with the living God.


Thank you for your patience, and for your prayers.  My recuperation is coming along nicely!  From here on out, I will endeavor to keep up with you faithfully, ever week or every other week


Does the Bible Contradict Itself?

In his splendid book The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep, Still Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), Dale Allison refers to “the omni-present allusions in Scripture” (p. 105).  The Bible indeed is a web of allusions; nearly every verse in Scripture is linked to other verses, whether explicitly through quotation and shared language (for example, Matthew 2:13-15 quotes Hosea 11:1), or implicitly through shared images and ideas (for example, the idea of the LORD as a shepherd in Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23; and Zechariah 10:1–11:3).  That complex interweaving is beautifully illustrated by the chart above, prepared by Chris Harrison, Assistant Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, and Lutheran pastor Christoph Roemhild. This colorful chart uses rainbow-colored arcs to link Bible passages that quote or allude to ideas and images in other texts to one another.

In his blog The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta refers to this chart, and particularly to a refinement of the chart by Andy Marlow focused on cross-references that demonstrate alleged contradictions within Scripture.  That chart has in turn been refined and made interactive by Daniel G. Taylor at his own site,

It is at once apparent that this site is certainly not friendly toward the Bible, or even neutral: for instance, another chart on the site depicting “Scientific Absurdities and Historical Inaccuracies” in the Bible seems ignorant of poetry and metaphor, insisting on a literal reading of every passage.  Still, this chart provides a quick and dirty way to discover that the Bible is not a monolith, perfectly consistent and all of a piece.  Anyone with time and an open mind can quickly discover that the Bible does indeed contradict itself.  The question is, what does this mean for people of faith?

My friend Dr. J. David O’Dell of Glenville State College in West Virginia, organic chemist and folk musician extraordinaire, directed me to this site and to this topic.  He wrote:

Been doing some pondering, thanks to a new web site that makes it easy to compare parts of the Bible and observe contradictory verses. After looking at a few, I can put them into three categories:
1. Contradictions that arise from verses that are written in a style that I have a difficult time understanding, so I can’t really tell if they’re contradictory or not.
To be sure, one problem with this site is its reliance on The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, which in turn bases its notes on the King James Bible of 1611–a beautiful, but obviously dated English translation–rather than on a more recent translation, or better still, on the original languages.  This results in the identification of some contradictions that actually do not exist.
For example, Judges 1:19 (“And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron”) is said to conflict with Genesis 18:14 (“Is any thing too hard for the LORD?”).  However, a careful reading of the Judges passage in context makes plain that it is the tribe of Judah that was successful in supplanting the people in the hill country, but unable to displace the Canaanite chariot lords in the valleys–not the LORD (as the CEB translation makes clear).
David’s second category of contradictions listed at the bibviz site is more straightforward:
2. Contradictions of simple facts, such as whether Moses received the commandments at Sinai or Horeb. 
Once more, this is actually not a contradiction, strictly speaking.  Horeb and Sinai are two different names for the same place: the mountain of God, where Moses was given God’s law.  However, the use of two names for one mountain does indicate one source of contradictions in Scripture.  Rather than a single work by a single author, the Bible is a series of conversations, over millennia, with generation talking to generation about their encounters with God.  In the collected conversations that make up this complex work, contradictions and tensions  provide clues to identify particular voices or traditions.  The names “Horeb” and “Sinai” provide one such clue.
“Horeb” does not appear at all in the New Testament.  It is found 17 times in the Hebrew Bible, in an intriguing distribution.  By far the majority of references (nine) come from Deuteronomy, a book couched as Moses’ last words to the people before their entry into the land, which emphasizes Moses over Aaron, and the priestly calling of “the whole tribe of Levi” over the claims of Aaron’s line (see Deut 18:1).  Another two come from the history built on Deuteronomy’s idea of covenant in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (1 Kgs 8:9 [quoted in 2 Chronicles 5:10] and 19:8).  The remaining five references also seem related, either to Deuteronomy, or to the northern Levitical perspective Deuteronomy represents.  So, Psalm 106 (see Ps 106:19 for Horeb) is a retelling of the Exodus story very similar to Deuteronomy 1–4, while Malachi (see Mal 4:4) emphasizes Levitical priesthood (see Mal 2:4-9).  The final three are Exodus traditions likely associated with the north, also emphasizing Moses over Aaron (see Exod 3:1; 17:6; 33:6).  The “Horeb” traditions, in short, seem to reflect northern Levitical ideas of Israel and God.
Sinai, of course, is the dominant term for the mountain where Moses received the Law.  It appears 40 times in Christian Scripture, including four references in the New Testament (Acts 7:30, 38Galatians 4:24-25). In the Old Testament, Sinai is mentioned 30 times in Exodus (13 times), Leviticus (five times) and Numbers (12 times), all in material associated with old southern priestly traditions, emphasizing Aaron–a different tradition from that reflected in Deuteronomy and its related texts.  The references to Sinai in Deuteronomy 33:2, 16 and Judges 5:5 are the exceptions that prove the rule: both Deuteronomy 33 (Moses’ final blessing on the tribes) and Judges 5 (the Song of Deborah, one of the oldest poems in Scripture) are ancient poems celebrating the LORD as the Divine Warrior that have been incorporated into the books in which they appear.


Similar observations could be made about other contradictions in Scripture.  From the two versions of the creation in Genesis 1:1–2:4a and 2:4b-25 and the two versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-22 to the two Christmas stories in Matthew 1:18–2:12 and Luke 2:1-20, the Bible gives us, not a single perspective, but multiple perspectives on God and the world.  This should pose no problem for the believer who recognizes that Scripture is at one and the same time human word, reflecting the concrete historical circumstances that produced it, and Divine Word, pointing to the presence and will of God–although it is a serious obstacle for those committed to a view of Scripture as inerrant: that is, perfectly accurate on matters of history and science as well as matters of faith.  A more difficult problem, however, is posed by other contradictions, which do seem to pertain, not to history or memory, but to the fundamentals of faith (David’s third category).  We will turn to some of those next time.

He Shall Command Peace

On Wednesday, June 18, I had ankle replacement surgery.  On Monday, July 14, the cast came off.  In between, I was largely immobile, spending most of my hours in a recliner with my right leg elevated above my heart.  Wendy, Sean and Anthony took extraordinarily good care of me.  Still, it was difficult–especially in the early days.

Soon after I returned home from the hospital, I awoke one morning and realized that my leg was itching inside the cast.  It was driving me crazy.  I twisted my leg inside the cast, got up, stomped around on the walker–and then I realized that I would be trapped in that cast for another three weeks.

I began to have trouble breathing, my heart was racing, I was disoriented–then, I thought, “I am having a panic attack.  This must be what a panic attack feels like.”  Ice packs on my face and forehead got my breathing and racing heart under control, and I calmed down, but only for a while.

I sat in my chair, trying to think, to pray, to read–trying desperately to think about something, anything, other than my leg.  To no avail.  Then I thought about my son Sean.  Sean has wrestled since childhood with Tourette Syndrome, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and attendant depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder.  Along the way, he has learned not only to cope with these conditions, but to thrive.  So, when Sean got home from work, I asked him if he could teach me how to fight my obsession with my leg’s discomfort.

Sean’s answer astonished me.  He said that he had learned that you can’t fight obsessive thoughts: “They just come.”  What you can do is rob those thoughts of the emotions and anxiety associated with them.  To do that, Sean taught me, you first relax your body and your mind.  Then, you let the forbidden thought come: you deliberately think about what you do not want to think about.  As you do so, you keep breathing slowly, you deliberately relax, and so replace the anxiety with calm.  Sean suggested that I think, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter!”

It worked.  That afternoon, when my leg itched, or when I thought about my leg itching or aching, I didn’t fight it.  I breathed slowly, in and out, praying the Jesus Prayer in time with my breathing: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”  I thanked God for my healing.  I thought about the hundreds of others who had had this surgery, and had come through this period of recovery just fine.  I told myself, “My leg is uncomfortable, but that really doesn’t matter.”  And I fell asleep–the most restful sleep I had had since coming home from the hospital.

Over the next few days, I continued to practice my prayer and meditation, and bit by bit, my leg stopped bothering me.  It didn’t become magically more comfortable, or less prone to itching, but I stopped worrying about it.  I “won” when I stopped trying to win–when I stopped fighting.

Since I tend to think biblically–in terms of texts and images from Scripture–this extraordinary experience got me to thinking about martial metaphors in Scripture.  Working as I have been recently with the so-called “Minor” Prophets (a far better designation, used by Jewish readers and early Christians, is the Book of the Twelve), I thought of the poems celebrating God as Divine Warrior in  Nahum 1:2-11, Habakkuk 3:1-19, and particularly Zechariah 9:13-17.  Such images are very old, and very common in Scripture.  It is little wonder, perhaps, that our default is to think in terms of combat.  Resistance to any evil becomes a war: the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror.  As theologian Walter Wink observed, “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world.”

Yet there are other texts in Scripture, which call the martial metaphor into question.  One is Zechariah 9:9-12, the only reading from Zechariah in the Revised Common Lectionary.  Zechariah 9:9 is quoted in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, in their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and may be assumed in Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-40 as well (both use the word polon, “colt,” found in the LXX of Zech 9:9):

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
        Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
        He is righteous and victorious.
        He is humble and riding on an ass,
            on a colt, the offspring of a donkey (Zech 9:9).

The Hebrew words translated “righteous and victorious” are tsaddiq wenosha’.  The first term means “righteous,” perhaps defending “the royal legitimacy of the king” (see Carol and Eric Meyers, Zechariah 9-14; Anchor Bible 25C [Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1993], 127), though it may also refer to his morality (the Aramaic translation, or Targum, has zaqay: “innocent”).  The second means literally “one who is saved,”  though most English translations (including the CEB) follow the Greek LXX, which renders this as sozon, meaning “one who saves.”  Carol and Eric Meyers, however, stay with the plain sense of the Hebrew: God, they say, is the one who “is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127).  This is a very different idea of kingship, grounded not in the king’s victories in battle, but in God’s own action (compare Zech 4:6).

The distinctions between this king and other, previous kings continue to be drawn as this passage continues.  Although the humble mount in Zechariah 9:9 derives from a long tradition in the ancient Middle East of kingly processions where the king rode an ass (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129), this passage surely catches the point of that tradition: by riding an ass rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility, and declares that he comes in peace.

Yet this time, the prophet declares, this is no pretense: this king truly is humble, and not only comes in peace, but comes to bring peace:

 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
        and from the river to the ends of the earth (9:10).

Another surprising passage is Zechariah 14:13-19, which at first seems to be yet another depiction of God as warrior, and of God’s victory as accomplished through violent struggle. In the last day, this vision declares, Jerusalem’s people will plunder those who had come to plunder them (a common biblical theme; see Exod 12:33-36; Ezek 39:9-10; 2 Chr 20:25).  So that the enemy will never again be able to mount an attack on Jerusalem, a plague will strike “the horses, mules, camels, donkeys, and any cattle in those camps” (Zech 14:15), destroying their military capability entirely.

Yet despite the sweeping devastation of plague and war, the enemies of Jerusalem are not utterly destroyed: “All those left from all the nations who attacked Jerusalem will go up annually to pay homage to the king, the Lord of heavenly forces, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths” (Zech 14:16).

Similarly in the book of Revelation, even after the last judgment sees all the enemies of God’s people (including “Death and the Grave”) thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15), John can still somehow say of the New Jerusalem, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.  They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it” (Rev 21:24-26).  God’s ultimate purpose is not destruction after all, but transformation and renewal.

In Zechariah 14:6, the nations do not necessarily come to Jerusalem willingly—their participation, and particularly the participation of Egypt (Zech 14:18-19; for Egypt as a symbol of foreign oppression, see Hos 11:5; Zech 10:10-11), is coerced by the threat of plague!  Still come they do, every year, at Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.

This autumn pilgrim feast, the most important of the festivals according to many biblical traditions (for example, 1 Kgs 8:2; Isa 30:29; Ezek 45:25; Neh 8:14; John 7:2, which refer the Sukkot as “the festival”), is an appropriate time for the nations to observe fealty to the Lord, as it is also the time set for the reading and remembrance of the Law of Moses (Deut 31:10-11; Neh 8:13-18).  The nations join the faithful of Israel in proclaiming fealty to the Lord, and faithfulness to God’s commandments.

Reading these passages, I find myself thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s response to a fiery old woman, who took issue with him for speaking of Southerners as people in error, rather than enemies to be destroyed: “Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Without doubt, the imagery of warfare and struggle is part of the biblical witness.  But Scripture also, in many places, subverts that imagery, transforming it unexpectedly into imagery of peace.  What would happen if we listened to those texts, rather than focusing on the others?  How might that change the way we confront our struggles, whether internal, interpersonal, or international?  What might happen if we stopped fighting, let our anger, fear, and anxiety go, and opened ourselves to God’s peace?


Thank you for your thoughts and prayers!  I am well on the way to wholeness, but I appreciate your continued prayers as I move into the next phase of my recovery.


Biblical Disobedience, and Hezekiah’s Passover

At this year’s session of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, I was honored to be asked to co-teach a lay academy class with Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist pastor whose credentials were revoked by the Eastern PA Conference after he performed a wedding for his son, who had married another man.

As I wrestled and prayed over what to do for this class, I thought about all the conversation going on in my church about obedience: on the one side, obedience to the “clear teaching” of Scripture and tradition regarding marriage and obedience to the United Methodist Discipline (a topic on which I have blogged before (go here and read the succeeding blogs to here), on the other the call to a “biblical obedience” higher than church law.  In the end, I decided to talk about biblical disobedience: passages of Scripture where laws were broken in service to the Spirit of God and “the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith.”  As part of that study, we worked with one of my favorite stories from one of my favorite, frequently ignored, biblical books, 1 and 2 Chronicles.

This week, I am sharing with you part of my commentary on this book, dealing with Hezekiah’s Passover (2 Chronicles 30:15-22).  I hope that you will see the relevance of this ancient story to our contemporary context.  The Bible quotes are from the NRSV, but I have provided links to the Common English version for comparison. The portion begins with the response to a letter from King Hezekiah of Judah, inviting refugees from Israel, who had escaped the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria (722 B.C.), to come to Jerusalem for Passover.

“Sadly, Hezekiah’s invitation is rejected by many in the north, who laugh at and scorn his messengers (2 Chr 30:10).  The reader may be reminded of Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast (Matt 22:1-14; compare Lk 14:15-20), where the messengers are also scorned and ill-treated.  However, as in Jesus’ parable, the failure of those invited to respond does not mean that feast is not held, or that it is a failure.  Some, “from Asher, Manasseh, and Zebulun,” do humble themselves and come to the feast (on the importance of humbling oneself, see the discussion on 2 Chr 7:14, above).  In Judah, meanwhile, the response is once more overwhelming.  The people respond with “one heart:” that is, in unity, dedication, and singleness of purpose (2 Chr 30:12; see 1 Chr 12:38, where those who come to make David king are likewise said to be of “one heart”).  In the end, as had been anticipated, it is “a very large assembly” that gathers in Jerusalem for the feast (2 Chr 30:13).

. . . With the city as well as the temple cleansed, the festival begins on time, on the fourteenth day of the second month (see Num 9:9-11).  The priests and Levites, shamed by their failure to be prepared in the first month as well as by the example of the laity, have sanctified themselves in  sufficient numbers, and stand ready to serve (2 Chr 30:15).  They conduct themselves “according to the law of Moses the man of God” (2 Chr 30:16); as elsewhere in Chronicles, Scripture provides direction for right worship.

It is fortunate that the priests and Levites are ready, for a great number of those attending are ritually unclean, and so cannot kill their own sacrifices; the Levites must do this for them (2 Chr 30:17; for the killing of the sacrifice by Levites, see also Ezr 6:20; Ezek 44:11).  Nothing is said of the reasons for their defilement; however, since many of those said to be defiled come from the north (2 Chr 30:18), we may find here competing ideas about what constitutes ritual purity, or about the requirements for the observance of Passover.  From the Chronicler’s perspective, however, this means that “they ate the passover otherwise than as prescribed” (2 Chr 30:18)–that is, in violation of God’s word in Scripture (see 2 Chr 30:5).

But rather than barring these persons from participation, Hezekiah prays for them: “The good LORD pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the LORD the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” (2 Chr 30:18-19).  The Lord hears the king’s prayer, and the community is healed (2 Chr 30:20; compare 2 Chr 7:14).

Hezekiah’s prayer, and the Lord’s favorable response, strike a blow against rigid legalism.  Clearly, it is more important to set one’s heart to seek God than it is to be in a state of scrupulous ritual purity.  Similarly, Micah asks, “[W]hat does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).

In his teaching, Jesus as well placed “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” above ritual law (Matt 23:23).  So, for Jesus, meeting human need by healing on the sabbath was more important than strict adherence to the regulations of the rabbis (so, for example, Mk 3:1-6).

Particularly instructive in this regard is Paul’s treatment of the question of eating food offered to idols, an issue which divided the early church.  According to Acts 15:20, abstaining “from things polluted by idols” was part of that bare minimum of Jewish law which all believers, Jew and Gentile alike, were bound to follow.  Similarly, the John of Revelation held that those who ate food sacrificed to idols separated themselves from Christ (Rev 2:14, 20).  Other Christians, however, reasoned that since there was only one true God, the idols were mere statues; food sacrificed to them was no different than any other kind of food (see 1 Cor 8:1-6).  Paul refused to settle the matter legalistically, either way.  He argued that the food itself was not the issue; what really mattered was sensitivity to one another in the body of Christ.  If the faith of “weaker” Christians is threatened when they see other believers eating food sacrificed to idols, then the “stronger” Christians need to abstain (1 Cor 8:7-13).

Today, the church is divided by other questions and controversies.  Yet, we still are tempted to appeal to legalism, whether in our reading of Scripture or in our application of community standards, to resolve our differences–even though such an appeal rarely resolves anything.  We need to remember that Scripture itself rejects this narrow, rigid standard.  How much better, like Hezekiah, to trust in God’s grace to cover our lack of scrupulosity, and to recall that devotion to the Lord is our first, and highest, calling.”


This will be my last blog for awhile, as I am going into the hospital for ankle replacement surgery.  Your prayers are greatly appreciated!  The recovery will be long, but after physical therapy, I should be up walking and leaping and praising God by the fall.  You can call me the bionic Bible Guy!



Why the Bible Matters

This Thursday is Ascension Day–a day sadly not much celebrated in Protestant churches.  On this day, we remember when, as the followers of Jesus watched, Jesus was taken out of their sight, and into heaven (Luke 24:50-51).  The response of the community was significant:

They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy.  And they were continuously in the temple praising God (Luke 24:52-53).

Too often, we draw a line between worship and service, or evangelism and liturgy, or Bible study and social action.  Clearly, for the earliest church, formed by the experience of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, these were unthinkable distinctions.  If they were to be the community of proclamation and service, they needed also to be the community of Scripture, prayer and praise—as do we.

The lectionary readings for Ascension Day (Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11) bridge two books in our New Testament, Luke and Acts.  Although separated by the gospel of John in our Bibles, Luke and Acts belong together, as two parts of a single work. The two books have a similar literary style and share common themes, particularly a concern for women and the poor.  But as this week’s readings demonstrate, they are particularly joined by their emphasis upon the risen, victorious, ascended Christ, and his promise of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4).

The structure of Luke moves inexorably toward Jerusalem.  After a prologue describing Jesus’ birth and childhood (Luke 1:1—2:52), the gospel is arranged geographically, starting in Galilee (3:1—9:50), then moving to the way to Jerusalem (9:51—19:44, often called Luke’s “special section” as it contains a wealth of material unique to this gospel), and finally reaching its climax in Jerusalem itself (19:45—24:53).  This pattern is reversed in Acts, where Jerusalem becomes the center out from which the gospel is carried to the entire world; as Jesus tells his followers, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem throughout Luke’s gospel.  When he at last arrives at Jerusalem, we expect great things–but he is betrayed, captured, tried, condemned and crucified!  That, however, is by no means the end.  Jesus is raised from the dead.  Faithful women see his empty tomb, but the eleven reject their report as nonsense (Luke 24:1-12).

Even when Jesus at last appears to the eleven in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-43), they have trouble accepting and understanding what has happened. Jesus shows them the wounds of crucifixion, still visible (Luke 24:38-40), and even eats some broiled fish with them to prove that he is really, physically there (Luke 24:41-43).

In the Gospel reading for Ascension Day, Jesus then teaches his followers what his resurrection means:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures (Luke 24:44-45).  

This description, emphasizing the whole of Scripture, calls to mind the division of the Jewish Bible into Torah (the Law, or the books of Moses), Nebi’im (the Prophets), and Kethubim (the Writings, including the Psalms).  The Jewish canon—that is, the collection of books deemed sacred by the community—was fixed by the end of the first century, but long before that official closure, this threefold division of the canon was in place.

In his prologue to the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, a book of the Apocrypha dating to the early second century B.C. sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, ben Sirach’s grandson tells us of his grandfather’s work:

Numerous and wonderful things have been given to us through the Law, the Prophets, and the other writings that followed them.  For this reason, it is necessary to praise Israel for education and wisdom.  It is also necessary not only for those who read them to gain understanding  but also for those who love learning to be of service to strangers  when they speak and write.  Because of this, my grandfather, Jesus, who had devoted himself more and more to the reading of the Law,  the Prophets, and the other ancestral scrolls, and had gained enough experience with them, was himself led to compose a work dealing with education and wisdom. His goal was that lovers of learning who were committed to education and wisdom should gain much more by living according to the Law.

Throughout his own two-volume work, Luke uses Scripture in a very distinctive way.  Unlike Matthew, who quotes and cites biblical passages (for example, Matt 2:17-18), Luke alludes to texts, writing in the style of the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint.  For example, the famous Song of Mary, often called the Magnificat after its opening word in Latin (Luke 1:46-55; the new Presbyterian hymnal has a lovely and vigorous setting of this passage) draws freely in style and imagery on the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10).  According to New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall, Luke’s “use of a [Septuagint] style must raise the question whether he thought of himself as writing a work of the same kind and thus continuing the ‘salvation history’ which he found in it” (I. Howard Marshall, “An Assessment of Recent Developments,” in It Is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture [ed. D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988], 9).

The degree to which Luke values Scripture is shown, not only in his Septuagintal style, but also in the content of his gospel.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found only in Luke, the rich man’s plea that Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers is answered by Abraham, “They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them” (Luke 16:29).  When the rich man says that if someone came back from the dead, his brothers would be sure to listen, Abraham says, “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

This proves an effective foreshadowing of Luke 24, where Jesus’ resurrection continually prompts doubt and disbelief (with the sterling exception of the women at the tomb!), until he dispels doubt by turning to the Scriptures (Luke 24:27, 44-45).  Of course, reading the Scriptures alone is not enough.  Only when Jesus himself has “interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets” (Luke 24:27) and “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45) does their meaning become powerful and apparent.  As the two friends in Emmaus say after their encounter with Jesus, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?” (Luke 24:32).

It is difficult to know precisely what Luke has in mind when he writes,

This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day,  and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)

It seems unlikely that he is thinking of a specific text for each claim Jesus makes here about himself.  Rather it seems that the whole of Scripture extends into, and finds its fulfillment in, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  This is the point of Luke’s gospel, and the reason he writes as he does, in the style of the Septuagint, echoing its language and themes.  Luke believes that he is writing Scripture, and that Scripture bears witness to God in Christ Jesus. 

When I was teaching at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, I met a Korean-born Christian named Peter Chang.  Peter, like me, had done his Ph. D. in Hebrew Bible at Union/PSCE in Richmond, and for a time he worked as an adjunct in our college Religious Studies department.  We talked often, about common friends at Union, about our discipline of biblical studies, about teaching, but also about faith.

Peter told me how he had become a Christian in South Korea.  He was a university student, he said.  At this time, he knew no Christians: his family was not Christian; he had no Christian friends.  Together with a group of other students, none of whom was Christian, Peter began a study of the gospel of Mark.  In the course of that study, they became convinced of the truth of what they were reading.  Unguided by missionaries or tracts, unproselytized by Protestants or Catholics, without an evangelist or an altar rail in sight, they gave their lives to the Jesus they met in the pages of Scripture.

I found Peter’s story amazing, but not surprising.  In my years of teaching Bible to undergraduates, many of whom had never opened a Bible before, I had many times seen similar evidence of the power of Scripture to change lives.  Many times, students have written a note on the last page of their final exams, telling me that they have started going to church, or that they have started listening to their pastor’s sermons.  One student wrote, “I think I know now what I need to do to be saved.”  Scripture has this power, not because the Bible is a magic book, but because in its pages, God comes to meet us.  Through the words of Scripture, we encounter the Word made flesh, our living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is why the Bible matters.


The Bible Guy is thankful for Pope Francis’ powerful call for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet with him and pray for peace.  Let us join this faithful Christian leader in prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, and for justice for Palestinians.


Famous Last Words

We have long had the notion that the last words someone speaks before death–especially, someone famous–are of particular and lasting significance.  We hold this to be true, despite counter-examples, such as the last words of Socrates.  According to his student Plato, Socrates’ last words were,”Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.”

Certainly, last words can be moving and inspiring–like those of John Wesley:  “The best of all is, God is with us.”

Last words can also be mysterious and evocative, like those of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: “Let us cross over the river, and rest in the shade of the trees.”

My own favorite last words were spoken by Union General John Sedgwick, at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse: “I’m ashamed of you men, dodging that way.  They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range!”

Sunday’s lesson from Acts also dealt with famous last words: those spoken by Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  Stephen was one of the first seven people to be named deacons: specially appointed to serve under the leadership of the apostles (Acts 6:1-7).

Stephen was a very effective preacher and teacher; he angered the religious leadership, however, and so was tried on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and condemned to death.

Among the last words he spoke, as the stones were raining down on him, were, Kyrie ‘Iesou, dexai to pneuma mou: “Lord Jesus, accept my life!” (CEB), or more literally, “Receive my spirit” (NRSV).  Praying in this way, Stephen follows the example of his Lord Jesus, who he asks to receive his spirit.  In Luke, Jesus’ last words are, Pater, eis cheiras sou paratithemai to pneuma mou: “Father, into your hands I entrust my life” (CEB), or more familiarly, “I commend my spirit” (NRSV).

Both Jesus’ and Stephen’s last words refer to Psalm 31:5 (in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, Ps 31:6): “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”  The Greek of that first phrase is eis cheiras sou parathesomai [a different form of the same verb Luke uses in Lk 23:46] to pneuma mou.

These words may remind you of the prayer we pray beside the grave of a loved one–a prayer our family prayed in a snowy cemetery in Michigan this past February, as we committed Mom’s ashes to the ground, and entrusted her life into the hands of God:

Almighty God, into your hands we commend your daughter Gerry, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is what we believers do for those we love: with words of confident assurance, we entrust them into God’s loving hands.

But in Psalm 31, these words are not spoken at the end of life.  The Psalmist expresses trust in God in the midst of life, out of turmoil, conflict, and struggle:

My life is consumed with sadness;
    my years are consumed with groaning.
Strength fails me because of my suffering;
    my bones dry up.
I’m a joke to all my enemies,
    still worse to my neighbors.
    I scare my friends,
    and whoever sees me in the street runs away!
I am forgotten, like I’m dead,
    completely out of mind;
    I am like a piece of pottery, destroyed.
Yes, I’ve heard all the gossiping,
    terror all around;
    so many gang up together against me,
        they plan to take my life!

But me? I trust you, Lord!
    I affirm, “You are my God.”
My future is in your hands.
    Don’t hand me over to my enemies,
    to all who are out to get me!
Shine your face on your servant;
    save me by your faithful love! (Ps 31:10-16)

What could it mean to commit ourselves, and those we love, to God–not at the end of life, but right here, right now?


In one sense, it really doesn’t mean anything.  After all, God is Lord of the universe, whether we recognize it or not; our lives are already in God’s hands, whether we acknowledge it or not.  To commit ourselves and those we love to God is only to recognize the way that things actually are.

To pray this prayer, however, says a good deal about who we believe God to be!  The psalmist prays,

Listen closely to me!
    Deliver me quickly;
        be a rock that protects me;
        be a strong fortress that saves me!
You are definitely my rock and my fortress.
    Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name! (Ps 31:2-3).

Entrusting ourselves into God’s hands, we avow that God is our rock, our fortress.  We confess that God is for us, not against us–and that confession changes everything!

First, commending our lives into the hands of a loving God changes the way that we see our own lives and circumstances.  We can face struggle, hardship, and trouble with confidence, knowing that we are not alone.  We need not be anxious about the future, because we know that, whatever comes, that future is securely in God’s hands.

Commending ourselves and those we love into God’s hands also changes way that we see one another.  We don’t need to be fearful and anxious about those whom we love.  We can let them go–trusting them into the hands of God.

We can also let go of those whom we do not particularly love, and who do not love us–those with whom we are angry, perhaps for very good reasons.  The psalmist, who has experienced oppression and violence from his enemies, is very angry, and calls for vengeance on his enemies:

Lord, don’t let me be put to shame
    because I have cried out to you.
Let the wicked be put to shame;
    let them be silenced in death’s domain!
Let their lying lips be shut up
    whenever they speak arrogantly
    against the righteous with pride and contempt!  (Ps 31:17-18)

But not Stephen!  The very last words that Stephen speaks are, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60).  In this, he once more follows the example of his Lord.

Luke records that Jesus prayed for his torturers and executioners, who had nailed him to the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” How did Jesus and Stephen let go of resentment and anger, and forgive their enemies?  Perhaps they could do so because they trusted even their foes into God’s hands, believing that God was at work in them, bringing transformation.

Certainly, that was the case among Stephen’s persecutors.  Luke tells us, almost in passing, that before they began to stone Stephen, “The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58).  Later in the story Acts unfolds, this young man becomes first, an avid persecutor of the church (Acts 8:1-3), and then, its most ardent defender–better known as Paul (Acts 9:1-21).

We need to be careful here.  Commending our lives into God’s hands is no guarantee that all will turn out well: it certainly didn’t for Stephen, who was stoned to death, or for Jesus, who was crucified!  Faced with tragedy, or failure, or frustration, we may be brought to the point of giving up.  What difference does faith make, anyway?

In his book The Irony of American History (1952, p. 63), the great twentieth century public theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reflected upon this mystery.  He wrote:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however, virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

Commending ourselves into God’s hands, we can face whatever comes, even the worst, with courage, knowing that God is at work in us, through us, and in spite of us!  As Paul–who, recall, had been one of Stephen’s executioners–acclaimed, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).  Trusting that God is at work in our lives and in our world, may we–with Jesus, Stephen, and believers in all times and places–say this day and every day, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”





Recently, on my Facebook page, I used the term “Anti-Christian” to describe a statement made by a controversial political figure (more on that below).  I did not do this to be myself controversial, or to claim that this person is the Antichrist.  I did use the term deliberately, in reference not to its popular, but to its biblical meaning.

Popularly, the term Antichrist is thought to refer to a future world ruler, predicted in the book of Revelation, who will force everyone to wear his “mark of the Beast.”  Some go so far as to identify the mark with, say UPC codes, or to identify a current world leader  or the United Nations with the Antichrist.

The term “antichrist” (Greek antichristos), however, does not appear in the book of Revelation at all.  It is found only four times in Scripture, in 1 John 2:18, 22 and 4:3, and 2 John 7.  The word may have been coined by the author of these short works, who identifies himself simply as the Elder.

In 1 and 2 John, the term refers not to one person, but to many: indeed, the Elder warns of  a spirit of antichrist.  According to the Elder, this spirit tragically comes out of the community of faith:

They went out from us, but they were not really part of us. If they had been part of us, they would have stayed with us. But by going out from us, they showed they all are not part of us (1 John 2:19).

But the Elder expresses confidence in the community: they know the truth and so will not be mislead by lies (1 Jn 2:20-21).  In fact, the distinguishing mark of antichristos IS the Lie: the denial of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Elder addresses antichristos particularly in his teaching regarding spiritual discernment (1 Jn 4:1-6):

Dear friends, don’t believe every spirit. Test the spirits to see if they are from God because many false prophets have gone into the world. This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God, and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world. You are from God, little children, and you have defeated these people because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world. So they speak from the world’s point of view and the world listens to them. We are from God. The person who knows God listens to us. Whoever is not from God doesn’t listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

The term “false prophets” (pseudoprophetai) is sometimes used in the Septuagint where the Hebrew simply has “prophet.”  For example, in Zechariah 13:2:

On that day, says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        I will eliminate the names of the idols from the land;
            they will no longer be remembered.
Moreover, I will remove the prophets [Greek pseudoprophetas, or “false prophets”] and the sinful spirit from the land.

This word, which may have been invented by the Septuagint’s translators, is used by later Jewish writers such as the historian Josephus and the philosopher Philo.

In the New Testament, however, the rise of false prophets can be used as a sign of the last days (so Matt 24:11, 24:24//Mark 13:22; and Rev 16:13; 19:20; 20:10).  That is the position of the Elder in 1 John.  But for this Christian teacher, discerning true prophecy from false is straightforward: as in 1 John 2:22, the denial of Jesus is the evidence of antichrist.  In 1 John 4, however, antichristos specifically denies the Incarnation:

This is how you know if a spirit comes from God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come as a human is from God,and every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and is now already in the world (1 Jn 4:2-3; see also Jn 1:14)

Conversely, the confession of Christ is the means to victory over sin and evil, “because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).  This leads to a test in practice: the true spirit of Christ rather than antichristos is shown in Christlike love for one another and for God (1 Jn 4:7—5:5).  1 John 4:7-8 is the Golden Text of the entire Bible:

Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

What an extraordinary confession: the greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  This affirmation parallels the most famous text in Scripture, John 3:16-17:

 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Jesus is the demonstration and proof of God’s love (see also Rom 5:8).

In 2 John, drawing directly from 1 John, the Elder follows Jesus’ example in proclaiming the new commandment of love (2 Jn 5-6; 1 Jn 2:7-8).  It is in connection with the love commandment that the Elder warns about antichristos, which denies “that Jesus Christ came as a human being” (2 Jn 7).  Rejecting Christ means more than rejecting a religious doctrine.  It means rejecting Christlikeness: the way of love followed, enabled and empowered by Jesus.

So, where is antichristos manifest in our world?  Not, to be sure, in peace signs, or UPC codes, or the United Nations, or Harry Potter!  Wherever professing Christians speak violence and hatred, yet claim to speak in God’s name, there is the spirit of antichrist.

When Governor Sarah Palin said, in a speech to the National Rifle Association, “Well, if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists”–that is the spirit of antichristos.

When Ugandan bishop Charles Wamika, in his Easter message at St. Charles Lwanga Catholic Church “called for a blessing for Uganda’s Christians who worked so hard to ‘free the land of gays’”  and “asked for parents to hand over their gay children to authorities, so they would be rewarded in heaven,” that is the spirit of antichrist.

We cannot let such abominable speech stand.  When it occurs, wherever it occurs, we need to name it for what it is, and reject any implication that these words are in any way compatible with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God grant us the courage to condemn the antichristian language of hatred and violence, and to pursue the language and practice of love.


While This Liquid Tomb Surveying

A little over a year ago, I shared this baptismal hymn on one of my first blogs, after hearing it sung by Michael Wallace in our seminary chapel that Holy Week.  I thought of it again, today, as student preachers shared excellent sermons on Genesis 1:1-5, reflecting on this ancient confession of God’s creative ordering of watery chaos and its significance to this season of resurrection.  Today, I share it again as a powerful statement of our resurrection faith.  Sisters and brothers, Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

“Baptism Hymn”

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

-John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)


There will be a celebration of the life of Gerry Rodan on Saturday, April 26, at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park , PA, at 11:oo.  We thank all of you for your thoughts and prayers.  May light perpetual shine upon you, Mom!


You Keep Using That Word…

In “Princess Bride,” one of my favorite films, a continuing shtick involves Wallace Shawn’s character, Vazzini, who uses the word  “Inconceivable!” over and over again.  Eventually, this prompts Vazzini’s henchman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think that it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes, we use words without thinking what they mean, just because they seem to fit a context: think of how astonished we are when we say, “How are you?,” and someone actually starts to tell us!  We didn’t mean, really, “Tell me how you are.”  All we meant was, “I see you there, I recognize and acknowledge you, and now I am off to do something  else.”

Or consider the word “Hosanna.”   Hosanna is a church word, like “amen” and “Alleluia”—in fact, I would bet that you have never used or heard that word outside of a church.  Hosanna pops up in hymns, particularly the Palm Sunday standards, and in prayers–particularly in the Great Thanksgiving, every time we celebrate communion.

In the gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year, the shout seems to be taken up spontaneously by the crowd as a parade takes shape, and word spreads that the one on the donkey is David’s descendant, who has come to Jerusalem to claim a throne. They use Hosanna as a festival shout–the way we might cheer at a ball game:

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt 21:9).

But unlike “Yahoo!” or “Hurray!” in English, “Hosanna” is a real word in Hebrew.  It comes from Psalm 118—part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118). These psalms are sung in Jewish festivals, particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.

Just as around Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” is everywhere–in our ears and in the air!–the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

To be more specific, “Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118:25, which in Hebrew reads

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

Though the Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, most ordinary Judeans didn’t actually speak Hebrew: in Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Palestinian Jews would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what they mean. So, while they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, then, they are calling to Jesus for help.  

Do they need help? Indeed, they do!  In Jesus’ time, Judea was under the heel of Roman military occupation.  Taxes were high, prices were high, and popular unrest was high—which is probably why the crowds were spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to lead them.  This ferment would explode into disastrous revolts against Rome that will result, first, in the destruction of the temple, and then, in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem itself for generations.

But that is not why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.  We know the story that unfolds in this next week very well.  Jesus has come, not to claim a throne, but to take a stand against the religious and political establishments that will result in his execution.  He has come to suffer, and to die.

From the first, Christians have confessed that somehow, all of our suffering and death is caught up in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Jesus will die for us—communicating at once the depth of human sin and depravity, and the extent of God’s love for us.

In Matthew’s gospel in particular, Jesus’ death is connected to our sinfulness: our rebellion against God.   At Jesus’ birth, the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or “Savior”], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  

As we will remember this Thursday, Jesus shared the Passover meal in Jerusalem with his followers.  Then, Jesus took a loaf, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.” Then, pouring out the wine, he shared the cup, saying “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (Matt 26:27-28).  

Somehow, it is in his death that Jesus becomes “Jesus”–Yeshua, Savior.  Somehow, he takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin–and takes it away.

It is well, then, that we should shout “Hosanna,” brothers and sisters–“Save us, please!”  For Jesus has come to save, not just those ignorant crowds at the gate, who were crying for help but didn’t know it, but you, and me, and all of us, for all of time.  

Friend, whatever your need is this day, in this Holy Week, whatever your sorrow, whatever your pain, you are not alone!  Christ has come to be with you right where you are, in the center of your darkness– to bring you home.  We can join the Palm Sunday crowds, and call, not in ignorance but in earnest, “Hosanna”–“Save  us, Lord!”—knowing that Christ will answer.


Have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyfilled, triumphant Easter!


Where Is God?

In the first chapter of Exodus, God is not mentioned at all until the seventeenth verse–nearly the end of the chapter.   Through the account of Israel’s explosive growth in Egypt, God does not appear.

Through the changing of power in Egypt, as a new Pharaoh comes to the throne “who didn’t know Joseph” (1:8), God is apparently absent.

Even as this new Pharaoh, in hatred and fear, subjects Israel to unjust enslavement, even as the escalating scale of abuse leads to the first stage of genocide, God does not appear.

To carry out Pharaoh’s racist campaign, born of hatred and fear, to eliminate Israel, he enlists the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as his agents:

When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live (Exod 1:16).


But the midwives disobey, and in their disobedience, we encounter God for the first time in this book.  This first mention of God is indirect: God is experienced through the faith of the midwives, who would not do as Pharaoh commanded because they “respected [the Hebrew might be better translated “feared”] God” (Exod 1:17).  Given God’s absence in the narrative to this point, we might think that they should better fear Pharaoh–but no!  Shiphrah and Puah revere God, despite God’s apparent absence.

Of course, even as dim a bulb as Pharaoh appears to be in this story is bound to notice that more and more Hebrew boys keep turning up!  He summons the midwives to explain themselves:

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them” (Exod 1:19).

Cleverly playing off of Pharaoh’s prejudices, Shiphrah and Puah tell him a lie they know he will be likely to accept: those Hebrews breed like animals; their brutish women don’t even need midwives.  Foolish Pharaoh believes them, and Israel’s baby boys are saved.

Now, for the first time in Exodus, God is said to do something!  God performs a double act of blessing.  First, this initial attempt of Pharaoh to eliminate Israel is not only routed, but reversed: “So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong” (Exod 1:20). Pharaoh will find another solution, and God will provide a more lasting counter–one that liberates his people completely from Egyptian oppression. But for now, because of the midwives’ courage and cleverness, people Israel continue to flourish.

Second, as for Shiphrah and Puah, “because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own” (Exod 1:21).  The Hebrew is waya’as lahem batim: literally, “he made for them houses.”  The implication is not simply that, as the NRSV reads, God “gave them families.” Rather, God has made these two Hebrew women the heads of clans!  There were families in Israel, this story claims, who traced themselves back, not to a man, but to a woman: to Shiphrah, and to Puah.

Why retell this ancient story today?  In part, because today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a day of savagery that left 800,000 people slaughtered–many hacked to death with machetes.  Today, Rwandans gathered to remember, to mourn, and to declare that the world must never let this happen again.

Events like the slaughter in Rwanda, like the ongoing slaughter today in Syria, force any believer in a loving God to ask where God is to be found in such horrors.  Yet the first chapter of Exodus reveals that this is not by any means a new question.  Surely it is no accident that, through the story of the beginning of Israel’s oppression, enslavement, and attempted genocide at Pharaoh’s hand, God is nowhere to be found.  Nowhere, that is, except in the faith of the midwives, who choose to live as though God, not Pharaoh, is in command.  Somehow, for Shiphrah and Puah, God’s presence is experienced precisely at the point of God’s absence.

Another reason to tell this story today is that we are approaching the end of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week–the remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering and death that culminates, for believers, in the celebration of Christ’s victory over death on Easter morning.  In the oldest of the gospels, the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ identity is acclaimed in the very first verse: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son”  But the reader waits in vain for someone within the story to catch on, and echo this confession.

Even when Peter confesses, at Caesarea Philippi, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29), the following verses make plain how little he understands his own confession:

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”  He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him.  Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:31-33).

Only at the end of Mark, when Jesus is hanging dead from the cross, does anyone at last understand who he is: “When the centurion [the Roman officer who oversaw Jesus’ execution], who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, ‘This man was certainly God’s Son’” (Mark 15:39).  In Mark, the seal of God’s presence in Christ is not Jesus’ miracles, or his authoritative teaching, but his cross–where God seems most absent, where the dying Jesus himself cries, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Mark 15:34).

In his haunting memoir Night, Elie Wiesel, remembers his youth in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where his mother, father and sister died.  Wiesel tells of the execution of a young boy, beloved by everyone in the camp.  The boy was hanged, and as he struggled and died the inmates were forced to file by and watch.  Behind him, Wiesel heard a man ask again and again, “Where is God now?”  Wiesel writes, “And I heard a voice within me answer him:   ‘Where is He?  Here he is—He is hanging here on this gallows’” (Night [Avon, 1960], p. 76).

Christian writer François Mauriac writes, in his forward to this memoir, of meeting Wiesel:

 And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day on the face of the hanged child?  What did I say to him?  Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the  Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world?  Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? . . . All is grace.  If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to him.  This is what I should have told this Jewish child.  But I could only embrace him, weeping (Night, pp. 10-11).

In his anguish, Wiesel was more right than he knew.  God was there, on the gallows.  The good news of Scripture is that God is most present where God seems most absent: in the slave pens of Egypt, on the gallows at Auschwitz, in the killing fields of Rwanda—or on the cross of Calvary.