Authority. That’s a word Americans have a problem with. We’re proud of our independence. Of our rebellion. It’s part of our heritage. We celebrate it every Fourth of July. Words like “authority” and “obedience” and “submission” make our skin crawl. We’d like to take them out of our vocabulary altogether. We don’t even grant God authority anymore.
This became strikingly apparent to me recently when I engaged in a pair of election-related conversations. The topic? Homosexuality. Basically, our conversations boiled down to a clash of worldviews. They elected that we individually and as a nation must support the decisions of people struggling with sexual identity confusion because it’s the kind and generous thing to do. (Love before obedience. People before God.) I maintained that the Creator has put absolute standards in place that must be obeyed, and any love given outside those parameters is actually destructive. (Obedience before love. God before people.) Needless to say, my theology was not popular.
But today I read a Bible passage and commentary that gets to the heart of the authority issue. I’m still reading through the Jewish New Testament. I just started the gospel of John. Here’s what Mr. Stern had to say in his commentary:
In the beginning was the Word. The language echoes the first sentences of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Word which was with God and…was God is not named as such in Genesis but is immediately seen in action: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’. ‘And God called the light Day.'” And so on, through Genesis and indeed throughout the whole Tanakh (OT). God’s expressing himself, commanding, calling and creating is one of the two primary themes of the entire Bible (the other being his justice and mercy and their outworking in the salvation of humanity). This expressing, this speaking, this “word” is God; a God who does not speak, a Word-less God is no God. And a Word that is not God accomplishes nothing.
This passage isn’t about homosexuality. It’s about the much more foundational issue of God’s authority. God is Creator. His Word is powerful. His Word is law. And all Creation bears testimony to his authority. This passage in John, supported by Genesis, sets the stage for the teaching ministry of Christ (the Word incarnate) by granting him this same divine authority. And while Jesus did command us to love men, he stressed obedience to God above all.
But no one in America wants to talk about obedience. It’s far easier to speak of “love”. Based on the incredible power displayed in Genesis as well as the ultimate love showed to us at the end of John’s gospel, I think it would greatly benefit us to find out what else God said and obey it.
I’ve been asked lots of times why I take such an interest in all things Jewish. The answer seems obvious to me–because Christianity is an outgrowth of the Jewish faith. So does it not make sense to study the old to understand the new? After all, the New Testament fulfills the Old, and both Testaments are written primarily from within the Jewish culture. By understanding those foundations, it brings so much of the text into new light.
For just those reasons, I’ve begun my new read-through of the Bible using the Complete Jewish Bible. It can be tough going at times, as I didn’t grow up with the many Israeli names and terms used. (A glossary is included.) But the traditional Jewish background of now-Messianic translator David H. Stern provides an amazingly fresh perspective. Combined with Stern’s Jewish New Testament Commentary (I started in the NT), I’m learning a TON.
Here’s a familiar passage from Matthew and its complimentary commentary that I found particularly fascinating:
No one patches an old coat with a piece of unshrunk cloth, because the patch tears away from the coat and leaves a worse hole. Nor do people put new wine in old wineskins; if they do, the skins burst, the wines spills and the wineskins are ruined. No, they pour new wine into freshly prepared wineskins, and in the way both are preserved. (Matthew 9:16-17)
16 This verse  and the next speak to the issue of whether faith in Yeshua [Jesus] the Messia can be combined with Judaism. Here the old coat is Judaism. the unshrunk cloth is Messianic faith which has not be adapted (“shrunk”) to the framework of Judaism as currently practiced. (“Shrinking” here is simply an aspect of Yeshua’s “patch” metaphor. It does not imply that Messianic faith must be diminished in order to fit into Judaism.) Combining unadapted Messianic faith with traditional Judaism doesn’t work–the patch tears away from the coat; that is, faith in Yeshua apart from Judaism–and, later on in the case of Gentiles, faith in Yeshua apart from the foundational truths about God taught in the Tanakh [OT]–is useless and worthless. Not only that, but it leaves a worse hole–attempting to combine unadapted Messianic faith with traditional Judaism leaves Judaism worse off than before. The implication is taught one must shrink the new cloth–adapt Messianic faith to Judaism–for Yeshua does not imply that there is anything wrong with patching an old coat! The early Messianic Jews did adapt Messianic faith to Judaism, but the later Gentile Church did not. Instead, some forms of Gentile Christianity became paganized precisely because the Tanakh was forgotten or underemphasized. Messianic Jews today are once again trying to bring New Testament faith back to its Jewish roots.
I love that last sentence! That’s exactly what I’m trying to do! Here’s the commentary for verse 17, the flip side of the coin:
17 Whereas in v. 16 Messianic faith has to be adapted to Judaism, here it is Judaism which must be adjusted to messianic faith. If one tries to put new wine, Messianic faith, into old wineskins, traditional Judaism, the faith is lost and Judaism ruined. But if Judaism is freshly prepared, reconditioned so that it can accommodate trust in Yeshua the Messiah, both the faith and renewed Judaism, messianic Judaism, are preserved.
This understanding is undergirded by the writer’s careful choice of words: “new” (Greek neos) wine, “fresh” (kainos) wineskins. “Neos” means “new” in respect to time, implying immaturity or lack of development. “Kainos” means “new” or “renewed” in respect to quality, contrasting with “old” or “not renewed” and implying superiority. Old wineskins have lost their strength and elasticity, so that they cannot withstand the pressure of new wine still fermenting, although an old wineskin can be restored to service if its useful qualities are renewed.
The meaning of the figure is that the new wine of Messianic living cannot be poured into old religious forms if they remain rigid. But if the old religious forms become “fresh,” they can accommodate Yeshua. When “kainos” is rendered “new,” as in many translations, the implication seems to be the Judaism cannot possibly be a suitable framework for honoring Yeshua the Jewish Messiah–only the “new wineskin” of Gentilized Christianity will work. This is a peculiar conclusion, especially if it is recalled that Yeshua was speaking with his fellow Jews. As rendered here the point is that the only vessel which can hold the new wine of Messianic life in a Jewish setting is a properly renewed, restored, reconditioned and refreshed Judaism, such as Messianic Judaism was in the first century and aims to be now.
Taken together, verses 16 and 17 imply that both Messianic faith and Judaism should adjust to each other. However, the accommodating must be true to God’s Word; on that there is no room for compromise.
Isn’t that a fresh new approach to understand Christ’s metaphors? This translation and the commentary are filled with such gems! I’m loving this study so much I’m going to pass along buy links for both the Complete Jewish Bible and the Jewish New Testament Commentary. Or, they now come combined in a handy one-book Complete Jewish Study Bible. If I’ve at all whetted your appetite, it’s well worth the investment.
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been challenged by these three questions:
1) Do I like to see God accomplish amazing things? Of course I do! I know what kind of power God has. I feel priviledged, humbled, and a little overwhelmed sometimes when I see him use it. But I love it when he does!
2) Do I struggle to find a time and place for consistent prayer? Yes again. I’m busy and prayer’s hard. It doesn’t always happen.
3) Do I believe there is a direct correlation between the prayers of believers and God’s work in our midst? Sure I do. God doesn’t need our prayers, but he desires them for our sakes. I think God is giving us a chance to be part of what he’s doing, to team up with him and give us some ownership in a joint venture. That’s a pretty tremendous opportunity if you think about it, teaming up with the Almighty God. So then why do we expect him to move in mighty ways while we’re sitting on our duffs?
Yeah, that’s the challenge I’ve been mulling over.
Some of you know I’m a runner from way back. But my body doesn’t always take the beating willingly anymore, so two years ago I bought a mountain bike and set myself a goal of 1,000 miles over the course of the summer. I’ve blown that out of the water for two years running…er, biking? That’s a lot of mindless hours on the road. Then last summer, I discovered those hours were the perfect time to pray! There are no distractions–no children, no phone calls, no neighbors, no chores waiting to be finished. Just traffic, and so far I’ve managed to multitask that successfully. It’s just me and God and some great conversations taking place on the roads of Allegan County.
So last summer I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to get a bunch of Christians outside to pray? At that time, however, not many people I went to church with lived in my town. And I wasn’t looking to switch churches. Funny how things happen sometimes. Within a few months, after a series of unlooked for events, I ended up at a church just around the corner which sponsors a local 5K each year. I joined the race committee because, you know, I still have this longtime love/hate thing going on with running. (I started training for it a few weeks ago. I’ve run 3-1/2 miles so far but they were all at once, so hey, I’m good!) And suddenly God started putting that get-a-group-outside-to-pray idea back in my head. So I approached the pastor about starting a prayerwalking group on Thursday evenings to pray in the streets where the event will take place.
So far not many people have shown up. Okay, no one has shown up yet. Folks are busy, I know it. But this race is such a tremendous opportunity to be a light in our community. I feel like it’s one of those chances God gives us to team up with him, where we pray and he works. I still do most of my praying on my bike, but I keep showing up each Thursday just in case God lays this challenge on someone else’s heart too. Hopefully, come race day, we’ll get to see God do something amazing.
It’s been three months since I posted, but for a pretty good reason. Those months were filled with the final push to finish the second book in my Ella Wood trilogy, Blood Moon. It released earlier this month. I’m thrilled with the positive response I’ve received so far.
Anyway, I’m back today with some thoughts on one of my favorite Bible stories–the Woman at the Well. This passage has always been difficult for me to understand. Some of the exchanges between Jesus and the woman seem so random. Yet a little history on the cultural and political differences between the Jews and the Samaritans helps clear this up significantly. What emerges is a provacative conversation about the changing work God was doing through Christ, its healing power, and the effect it would have around the world. But before I pursue those thoughts, let’s read the story in John 4:4-26 again. I’m quoting the NIV version.
Now he [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
There is a lot going on in there! Hints between the strained relations between Samaria and Judea, cultural taboos between the sexes, Jesus’s ability to know a person’s past, a confusing conversation about water and life, and something about worship and mountains. Let me see if I can clarify.
First, it is important to note that Judea to the south, which included Jerusalem, and Samaria to the north were all part of the land given to the Israelites under Moses and Joshua. David’s kingdom encompassed both areas. It was all Jewish. You may recall, however, that the Kingdom of Israel split after Solomon’s rule. Ten of the twelve tribes became Israel (north) and two tribes became Judea (south). Because of Israel’s sin, the Northern nation was eventually conquered by the Assyrians. Now when the Assyrians invaded an area, they would move the residents out, scatter them, and repopulate the land with other displaced peoples. It was an effective means of dispiriting the conquered and avoiding possible rebellions. The ten tribes, therefore, essentially ceased to exist as an entity and were lost to history.
The Southern kingdom of Judea was later conquered by the Babylonians and carried off into captivity (recall the stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) where they were kept intact as a nation and eventually allowed to return to their homeland (recall stories of Nehemiah rebuilding the wall and Zerubbabal rebuilding the temple). The tribes of Benjamin and Judah carried on, and the Jews that survive today all trace their lineage back to one or the other. Judah had to survive, as the Messiah would come from its people.
This history helps explain the animosity that existed between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’s day. Samaria had been part of the Northern kingdom, with whom the Southern kingdom fought bitterly for generations. And any Jewish blood that may have survived the Assyrian conquest was muddied both in race and religion by intermarriage with the Gentiles who had been resettled there. Judean Jews considered Samaritans half-breeds and heretics at best. Additionally, the Samaritans were pro-Rome, as the Romans had freed them from an oppressive Jewish rule, while the Jews were vehemenantly opposed to Roman rule. So political persuasions, on top of race and religion, separated Jesus and this woman. And finally, strict rules of conduct were in place between men and women of this day, including a taboo on speaking together in public. This is the charged situation in which this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place. Now let’s look at what they said.
First, Jesus asks the woman for a drink. This must have astounded her, and she protests. But Jesus’s words are equally astounding. He starts speaking of living water and eternal life. As a Samaritan with a religion rooted in Judaism, she may have had an inkling that he was talking about spiritual truths. Within Judaism, the Spirit is often associated with water, especially in the water-drawing ceremony that took place annually as part of the observation of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. But the woman seems to have missed Jesus’s deeper implications when she asks him for a drink of this water so that she “won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” She soon begins to understand this is no ordinary person with whom she is conversing when her scandalous past comes to light. There is no way Jesus could have known these details without divine revelation. She calls him a prophet.
Next comes the discussion that has always intrigued me the most, because of its difficult to understand. She tells him, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Huh? At first glance, that is such a random thing to say. We now know, however, that she is alluding to the political and racial differences between Jew and Samaritan. Because they were no longer “pure” Jews, Samaritans were denied full entrance to the temple in Jerusalem. Still wishing to worship their ancestral God (though their Judaism had been intermixed with pagan religions), the Samaritans modified the rules, so to speak, and set up their own high place on Mount Gerizim, within their own regional borders. The Jews write this off as heresy. Unacceptable. I think the woman may be doing several things with this statement: spitefully accusing the Jews of being exclusive bigots, pleading for understanding that her people are trying their best, and maybe asking who’s right. Jesus responds that it will soon all be irrelevant.
That’s the most fascinating part of this exchange. Jesus does make it clear that Judaism is the proper revelation of God up to this point, and that the Samaritan’s corrupted version is based on ignorance. But he is also aware that things are changing. God is working the next part of his eternal plan. People will soon have direct access to God through his Holy Spirit and will no longer need priests or temples as intermediates. In fact, both the Jewish and the Samaritan temples would be destroyed within a century. The conversation is then clenched and verified by Jesus’s final revelation–he is the Messiah. The one who will “explain everything”. The one looked for by both Jew and Samaritan. The one who will do this amazing new work of God. The one who will eliminate the need for temples. The one who will reunite peoples. The one who will surpass political differences, sexual differences, racial differences. This is an amazing statement! And I think at this point, the woman “gets it”. Maybe not all of it. Not yet. But the woman rushes into town to tell others of this encounter, and we are told that many believed. I think this woman was one of those believers. I think her heart changed after this powerful conversation, that she acknowledged the sin Jesus pointed out, and that she eventually came to understand fully the truths revealed to her, both during Jesus’s two-day stay and by the ongoing work of the Spirit in her life.
The power that changed the Samaritan woman’s life is still changing lives today. I get discouraged when I look around me. I see an America that has rejected God’s authority, his Word, and his Redeemer. A huge gulf exists between myself and the accepted viewpoints of the day, and it’s never more apparent than when I hold discussions with a friend who is a GLBT activist. Like Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we are separated by both politics and religion. But as we’ve seen in the story, Jesus has authority over both. His power to convict, to restore, and to unite extends beyond me. He can see the future, and his plan will be carried out.
My most popular post on this blog has been, by far, Meshing Egyptian and Biblcal Timelines, which has prompted a lot of discussion in its comments section. The issue of Egptian chronology is one I had absolutely no knowledge of before a homeschool World History course I was teaching brought it to my attention. I did a little reading on it, not much, and learned the currently “accepted” chronology allows no evidence for Joseph, Hebrew slaves, or the Exodus within the centuries that line up with a biblical reckoning. I also learned that plenty of scholars, both secular and biblical, hotly debate the accuracy of the “accepted” chonology; there is simply too much they don’t know to put these dates so solidly in stone. And I learned that there happens to be a wealth of archeological evidence to support Joseph and the Israelite presence, as well as their sudden absence, that would fit perfectly with secular history if the “accepted” chronology shifted slightly.
Not long ago, I found a documentary on Netflix entitled Patterns of Evidence: Exodus. It’s well done, clear, concise, interesting, and shows how well the evidence really does line up with the bibilcal account. It also reveals the rigid resistance within the secular archeological community to take the Bible as a reliable historical document or adjust their dates. I thought this would be an excellent time to feature this documentary, as the Passover season and its celebration of the Exodus approaches.
I’m finally finishing this series that I began a year ago. I’m sort of excited about that. To view all seven worldview questions and find links to each discussion, click here.
When someone believes in the spontaneous generation of life, it’s impossible to assign meaning to anything. But Christians believe we were purposefully created and placed in time according to God’s plan, which would be revealed as history played out.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism states that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. But that fellowship was broken almost immediately, when Adam and Eve sinned. That disobedience resulted in both physical and spiritual death and a cursed earth. Ever since, God has been using history to reveal his plan of salvation and restoration.
Christianity rests squarely on the historicity of the Bible and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as an actual, physical, divine person who left eternity and entered history. Both claims are subject to historical examination, and in both cases, historical evidence bears out their validity. Again and again in this series I have pointed readers to some of the major evidences both for the Bible’s reliability and Christ’s resurrection. In addition, archeological discoveries have never contradicted Biblical history. Cities are where the Bible says they were. Customs, cultures, leaders have been born out by archeological study. Not everything in the Bible has been confirmed, but nothing has been refuted. When you consider how much data has been uncovered in the past hundred years, that is absolutly astonishing!
More than anything else, it is this solid trail of evidence that has convinces me that my faith in the God of the Bible is not misplaced. A worldview founded on the historically proven revelation in the Scriptures is the only one that can successfully answer the hard questions in life.
To view all the worldview questions and find links to each discussion in this series, click here.
This question dovetails nicely with the last one (Why is it possible to know anything at all?), because they’re based on the same foundation, the unchanging nature of God. Let me quote from that post: “God is truth. God is the source of all that is true and knowable. And because God is unchanging, truth is absolute and reliable.”
Morality is also absolute, because it’s based on that same unchanging nature. “Right” is right because it matches up with God’s character. “Wrong” is wrong because it does not. God gave us a concise summary in the form of the Ten Commandments, but he also gave mankind an innate understanding of good and evil. Romans 2:15 states, “They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” We know instinctively what is right. And we know when we’re doing wrong, though we often willfully choose to do so anyway.
If morality is based on the absolute character of God, it cannot change according to man’s opinion or the consensus of a majority, as is commonly accepted today. It’s easy to see why. Under this kind of relative thinking, evils such as genocide can be justified. Remember that guy, Hitler? All his friends agreed he was right. Was he? Of course not. And not because of today’s accepted morality, but because willful murder is contrary to God’s nature. On that basis, abortion is also wrong, and for the exactly the same reason.
Right is right and wrong is wrong according to God’s definition, not ours, and no amount of human justification can change it.
Some things to think about: What can happen when ideas of right and wrong are formed on a flexible foundation? When individuals are in conflict about what is right and what is wrong, who decides? What problems of logic arise by saying they’re both right? On what do you base your moral decisions?