Category: Biblical Exposition

Jesus: Jacob’s Ladder or Something more? (John 1:51)

Was reading through Genesis 28 tonight with Helen and was struck by something I hadn’t considered before.

Then Jacob went out from Beersheba and went to Haran.
And he arrived at a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head and slept at that place. And he dreamed, and behold, a stairway was set on the earth, and its top touched the heavens. And behold, angels of God were going up and going down on it.
And behold, Yahweh was standing beside him, and he said, “I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. The ground on which you were sleeping I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, and to the east, and to the north and to the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and through your descendants. Now behold, I am with you, and I will keep you wherever you go. And I will bring you to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely Yahweh is indeed in this place and I did not know!” Then he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is nothing else than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!
(Genesis 28:10-17, LEB) 

jacobsladder
Jacob’s Ladder


This passage is clearly reference by Jesus at the climactic end of John’s Gospel chapter 1:

On the next day he wanted to depart for Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me!” (Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter.)
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found the one whom Moses wrote about in the law, and the prophets wrote about—Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth!” And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see!”

Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said about him, “Look! A true Israelite in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “From where do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you[r] were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to him, “Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these!And he said to him, “Truly, truly I say to all of you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51, LEB) 

Typically when I’ve studied this passage or heard it preached, the link has been made between “Jacob’s ladder” (or “stairway”) and the role of Jesus. Jacob in his dream saw a connection between heaven and earth, divine and human, supernatural and natural, demonstrated by the ascending and descending angels. Jesus fulfills this by being the link between heaven and earth, as the divine/human God-man. That’s why figuratively (I say that because the Gospels never record it happening), the disciples will see angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, as the nexus between the earthly and heavenly realms.

But it got me thinking that there could be more to it than that. What if the allusion to Genesis 28 doesn’t stop at the ladder, but includes Jacob’s theophany encounter with Yahweh? In Genesis, Jacob doesn’t just see the vision of the ladder, but immediately afterwards Yahweh Himself is standing beside Him. Could Jesus be saying that if the disciples continue to follow Him and watch Him closely, they won’t merely have a vision of angels, but an encounter with Yahweh themselves?

It certainly matches well with Jesus’ later exchange with Philip:
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Am I with you so long a time and you have not known me, Philip? The one who has seen me has seen the Father! How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ (John 14:7-9, LEB) 

I don’t want to get too excited, because I recognise that if we get the takeaway point that Jesus is the connector between heaven and earth – it already implies His divinity. But it interested me that there were parallels like Jacob being filled with awe that He had been in Yahweh’s presence and Nathaniel’s astonishment that He had met the “Son of God”; and Jesus calling Nathaniel a “true Israelite” (or we might say “Jacobite”?). It made me wonder whether the disciples had any inkling that Jesus was promising them their own personal divine encounter and if it prolonged their sense of awe and amazement.

If my little theory is correct, we have powerful statements of Jesus’ divinity in the beginning and end of the first chapter of John’s Gospel. Could it be that the Gospel which begins with: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1), finishes with a promise that followers of Jesus will indeed behold God in and through Him?

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How do you smell? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16)

Let’s face it – no one wants to smell bad. An unpleasant odour makes it hard enough for people who are already your friends to endure your presence, but it’s even worse when you’re trying to make a first impression. Perfume, cologne and deodorant companies make a fortune out of humanity’s widespread desire to replace our unappealing, natural body odour with sweeter, synthetic fragrances.

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[1]

But how do you smell? I’m not talking about physically, but spiritually…

In reading 2 Corinthians this week, I was reminded that Christians simultaneously manage to smell sweeter than anyone else in the world and stink with an overpowering stench. How can this be?

Paul’s words explain:

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ, and who reveals the fragrance of the knowledge of him through us in every place.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to those on the one hand an odour from death to death, and to those on the other hand a fragrance from life to life. 
(2 Cor 2:14-16, LEB)

When Christians live as Christ’s ambassadors on mission in the world – like Paul and his gospel-partners did – we carry a very distinctive spiritual scent with us wherever we go. “The fragrance of the knowledge of Christ” accompanies us as we proclaim the gospel and the truth concerning Christ is revealed through our testimony.

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But this fragrance is a bit like the scent of jasmine flowers – regarded by many as an incredibly pleasant aromatic perfume – and yet nonetheless having detractors who find it overwhelming and repugnant. Or the smell of what many South-east Asians call the “King of Fruits”, the durian: which is so potent that many who catch a whiff of it can’t bear to be in the same suburb as the offensive odour – while some of the fruit’s loyal devotees find the smell drawing them irresistably to its source.

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Christians who live and proclaim the truth of Jesus – the gospel – emit such a scent. It’s a potent, powerful and even inescapable spiritual force.

For one set of people, it is the worst kind of smell possible an “odour from death to death.” These people hate God – as all with sin within them do in some respect – and are already spiritually dead in one sense (Eph 2:1-2) and yet they are perishing: continually falling away from the life-giving grace of their Creator towards a terrible, final state of everlasting destruction. When they encounter the knowledge of Christ (or to use Paul’s metaphor, smell it emitting from Christians), they condemn themselves by further hating God as He reveals Himself to them in His Son. The gospel and those who share it don’t smell sweet to these people – because the odour they smell spells death for them. Many will therefore naturally express their disdain for such an odour and be so repelled that they distance themselves from it as much as possible.

But for the other group of people, the same fragrance is received very differently. It is a sweet-smelling aroma and signifies their wonderful spiritual journey from life to life. Though these people also hated God in one form or another, they have smelt His sweetness revealed to them in His Son Jesus. They have come to love Him and He has granted them an abundant, spiritual vitality – which begins now with an amazing renewing of their souls and continues to blossom and bloom into a more and more glorious and enjoyable life throughout eternity. Like the durian-devotee who is not put off loving a smell that so many find repulsive, because she is convinced it spells good news for her: something glorious awaits her if she follows that aroma!

But anyone in this second category received the fragrance and its accompanying life through the faithful ministry of the gospel. But this isn’t merely a message to say Christians think other Christians smell sweet. Or that church members should regularly compliment their ministers on their pleasant, spiritual aroma.

As Paul engages in gospel ministry he seeks to put himself and the Corinthian Christians in the right frame of mind concerning the mixed response that the apostles and other agents of the gospel will receive from people. If some are turned off by the revelation of who Jesus is and reject Christians for smelling too much like their Master, it’s because God has not granted them life in Christ. The gospel is bad news to those who love their sin and refuse to turn from it under any circumstances. The more they see (or smell) of Jesus and His people, the more agitated they are by the claims the gospel makes over their lives and the more condemned they will stand before God if they continue to spurn the message and Saviour that could have brought them forgiveness and eternal life.

But Paul’s readers are to take encouragement from the fact that although we may meet many people like this in the course of seeking to live for Jesus – there will be people who are attracted to God and Christianity as the fragrance of Christ reaches them through us. Paul knew he would be rejected and despised by many and seemingly get nowhere with a significant number of people he ministered to. Yet he leaves that reality in the hands of God, while taking heart in the fact that many will be drawn by the sweetest aroma in the universe and embrace its source: the Lord Jesus.

If you’re a Christian, those around you should be able to smell the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ in your life – especially if you faithfully seek opportunities to share the gospel. But how good or bad you smell doesn’t depend on whether you discovered a secret spiritual equivalent of the perfume or cologne you might use to make a good impression on a date. If you’re growing in Christ-likeness, some people you meet will find you refreshing, while others will think you’re putrid.

It’s up to God and the people in question as to how they respond to this fragrance. The most important thing we can do is carry the scent of Christ and look forward to seeing God bring people to life through it.

[1] ginoup Lee “Perfume” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
[2] Martin Snopek “Jasmine flower” (CC BY-SA 2.0)
[3] B10m “Durian” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

6 things Jesus said about homosexuality (pt. 2)

In part one, we looked at several things Jesus did say, which have implications for questions about sexuality and marriage (homosexuality in particular). In this piece, we continue with 3 more. 

4. The Law: Jesus took the Law given by YHWH in the Old Testament very seriously. Consider:

Do not think that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I have not come to destroy them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one tiny letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all takes place. Therefore whoever abolishes one of the least of these commandments and teaches people to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever keeps them and teaches them, this person will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19).

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Christians for centuries have needed to wrestle with the fact that Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law included Him upholding or reinforcing many of the precepts and principles that were already familiar to the Jews of His day – while also revolutionising the way people related to YHWH and recasting our framework for ethical living in numerous ways.

In what is perhaps the key Old Testament text on YHWH’s boundaries for human sexuality, Leviticus 18, we find the command: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (18:22). It’s right there, nestled amongst commands forbidding incest, adultery and even bestiality. When God spoke to His people concerning acceptable, sexual behaviour He forbade men engaging in sexual acts with men (as though it were the same as the sexual norm: a man sleeping with a woman).

According to Jesus’ statement above in Matthew 5, He didn’t come to abolish or destroy Leviticus 18. Its outline of what is sexually unacceptable still stands as a good and true command of God. In fulfilling the Law, it is possible that Jesus may have recast the way we understand this prohibition against homosexual sex – but if He didn’t, it remains legitimate to think of the act as an abomination in the sight of God.

In this case, Jesus’ silence on homosexuality works against those who attempt to use it as an argument in their favour. His ‘failure’ to speak specifically and directly about homosexual sex – in a manner that would lead his followers to view it in a new light – strongly suggests that He allowed the force of the Law’s condemnation of it to stand.

Significantly, when Jesus goes on in Matthew 5 to engage with the Old Testament Law which He came to fulfill, and deals with issues of sexuality and marriage – He recasts them in a more comprehensive (dare I say stricter) way than the original law. For example the commandment “You shall not commit adultery” is recast to include not only sleeping with another man’s wife – but sexually fantasizing about any woman other than one’s spouse.
Likewise, Jesus tightens the legitimate grounds for divorce so that they only cover cases of “sexual immorality” by a guilty spouse.

Jesus does not tighten or extend the prohibition against homosexual sex (although condemning homosexual lust would be a completely legitimate application of His extension of the seventh commandment against adultery), but He does not mitigate it either. It remains an abomination within the framework of His Jewish sexual ethic, based on the foundation of God’s law.

In fact, there’s every reason to believe that Leviticus 18 is the biblical background that informs Jesus’ use of porneia as a catch-all phrase for sexual immorality (which we discussed in part 1). When a first-century Jew heard “sexual immorality”, their minds would have gone to the sexual prohibitions in this well-known passage of the Law.

Therefore, Jesus didn’t need to use a “special” word to condemn homosexual sex in particular, because His hearers would have already  known that it was included in the term He did use. Much the same as “(all kinds of) theft” could refer to a range of specific acts that all involve the unlawful acquisition of someone’s property or resources.

5. Sodom & Gomorrah: Jesus very readily employs the example of God’s condemnation and utter destruction of these two ancient cities by the Dead Sea as an illustration of how great God’s judgement will be upon those who reject His disciples’ preaching of the gospel.

And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgement for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. (Matthew 10:14-15, ESV)

John Martin's terrifying rendition of the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah
John Martin’s terrifying rendition of the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah function as one of the most severe displays of divine wrath in the Old Testament. But what were they judged for? While there have been numerous, recent attempts to suggest they were condemned for other sins like pride or inhospitality, the weight of the Genesis 19 account points towards their aggressive homosexual desire for the two (angelic) visitors to their city. Certainly that was how Jews and Christians understood the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the first century – we see this clearly in the writings of Peter (one of Jesus’ closest followers) and Jude (Jesus’ younger brother)  [see Jude vv.6-7; 2 Peter 2:6-10].

Jesus appears to not only hold to the fact that these cities were destroyed – His words seem to suggest they will yet face God’s intense wrath at the final judgement. Thus it’s no comfort to anyone that Jesus doesn’t mention homosexual sex specifically, when He forecasts eternal judgement for two cities that were chiefly known for it.

6. Paul: [Ok, this one is the trickiest, but bear with me…]

Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus and commissioned Him to be His messenger to the non-Jewish peoples of the Mediterranean. This is the best biographical explanation for Paul’s turn-around from persecuting Christians to embracing their faith and propagating it more than probably anyone else in the First Century. Jesus really spoke to Paul.

6800520620_552fbe6fd3_bSaul (later known as Paul the Apostle) meets Jesus en route to Damascus to persecute Christians [3]

And Paul heard Jesus say the following words to him: “…because for this reason I have appeared to you, to appoint you a servant and witness both to the things in which you saw me and to the things in which I will appear to you, rescuing you from the people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.‘” Acts 26:16-18.

Because Paul really did see Jesus, what Jesus said to Paul during that encounter has relevance to Jesus’ teaching concerning homosexuality. Because Paul – speaking as Jesus’ handpicked representative to share the gospel with the Gentiles – condemns homosexual behaviour very clearly.

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done(Romans 1:26-28)

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine… (1 Timothy 1:8-10)

Because Jesus essentially says, “Paul will speak for me”, we could say that Jesus’ most direct statements about homosexuality, genuinely come through one of the spokesmen He appointed.

Part of Paul’s ministry of seeing people turned from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God and receiving forgiveness of sins was to call them to repentance for their sexual immorality: including the homosexual variety. Without this, they could never have their share among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus – the very thing He sought by commissioning Paul to be His apostle.

If Paul doesn’t speak as an authentic representative of Jesus, Christians have much bigger problems than whatever issues people might take with our understanding of sexuality. But if he is, advocates of homosexuality and “same-sex marriage” would do well to take note of what Paul said on this issue, on behalf of Jesus Himself.

Summary

So if you encounter this shallow claim that Jesus was silent on homosexuality, here’s what you might want to remember and respond with…

1. Jesus affirmed a biblical perspective on Creation, which emphasised humanity being made by God as sexually complementary creatures: “male and female.”

2. Jesus advanced an understanding of marriage based on the above premise.
Marriage, for Jesus, is foundationally based on a heterosexual union: it doesn’t leave any room for a homosexual (per)version of marriage.

3. Jesus condemned “sexually immoral” behaviour. This includes any expression of sexuality that deviates from the above pattern of sexual intercourse within a marriage relationship. Thus Jesus opposed homosexual sex.

4. Jesus said He didn’t come to destroy or abolish the Law. He gives no indication that “lying with a man as one would with a woman” (i.e. homosexual intercourse) is no longer to be considered abominable (as per Leviticus 18).
In fact, His use of porneia (see #3) would have been understood by the Jews in line with these perimeter for human sexuality.

5. Jesus refers negatively to the two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, which were famously condemned for their exhibition of homosexual lasciviousness. He upholds the fact they were judged by God and seems to anticipate further judgement of their sins at the end of time.

6. Jesus commissions Paul to be His representative and messenger to the non-Jewish world. Paul speaks for Jesus, when he explicitly condemns homosexual behaviour as ungodly and deserving of God’s wrath, while instructing Christians from a Greco-Roman background.

Other articles like this one

https://gotquestions.org/Jesus-homosexuality.html [Got Questions?]

https://carm.org/did-jesus-talk-about-homosexuality [Christian Apologetics Research Ministries]

http://www.tms.edu/preachersandpreaching/jesus-never-address-homosexuality/ [Master’s Seminary]

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/04/06/did-jesus-talk-about-homosexuality/ [Scot McKnight]

Picture Credits

[1] Lawrie Cate “Torah” flickr (CC BY 2.0)

[2] John Martin “Sodom and Gomorrah” Public Domain

[3] Sabdiasep Mercado “The Conversion of Saul circa 1986” flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

6 things Jesus said about homosexuality (pt. 1)

Straight to the point, here they are:

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6. Plenty of things that have definite relevance to any claims about human sexuality (but which are conveniently ignored by shallow interlocutors who seem to think “One punch can kill” is an effective debating ethos, rather than an anti-violence campaign slogan).

That’s right, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, except for a bunch of stuff He did say that have fairly clear implications when it comes to various approaches to sexuality.

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A picture of Jesus saying nothing about homosexuality… [1]

I’m sure you’ve encountered some variation of the above list by now (unspoilt by my #6 of course). The numbering varies, or sometimes the claim is just made outright (eg; “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, therefore…), but the substance of the assertion is the same. Because Jesus either didn’t have an Aramaic or Greek synonym for “gay” in His vocabulary, or did but chose never to use it in His extensive teaching ministry – we’re to believe that homosexuality can’t have been a big deal in His eyes.

The problem is that the biblical evidence suggests that Jesus was not only well aware of the existence of homosexual sex, but He was in fact against it. That He chose not to name it exclusively on any number of occasions (or that, perhaps, the Gospel writers simply did not include what He did teach on this issue for unknown reasons), was probably largely to do with the demographic make-up of His usual audience. Or perhaps it has something to do with “queer” sexualities not being viewed as “special” then in the manner they are now (instead they were just one of several ways a person could conduct their sexual urges in rebellion to God). But more on those points later.

Here are six things Jesus said that really have an awful lot to say when applied to questions surrounding homosexuality. [Most of these points have been made by others at different times, but I’m seeking here to collate them in a way that presents a clear picture on the issue. I’ll include links to several similar articles at the end of part 2].

1. Sexuality: Jesus spoke of human sexuality in terms of exclusively binary sex/gender categories: “Have you not read that the One who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” (Matt 19:4, LEB).

In context, Jesus is responding to marital relationships between men and women. He begins His answer with the above statement of complementary sexuality. God’s original creation involved a male human and a female human, with complementary sexual organs, capable of being joined together to bring about pleasure and procreation.

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Jesus saw significance in Adam and Eve as male and female [2]

While the old “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” slogan is trite (and guilty of attempting the same throwaway-line debating tactics I’m criticising here), the point behind the poor framing is valid. Jesus had no theological notion of humans of the same sex being created to enjoy each other’s bodies in a sexual way. He approached all questions of sexuality and marriage from the starting point of Man and Woman being specially created by God as sexually distinct from one another.

2. Marriage: Jesus’ teaching on marriage and sexual union naturally flowed on from this framework. “And [Jesus] answered and said, “Have you not read that the one who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, ‘On account of this a man will leave his father and his mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6).

Jesus moves from his opening statement of binary human sexuality to a consequential picture of human marriage and sexual union. Marriage and sex (which are properly inseparable in Jesus’ mind, teaching and social/religious context) take place when an adult male leaves the familial arrangement founded by his parents (the very sexual/marital relationship that resulted in his own existence) and enters into his own, new, familial and sexual relationship with a woman. When the man and woman are “joined together” in matrimony as husband and wife, their social identities become inseparably linked and their bodies come to share in a oneness as a result of natural, sexual intercourse.

2607861005_9c667a9ef6_b                                                      Marriage between Man and Woman [3]

It’s at this point that Jesus’ silence on homosexuality should trouble LGBTetc; advocates, rather than buoy them. Because the manner in which Jesus has framed human marriage and sexuality makes the idea of male-male sex or female-female marriage a completely foreign concept. Jesus need not go through every possible example of what wouldn’t constitute a legitimate marriage or sexual relationship, as He has stated very clearly (using Creation as His theological foundation) what the genuine article looks like and it doesn’t leave room for innovation or clever redefinition.

3. “Sexual immorality”: Jesus spoke disapprovingly of porneia, which is a catch-all Greek term for immoral sexual practices, i.e. those which do not conform to the moral standards of what is held to constitute legitimate sexuality by the speaker/author.  “For from the heart come evil plans, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, abusive speech.” Matt 15:19

I’ve already attempted to show above (and will continue to do so in the next post), that homosexual intercourse was very much beyond the pale of Jesus’ binary understanding of human sexuality and complementary, heterosexual view of marriage. For Jesus, sexual immorality was any expression of sexuality that deviated from the picture of male-female marital intimacy we’ve seen described already.

While Christian(ish) and non-Christian proponents of gay and lesbian relationships have long sought to emphasise the similarity between committed, loving, homosexual couples and monogamous heterosexual relationships – this is not a relevant objection at this point, as Jesus seems to place the sexual complementarity as the foundational element of marriage – not monogamous exclusivity (this goes a-ways toward explaining the higher level of biblical tolerance for polygamy – as an albeit far-less-than-ideal arrangement in the Old Testament – than homosexual relationships. But that’s one for another day!).

There are three more things Jesus said that help us grasp His “position” on homosexual sex, but they’ll have to wait until part 2.

[1] Carl Bloch, “Sermon on the Mount” Public Domain.

[2] Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing “Book of Genesis Chapter 2” wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

[3] Peter Kenjerski “Wedding” flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Oh Eye See! Solving the mystery of Matthew 6:22-23

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”
Matthew 6:22-23, ESV

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I sometimes think Matthew 6 is my spiritual medicine cabinet. I struggle with being well-thought of by others and with the danger of religiously going through the motions. I need Jesus to teach me how to approach prayer. I live in a society where materialism is one of the greatest temptations and despite my efforts I never fully feel I’ve conquered the temptation to accumulate things here. And despite acknowledging God’s sovereignty, I worry a lot about the future.

Jesus addresses some of my major life-issues in His best known sermon. But have you ever read this chapter and struggled to figure out how the verses above fit into the overall picture?

The above verses from Matthew 6 are one part of the Sermon on the Mount that seems to spoil the flow of what Jesus is saying. In 6:19-21 Jesus talks about having the right attitude towards “treasure”:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, ESV)

Then in 6:24 we have another warning about money/riches/wealth:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24, ESV).

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Love of Money [2]

When we consider these verses in light of the opening and closing of Matthew 6, we see a theme of trusting God to provide our needs and grant us an everlasting reward – rather than spending our lives worrying about how others perceive us (eg; living a superficial religious life) or how our financial and material needs will be met (see vv. 25-34 and the Lord’s Prayer).

So what to make of Jesus’ comments, smack in the middle of this discourse, about the eye being the lamp of the body? Is this a random thought bubble; an accidental “combo-breaker”; or could it actually be part of the key theme of the passage?

People have often interpreted these verses as a stand-alone point about our spiritual “focus” (thus the “Eye”). It runs something like, if your eye (or heart) is focused on things that are good, you’ll be filled with light (goodness), but if your eye/heart is focused on things which are evil, you’ll be full of darkness (and at risk of spiritual condemnation). While this interpretation could fit roughly with the overall theme (eg; if you focus on heavenly treasures, your soul will be “enlightened”, if you focus on earthly treasures and worldly things, it will be darkened), I discovered what I believe is a much better thematic fit, by looking at what Jesus would have meant by a “good” or “evil” eye.

Evil Eye? [3]
Evil Eye? [3]

Have you ever heard the phrase “to give someone the evil eye”? We usually think of it as a kind of superstitious hex, where one person curses the other through ill-will and perhaps supernatural powers. Or perhaps it just gets used in modern day speech as a synonym for a scowl or a dirty look. But the phrase had a different meaning in the biblical culture.

In Deuteronomy 15:7-11, Yahweh instructs His people concerning how they are to treat their poor brethren in the land of Israel: “”If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7-11, ESV)

Verse 9 more literally speaks of someone’s eye being evil against their poor brother. Giving them the evil eye means being stingy and begrudgingly refusing to give generously to them to meet their need. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament the phrase “πονηρεύσηται ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου” is very similar to Matthew 6:23’s “ο οφθαλμος σου πονηρος”. So I’d contend that Jesus is talking about someone’s eye being evil (i.e. stingy) rather than just some vague idea of spiritual badness.

On the other hand, the eye being “good” (not “healthy” as the ESV unhelpfully translates) can also have the opposite meaning in the Old Testament. In Proverbs 22:9 the ESV has “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” Again, this is clearly speaking of generosity towards the poor. And the opening Hebrew phrase of the verse is “טוב־עין” – literally “good eye.” Thus, having a “good eye” in the OT meant being liberal or generous to those in need.

So when Jesus makes a seemingly random remark about our eye being good and full of light or evil and full of darkness – He is undoubtedly making an observation about the spiritual state of people’s souls. But He’s specifically talking about our attitudes towards money and resources and how we respond to the needs of those around us. This makes it a perfect fit with the surrounding themes of not accumulating earthly treasures; not trying to serve God and Mammon (wealth) and trusting in our Sovereign Father to supply all our needs.

My sinful tendency to be stingy in different ways comes from my rotten belief that I don’t have enough to go around. I’m not one of the rich, so I can’t give very much to others. But it’s worse than that. My attitudes towards money and my struggle to be as generous as Jesus calls me to be is because of a spiritual sickness – a lack of love for my brother or sister and a lack of trust that God will provide for my material needs (just like he looks after tiny plants and birds).

So next time you see a brother or sister in need, Jesus is saying “Is your eye good or evil towards them?” “Are you full of light or full of darkness?” “Are you generous to those in need, or stingy and bound by selfish greed?”

[1] Mike Lindsey Eye Spy (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr.
[2] Tax Credits Money Girl (CC BY 2.0) flickr.
[3] Phil Balchin 061 – Evil Eyes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) flickr.

Christ’s Resurrection and the Old Testament? (Pt. 3)

After looking at which OT passages the early church cited in relation to the resurrection and exploring how it might more broadly fulfil the Old Testament Scriptures as they point to God’s Messiah, I want to explore with you the very question that led me to want to write this three part series. Are there hints in the Old Testament that the Messiah might rise from the dead, which can be understood as such in light of the historical reality of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead?

Here I’m not talking about allegory or stretching texts or themes too much to make them speak about something they weren’t intended to. But I do want to explore whether reading the OT through NT eyes allows us to detect some hints or clues that God may have placed in the Hebrew Scriptures for us to find in hindsight and glorify Him for seeing how He fulfils the OT in Christ’s resurrection.

Let me share just a couple of passages I’ve been excited by in thinking about this question. You may not find them as convincing as I do, but they’re certainly worth consideration.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the LORD, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall take possession of it.” These are the words that the LORD spoke concerning Israel and Judah: “Thus says the LORD: We have heard a cry of panic, of terror, and no peace. Ask now, and see, can a man bear a child? Why then do I see every man with his hands on his stomach like a woman in labor? Why has every face turned pale? Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is a time of distress for Jacob; yet he shall be saved out of it. “And it shall come to pass in that day, declares the LORD of hosts, that I will break his yoke from off your neck, and I will burst your bonds, and foreigners shall no more make a servant of him. But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them. (Jeremiah 30:1-9)

God promises here in the future, when fulfilling part of His promises to His people that they will serve Yahweh their God and David their king. While in this passage the two characters are separate, it is interesting to note that Jesus was Yahweh the God of Israel coming to dwell among His people in human flesh and was also the Davidic King God had promised to set over His people.  But what is really interesting is the idea of “raising up.”

Of course “raising up” should typically be understood in the sense of picking someone from amongst the people and elevating them to a status of leadership over their people. But some in reading this passage have wondered whether the “raising up” of David is suggestive of a resurrected David reigning over God’s people (i.e. God will raise up David specifically to reprise His role as King of Israel to fulfill the covenant promises made to him). I don’t see the need for a literal David in this passage – in fact I think it detracts from what is a clear Messianic prophecy. It is right and proper to call Jesus (as Messiah) “David” in the same sense that Jesus called John the Baptist “Elijah.” John was a new Elijah, Jesus was a new David.

David
King David [1]

But I do latch on the idea of “raising up” possibly being about the resurrection. My suspicion is strengthened by the Greek translation of the Old Testament (which was read and cited by the New Testament authors).
The word for “raise up” is ἀναστήσω, the exact word Jesus uses several times in John 6 to describe His raising to life of those who believe in Him and related to the verbs and nouns used for the resurrection in numerous NT passages. So while I don’t think Jeremiah or anyone reading his book prior to the resurrection would have understood this passage as speaking of the Messiah’s resurrection, I think it seems legitimate to see it from a NT perspective as a hint that God intended to raise His Messiah to life to rule over His people.

Another passage is from Deuteronomy 18. Moses says:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen– just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-19)

MosesMoses [2]

It is clear from the NT that Jesus was the prophet like Moses promised here and that He is the one everyone must listen to in order to obey God’s will and have life. But again, the idea of raising up is presented in this passage and again the verb is ἀναστήσω, used later in the NT to speak of resurrection. And so again I find myself musing about the possibility that the OT speaks of the Messiah, both as Ultimate Prophet and Promised King, being “raised up”, because we were meant to look back and discover more hints that this was part of God’s great plan of redemption all along.

[1] Fab5669 “Statue of King David in Saverne museum, wooden statue of the 18th-century from Niederbronn (Bas-Rhin, France)” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons.

[2] Jaimeluisgg “Moises statue at the entrance of Agricultural Resort Waters of Moses, located in Rio Azul sector, Pantoño rural settlement, Ribero municipality, Sucre state, Venezuela” CC0 wikimedia commons.

Christ’s Resurrection and the Old Testament? (Pt. 2)

Last time we looked at how the early church understood the resurrection of Christ as a fulfillment of particular OT Scriptures, especially David’s “prophecy” in Psalm 16. But one or two references to the something as big as the resurrection of the Messiah might leave us scratching our heads as to why such an event wasn’t predicted to the same degree as other important details about the Christ. This brings us to our second question: “Can the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection “fulfill Scripture” in a broader, big picture kind of way – independent of explicit predictions?”

One of the mistakes many Christians and sceptics alike make when it comes to Jesus’s “fulfillment of prophecy/Scriptures/promises” is to look for the wrong kind of background (eg; “predictions”) and the wrong kind of fulfillment (i.e. literal, undeniable characteristics or deeds that respond precisely to specific predictions). I mentioned in one of my pre-Christmas posts that atheists often get excited by the fact that Matthew says Jesus fulfilled the Scripture “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).” Some contend that Matthew and Christians who believe him are moronic, because Mary’s son was named Jesus – a name they likely think has no prophecy in the Old Testament connected with it (something I’d actually contest – but that one’s for another day!). Using this approach, Jesus can only fulfil Scripture if He was literally called Immanuel by His parents, in the synagogue and the marketplace etc; This misses Matthew’s point entirely, which is that Jesus should be considered Immanuel, because He is in fact God dwelling with us.

What has all of that got to do with the resurrection? Well a lot. If we limit ourselves to explicit predictions of the Messiah’s resurrection in the OT, we’ll come up short. God deliberately kept this truth relatively concealed until it happened and only the resurrected Jesus Himself and the Holy Spirit could help the disciples understand its connection to the Scriptures, even after the fact. But the resurrection can be in accordance with the Scriptures if it occurred to fulfill or embody some of the grand themes or passages of the Old Testament.

King David
King David

I mentioned in closing the last post, that one such fulfillment which Paul seemed to recognise was that God could not leave the Messiah dead if He were to fulfill the promises made to Christ’s ancestor David. Jesus had been crucified and buried and so if the resurrection had not occurred, one or more realities would be true. There was the unthinkable possibility that God neglected to fulfill His promises. There was the almost as unlikely possibility that the Davidic promises recorded in Scripture didn’t mean what they plainly seemed to mean (though this is not to say people could not be confused on what some of them would look like in reality). Or the final possibility is that Jesus died without receiving the fullness of the promises because He was not the Messiah. The disciples had every reason to believe that Jesus had really risen from the dead and therefore none of these things were seriously in doubt at the point they witnessed the risen Christ and heard Him explain the connection between Himself and the Scriptures. The resurrection therefore fulfils Scripture by being a mechanism by which God fulfils His promises to David (and therefore to Israel and even to Abraham by extension). This is no less substantial than if the resurrection seemed to occur in narrower, precise fulfilment of a range of resurrection-specific prophecies.

Another way the resurrection of Christ can fulfil Scriptures is through typology and embodiment. To borrow from the Christmas story again, when Joseph brings Jesus back from their sojourn in Egypt, Matthew says it fulfilled Hosea’s prophecy “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15, Hosea 11:1). The original prophecy in context was about Israel, without any explicit Messianic overtones. But when Jesus came, He embodied what Israel (as the people of God) were supposed to be in covenant with God. He therefore fulfils Hosea 11 not because the prophet intentionally spoke of the Messiah, but because Jesus was the true Son of God and in a sense the true Israel.

Exodus   The Exodus [1]

Sticking with Hosea, I mentioned in the last post that Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day” might have been related somehow to Hosea 6:2 “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” If this is correct, it isn’t because Hosea was deliberately and specifically predicting the resurrection of the Messiah. Rather it would be because Jesus stands in relation to God on behalf of His covenant people and God fulfilled this prophecy about giving His people life on the third day by raising our representative up on the third day after His death.

Jonah_the_Prophet
Jonah sculpture [2]

When it comes to a connection between the resurrection and something like Jonah’s three days and three nights in the belly of the giant fish, it’s slightly different. Jesus didn’t mean Jonah’s original readers should have deduced that the Messiah would die and lie in the ground for a number of days, before escaping death like Jonah did. Here it’s better to understand that certain people and events in the Old Testament had experiences and characteristics that in hindsight can be seen as “types” of the Messiah and His life. In citing Jonah’s stay in the fish’s belly, Jesus was effectively using a well known OT figure to illustrate what would happen to Him, and hint at the fact He’d live again after His “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Thus Jesus’ death and resurrection would be like the “sign of Jonah” – a sign which people would either recognise and respond in repentance or fail to recognise and be condemned by.

So hopefully this helps us see how Jesus could fulfil the Scriptures through His resurrection in a broader, even grander sense than what is often conceived as the fulfilment of prophecy. But in the final post I’ll look at the question of whether there could be a few passages that hint at the resurrection of Christ, which we might be prone to miss.

[1] Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing “Biblical illustration of Book of Exodus Chapter 13″ CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons.
[2] Sargis Babayan “Jonah the Prophet” CC BY-SA 3.0 wikimedia commons.