Wednesday, December 16, 2009

MARY’S PAIN

Those of us who have endured numerous Christmas programs, pageants, plays and skits know that one of the central figures of the program is Mary the mother of Jesus. She is usually played by some pretty, pure looking teenage girl who sits wide-eyed, guarding her child as shepherds, angels and wise men enter and exit.

Do we ever consider as we look at this young woman, that she has just gone through the pain of childbirth – in a stable? She probably didn’t look as pure as represented on the stage. She was probably covered with dirt and blood – even manure!

For many observers, the story of Mary ends with the events of Christmas. But the story didn’t end there. Mary’s story continues and is mingled in the Gospels with the greater story – that of her son, Jesus. And it’s a story of pain and suffering. If we did not see her story from the perspective of eternity, we might even call her a tragic figure. But Mary’s life was a living out of a prophecy uttered not long after the birth of her son.

As followers of the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph went up to the Jerusalem temple to present their first-born son Jesus to the LORD, and to present their offering of two pigeons (the offering acceptable for those too poor to offer a lamb) for the purification of the mother. There they were met by an old man who took the child up in his arms and uttered a prayer to God and a prophecy to the mother concerning her child.

In the middle of his prophecy, he said to Mary, “… and a sword will pierce even your own soul …”

Mary’s soul was to feel that sword often over the next 30+ years, as she raised that son to manhood, watched him live out that prophecy and die what many might consider an untimely death.

By this time she had already experienced some amazing – and painful – things. She had received a visit from an angel who told her she would become pregnant in spite of the fact that she had kept herself a virgin. That she would bear a son, who would be the King of Israel. She had endured the suspicions of her betrothed husband, who planned on divorcing her, until he too had been visited by an angel. She undoubtedly was forced to put up with taunts and whispers from her neighbors about her pregnancy, whispers that would even follow her son into his manhood.

She had, when near the end of her pregnancy, taken a long journey with her husband from Nazareth to Bethlehem as required for the census. There they’d had to find lodging in a stable where she gave birth to her child and had to place him in a feeding trough for want of a better place to lay him. There they had been visited by shepherds who worshipped the child and told of seeing a host of angels who sang his praises. Mary had just tucked those things away in her heart.

But the greatest pains were still to come.

After the temple visit Mary and Joseph settled in Bethlehem, where they were visited by Magi from the east, bringing gifts and worshipping her son. Next, a hurried escape to Egypt after being warned by God that King Herod was out to kill him. There they remained as refugees till Herod’s death. Mary undoubtedly learned in Egypt of Herod’s slaughter of children in Bethlehem. The sword must have begun to pierce Mary’s soul there. They then returned to Nazareth avoiding any place controlled by Herod’s family.

I’m sure that Mary and Joseph did their best to raise their exceptional child in the ways of the Lord, though it must have been quite a challenge. When he was 12 years old they took him up to Jerusalem again (his Bar Mitzvah?). On the way back in the pilgrims’ caravan, they discovered he was missing – a bit of pain that every parent has probably felt at one time or another. After three days’ search they found him in the temple, carrying on a question and answer time with the wise teachers. We can feel the anxiety turn to anger in Mary’s words, “Child, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been worried sick looking for you!”

And we can feel the tip of the sword enter deeper into her soul as he looks up at them and replies, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” Ouch! Mary is reminded that Joseph is not the child’s father and that the child, though hers by birth, was not hers to keep. We’re told that “they didn’t understand.”

Some time later, Joseph left the scene, apparently dying and leaving Mary a widow. By this time there were other siblings in the family, though Jesus as the first-born, would have been responsible for the care of his mother.

When Jesus had grown and left home and begun an itinerant ministry, there was a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee. Mary was apparently serving and Jesus and his disciples were among the invited guests. When they ran out of wine (was this because of Jesus’ rowdy friends?), Mary called it to Jesus’ attention. Was she expecting something from him? After all, he was 30 years old already and apparently had done nothing that would indicate the fact that he was a King. Jesus’ reply seems puzzling – “What to me and to you, woman?” The word “woman” was not itself meant as a disrespectful term, though the whole question seems to be a gentle rebuke. He continues, “My hour has not yet arrived.” He seemed to be telling her that he was on a different schedule – a different agenda. She was no longer in control. We can feel the sword piercing a little deeper.

Mary must have heard of her son’s strange teaching when calling people to follow him. “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, he is not able to be my disciple.” Hearing this must have thrust the sword a bit deeper. Perhaps that’s why some of his relatives thought he was crazy and wanted to have him arrested. I’m sure that drove it even deeper still.

When Mary with his brothers came to see Jesus, he ignored them. When someone told him they were outside looking for him, He looked at those around and said, “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Look – my brothers and sisters and mother!” Whatever else this meant it was clearly a cutting of family ties. When an enthusiastic woman yelled out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” Jesus corrected her, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it!” Faith is thicker than blood or mother’s milk. The sword again!

But without a doubt the sword went its deepest into Mary’s soul when she stood at the cross with the other women and John, the only one of the 12 who hadn’t run away. She heard him cry out, “Woman – look at your son!”

I suppose that anyone who is a parent would agree with me that parenting is painful. We share our children’s (and grandchildren’s) sorrows, pains and disappointments.

But I can only barely begin to imagine Mary’s pain. To be told as she was that you are the object of God’s favor, that you are going to give birth to God’s child – the King of Israel – and then to be told that you would suffer a sword through your soul. To see that child move farther and farther away. To watch that child suffer a horrible criminal’s death, seemingly bringing to an end all your hopes for him – God’s promises for him unfulfilled.

But that’s not the end of the story. Her son rose from the dead. Mary’s tears were dried!
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Scriptures (in order): Luke 2:22-35; Exodus 13:2, 12; Leviticus 12; Luke 1:26-35; John 8:41; Luke 2:1-21; Matthew 2; Luke 2:39-51; John 2:1-12; Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26; Mark 3:21, 31-34; Luke 11:27, 28; John 19:21-27; Acts 1:14.

Bill Ball
12/16/2009

Thursday, December 3, 2009

THE MANHATTAN DECLARATION

A friend recently e-mailed me that he was anxiously awaiting my analysis and comments on my blog on The Manhattan Declaration. I wrote back and told him that I hadn’t planned on commenting on it on my blog; in fact, I hadn’t even heard of it.

I Googled it and found there were over 206,000 entries on it, so I don’t think what I have to say will add much to what has already been said. I read it rather hastily and made a few comments which I e-mailed to my friend, asking for his thoughts, which he sent back to me.

I have now printed it out and studied it, along with some (very few) of the 206,000 posts. However, before I give my analysis and comments, here’s a brief summary and description of the document.

It is called THE MANHATTAN DECLARATION: A Call of Christian Conscience. It claims to be a joint effort of Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Christians. It was released on November 20, 2009. It has a long and impressive list of signers, many of whom are well-known religious leaders and scholars, whom I greatly respect.

It begins with a historical Preamble, tracing Christian moral stands and actions through the centuries.

The actual body of the Declaration begins by stating that the signers are signing as individuals and not as representatives of their organizations.

In the second paragraph “the whole scope of Christian moral concern” is mentioned, but in the third paragraph narrows these to three which it affirms:
1) the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of every human being as a creature fashioned in the very image of God, possessing inherent rights of equal dignity and life;
2) marriage as a conjugal union of man and woman, ordained by God from the creation, and historically understood by believers and non-believers alike, to be the most basic institution in society; and
3) religious liberty, which is grounded in the character of God, the example of Christ, and the inherent freedom and dignify of human beings created in the divine image.

The signers say they “affirm … embrace our obligation – to speak and act in defense of these truths.” They claim “It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in its fullness …”

There follow three sections.

The first is entitled Life and while it pays brief attention to a few life issues, it concentrates chiefly on abortion.

The second is entitled Marriage and does a pretty thorough job of defining the biblical/theological basis for marriage. It addresses the other problem areas of sexual morality but then homes in on homosexual marriage as though this were the major problem

The third section is entitled Religious Liberty. It states that “The nature of religious liberty is grounded in the character of God Himself.” It criticizes recent trends in our country to “weaken or eliminate conscience clauses,” and thus force pro-life health workers and others to take part in actions that violate their conscience. This section concludes by advocating civil disobedience in various cases.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Now for my comments, for what they’re worth, though I doubt if I’ll say anything that hasn’t already been said.

First, were it not for the fact that I hold many of the signers in high regard, I would probably be tempted to simply ignore the Declaration. I feel uncomfortable with joint efforts at making moral/political pronouncements.

I am also left wondering as to the specific purpose of the Declaration. Is it a political manifesto, an ethical treatise, a call to Christian unity on certain issues, a call to civil disobedience, a line in the sand?

The drafters/signers claim that they “sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities.” I’m not quite sure what that means. They “call upon people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike.” They speak of “our fellow citizens, including some Christians.” So along with the lack of specific purpose, it seems to lack a specific target audience. This makes it appear overall to be not much more than an opinion piece.

The Preamble contains, as my friend noted, “distorted revisionist history.” Its rewriting of history is almost shameful. How can we “claim the heritage” of some Christians while ignoring “the heritage” of others? How can we commend “Christians who combated the evil of slavery” while ignoring the fact that it was practiced and justified among Christians from medieval days right up into the 19th century?

It is almost laughable to say that “Christians challenged the divine claims of kings” while ignoring the fact that other Christians used “biblical” arguments to enforce those rights. And how can we as evangelicals claim credit for the civil rights’ crusades of the 50s and 60s when (white) evangelicals in the South fought them tooth-and-nail, while evangelicals in the North turned our backs?

And what about other areas of church history that have been completely ignored? -- the inquisition? The bloody wars of the Reformation?

The Preamble starts the Declaration off on a triumphalist note. I believe it would have been better to have begun with a confession than what almost reads like a boast. It is not enough to speak of “the imperfections and shortcomings of Christian institutions and communities in all ages”; I believe we should recognize and confess them as sins.

As I read the section on Life, I find myself in essential agreement on the ethical issues addressed. Yet, I find the directions it takes rather disturbing. Why is the focus narrowed to abortion? Did the “license to kill” really begin “with the abandonment of the unborn to abortion”? Abortion is horrible, but we could make a pretty good case that the “license to kill” is programmed into our (sinful) nature. Remember Cain? What about America’s murderous history and her bloody wars of extermination of native peoples?

Though in the last paragraphs the issues are expanded to include global concerns, such as genocide, sexual trafficking and other related matters, there still seems to be an effort to link these to abortion.

Similarly, while I agree with most of the arguments in the long section on Marriage, why is the issue of homosexual marriage singled out for such fears?

Also, I am troubled by what appears to me to be a not-so-subtle hidden agenda: the overemphasis on reproduction. In contending against “same-sex and polyamorous relationships,” the claims are made that marriage “includes bodily unity of the sort that unites husband and wife biologically as a reproductive unit,” that “the spouses become one flesh … by fulfilling together the behavioral conditions of procreation,” etc. etc. Uni and I are in our 70s. Did our one-flesh relationship cease when we ceased being a “reproductive unit”?

This is one area where, I believe, the Evangelical signers have conceded too much to their Roman Catholic counterparts. Sexual morality, in or out of marriage is not based, and should not be based on how it contributes to procreation.

I am in essential agreement with the arguments of Religious Liberty. It is “grounded in the character … of the God who is most fully known in the life and work of Jesus Christ.” Every believer in Jesus Christ is free, no matter what his/her external circumstances. Our religious liberties as guaranteed in the U. S. Constitution are not, however, the same as our rights as believers in Christ. The fact that sometimes these rights have been taken away is well illustrated in the Declaration, though I do not share the signers’ fears concerning proposed hate crime laws.

The call to civil disobedience is commendable, though again, it is narrowed down to certain areas concerning abortion and related issues and homosexual marriage.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Some final thoughts.

First, despite claims to the contrary on the website, it seems to be as much a political statement as a religious/ethical one. The criticism of “the present administration,” “the President,” “many in Congress” makes that clear, as well as the fact it selects to primarily address the issues of abortion and homosexuality while giving only token attention to others. What about war? Poverty? The environment? The integrity, sexual and otherwise of our Christian and political leaders? If we make a declaration on only certain moral issues, we tip our hand and show that our political position has influenced our choices.

Secondly, and perhaps this should be first, what about the Gospel? The signers claim to be from three very different backgrounds. We are told that “Christians today are called to proclaim the Gospel of costly grace,” we aren’t told exactly what that Gospel is. There are great differences between the three groups as to what the nature of the Gospel is. When we gloss over these differences, we are in danger of compromise, by basing our Christianity on a moral code rather than on the finished work of Christ appropriated by faith alone.

Bill Ball
12/3/2009

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A BELIEVER WHO COULDN’T BE TRUSTED

There are many passages in the Scripture that are difficult to understand.  And some of these, even though they seem clear, just don’t “fit.”  Even after following all the rules of biblical interpretation – taking into account context, definitions, grammar, etc. – they just don’t fit into our understanding – our theology.

One such passage is John 2:23-25:  “Now when He (Jesus) was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, because they were observing the signs that He was doing.  But Jesus Himself was not entrusting Himself to them because He knew all, and because He did not have need that anyone should testify concerning a person, for He Himself knew what was in a person.”

The Greek word translated both as "believed" and "entrusting” is pisteuo and is used 99 times in John’s Gospel.  Every translation I know of translates this word consistently as “believe” except for the one time in this passage where it is used of Jesus “trusting” or “entrusting” Himself.

Who are these people who “believed in His name” and yet could not be trusted by Jesus?  The commentaries that I have read are unanimous that these are not really true believers.  Some comments:  “They were superficially impressed”; “There are two levels of believing”; “Not all faith is saving faith”; “Belief without trust”; “The faith which was born of wonder would be likely to cease when the wonder ceased”; “To these believers the miracles were not signs indicative of the true nature of Jesus”; and, blah, blah, blah.

The problem is that none of the commentators presents even one shred of evidence for their dogmatic statements.  In chapter 1, verses 12 and 13 of this same Gospel, John the author equates “those who believe in His name” with those “who were born … of God” and with “as many as received Him.”

“But to as many as received Him, He gave the right to become children of God – to those who believe in His name, who were born not from bloods, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of a man, but of God.”

The same expression is used in 3:18, where it is used to separate those who are “not judged” from those who are “already judged.”  In John’s First Epistle, he tells his readers:  “I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life!”

Another protest is that these people merely believed because they “saw the signs that He was doing.”  (“Signs” is John’s word for miracles.)  This is supposed to tell us that they had some lesser type of faith.  But again, neither Jesus nor John makes any distinction.  In fact, John tells us in 20:30, 31 that he recorded these signs so that people would believe!

“Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples which have not been written in this book.  But these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God so that by believing you may have life in His name.”

There is no other qualifier or disqualifier here.  Reading the above definition into 2:23-25 tells us that these were “saved people” – “born again” – “they have eternal life.”

So if these are genuine “born again believers,” the next question is, what does it mean that Jesus wasn’t “trusting Himself to them”?  And why didn’t He?  There doesn’t seem to be an immediate answer, but there is, I believe, a specific example.

The chapter divisions in our Bible are not part of the inspired text, but were added later.  And sometimes they break up the thought in a confused fashion.  The division between chapters 2 and 3 of John’s Gospel is one such incident.  If we ignore the chapter division here, we have (2:25b-3:1a):  “… He did not have need that anyone should testify concerning a person, for He Himself knew what was in a person.  Now there was a person …”  (The word translated “person” is anthropos; though it is usually translated “man,” it has the meaning of “human being” – “man” as a class or race, as distinct from animals.)  So this person named Nicodemus is John’s illustration of a truster who couldn’t be trusted.  The dialog in John 3:1ff seems to bring this out. 

Nicodemus, we are told was “of the Pharisees” and a “ruler of the Jews” (3:1), which undoubtedly means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish council on religious and governmental matters.  Later Jesus refers to him as “the teacher of the Jews” (The definite article is used in the Greek text) and chides him for his ignorance of certain matters (3:10).

He comes to Jesus by night (3:2), which may simply be because it is the only convenient time he had, or more likely it suggests that this was a clandestine meeting.  John’s other uses of the word “night” seem to suggest something a bit sinister (9:4; 11:10; 13:30; 19:39; even 21:3).  Jesus carries on what appears a rather cryptic conversation regarding the New Birth and faith in Himself (3:3-21, although it’s not quite clear where Jesus’ words end and those of John, the author begin).

The story has no nice clear resolution.  We are left wondering what happened to Nicodemus.  Did he come to faith in Christ?  Was he “born again”?  Yes.  Though there is no neat ending, we can conclude from 2:23 that he was one of the many who “believed in His name.”  And I believe that his later actions show why Jesus didn’t trust Himself to him.

The next time we meet Nicodemus is in chapter 7.  The council has determined to arrest Jesus and sent officers to arrest Him, but the officers return empty handed.  They have been totally disarmed by Jesus’ teaching (7:32, 45, 46).  While the council members are raging (verses 47-49), Nicodemus (cautiously?) speaks up.

“Nicodemus (the one who came to Him before, being one of them) says to them, ‘Our Law doesn’t judge a person unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?’”  (Verses 50 and 51) bringing down a rebuke from the others (verse 52).  Again we are left to wonder, was that all he said?  Did he clam up out of fear and let the council go on with their scheming?  I know this is an argument from silence, but it would seem so.

The last thing we read about Nicodemus is in chapter 19:38-42.  Jesus has been crucified and a man named Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus’ body, takes it, wraps it in linen with spices and buries it.  Joseph is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-36; Luke 23:50-53).  The other Gospels tell us that Joseph was a member of the council.  John tells us that he was “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because of fear of the Jews” (verse 38).  John also tells us that Nicodemus also was there contributing the spices and that “they took the body of Jesus,” wrapped it and buried it (verses 39-42).

So we may conclude that Nicodemus was, like his friend Joseph, a secret disciple (as were many others. 12:42, 43).  As a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, he could attempt to add a voice of reason, but to openly confess his faith in Christ would have cost him his position and probably much more.  He didn’t openly betray or deny Christ, but like many today, he kept his faith to himself.  But when the chips were down, when all but one of the original 12 had fled-- one had betrayed Christ-- one had denied Him--, Nicodemus’ faith came out clearly into the open.

Are there believers today like those in John 2:23-25, like Nicodemus, like Joseph?  People who have genuinely believed in Christ, but are fearful of confessing Him publicly?  People whom Jesus cannot trust Himself to?  Yes, I believe there are.  I’ve been one myself at times.

There are two questions we need to ask ourselves.  The first is, am I a genuine believer in Jesus Christ as my Savior? If the answer to the first is yes, then the second question is, am I a person who can be trusted by my Savior, or am I a “secret disciple” to most of my friends and neighbors?

Bill Ball
12/1/2009
Revised  9/16/2017

Friday, November 13, 2009

WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?

Further thoughts based on John’s comments on previous blog.

I agree that the WWJD fad has bothered me for some time. I would definitely add it to my list of FAD DOCTRINES. Teenagers and wannabe teenagers wearing those little arm bracelets with the letters on them (these were later found to contain lead and to be harmful to wearer’s health), caps, t-shirts, etc. The letters of course stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” but those who weren’t in the know were left to wonder. Weren’t these the call letters of a Chicago radio station that broadcast country music late at night when I was a kid?

I have seen “What Would Jesus Do?” used as an argument in term papers by some of my college students as well as heard it used in discussions and arguments in areas of disagreement. The argument usually follows this pattern (thought not expressed quite this clearly): “Paul says this, the Old Testament says this and Jesus didn’t address the topic at all. But I believe He would have disagreed with the others and agreed with my position.” Thus any position, no matter how bizarre, can be proven. Who can argue with “Jesus”?

I also agree that the critical question is “What Did Jesus Do?” His life stands as a pattern for us of intimacy with God and His death on the cross made our eternal life with God possible. Theologians refer to these as His active and passive obedience.

But as I said in my previous post, I believe that the question is a legitimate question. I have asked this question of myself quite a few times. I suspect that the questioner may have been the Holy Spirit.

The first time I met someone with AIDS, 20 years ago, the question came to my mind. (See: MY FRIEND.) It would have been easy to rationalize refusing to touch him. After all, when Jesus told us to love our neighbor, He didn’t tell us how close we had to get to him in order to love him?

What about those of another race or culture? What about those who are prejudiced against me? What about those who hate me?

Jesus modeled more than intimacy with God. He also modeled a life of love and compassion for others. In my walk, especially in my relationships with others, I find that the question needs to be asked over and over. Not as some sort of mantra, but to give direction to my behavior.

I believe if we’d ask it more often and seek to answer it honestly, we wouldn’t have near the divisiveness among Christians that we have.

(Also see: WHAT DID JESUS MEAN?.)

Bill Ball
11/13/2009

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

LIVING LIKE JESUS

When I saw Ed Dobson’s book, “The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do” I was intrigued. Dobson (no kin to the Focus on the Family guy) is pastor emeritus of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, MI. I had read a previous book of his, “Blinded by Might” written in conjunction with Cal Thomas, describing his pilgrimage from the Religious Right and I had recognized him as a kindred spirit. Now I hoped this book would tell me more about his continuing spiritual journey.

Dobson spent the year of 2008 attempting to live as he felt Jesus would live in the 21st century and has recorded many of his actions and reflections in his book. He is very open and honest and frequently humorous. His pilgrimage is complicated by the fact that he is suffering from ALS and weakened by it.

He attempts to live by the Torah. He eats kosher food and keeps Shabbat; he observes the Jewish holidays; he wears a fringed t-shirt; he grows a beard. He listens to the Gospels over and over on his iPod.

But then he does some rather strange things. He recites the Catholic rosary as well as Orthodox and Anglican prayer rituals. I fail to see how living like Jesus involves these things. He observes Jewish traditions. Would Jesus do this? Jesus in the Gospels flaunted the extra-biblical traditions. He didn’t fit in with the Jewish orthodoxy of His day and I doubt if He’d fit in with much of today’s Jewish (or Christian) tradition.

Jesus ate and drank with sinners, so Dobson attempts to do the same. Some of the most entertaining parts of the book are his stories about his time spent in bars. He’d belly up, have a beer and strike up conversations with the bartender and whoever else was there. And he’d talk about Jesus.

He struggles with voting in the presidential election. Should he vote? What criteria should he use in choosing the right candidate? In the end he makes a choice that brings criticism, even rejection, from many of his conservative Christian friends.

His conclusions are refreshing. The section entitled, “What Have I Learned?” is worth the price of the book. He sees this year as “the next step in my journey of trying to follow Jesus more closely.” It’s clear that Dobson has been on this journey for a long time – much longer than this one year – and that he will continue to draw closer to his Savior and Lord.

I read this book as a conversation. As I read I found myself carrying on a dialogue with Dobson. Though I’ve never met him I found myself and much of my journey in his book.

I’ve known Jesus for most of my life. He was part of the conversation in my world since I was a child (although sometimes His name was heard as an expression of astonishment or anger). But it wasn’t till I was 18 years old that I personally put my faith in Him. I became part of a church where “salvation by grace through faith” was preached. That’s how one “got saved.”

The problem was that all of us “saved” people were not taught how to be followers of Jesus. We were rather given legalistic rules and moralistic sermons as our resources for “living the Christian life.” We sang: “Be like Jesus this my song …”; “Oh to be like Thee …”; “Take up thy cross and follow Me …”; but somehow we – perhaps I should say I – did not see this as a goal in life and especially as an end in itself.

Yet isn’t that God’s purpose for us? To be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29)?

Like Dobson, as I have grown in my knowledge of and walk with Jesus, I have found that in many ways “living like Jesus” puts me out of step and even at odds with traditional Evangelicals and Evangelicalism. I’ve come to realize that this is a radical way of life.

I’m not claiming that I’ve got it made. I’m still growing. It’s just that certain actions I’ve taken, that I felt were “what Jesus would do” have been interpreted differently by my traditional friends: befriending the “wrong” kind of people – hippies, blacks, AIDS victims; bringing them to church; taking political or ethical positions that are out of line with current “orthodox” positions – even questioning such positions; emphasizing certain theological positions and de-emphasizing others; speaking out on any of the above .

Of course there are many things Jesus did that I haven’t done and don’t plan on doing: I haven’t driven anyone out of a church with a whip; I haven’t stood up in church and called someone a hypocrite; I haven’t performed any miracles; and I definitely haven’t challenged anyone to convict me of sin if he can.

I have been accused by some of being self-righteous, condescending, arrogant and rebellious. I hope I’ve not been any of these, though I probably have been such at times. If I have, I pray that God will reveal that to me. I’ve also been accused of being contrarian and “liberal.” I don’t know if I am, but I’ll accept that without apology or defense.

Some further thoughts on the “how-to” of living like Jesus. We tend to become like the person we spend the most time with, especially our close friends and those we feel are more mature. (See: IMITATE ME.) The best way to become more like Jesus is to spend time with Him. I believe this is what Dobson was trying to do by listening over and over to the Gospels. I haven’t done that, but I have tried to read through them on a regular basis, marking Jesus’ actions, emotions and demands.

We also need to spend time with Him in prayer. I believe that we need to keep a running conversation with Jesus/God going in our minds. Jesus must be part of our thought life and brought into every decision we make.

And the question, “What would Jesus do?” is a legitimate question. If there are clear moral imperatives or prohibitions this should not be a problem. But sometimes there are not. It is then that this question must be asked. And we need to remember that He always acted in love and truth.

There was a time when I thought I had it all put together. I now realize that the life of a believer involves constant change, that I must constantly reexamine many of my convictions. I hope that as I change, it is in the direction of becoming more like Jesus.

Bill Ball
11/10/2009

Monday, November 2, 2009

HAVEN’T YOU READ? Part 2

Some further thoughts regarding the comments by Josh.

Thanks, Josh.

The passages are so different that it's hard to make a blanket statement. But I believe all are rebukes to those who professed to be knowledgeable.

I agree that the key to understanding is the recognition of Christ. At least that's the case in Matthew 21:42 (Mark 12:10). It's interesting, however, that He rebuked them for their ignorance of Psalm 118:22, but not for not getting His interpretation of Isaiah 5:1-7. I do think He was holding them accountable, not for their exegesis, but for failing to recognize Him. This makes sense, since Psalm 118 was regarded as Messianic, while I can’t find any evidence that Isaiah 5 was.

In Matthew 12:3-5, it is not clear to me what the case is. He could simply be showing from the references to David and the priests that His disciples' behavior was justifiable. However, He may also be subtly asserting that He is the Greater David and that they should have understood His actions in this light.

In Matthew 19:4, He seems to be rebuking them for ignoring the creation account in their arguments about divorce. In this case and in the following, He is asserting Himself as the Great Teacher of the Law, speaking authoritatively as He did in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5:27 ff.

In Matthew 22:29, 31 (Mark 12:26), He is doing something similar to the Sadducees, though His interpretation might have been easier for them to miss. It is interesting, however, that He quotes from Exodus 3 when speaking of the resurrection, rather than Ezekiel or Daniel. This is most likely because the Sadducees apparently only accepted the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) as authoritative.

So I agree with you, Josh. It was about their recognition of Him as the Christ. They were the scholars. He seems to have been holding them accountable for not connecting what they saw in Him with their knowledge of the prophetic Scriptures. It was as though they hadn’t even read them. They were not able to “discern the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:3).

I have to admit, however, that I was wrong when I said that I couldn’t find one place where He rebuked others for their ignorance. He did!

Luke 24:25: “And He said to them (his disciples), ‘You stupid and slow in your hearts to believe everything that the prophets said.’”

In fact, in all the resurrection accounts He rebuked His disciples for not only failing to believe the Scriptures, but for failing to believe the evidence that was right in front of them – The risen Christ Himself.

Thanks again for forcing me to think harder!

Bill Ball
11/2/2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

HAVEN’T YOU READ? Part 1

When Jesus’ teachings or actions were questioned by the religious leaders of His day, He always had an answer that they couldn’t refute. Often His answer made reference to their ignorance of Scripture even though they were supposed to be experts in Old Testament Law: High Priests, Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees. Jesus seemed to delight in pointing out their ignorance of the subject of their studies. We can almost see the smile on His face as He asks His favorite question: “Haven’t you read …?” Six times we read this question or something similar in the gospels, along with other retorts. The following quotes are mostly from Matthew’s gospel. Mark and Luke give some of the same, with variations. The quote from John’s gospel is unique.
  • “Haven’t you read what David did …?” (Matthew 12:3; also Mark 2:25; Luke 6:3).
  • “… or haven’t you read in the Law that …?” (Matthew 12:5).
  • “Haven’t you read that …?” (Matthew 19:4).
  • “Haven’t you ever read that …?” (Matthew 21:16).
  • “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures …?” (Matthew 21:42; also Mark 12:10).
  • “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God!” (Matthew 22:29).
  • “… haven’t you read what was spoken to you by God that …?” (Matthew 22:31; also Mark 12:26).
  • “And you don’t have His word abiding in you …! You search the Scriptures because you suppose that you have eternal life in them …” (John 5:38, 39).

But these guys were theological/biblical experts! Many of them had committed great portions of their Bible (the Old Testament) to memory. They were the PhDs of their day. They had answers for questions that others weren’t even knowledgeable enough to ask. And they looked down on Jesus’ followers as ignorant riff-raff:

“No one of the rulers or of the Pharisees (i.e. us) has believed on Him has he? But this crowd that doesn’t know the law is cursed!” (John 7:48, 49).

The people that Jesus hung around with – fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes – probably really were ignorant of the Scriptures, but I can’t find one place where we read of Jesus calling them down for their ignorance. What gives?

The question is not about the words of the Bible. I’m sure the Pharisees and Scribes had often read the words Jesus quoted in the questions. (I have too.) But apparently they hadn’t understood them. And they had obviously not seen their relevance to the situations they were in.

When we hear the bizarre statements of TV preachers; when we hear the Bible twisting of religio-political spokesmen, we sometimes have to wonder, “Haven’t they read the Scriptures they quote or the Bible they thump?”

We hear many religious opinions dogmatically pronounced on theological and moral issues, but we hear very little examination of these issues from a biblical viewpoint. It seems almost as if those who speak out on abortion, homosexuality, poverty, war and government have decided that the truth of their position is settled and there is no need to inquire of the Scriptures.

And the question that keeps popping up in my mind is, “Would Jesus hit me with the same rebukes? After all, I have a Master’s Degree in Theology. I’ve read through my Bible many times in the original languages. I’ve taught Bible and Theology in college. I’ve often been the “expert” that others have come to with their questions. Would Jesus say to me, “Haven’t you read …?” Well, I suppose He might. What would I say?

Bill Ball
10/26/2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

A STEP IN FAITH

Sherry sent me a link to an article with the above title in NEWSWEEK (http://www.newsweek.com/id/216910). She simply said, “Your Thoughts?”

The article begins by telling us, “Evangelical Christian Brent Childers explains his journey from believing that homosexuality was an abomination to marching in a pro-gay march on Washington.” We’re told that Mr. Childers is “speaking out against the harm caused by religion-based bigotry” and that he was once “one of those bigots … a man who condemned homosexuality as a threat to children and society, told his own son that being gay is a ticket to hell,” and that “once I walked away from the Church’s teaching of rejection and condemnation, my relationship with God transcended to a higher spiritual plateau.”

Mr. Childers is now the executive director of an organization devoted to promoting understanding in this area. The article is worth reading by every evangelical Christian who is concerned about these issues.

I am in sympathy with Mr. Childers and agree with much of his argument. However, what causes me discomfort is that although he is labeled an evangelical, he doesn’t base his argument on Scripture, but on an inner voice. In fact, he pretty much ignores Scripture.

In his book, THE TRUE BELIEVER, written well over a half-century ago, Eric Hoffer deals with a phenomenon seen in mass movements. He tells us that, “All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.” He also says that, “The frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements …” and that “… frustration of itself … can generate most of the characteristics of the true believer …”

Now, I’m not a psychiatrist, nor a sociologist like Mr. Hoffer, but I am very tempted to label Mr. Childers as a “true believer,” one who is totally committed to his cause or “movement” and yet one who can, once convinced of the error of his cause, do a complete 180 degree turn. As Mr. Hoffer says, “It takes a Saul to make a Paul.” There is no middle ground. There seems to be an inability to live with tension or unresolved conflict. I’ve been around long enough to see this tendency in history and politics and even in my day: many European Communists were former Nazis; many Neoconservatives were former liberals. I’ve seen it as well in many of my own acquaintances (and in myself to a certain extent), as well as in movements within the church, having to do with theology and practice.

I believe the problem that Mr. Childers is caught up in is really much larger than the question of gay rights. If I may oversimplify, it is the perceived tension between the ethics of Jesus and the ethics of the whole rest of the Scriptures. It may be stated in many ways, such as “love versus doctrine,” “Jesus versus Paul,” etc. It is sometimes stated as “What would Jesus do,” versus the clear commands given elsewhere in the Scriptures.

But is there really a conflict? Am I forced to choose between marching down the street in a Gay Pride parade and standing on the curb holding up a placard stating “God Hates Fags”? I don’t think so!

Over and over in the Gospels, we see Jesus rubbing shoulders with sinners in apparently an unjudgmental manner.
 “And it happened that He was reclining (at dinner) in the house and many tax-gatherers and sinners came and were reclining together with Jesus and His disciples” (Mathew 9:10). I wonder if there were any homosexuals in that crowd.
 “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look a glutton and a wine guzzler, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Mathew 11:19).
 “Amen! I’m telling you (the religious folks) that the tax-collectors and whores will get into the Kingdom of God ahead of you!” (Mathew 21:31).

Is this a conflict with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Don’t be deceived, neither fornicators nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor perverts, nor homosexuals (or a whole bunch of others) … shall inherit the Kingdom of God”?

If we believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and inerrant then we have to say no. But we also have to interpret each in the light of the other. We don’t need to become “red letter Christians.” We have to recognize that the red letters are no more and no less inspired than the black letters.

We should notice that when Jesus socialized with sinners, they were still sinners; He himself even referred to them as such. He was not condoning their behavior, but neither was He condemning them. He told a woman caught in the act of adultery (a capital offense under the Old Testament Law), “neither do I condemn you” – though He did add, “Go and from now on sin no more!” (John 8:11). Rather than condoning, He was transforming.

Though Paul wrote about different topics, there is no contradiction with Jesus’ ministry. One could even say that it was assumed that Christ’s followers would behave as He did.
 “If someone of the unbelievers should invite you over and you want to go …” (1 Corinthians 10:27).
 “I wrote to you in my (previous) letter not to associate with fornicators. However, I didn’t mean the fornicators of the world, or greedy people or swindlers or idolaters – because then you’d have to get out of the world!” (1 Corinthians 5:10).

He goes on to say that his readers should disassociate from people like that who claim to be “brothers” (verse 11). In other words we should be doing like Jesus did – hanging out with sinners, but avoiding religious hypocrites!

So what should we say about Mr. Childers’ change of heart? Should we have a similar change? If we are card-carrying gay bashers, yes, I believe we should. Nowhere in the Gospels, nor anywhere else in the New Testament are we given the right or responsibility to hate people that we perceive as sinners. We are to love them and seek their transformation through faith in Christ.

As far as the church, we already tolerate, even ignore all sorts of other sexual misbehavior – adultery, fornication, unbiblical divorce; so why do we get bent out of shape about this one? Shouldn’t we be dealing with the sins within the church? Shouldn’t we be helping sinners to recover?

And, as I’ve contended before, the church and America are two separate entities. I believe we need to reconsider our “stands” on issues. Should not the homosexual citizen have similar rights to those of the heterosexual?

As for myself, I won’t be marching in the parade, nor will I be carrying a placard!

See SIN, POLITICS AND RELIGION.

Bill Ball
10/9/2009

Friday, October 2, 2009

THE FAMILY

In the July 31 issue of THE WEEK magazine was an article entitled “Washington’s ‘invisible army’ for Christ.” It described an apparently loose-knit organization to which many members of America’s political elite belong, especially, but not exclusively those on the right. It mentioned that three of the recent politicians “embroiled in sex scandals” were longtime members. It mentioned that the group, known as “The Family” had been around since 1935, when it was founded based on a vision of Abraham Vereide, “an itinerant preacher” and Norwegian immigrant. Its present leader is Doug Coe, a well-known, but rather retiring and secretive person.

The article also went on to say that secrecy or invisibility is the first rule of The Family. It also mentioned that personal morality is not at the top of their list of requirements for membership. Then on August 12, Jeff Sharlet appeared as guest on THE DAILY SHOW. Sharlet is the author of the book, THE FAMILY: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, which is referred to in the above article as “the authoritative book.” He is a research scholar and author on various religious topics.

I was fascinated. Sharlet painted a picture of a cultish, almost conspiratorial group that was mainly concerned with power. Could this be “the vast right-wing conspiracy” that I had heard of? Many of my right-leaning friends seem to believe in conspiracies on the left; here was a left-leaner who was telling of a conspiracy on the right! I bought the book and read it. I had to!

Well, the book was not what I had expected! Sharlet is a good writer and it reads almost like a novel. And the book was informative; I learned a great deal about the history of The Family, or as it is also known, The Fellowship, but I had a hard time with the thesis of the book and how it is “proven.”

Mr. Sharlet wants to demonstrate that religion, especially “fundamentalist” religion and politics are hopelessly intertwined. “This is a story,” he tells us in his introduction, “about that imaginary place, so real in the minds of those for whom religion, politics, and the mythologies of America are one singular story and how that vision has shaped America’s projection of power onto the rest of the world.” The imaginary place is America as the “shining city upon a hill.”

But first, the values of the book. It reveals the history of a movement that began with 1930s union busting and anti-New Deal crusading, and carries through the anti-Communism crusades of the 50s, down to present day right-wing power politics. It shows ties between members of The Family and many political movements. While biblical doctrine seems to be relatively unimportant in The Family, Jesus is, but it is Jesus as a sort of undefined idea, rather than the Jesus of the New Testament. Power is important. They hold to a misunderstanding of Romans 13:1 (KJV): “The powers that be are ordained of God,” and seem to make it mean that those in power are more important to God than those without power. Win those in power to “Jesus” and those below will be blessed – “trickle-down” evangelism. This is in total contrast to Jesus’ example and teachings, such as in Luke 22:24-27.

What’s wrong with the book? Well at least two things. To prove his thesis, the author gives a sketchy, very selective outline of American church history, tying The Family, or at least its philosophy, back to a rather select string of individuals and showing little, if any real connections between them: Jonathan Edwards, Charles G. Finney, Billy Sunday, etc.

Secondly, is his painting with a broad brush. Every well-known Christian leader gets splattered, whatever their connections (or non-connections) with members of The Family. Every political leader (at least on the right) who professes faith in Christ gets splattered. The impression is given that all well-known American Christians are tainted and are part of the conspiracy.

One sketch that struck me as humorous was that of Hillary Clinton. Though she had connections with many in The Family, we are assured that “she’s not a member of Coe’s Family.” So we, the liberal readers can breathe a sigh of relief and rest assured that she’s not a part of this vast right-wing conspiracy.

What is sad to me about the book is that the picture painted in this book of America’s evangelicalism is accurate enough. It pictures us as concerned more with political power than with the teachings of the lowly Jesus. It shows a “fundamentalism” that is really unconcerned about the fundamental truths of the gospel of Christ. It shows a moralistic politics that is unconcerned about personal morality. And whether we accept the book’s “facts” and/or its conclusions, it does, I believe, present a picture of Christianity that is held by many today.

Paul told the religious people of his day, “… the Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you …” (Romans 2:24). Would he say that of us today?

Bill Ball
10/2/2009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

PAUL THE POET

I love reading Paul’s letters and have been studying them for over 50 years. I was initially impressed as a young Christian by the fact that God could use a man of such great intellect. Especially when, then as now, intelligence and reason seemed to be held in little esteem in the Christian community that I was part of. I still believe that, next to Jesus himself, Paul was one of the smartest men who ever lived.

I loved (and still love) his well-reasoned arguments and his “Socratic” style of engaging his readers. When I attended seminary and learned to do exegesis in the original Greek, I was even more impressed.

Yet there are many other facets of Paul, which are unfortunately often neglected in doing detailed exegesis. We often overlook the forest for the trees. Paul was more than a brilliant scholar, logician and rhetorician. He was a man of passion. He was a man with a deep love for his Savior. And he was a poet.

Now I’m not a poet. My eyes glaze over when I attempt to study the mechanics of poetry. But I think I know beautiful poetry when I see it. I love the poetry of the Old Testament and have even taught it, even though its forms often have eluded me. And Paul wrote some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible, rivaling that of David or Solomon or the other Psalmists.

The problem is, we may often miss it. Our translations don’t always print it in poetic form. Even printed Greek texts may miss it. Early Greek texts often simply ran words together without much regard for form. Much is left up to the reader to find.

Then too, commentaries and commentators can also be a hindrance. Even when they recognize what is obviously poetry, many seem unable to give Paul credit. They’ll tell us things like “Paul is here quoting from an ancient hymn (or ‘fragment’)”, or “Paul may be alluding to some Old Testament passage.” But why couldn’t Paul simply be waxing poetic on his own? This would seem to be the simplest understanding. Often the poetry fits in perfectly with his argument. His best known poem – the ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 – fits perfectly between chapters 12 and 14, his lengthy argument concerning the use and abuses of spiritual gifts.

I have attempted to translate this chapter as literally as I could. I’ve supplied only a few words that are not in the Greek text.

1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13:
12:31b And now I'll show you the most excellent way:

13:1 If I talk with the tongues of men -- even of angels,
but I don't have love
I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
2 And if I have the gift of prophecy,
and I know all the mysteries and all the knowledge,
and if I have all the faith -- so as to remove mountains,
but I don't have love,
I am nothing.
3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor,
and if I hand over my body that I may be burned,
but I don't have love,
I gain nothing.

4 Love is longsuffering,
is kind;
love is not jealous,
does not brag,
is not puffed up
5 does not behave shamefully,
does not seek its own,
does not get provoked,
does not take a wrong into account,
6 does not rejoice in injustice
-- but rejoices together with the truth,
7 covers all things,
trusts all things,
hopes all things,
puts up with all things.

8 Love never fails;
but if prophecies, they will be done away with,
if tongues, they will cease,
if knowledge, it will be done away with.
9 For we know in part,
and we prophesy in part
10 but whenever the perfect comes,
that which is in part will be done away with.
11 When I was a child,
I used to talk like a child,
I used to think like a child,
I used to reason like a child.
Now that I've become a man,
I have done away with the things of the child.
12 For now we see in a mirror,
with an unclear image,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will fully know,
just as I have been fully known.
13 And now remain faith, hope, love -- these three,
but the greatest of these is love.


There’s also another poem on love in the twelfth chapter of Romans that fits perfectly with the rest of the chapter. I have also attempted to translate this one as literally as I could. Most of the verbs are usually translated as imperatives, although Paul didn’t use imperatives. He could have, but he chose instead to use participles, for poetic reasons, I believe. It should also be noted that the participles are masculine in gender while the word “love” is in the feminine gender. Though the poem seems to end at verse 15, I have translated through verse 21.

Romans 12:9-21:
12:9 Love unhypocritical.
Abhorring the evil;
clinging to the good;
10 in brotherly love to one another, devoted;
In honor to one another, taking the lead;
11 in earnestness, not lazy;
in the Spirit, boiling;
the Lord, serving;
12 in hope, rejoicing;
in tribulation, enduring;
in prayer, persisting;
13 in the needs of the saints, sharing;
the love of strangers, pursuing;
14 -- bless those pursuing you – bless and don’t curse.
15 Rejoice with those rejoicing;
weep with those weeping.
16 Having the same mind with one another,
not setting the mind on high things,
but with the lowly being carried away together;
-- don’t be wise in yourselves –
17 To no one paying back evil for evil;
taking forethought for good in the sight of all men;
18 if possible, as much as is in you,
With all men being at peace;
19 not avenging yourselves beloved,
but give place to the wrath,
for it is written, “To me (belongs) vengeance,
I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 But “if your enemy is hungry feed him;
if he’s thirsty give him a drink;
for by doing this, coals of fire
you’ll heap on his head.”
21 Don’t be conquered by evil,
but conquer the evil with the good.

The most beautiful of all is the poem to Christ in Philippians 2:5-11 (See: HOLIDAY IMAGES and WHAT’S IN A NAME?). Paul could teach heavy theology in poetry.

Other texts are Colossians 1:15-20; 1Timothy 3:16; 6:15, 16.

Bill Ball
9/30/2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009

WE ARE GOD’S DWELLING

I received the following question the other day:
____________

In our small group we have begun Randy Alcorn's study of his book, HEAVEN.

He writes, on pages 10 and 11, “Revelation 13:6 tells us the satanic beast ‘opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven.’” In the page 11 footnote he writes, regarding Revelation 13:6, "The NASB supplies words not in the original (here, in italics), which make the three things that Satan slanders appear to be only two ‘And he opened his mouth in blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle, that is, those who dwell in heaven.’ It equates God's dwelling place, his Tabernacle, with the people who live in Heaven. Hence it retains the two familiar ideas of the objects of Satan's slander-God and his people-while not recognizing the less familiar one, God's dwelling place, Heaven. The NASB reading offers an alternative understanding of the passage."

What would the Ball theologian have to say?

Kris
____________

Kris:

In reply to your question of Tuesday, September 22. Sorry I took so long to respond. What translation is Randy Alcorn using? You can usually find this out by looking at the page behind the title page. It will say something like “Scripture quotes are from the ____________ Bible … used by permission." I believe he’s using the NIV.

This is really a problem of textual criticism. I’m not sure if you are familiar with this science, so I’ll try to briefly explain. As you undoubtedly know, we do not have a copy of the original text of the New Testament.

There are literally thousands of ancient texts on the New Testament and no two are exactly alike. So, many scholars have devoted their lives to comparing manuscripts to try to determine which readings are as close to the original manuscripts as possible. They use various criteria, such as the age of the manuscript, its geographic distribution, possible reasons for errors, the possibility that it was wrongly “corrected,” etc.

I use the Nestle Greek text, 27th edition. It contains not only the text which was determined by scholars, but also a critical apparatus, which gives alternate readings and their sources. Most scholars use this text and it is the basis for most of our modern translations.

There are actually three alternate readings for the text in question. I’ll try to give a reasonable literal rendering of them.

“And he opened his mouth in blasphemies toward God, to blaspheme His Name and His dwelling, those in Heaven dwelling.” This reading is found in a great number of early manuscripts. It is the one used in the Nestle text and is the one used in the NASB, the NET Bible and the CSB. As you can see, there is no connecting word between the word “dwelling” and the word “those.” Both the NASB and the NET Bible supply “that is,” which I believe supplies the sense. The CSB simply supplies a dash. (There was no punctuation in the early manuscripts.)

A second reading supplies “and” between those words. This is found in a number of Greek manuscripts as well and is used in the NKJV and possibly the NIV, though I suspect the “and” may have been added by translators. This is the reading Mr. Alcorn prefers.

There is also a third reading which is based on one early manuscript. It reads simply .”… His Name and His dwelling in Heaven.” Most scholars write this one off.

So which one is the correct reading? I believe the first one. It is easy to see how some scribe may have added the “and” to make the reading smoother. I’ll not be as dogmatic as Mr. Alcorn.

This might appear to be a trivial matter as are many textual problems. However, it does make a difference in our interpretation, which is why, I suspect, Mr. Alcorn made such a big deal of it.

Taking the text I have chosen, we have God’s dwelling equated with the heaven dwellers as Mr. Alcorn states. Mr. Alcorn apparently dislikes this idea and wants the two to be thought of separately.

However, this reading makes perfect sense and is consistent with a theme found all through the Scriptures: that of God dwelling among His people.

Revelation 7:15: “… and He who sits on the throne will dwell among them.”

Revelation 21:3: “Behold the dwelling of God is with men, and He will dwell with them …”

Exodus 25:8: “And let them construct a sanctuary for Me, that I may dwell among them.”

Zechariah 2:10: “Sing for joy and be glad, O daughter of Zion; for behold I am coming and I will dwell in your midst.”

John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Add to that what Paul tells us – that we are God’s sanctuary (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16.)

So, when the Antichrist blasphemes God’s dwelling, he is really slandering us. We are God’s dwelling place. Here on earth in the present and as well as in Heaven! Isn’t that great?

Kris, I got so involved in this and put so much study into it that I figure I needed to post it on my blog.

Bill Ball
9/24/2009

Thursday, September 10, 2009

THE BARTER SPIRIT

Barter, it seems, is having a resurgence in popularity in these tough economic times. People exchange goods and services. It’s a great way of getting something you want without a great outlay of cash and without being taxed. I have heard of sites on the internet that promote barter. It’s a good thing.

But it can also be a bad thing. The barter spirit or principle can have a destructive effect on our relationships – with God and with each other. Yet much of our relationships and religion is just that, or at least something like that.

For example, take marriage.

When I have taught or counseled couples, using Paul’s instructions on marriage in Ephesians 5:21-33, I find that the barter principle is interjected often unconsciously.

The passage says, “Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord … Husbands love your wives just as Christ also loved the Church …” (verses 22 and 25). Seems pretty clear, but often it’s understood to mean, “Wives submit to your husbands if they act in love toward you; husbands love your wives if they submit.” But the text doesn’t say that. The commands are unconditional.

And of course, it goes beyond this, even into the smaller details of marriage. Each spouse has his or her specific role assigned and if one fails, the other is free from obligation. Of course, sex is often used as a bartering means by some women – and men.

Or take religion.

Televangelists proclaim to us that God wants to make us rich, or to “give us a blessing.” However, there’s a catch: God wants us to make the televangelist rich by sending in some money (“seed faith”). It’s not grace, it’s an exchange!

Then there are those who preach a “gospel” that tells me that in order to have eternal life, I must “give my heart to Jesus” or “make Jesus Lord of my life.” Again, that’s not grace, that’s an exchange!

Most of us are familiar with the so-called “Parable of the Prodigal Son” in Luke 15:11-35. We’ve heard it in Sunday school lessons and sermons. Actually, the title really doesn’t fit. It’s really the story of a father who had two sons (verse 11).

We all know the first half of the story: the younger son asks his father to divide the inheritance. The younger son then liquidates his share of the property (probably 1/3), then goes off to a “far country” and blows it all on “loose living.” When he has sunk as low as he can, he decides to return to the father and simply ask for a job. The father receives him and welcomes him back into the family with a party. For many the story ends here. If it’s part of a sermon, it’s often followed by an invitation to those who are “sunk down in the pigpen of sin” to repent and turn to Jesus.

But the story doesn’t end here! There’s another brother – the older brother, the dutiful brother who has never gone astray. In fact, if we examine the context, it is this brother, as a representative of the nice religious folks that the story is aimed at. See verses 1-3.

“Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to Him (Jesus) to hear Him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling saying, ‘This man is receiving sinners and eating with them.’ And He told them this parable …”

Anyway, the older brother comes in from working in the field, hears a party going on. He inquires and finds out that his kid brother has finally come home and that his father has welcomed him with a party and killed “the fattened calf” for him.

Big brother throws a fit. The father comes out to plead with him. His reply to his father shows his complete misunderstanding of love and grace. “Look! I’ve been serving you like a slave (douleuo) all these years and I’ve never disobeyed a command of yours but you’ve never given me even a kid so I could party with my friends! But when this son of yours came home, who has eaten up your wealth with whores, you killed the fattened calf for him!”

This poor guy, like many people, like those Pharisees and scribes, seems to have no concept of love. He has been serving his father in a sort of barter or exchange system. This is what I believe he’s saying: “I serve you for years and you don’t reward me with even a little goat. That’s slavery! This guy blows it all and you reward his bad behavior with the fattened calf.”

The older brother’s thinking matches the thinking of many religious people – perhaps all of us at least some of the time. God wants to shower us with grace – freely. But we want to do something to earn it. Or we “serve” in some way – by church work or giving or clean living, and then expect Him to bless us. And if He doesn’t keep what we feel is His end of the bargain, we think He’s unfair.

But God doesn’t work that way. He gives His grace freely. He blesses freely because He loves us. And He expects us to give back freely out of love for Him.

There is an old hymn with the lines: “Oh, to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.” I’ve been told that Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, refused to sing the verse with those words in it. He said that if we owed anything, it wouldn’t be grace.

“We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

(See DOES GOD WANT YOU TO BE RICH? and WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?.)

Bill Ball
9/8/2009

Friday, September 4, 2009

ANGRY AMERICANS

“Remind them to submit to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to slander no one, to be uncontentious, to be kind, showing all gentleness to everyone.” Paul’s letter to Titus 3:1, 2.

If we’ve turned on the TV news in the last few weeks, we have been confronted with images of people screaming in anger at their congressmen and senators at town hall meetings. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my life. The only thing that comes close is the anti-war protests of the 60s and 70s.

But this is different even from that! The folks we see now are not long-haired hippies, not young people – but older, normal looking, decent looking middle class (usually white) Americans – the kind of folks we might have as neighbors or see on Sunday morning in church. And they’re not protesting a long drawn out war in which tens of thousands of Americans have died. They’re screaming out in fear of a proposed government health-care plan!

Their faces are red and contorted with anger. They shake their fists. They accuse their President and congress of being Nazis or socialists or communists. They scream out about “death panels” and other myths. They carry posters with a picture of their President altered to make him look like Hitler. Some even carry guns.

Now I realize there is much room for disagreement on this matter. I also realize that the TV news media seek out situations such as this and that they are not necessarily typical. But still these scenes are troubling. This is not an aspect of America that I am proud of. I’m ashamed! This sort of hateful, just plain mean, disrespect for those in authority has no place in our public discourse. And worst of all, I strongly suspect that some of these screamers are folks who would claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. Why do I suspect this? I see hints on some of my e-mails from Christian friends and things I read on Facebook, especially those that refer me to a video of some talking (shouting?) head.

But Jesus didn’t behave this way. The only people I see Him getting angry at are religious people who didn’t live out their profession. He rather said:
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
“But I say to you love your enemies and pray for your persecutors” (Matthew 5:44).

By the way, our President and congress are neither of those two.

Bill Ball
9/4/2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

WHY DO YOU ALWAYS ASK QUESTIONS?

The other day I received this note on an e-mail from a friend in Texas, in whose home we used to attend a weekly Bible study, which is still going on: “BTW … some question arose last week and Bob asked how Bill Ball would answer that question. I quickly replied, ‘With a question!’”

I took that as a compliment. Apparently I have a reputation for asking questions, especially in reply to questions. I kind of like being known as “The Bible Question Man.” There are plenty enough “Answer Men.” Just looking back through posts on my blog, I realize that questioning just seems part of my way of communicating. It’s second nature. Why do I do this?

I guess I started doing this when I started teaching adults. I began teaching an adult Sunday school class when I was a fairly young believer, just out of my teens. I think I asked questions at least partly because, though I studied hard, I was never quite sure I knew enough. I felt there were always those in the class who knew more than I, at least on certain matters. So why not use questions? Thus questioning became a way of sort of bluffing my way through. It worked! It actually made me appear smarter than I was.

It wasn’t long before I realized I had a great teaching tool that forced people to think, so I continued to ask questions even when I felt I knew the answers.

One of my first ventures into reading philosophy was the dialogs of Plato and it wasn’t long before I was hooked! In Plato’s hero Socrates, I found a kindred spirit. This guy could win people over to his side of any argument simply by asking questions. I realized that I had been using “the Socratic Method” even before I knew what it was and I studied Socrates to sharpen my method.

Now I realize that Socrates was coming from a philosophical/religious view that included the belief that knowledge was innate or implicit in human beings, because of his belief in the preexistence of the soul. He saw himself as a “midwife,” assisting in the birth of ideas. While this is based on some mythological concepts, it does contain a grain of truth. We all have ideas – many of them biblical – floating around in our minds, often unconnected with each other. The teacher can pull these out and tie them together.

Socrates also used his method to inspire doubt in one’s traditional thinking. I’ve found this also to be necessary when teaching believers. So many of us hold to ideas we’ve accumulated through tradition, which need to be thought through rationally and in light of the Scriptures.

But as I studied the New Testament, I found that this was also the method of its writers. In Romans and elsewhere, Paul batters his readers and their assumed objections with question after question, some rhetorical, with no answer given, others answered with a “no way!” (me ginomai). James does the same in his letter. Both of these men were rabbis and “street preachers” and it’s clear that their writings reflected their confrontational teaching methods.
But it is in Jesus Himself that we find the greatest use of questions. I began marking every question mark (on a questions asked by Jesus or the authors) in my Greek New Testament with red, and have found a question mark on nearly every page of the gospels. Jesus was the Master Questioner. Estimates on how many questions Jesus asked in the gospels vary from 100 to 310.

Roy Zuck (Teaching as Jesus Taught) says “ … according to my count, Jesus asked 225 different questions, thought the total recorded is 304” (many are duplicates). I haven’t counted, I’ll take his word for it.

Why did Jesus ask questions? (I’ll not digress here on the matter of whether He asked them in order to obtain information; that’s a heavy theological question). He did it to get people to thinking, to challenge their presuppositions and prejudices, to force His hearers to commitment. I love His question and answer session with His disciples recorded in Matthew 16:13ff (and elsewhere).

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

They said, “Some say John the Baptist,” “others Elijah,” and “others Jeremiah, “or one of the prophets.”

They seem to be each coming up with a different answer: simple information questions.

He says to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” Here He asks a question that forces a commitment.

And many of the questions that Jesus asked nearly 2000 years ago are still relevant today. I believe that we would all (myself included) do well to take note – perhaps with a red pencil – of the questions He and the other New Testament authors ask.

I also believe that we should question our belief system. Does it hold together? Or is it full of contradictions? Is it compatible with the Scripture? Is all my thinking in agreement with my belief system? And my behavior?

Bill Ball
8/28/2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

GRAN TORINO

(or, as described by some: “Dirty Harry, the Golden Years”)

I loved this movie! Though I’m not a Clint Eastwood fan, I had wanted to see the movie since it first came out (but never got around to it). The previews showed Clint Eastwood as an angry, hate-filled racist bigot – an old white guy, the only one of his race left in a neighborhood turned brown.

A few weeks ago while we were visiting our son and his family, he asked us if we’d ever seen the movie. I told him I’d like to and mentioned what little I knew of it. He said, “You’ll be surprised – it’s not what you’d think.” So we watched it. I was surprised – pleasantly! So Uni and I went out, purchased it and watched it again and intend to watch it a few more times.

Two warnings are in order here:
 First, if profanity and crude talk offends you or would keep you from paying attention to the movement of the story, don’t bother to watch it.
 Second, if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to, don’t read further. I’m going to give away the story and ruin the ending for you.

A brief synopsis:
Clint Eastwood plays a really unlikable guy, Walt Kowalski, a widower and retired Ford autoworker living in a Detroit suburb. He hates his kids. (I know this guy! I think I talked to him at my 50 year high school class reunion.) He is apparently, the last white man in a neighborhood that has seen better days and is now populated by Hmong immigrants (he calls them Ha-mong, as well as other things). It is clear that he hates these people, along with those of other races. His speech is peppered with racial (as well as other) epithets. He is the proud owner of a 1972 Ford Gran Torino in mint condition, which he guards carefully. He owns an M-1 rifle which he claims to have used in the war, as well as what looks like a government issue Colt 45 automatic pistol.

When his deceased wife’s youthful priest attempts to get him to come to confession, Walt spurns him with salty language. He feels no need for confession.

Walt, however, soon finds himself entangled in the lives of his Hmong neighbors. He rescues Sue, the teenage daughter from the advances of some black thugs and Thao, the teenage son (whom he names Toad) from a gang of Hmong thugs. It isn’t long before they befriend him.

Next Thao attempts to steal the Gran Torino as an initiation rite into the gang. As an act of contrition, Thao is assigned to do work for Walt. This leads to a mentoring relationship. Through all this we find that much of Walt’s meanness is simply a persona, a fa├žade to cover up deep-seated feelings.

The movie then seems to take on the character of some of Clint’s old Westerns and Dirty Harry movies. There is a buildup toward what we all know is a showdown with the bad guys – the Hmong gang who have been harassing Sue and Thao’s family. Walt makes preparations for what he (as well as we) seems to perceive as the possibility of his death: he gets a haircut, a professional shave and a new suit. He finally goes to confession.

The twist is that Walt heads for this showdown unarmed. This is very un-Clintish! Rather than a two-way shootout, Walt eggs the gangsters into blowing him away in front of witnesses. The bad guys are then hauled off to jail, the family is safe and the movie ends happily ever after, with Thao inheriting the Gran Torino and driving off into the sunset with Walt’s dog Daisy.

Good movie – great ending! Good illustration of the crossing of racial and ethnic lines. Good illustration of the mentoring process – kind of like one of my other favorite movies: “Finding Forrester.”

But there seem to be some heavier undercurrents, theological and otherwise. Walt is dying. He coughs up blood, apparently experiencing the effects of his hard drinking and hard smoking.

Walt is also carrying around a load of guilt. He has killed men in battle – 13, as I recall. But those killings don’t bother him. It’s just one – a young North Korean soldier who was trying to surrender. When Walt finally goes to confession, he confesses some seemingly minor sins, but makes no mention of this one young man who has been haunting him.

When I saw Walt getting blown away by the bad guys, my first thought was that here was what has been known as a “Christ-figure,” one who gives himself for his new friends. John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this -- that one should lay down his life for his friends.” This element is certainly present. Though Walt was definitely not Christlike in his demeanor, when the chips were down he did what Jesus did.

But was Walt also trying to make atonement for his own sin? That one that he did not confess? It seems that way. He did not confess to the priest the one great sin that had been haunting him for over 50 years. He did not take advantage of the forgiveness that was offered him in Christ.

There are, of course, many other possible motives. He was dying anyway; this could give him an instant death. He wanted to get these gangsters; he wanted to get even with his own kids. We’ll never know and after all, this is fiction. Clint Eastwood probably had all of them in his mind and none of them in his plot.

I like to think that it is my first interpretation that is correct.

Clint Eastwood as a Christ-figure! Who would have thought it?

Bill Ball
8/14/2009

Saturday, August 15, 2009

THINKING THEOLOGICALLY

When I used to teach Theology at the College of Biblical Studies, I would challenge my students to “think theologically.” Every area of our thinking is to have a theological aspect, a grid through which all thoughts are to be filtered. This idea was not original with me, but it was something that gradually crystallized in my mind over many years. It was already there when I was challenged to do so by one of my profs at seminary – Dr. Hook (no kin to the rock singer of the same name, who was popular around that time).

But Dr. Hook pushed us – forcing us to confront popular culture by reading popular books and analyzing the theology of the author. We were assigned to read 3 books of our own choice: a non-Christian fiction, a non-Christian non-fiction and an evangelical non-fiction – and write a paper on each.

The little exercise was life-changing. Since then, I have not been able to avoid doing this sort of analysis, not only on books, but also movies and popular music, as well as in every exposure to the culture: news media, commentary, etc. Though I’ve seldom done it systematically or even consciously, the process usually goes on in the back of my mind.

There are, however, at least 2 ways to go about this process, as I have found out by assigning such papers to my students. The first is to search out the book or movie for the author’s comments on God, reality, good and evil, etc., attempt to arrange them into a coherent system, then finally to critique them from a biblical/theological viewpoint. Though this doesn’t give us the whole picture, or get us completely inside an author’s brain, it will at least help us to understand what theology the author holds and where he is coming from.

The second method, which I have found that many of my students used, is simply to search the book or movie for biblical or Christian analogies and paste them together into some coherent whole. This may tell us little of what the author is thinking, and more of what theology is taken away by the reader or viewer. Though at first I frowned on this method, I concluded that it is as honest as the first. After all, authors write many books and don’t tell all in one book. It took God 66 books to give us a complete theology!

So now, when I read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, I look for what’s there on the surface, the message that’s being communicated. If I know more about the author, of course, that will color my analysis.

See: DOING THEOLOGY.

More later.

Bill Ball
8/13/2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

COFFEE AND THE CONGREGATION

I very seldom go to Starbucks – though I do love their coffee! However, the other day Uni and I received a gift card as a gift. So I went in and purchased a pound of espresso beans (I still had to cough up some money over and above the $10 gift card.).

The line was very long, so I amused myself by observing the various customers and their purchases. I’ve done this before.

As I’ve pondered on my observations, I’ve come to the (unscientific) conclusion that most people that frequent Starbucks really don’t like coffee! Now, of course, this has not been a scientific, statistical study. My observations were of a very small sampling, with undoubtedly a substantial margin of error. Still …

My observations, for what they’re worth:
 Many customers don’t even buy coffee – they buy some sort of tea or other beverage!
 Many who do purchase coffee buy it decaffeinated – with its stimulant removed. They like coffee, but they like it without that which (to my mind) makes it coffee.
 Many purchase it with various flavor enhancers – hazelnut, amaretto, French vanilla and others I’m not familiar with.
 Cream, sugar, Lattes, Cappuccinos, iced – anything but a plain cup of coffee.
 Then, of course, there are those who don’t care for any of the products. They just come in to hang around and meet their friends.

Please don’t take those observations as those of a judgmental old curmudgeon. I like my coffee with a little bit of creamer and the coffee that Uni and I brew at home is half-decaf. (Of course, when you drink 3 pots a day between two people …) And I do like an occasional Cappuccino.

So, where am I going with this? Well, I think church is a lot like Starbucks and folks who attend church are a lot like those who “attend” Starbucks.

There are those who like the church’s main “product” to be diluted, flavored up, sweetened, cooled down. Some like it without anything that would stimulate. Some want a substitute that they can carry out that looks like the real thing. And there are those who just want to hang around and meet their friends.

And then, of course, there are those who like their Christianity to be robust, rich and strong.

Bill Ball
8/12/2009

Thursday, August 6, 2009

EMPATHY

The word “empathy” came up a while back. President Obama said something about empathy as a requirement for a Supreme Court Justice. Of course, the talking heads jumped all over that one. Impartiality is a requirement for doing justice. The Republicans in Congress railed against the word and it was quietly dropped. We were apparently to be assured that the new appointee is not empathetic. It is, I assume, not considered a legitimate requirement for a judge.

But politics aside, is it? Are empathy and impartiality incompatible qualities? Doesn’t impartiality itself require empathy with both sides of an issue? If empathy is not a desired quality for a judge, what about the rest of us? Especially those who are followers of Jesus Christ?

Well, the word is not found in our English Bibles (at least in the NASB and KJV, the only ones I have a concordance for), though its synonym “compassion” is. Each of the two words is a combination of the words “in” and the word “passion.” One is of Greek origin, the other of Latin origin. Problem is, the word tanslated “compassion” has a completely different origin and meaning.

So then are we off the hook?

Maybe a definition is in order here. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives one definition of empathy as: 2. The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.

Yet we find empathy throughout the New Testament. It’s just not called that.

 Matthew 7:12: “All things whatever you want people to do to you, so also, you do to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
 Luke 6:31: “And even as you want people to do to you, do to them likewise.”
 Romans 12:10: “… taking the lead in honoring each other.”
 Romans 12:13: “… sharing the needs of the saints.”
 Romans 12:17: “… taking forethought for good in the presence of all people.”

Isn’t empathy just an aspect of Christian love, that particular ability to place oneself in another’s mind and emotions? The ability to not only ask “What would Jesus do?”, but “What would this person expect Jesus to do?”

It’s the attempt to think like one of another race, another religious persuasion, a different political viewpoint. It’s to see others not as what we think they should be (just like us) but as what they are.

It’s a desire to point people to Jesus Christ, whatever they look like or whatever their political party, or whatever their preferences in food, drink or entertainment. It’s to resist the urge to make people over into our image.

It’s love in action!

When the College of Biblical Studies, where I taught, was only Houston Bible Institute, and before the electronic age, mailings had to go out by hand. Volunteers would fold, lick and stick stamps on stick-on mailing labels.

On one of my off-days, I went in to help with the work. I sat across the table from a very sweet, middle-class white lady. Sticking on names was kind of fun. I would see the names of donors, students, former students and fellow church folks, many of whom I was acquainted with.

All of a sudden the lady across from me blurted, out a name on one of the stickers, ______! What’s this man doing on our mailing list?

The man was an African-American activist in the city, as well as a Texas Legislator. He was known for raising many issues and for advocating black causes, both in Houston and in Austin, the state capital.

“He’s a student of mine and a good friend,” I replied. “He makes sure he’s back in town for his evening class, even when the Legislature is in session.”

The lady began her tirade. “Do you know all the things he’s been doing?” And she began listing for me all his activities.

I simply looked at her, interrupted and said, “All God’s chillun’ ain’t white Republicans.”

I don’t know if she caught on, but she was silent.

Empathy is to be able to see other people from their context, not our own.

Bill Ball
8/6/2009