Friday, December 17, 2010


Luke tells us that immediately after Mary was told by the angel that she was to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:26-38), Mary went “in haste” to the home of her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, with the child who would be named John.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting she pronounced a blessing on Mary and her child (Luke 1:39-45).

Mary’s response was the beautiful poem recorded in Luke 1:46-55:
46.  “My soul exalts the Lord,
47.  and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
48.  because He has looked upon the lowly state of His slave girl.
      For behold, from now on all the generations will consider me fortunate,
49.  because the Mighty One has done great things to me,
      and Holy is His Name,
50.  and His mercy is for generations and generations
      to those who fear Him.
51.  He has done mighty things with His arm;
      He has scattered those who are arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts;
52.  He has torn down sovereigns from their thrones,
      and exalted the lowly;
53.  the hungry He has filled with good things,
      and the rich He has sent away empty;
54.  He has come to the aid of Israel His servant,
      in remembering mercy,
55.  just as He spoke to our fathers,
      to Abraham and to his seed forever!
I’ve been teaching a class on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and haven’t finished the Beatitudes yet.  This past Sunday we discussed the blessings and woes in Luke’s version of the Sermon (Luke 6:20-26).  (See: THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, 4.)  Luke records not only “blessings,” but also “woes.”  I pointed out that Luke’s version seems to follow the theme of his Gospel, of a radical reversal of commonly accepted social structures, and that this theme was first taken up in Mary’s song.  There was some discussion, especially as to how these contrasts relate to us.

As I meditated this week on this theme, I felt I needed to get back to what Mary said (or sang) in her beautiful poem.  After all, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine that some of what Jesus taught may have been learned at His mother’s knees.

I’m afraid that we who believe in the divine inspiration of the Scripture often forget its human element.  It’s easy to simply assume that these beautiful words and thoughts just sprang spontaneously from the lips of a teenage girl.  Perhaps they did, but that’s not how it usually worked. It is more likely that they are the product of some deep thinking about God and His promises.

The context doesn’t allow for a long period for its composition between the announcement of the angel and Mary’s utterance – just the time of travel from Nazareth to the Judean hill country – a week perhaps?  Possibly Mary was composing, even writing her thoughts as she traveled.

But the poem shows a familiarity with the Scripture – not only with a few verses, but with its great themes.  If Mary composed “in haste,” she must have already had many of these thoughts firmly in her mind.

It’s clear that the poem is patterned after the prayer of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10).  It carries similar themes.  Hannah’s prayer was uttered at a time of great crisis in the nation of Israel.  The Theocracy had degenerated into near anarchy, as a reading of the last five chapters of the Book of Judges demonstrates.  The prayer looked forward to the coming of a king – God’s Messiah or anointed one (2:10).  It exalts the LORD and speaks of great changes that He was bringing to pass, especially His salvation and exaltation of the poor and lowly.  Mary must have seen the parallels between Hannah’s day and her own.  Israel in Mary’s time was occupied by a foreign oppressor and ruled by an evil puppet king.  But Mary was to give birth to a new King – God’s final Messiah (Luke 1:31-33).

But Mary’s song was not a cut and paste version of Hannah’s prayer.  Mary picked up the theme of God’s ancient Covenant promises.  The word translated “mercy” in verses 50 and 54 is the Greek word eleos, the word used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament – ca. 200 BC) to translate the Hebrew word HESED, which meant much more than mercy; HESED (translated “lovingkindness” in the NASB) speaks of the LORD’s loving loyalty to His Covenant people.  Verse 50 is a quote from the first line of Psalm 103:17.  The rest of that verse and of verse 18 speak of:
      “His righteousness to children’s children
      of those who keep His Covenant
      and remember His precepts to do them.”

Mary had in mind those Covenant promises that the Lord had made to Abraham and his seed and the eternality of the promises (verses 54, 55; Genesis 12:1-3; 17:7).  The word “remember” (verse 59) is another Covenant word.  When “The children of Israel cried out” in their bondage in Egypt, “their cry rose up to God.  So God heard their groanings and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Exodus 2:23, 24; 6:5).  The reference to the Lord’s “arm” (verse 51) also takes us back to their deliverance from Egypt with a “strong hand” and “an outstretched arm” (Exodus 6:1, 6; Psalm 59:10).

Mary knew that she stood at the beginning of a new era in God’s dealing with His people – a beginning that recalled those other beginnings – the call of and Covenant with Abraham, the deliverance from Egypt, the inauguration of the monarchy.  Perhaps she saw their culmination in the birth of her Child.

And she saw the radical reversal of the social structures of her day when “the arrogant” and “sovereigns” would be brought down, when “the lowly” would be “exalted” and “the hungry” would be “filled with good things” (verses 51-53).

Her Son lived out her song in His life and ministry.  He died to set things right, not only between God and man but between man and man.  He is returning to complete the task and reign as King.  He has left us with His message and His task till He returns.

So at this season of the year, when we celebrate the birth of Mary’s Son who was also the Son of God, why aren’t we who claim to be His followers busy with the task and the message?  Why are we so concerned with maintaining customs and traditions of the holiday – customs and traditions which have little to do with His birth and even less to do with His task?  And why have we narrowed our concern to the title given to the holiday?

For more thoughts on Mary, see: MARY’S PAIN.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


I received the following question from someone who serves in missions:  “I have been looking at the passage.  It is the passage about the "Great Commission" and who it applies to.  I know it is directed to the disciples and I remember from Bible study class that the words were continual -- going, making, teaching.  There is someone here that has the view that not everyone is called to share and that this is for the disciples only.  I know that view is out there, but was wondering if this verse is overused.  The one part that came to me is that of all the people He was around, He said this to eleven.”

I’ve seen a number of interpretations of the Great Commission, many of which appear to be aimed at avoiding it.  It seems strange to me that people who have left their homes to serve the Lord halfway around the world should be questioning its validity for them. 
Here are some thoughts.

Jesus actually gave a number of “commissions,” though the one you refer to in Matthew 28:16-20, is the one usually labeled thus.  Others are found in Mark 16:14-16; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21, 22; Acts 1:8.

Matthew 28:16-20 reads as follows:  “And the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain that Jesus appointed to them.  And when they saw Him they worshipped, though some doubted.  And Jesus came and spoke to them saying, ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me.  Go therefore and disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you.  And look!  I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age!’”

Yes, the commission in Matthew is said to be spoken to the eleven disciples, elsewhere called apostles (Matthew 28:16).  However, the text doesn’t strictly say only to the eleven.  Some believe this appearance to be the same as that which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 15:6:  “Then He appeared to five hundred brothers at one time …”  A mountain in Galilee would seem to be one of the few places where Jesus could have appeared to this number without drawing too much attention.  The phrase “… though some doubted,” might also imply there were others.  It would seem to me that by this time, the eleven would have overcome their doubts.

The passage in Mark, though in a disputed text, mentions two others who may have been included (Mark 16:12, 13).

The passage in Luke definitely includes the two Emmaus disciples (verses 33-35) and most likely a number of women (verses 9, 10).

John merely uses the words “the disciples,” which usually is used of a larger number of persons than merely the eleven.  In verse 18, he mentions Mary Magdalene.

The commission in Acts seems to be clearly directed to only the eleven.  Verse 2 refers to them as “the apostles.”  In verse 11, they are addressed by two angels as “men of Galilee,” which would appear to exclude men from elsewhere, as well as women.  But in verses 12-14, they are part of a much larger company in the upper room (120 according to verse 15).  Could these also have been with the eleven when the commission was given?  In Acts 2:1-4, “… they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit was giving them (the ability) to speak.”

So my belief is that, while the eleven – the apostles – were particularly singled out as recipients of the commission, it was directed at a much larger group of disciples, including many women.

But the commission is also continual and self-perpetuating and includes disciples even in this age.

First, Jesus says, “… teaching them to observe all things, whatever I have commanded you.”  I would suppose that the “all things” that are to be taught to these new disciples would include the commission itself!

Secondly, when Jesus says, “I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age,” we need to ask to whom He is speaking.  Certainly He is not implying that this event will necessarily occur during the lifetime of those He was addressing, even though they many have understood it that way.  This promise, which is tied to the commission, goes beyond their lifetime and I believe must be meant for the whole church.

Now for a few words about the verbs in verse 19.  There are four verbs:
  • The main verb translated “disciple” or “make disciples” is matheteusate. It is an imperative – a command – and is in the aorist tense.  This gives it immediacy – “just do it,” or “start to do it.”  All the other verbs are participles modifying the main verb.
  • “Go” (poreuthentes) is an aorist participle.  This form is often used with an imperative to lend it more urgency – “do it NOW.”  Matthew 28:5, 7:  “The angel answered and told the men … ‘Go quickly tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead.’”  Check out Matthew 2:8; 11:4; 17:27; Mark 16:15.  Some have attempted to soften the command by translating, “As you go, make disciples.”  This would require a present participle as in Matthew 10:7.  To translate thus is faulty exegesis and even worse, irresponsible application.
  • "Baptizing” (baptizontes) and “teaching” (didaskontes) are both present participles, which speak of continuing action.  These are the means to be used in making disciples.
Conclusion:  The great commission is valid today.  I believe it is applicable to every disciple of Jesus Christ.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010


When I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston, I had a student who attended the same church as former President George H. W. Bush and his wife Barbara.  Every week as he came into class, he’d announce, “I saw George and Barbara at church Sunday.”  I’d ask, “How were they?”  He’d always give the same answer, “Barbara wore her pearls.”

On my previous post I attempted to deal with the question raised by 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, of whether or not women should wear head coverings.  I referred to another text, 1 Timothy 2:8-10:  “I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without anger and argument.  Likewise also women to clothe themselves in modest clothing, with decency and discretion not with braided hair and gold or pearls or extravagant clothing, but with that which is fitting a woman professing godliness – with good works.”  This passage makes no mention of a head covering though it did speak of women’s clothing and adornment.  I remarked, “It seems that here Paul is instructing both men and women about public prayers, giving some requirements as to their inward and outward condition.  Here it is modesty of dress and appearance, not a veil that is required.”

This prompted a comment:  “So now you'll have to answer the questions raised by the verses in 1 Timothy:  should my wife leave her jewelry at home?  Hehe.”

Though the “hehe” tells me it was asked with tongue in cheek, the question seems to be legitimate, so I’ll attempt to deal with it.

It should be noted that men are the first to receive instruction and it has to do with what we might call their spiritual condition.  They are to lift up “holy hands without anger and argument.”  Perhaps Paul saw that men, in order to be holy in their public prayers need to let go of those things which are often hindrances to men – a quick temper and argumentiveness.

And so he says something similar of women.  If they are to be holy in their public prayers, they need to let go of that which is often a hindrance to women – extravagance of dress.

Public (as well as private) prayer can be done by rote with our minds, in a sense, detached.  We can mouth all the little customary clich├ęs while all the time our thoughts are far away.  Paul was saying here that those thoughts and concerns need to be gotten rid of.

Men – get rid of all that anger and those irritants that provoke us.  Clear your mind, so it will be holy.

Women – get rid of all those concerns about how you look.  Don’t worry about whether you look better than the gal standing next to you.  Be holy.

A similar passage is found in 1 Peter 3:2-4, “… as they (your husbands) observe your pure conduct and fear (of the Lord), whose adornment should not be the putting on clothing, but of the hidden person of the heart – with the imperishable quality of a humble and quiet spirit, which is extremely precious in the sight of God.”

Peter, unlike Paul, was a married man.  When he wrote his letter he had been married for at least 30 years.  Like Paul, he was concerned that women make the development of inner beauty a priority over external beauty.  I don’t believe he was forbidding any concern over external appearances.  We have to be careful of an overly literal reading.  I don’t believe Peter was telling women not to wear clothes.

So it’s okay to wear your jewelry to church.  And Barbara can wear her pearls.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


A dear friend of mine called the other afternoon a bit perturbed over a message she had heard in church.  The speaker had started with an Old Testament text, then moved to 1 Corinthians 11 and began to preach that women must wear head coverings in church.
This upset my friend greatly.  She’s a woman in her 80s who has been involved in active ministry most of her life.  She of course, is not one to be swayed by one sermon.  Her concern was for the younger, less mature women in the church and how it had upset them, and for those who might be turned off to the Gospel by what she perceived as legalism.  She wanted an opinion and some comments from me.  We talked for about a half hour and I promised I would write down some thoughts on the passage.

The passage under discussion is 1 Corinthians 11:2-16:
2. Now I am praising you because you remember me in all things and you hold tight to the traditions, just as I handed over to you.
3. Now I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is the man, and the head of Christ is God.
4. Every man praying or prophesying with head covered disgraces his head.
5. But every woman praying or prophesying with head uncovered disgraces her head, for (she is) one and the same with her who is shaved.
6. For if a woman is not covered she should have her hair cut off.  But if it’s a disgrace to a woman to have her hair cut off or be shaved she should be covered (or cover herself).
7. For a man should not have his head covered since he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is man’s glory.
8. For man is not from woman, but woman from man.
9. For indeed man wasn’t created for the sake of the woman, but woman for the sake of the man.
10. For this reason the woman should have authority on her head, because of the angels.
11. However, neither is woman without man nor man without woman in the Lord.
12. For even as the woman (came) from the man, so also the man (comes) through the woman.  But all things (come) from God.
13. You yourselves judge among yourselves.  Is it proper for a woman to pray to God uncovered?
14. Doesn’t even nature itself teach you that man, if he wears long hair it’s dishonor to him?
15. But the woman, if she wears long hair, it’s glory to her?  Because the long hair is given to her corresponding to a covering.
16. But if anyone supposes himself to be a disputer, we do not have such a custom, neither (do any of) the churches of God.
This controversial passage has been argued passionately by many as have just about all New Testament passages having to do with women’s roles.  It is one of those passages that I usually avoid digging too deeply into for a number of reasons.  The main reason, however, is that whatever interpretation I come up with will upset some persons.

There are those who use it, I believe, in a way that suppresses women in the ministry.  There are also those who attempt to ignore it completely, or who desire to make it say what it does not.

As I attempt to understand it, three questions come to mind:
• The most important question is:  is there an order of authority to be recognized and followed as the basis for what follows?
• The second question that needs to be dealt with: are women allowed at all to take part in the public worship of the church?  Often those who make the covering a requirement also require that women keep silence in the assembly.  This requirement may range from absolute silence to allowing them to sing or play musical instruments.
• Third, does this passage teach (as it seems to) that women are to have their heads covered?  If so, why, when and with what?  To many, this is the major question.  In some churches women are required to wear some sort of covering in public worship, often a lace veil or something resembling a doily.  I recall that my mother, a Roman Catholic, though she attended church infrequently, would always wear a hat when she did.  For many older women in my youth, even Protestants, it was the thing to do.

I will attempt to deal with these questions in order as I go through the text. This is not a commentary on the whole text, simply an attempt to deal with these questions.

Before I get too far, some notes on word meanings and translations of certain words:
• “man” (14 times) and “woman” (16 times) are aner and gune, the same words that are elsewhere translated “husband” and “wife.”
• “traditions” and “handed over” (verse 3) are paradoseis and paradidomi. Though paradoseis often refers to human traditions, as Paul uses the words, these are not simply “customs” to be accepted or rejected, but are revealed truth.  In 11:23, Paul says that he “handed over” (paradidomi) the truths of the Lord’s Supper.  In 15:3, he uses the word of his “handing over of the first things,” the facts of the Gospel itself.  Also see 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6.
• “nature” (verse 14) does not speak of nature as we usually think of it – that which we can observe in the world of plants and animals – but simply “the way things are” – human nature or disposition.  Paul says of himself and Peter in Galatians 2:7, “we are Jews by nature.” Romans 2:14, “The Gentiles do the things of the Law, by nature.”
• “corresponding to” (verse 15) translates the word anti, which usually means “in place of.”
• “custom” (verse 16) is sunetheian and speaks of an optional practice which may or may not be ignored. In 8:7, it speaks of self-imposed dietary restrictions (“custom of the idol”).

I believe the “traditions” that Paul “handed over” to the Corinthians refer not necessarily to the issue of women’s coverings, but to the doctrine related in verse 3.  There is a “headship” order to be recognized and followed.  Though the context is that of public worship, the principles go beyond.  They apply to every aspect of our theology and practice – our understanding of God and of human relationships.

Paul talks here of three “headship” relationships:
• Within the Trinity, God, the Father is the Head of Christ the Son.  Though all three members of the Trinity are equally God, there is a “functional” or “economic” subordination of the Son to the Father.
• There is a “headship” relationship of Christ the Son, to a man.  Christ is my Head, my authority.  I am subordinate to Him.  No one would argue this one.
• The woman is subordinate to the man.  We must remember that he is not saying “women” and “men,” but uses the singular.  This refers, I believe, to the husband/wife headship/subordination.  It is similar to the relationship of the Son to the Father within the Trinity.  The wife and husband are equals, but there is a “functional” or “economic” subordination of the wife to her husband.

Though it does not say clearly in the text, this appears to be an allusion to the fact that the man/woman relationship is somehow an aspect of the image of God. Genesis 1:26a, 27, “And God said, ‘Let us make man according to our image and according to our likeness …’’  And God made man; according to His image He made him, male and female He made them.”

The answer to the second question should seem obvious from the text.  It seems clear that women are allowed to take part in public worship of the church – to have speaking roles.  The restrictions mentioned are addressed to the women who “pray or prophesy.”  They seem to have been doing so in Corinth.  The negative command is directed at those who did so without meeting certain restrictions (verses 5 and 13).  If women were not praying and prophesying, the restrictions would be meaningless.

By the way, there seem to be no restrictions placed on women who do not “pray or prophesy”!

Now to the third question.  If the word “traditions” mentioned in verse 2 speaks primarily of the doctrine of headship in verse 3, as I believe, then the whole issue of women’s head covering falls within some other category.  It is an issue of “custom” (verse 16).  The doctrine is essential; headship must be recognized.  The married woman must have some way of demonstrating her subordination to the husband’s headship.  In Corinth and possibly through much of the first century Mediterranean world, it was demonstrated by her veil.  Paul also mentions the long hair as a symbol given “corresponding to” (or in place of) a covering.”  Apparently this could also serve as a symbol of the wife’s subordination.

It would seem to me, that if the head covering was simply a matter of “custom,” then as customs change, it could lose its significance.  Why shouldn’t symbols be a matter of personal agreement between a woman and her husband?  The issue is not a piece of cloth but the headship/subordination of a man and a woman as a symbol and sign of the relationship of Father and Son.

It is interesting to me that in another passage speaking of public prayer, Paul makes no mention of a head covering. 1Timothy 2:8-10:  “I want the men to pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without anger and argument.  Likewise also women to clothe themselves in modest clothing, with decency and discretion not with braided hair and gold or pearls or extravagant clothing, but with that which is fitting a woman professing godliness – with good works.”

Though some would disagree, it seems that here Paul is instructing both men and women about public prayers, giving some requirements as to their inward and outward condition.  Here it is modesty of dress and appearance, not a veil that is required.  The passage in Corinthians was addressed to a particular assembly; this passage seems to be more universal.  Note all the references to “all” and “every” throughout, starting with verse 1.


This passage gives instructions as to some requirements for both women and men in the public worship in the church at Corinth.  Paul assumes that both men and women have speaking roles in the worship.  His concern is that both men and women show by their dress, the headship/subordination that exists within the Godhead and the family.

The particular way that women were to demonstrate this was the wearing of some sort of head covering, or veil or long hair.

I believe that the text teaches that the externals are a matter of custom, not doctrinal truth.  Therefore, as customs change, this custom could change as well.  The important issue is that the husband and wife maintain that headship/subordination.  It would seem that whatever symbols are used should be a matter agreed upon by the wife/husband.