Wednesday, December 16, 2009


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

Thursday, December 3, 2009


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.
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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.
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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

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


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
Revised  9/16/2017