Saturday, January 4, 2014

Thoughts on John 4: What it takes to believe

In this fourth chapter we have two stories with a different view as to what it took to believe in Jesus.  In the case of the Samaritan woman, it took Jesus telling her the abbreviated version of her life story.  In the case of the ruler, it took Jesus telling him that his son would live.

In the first case, Jesus, culturally, should not have been spending time with her.  She was a woman and a Samaritan (whom the Jewish people of the day despised) and was living with a man who wasn't her husband.  Yet Jesus went out of his way to have a conversation with her and to meet her where she was.

In the second case, the Jewish leader sought out Jesus.  He asked for help healing his son.  Jesus helped, but he did not go anywhere to do it.  He simply sent the father back home and the father learned on the way that his son had recovered.  In this case, culturally, Jesus should have gone out of his way to help--but he didn't.  That honor was reserved for a despised woman who didn't seek him out. 

I think this is valuable to think about as we think about how God interacts with people.  There isn't a single model of interaction.  There isn't a pattern based on cultural norms.  God chooses the rules, and sometimes the results are quite unexpected.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Thoughts on John 3: The Son brings darkness into light

One of the themes of John's writings (not just the gospel) is the contrast of darkness and light.  John brings out this theme in chapter 3 after Jesus's discussion with the Pharisee Nicodemus.  (As a note, I agree with the majority of scholars who think Jesus's words end in verse 15.  Greek didn't have quotation marks, so we aren't positive.)

God sent his Son into the world to save it out of darkness.  Most people, however, loved the darkness and rejected the light that the Son provided.  They preferred their wicked deeds over the obedience and pure heart that would please God.  This is a theme one finds in John's writings.  I think it is also worth pondering.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thoughts on John 2: Righteous Anger

It sometimes astounds me how well-intentioned Christians describe Jesus.  He is almost this timid thing that wouldn't hurt a fly.  More like Francis of Assisi than the Jesus described in the gospels.

Early in the book, John describes a scene that should put to rest that Jesus was mild-mannered.  He goes into the temple and destroys the money-making schemes and afterwards publicly challenges the religious leaders. 

What is also interesting here is what triggers this behavior.  Jesus does sometimes behave in a very mild-mannered way.  What brings out the anger in him? 

I see the common thread in chapter 2 being righteous anger.  First he was upset that the wealthy were profiting over the worship of God.  Those who came in to offer a sacrifice were essentially told that they had to buy a sacrifice from the temple.  Wanting to remain pious, many did it, enriching those who ran the scheme.  This exploitation stained the worship of God, so Jesus violently drove them out.

When the religious leaders challenged him on the authority by which he did these things, he declared that he would rebuild "this temple" and raise it up again in three days.  Since it took decades to build the temple in the first place, this was quite the claim.  Although Jesus meant something different by "this temple", in the minds of the listeners, Jesus was claiming he had authority that the religious leaders did not. (And it's safe to assume Jesus knew this when he said it.) 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Thoughts on John 1: Logos

Sometimes learning a little Greek and understanding cultural context can be helpful in interpreting Scripture.  This is particularly true with the first chapter of John.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard well-intentioned ministers massacre the meaning of the first verse.

For example, I witnessed the following statement from a sermon:

John 1:1 says that in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  If you keep reading, you see that this is talking about Jesus.  Jesus is the Word of God.  Do you know what else is the word of God? [Picks up his Bible...] This is also God's word.  So, in a very real way, the Bible and Jesus are the same.
Nooooooooo!!!!!! First of all, let me say that I have a Master's degree in historical philosophy.  When you study ancient Greek philosophy, you frequently come across the word logos.  There isn't a good English translation for logos, but it can be thought of "that which separates humans from animals".  The word occasionally implies  rationality, language, or the soul.  When philosophers use the term, they frequently use it as a term for a mysterious deity.

And this is where John 1:1 comes in.  "In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God."  While translating logos as "word" is acceptable, it is hardly the best translation.  Unfortunately, English-speaking Christians would probably have a hissy fit if the verse was translated otherwise.

Why am I making such a big deal of this?  Because English speaking Christians are missing an important part of the meaning of this verse.  John is telling his readers, essentially, "You know all the things that make humans different from other animals?  Well Jesus has all those things in the relationship to humans.  He has rationality, language, and soul to the ultimate extent.  And he is God."

Now to address those who try to say John 1:1 should be interpreted as not being a claim to Jesus deity.  They argue that the verse is more appropriately translated, "In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God and the Logos was a god."  First, let me note that this is a grammatically correct translation.  But it ignores the historical context.  Early in Christian history, there was a school of thought called gnosticism.  These groups claimed special knowledge about God and Christ.  They taught secret messages were found in the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus.  One of the main teachings was derived from neo-Platonist philosophy was about the Logos.  The Logos was occasionally referred to as the real or higher God and that Yahweh was subservient to it. 

In this context, John is trying to explain that the Gnostics have it all wrong.  There is no higher god than Yahweh.  But there is something that was hidden from traditional Judaism.  God's plan was to come to earth and take the form of man.  This is the Logos

When you understand the meaning of Logos and the context of the first century Near East, you could not underestimate the gravity of John's profound words.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 16: Ending the gospel

I'm not sure any scholar is absolutely sure how Mark is supposed to end in its original version.  Most agree through verse 8 of chapter 16, but not everyone agrees on what, if anything that follows is authentic.

For purposes of this post, I'm going to assume that only the first 8 verses are authentic.  This means Mark ended the book in a very odd way for a first century writer.  He ended with women finding out about the resurrection, and then dropped the story.  First of all, that isn't much of a conclusion.  Second, the special people at the end are women (something you didn't do back then).  Women were given this place of extreme religious honor.  In essence, Mark gave the version of the story that would be least believable to most readers.

Perhaps that was the point.  This gospel wasn't written as an apologetic treatise.  He starts off with Jesus violating a lot of societal norms early in his ministry.  Then he ends the gospel by breaking societal norms.  It seems like he was trying to make a point.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 15: Beware of religious leaders

One of the things that strikes me in Mark 15 is the level of influence the religious leaders had over the masses.  When Pilate offered the people the chance to free Jesus or a murderer, the religious leaders convinced the crowd to have the murderer released. 

I'm not sure how this happened, but it isn't the only time something like this has happened in the history of the world.  Religious leaders can be very good at convincing people to do bad things.  Modern dictators take this lesson and create their own "fake religion" to stir up followers into a religious fervor.  (Think Hitler in Nazi Germany.)

As Christians, we need to beware of such things.  Paul admonishes us to be sober minded in all things.  I wonder if some sober minded people in the crowd could have talked down the mob mentality that spared a murderer at the expense of one who had no guilt.  Perhaps not, but at least those sober minded individuals would not have guilt of their own.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Thoughts on Mark 14: The poor you will always have with you

There is a lot in Mark 14.  Things far more important than what I will talk about today.  But, for some reason, I feel drawn to address this.  In verse 7 it says
For you will always have the poor with you, and you can do good for them whenever you want. But you will not always have me!
It sort of disgusts me every time I hear this verse misconstrued.  I've heard many argue that because, "you will always have the poor with you," that nothing should be done to work toward the elimination of poverty.   That is not what Jesus was getting at in any way, shape, or form.  This should be obvious from the rest of the sentence, "and you can do good for them whenever you want."  Jesus was not calling for the end of helping the poor.  Rather, his focus was on prioritizing.

This is where other groups really disgust me.  Those who place the primary importance on helping the poor and tend to ignore other important things, like the role of Christ's sacrifice.  I am saying this as someone who works at a nonprofit whose primary objective is to help the poor.  I also attend a church where that is a major focus.  However, it cannot be the primary focus of the Church or of individual believers.  It is important, but there are more important things.  Most notably, sharing the Gospel.  Both should be done and they are not mutually exclusive.  I just wish the idea of mutual exclusivity wasn't so prevalent in US churches today.