Wrestling for Living Water – The Samaritan Woman

Jesus has a habit of making disciples of unlikely people. He sees diamonds in the rough. He crosses boundaries to find followers and those who would follow him have to be willing to cross some boundaries themselves. The story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) provides a surprising exemplar of faith and witness.

The general details of the story are well known. Jesus crosses racial and gender boundaries to engage a Samaritan woman who misunderstands his talk of “living water,” taking it to refer to H20, when Jesus has in mind spiritual renewal via the Holy Spirit. In v. 16, Jesus tells the woman to call her husband. Some have thought Jesus wants to shine a spotlight on her sinful condition, the idea being that she is a loose woman. But this is probably reading too much into the text. If she is a loose woman, the text doesn’t draw attention to it. New Testament Scholar Marianne Meye Thompson asks if her current situation indicates immorality or her desperation: “She needs the protection and support of a husband, but has settled for what she can get. Jesus calls attention to her problematic situation, but he does not condemn her. Subsequently, commentators and preachers have hasted to fill the void!” (John: A Commentary [Westminster John Knox, 2015], 103).

Jesus’s intimate knowledge of the woman’s history demonstrates to her that he is a prophet (4:19). A significant interpretive question arises in vv. 19-20. How should we interpret her response to Jesus: “Our Fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (4:20)? The most common explanation is that she is redirecting the conversation: “Ok, this talk about my love life is awkward, so let’s talk about anything but this! So, how about, I don’t know, proper worship location. Yes, that will do!” Another interpretation, and a better one, is that she realizes she has a prophet in front of her and wants to take the conversation deeper. In this approach, she is thinking, “I’ve got a prophet on my hands here, so let’s talk theology.” And the question of sacred worship space is an important matter. In fact, the basis of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans is a dispute over sacred space. The Jews refused an offer of help from the Samaritans when the Jews were about to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Spurned, the Samaritans set up their own holy spot on a different mount, Mount Gerizim (which is the mountain she is referring to), and eventually built their own temple, a temple that a later Jewish leader destroyed.

Worship is about how people connect with God and is a worthy discussion topic, not a diversionary tactic. Jesus’s response about the proper place of worship humbles and invites her simultaneously (vv. 21-24). He humbles her by pointing out her and her people’s ignorance, for Samaritans “worship what you do not know” (4:22). The Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the OT as Scripture and therefore had only a partial picture of God and of the Messiah. More specifically they rejected a Davidic Messiah, which Jesus is. Furthermore, salvation is from the Jews in as much as the Messiah came from the Jewish people.

But Jesus’s next comment makes clear that salvation may be from the Jews but is not for the Jews only. The true worship that the Father desires is worship in Spirit and truth (4:23-24). By saying this, Jesus levels the playing field. All can worship in Spirit and in truth, and the Father is seeking such worshipers. The implication is that the Samaritan woman is invited to fulfill the role of worshipper of the Father.

The woman yet again takes the conversation to a deeper level, moving from place of worship to the role of the Messiah. She states: “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things” (4:25). Samaritans did have an understanding of Messiah, but it was a deficient one. Jesus reveals to her that the Messiah she had been looking for is standing right in front of her.

On hearing this revelation, the woman does two significant, symbolic, things – she leaves behind and she goes to. First, she leaves her jar behind. She had come to this place seeking water; she left it with an understanding of, and longing for, the “living water” that quenches every thirst. Her left-behind jar is a symbol of leaving behind lesser and lower pursuits. Second, she goes and tells her people about her encounter with Jesus. She, in effect, becomes the first evangelist in the Gospel, the first one to share the good news. She embodies what it means to be a disciple of Jesus – to leave behind an old way of life and old pursuits and to go forth with a new message of hope.

The woman’s testimony to Jesus sparks a mass conversion of Samaritans, who came out to hear Jesus because of the woman’s witness to him. In a striking confession, the Samaritans proclaim Jesus as the “Savior of the world” (4:42). The Samaritan woman went looking for physical water and became a channel of the living water that Jesus came to give to all people.

It’s no accident that the patriarch Jacob is mentioned numerous times in this episode (4:5, 6, 12). Seeing the Samaritan woman through the lens of her famous ancestor helps to draw together all the threads of her story. Jacob was an unlikely candidate for a faith journey with God, yet he wrestled with God (Gen 32:24-32), was forever changed by the encounter, and became an agent of God’s ongoing plan. This daughter of Jacob does the same and provides a model for us. She is an unlikely candidate to be the recipient of the most extended conversation with Jesus in the whole NT. She risks a close-quarters encounter with the son of God. Jacob wrestled physically with God; she wrestles in intense dialogue, subjecting herself to significant risks, crossing numerous boundaries, and thereby opening herself up to one who knew her deepest secrets.

Like Jacob, who dared to ask God for a blessing before he would release him (Gen 32:26), this woman has some pluck. She hangs in there with Jesus in a heady conversation and doesn’t back down. She is neither docile nor dense. She asks the hard questions and presses for the truth even when it reorients her beliefs and life. She continues to strive with the Lord even as she receives the Lord’s rebuke. Yet she also receives his invitation – to be the kind of worshipper God desires. Most importantly, she is changed by the encounter, just as Jacob was. Jacob left the encounter with God with a limp (Gen 32:25, 31), a consistent reminder of his encounter with the Almighty. As Jacob left behind his ever-shifting life, she leaves behind her water jar, symbolizing the things she previously thought were priorities. She came searching for H20 and she found the one who could give her living water, spiritual renewal. Jacob went forth from his encounter with God with a story to tell. So too did the Samaritan woman, who called her own people to “come see the man who told me all that I ever did” (4:29).

In the Samaritan woman, we see someone who dares to engage, who hears, who questions, who doesn’t quit, who is willing to be challenged in her thinking and willing to change direction, and who is willing to tell others. Jesus has a habit of making disciples of unlikely people. It’s just like him to use a Samaritan woman to give us a startling example of what it looks like to journey with him.

Wrestling for Living Water – The Samaritan Woman

Jesus has a habit of making disciples of unlikely people. He sees diamonds in the rough. He crosses boundaries to find followers and those who would follow him have to be willing to cross some boundaries themselves. The story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) provides a surprising exemplar of faith and witness.

The general details of the story are well known. Jesus crosses racial and gender boundaries to engage a Samaritan woman who misunderstands his talk of “living water,” taking it to refer to H20, when Jesus has in mind spiritual renewal via the Holy Spirit. In v. 16, Jesus tells the woman to call her husband. Some have thought Jesus wants to shine a spotlight on her sinful condition, the idea being that she is a loose woman. But this is probably reading too much into the text. If she is a loose woman, the text doesn’t draw attention to it. New Testament Scholar Marianne Meye Thompson asks if her current situation indicates immorality or her desperation: “She needs the protection and support of a husband, but has settled for what she can get. Jesus calls attention to her problematic situation, but he does not condemn her. Subsequently, commentators and preachers have hasted to fill the void!” (John: A Commentary [Westminster John Knox, 2015], 103).

Jesus’s intimate knowledge of the woman’s history demonstrates to her that he is a prophet (4:19). A significant interpretive question arises in vv. 19-20. How should we interpret her response to Jesus: “Our Fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (4:20)? The most common explanation is that she is redirecting the conversation: “Ok, this talk about my love life is awkward, so let’s talk about anything but this! So, how about, I don’t know, proper worship location. Yes, that will do!” Another interpretation, and a better one, is that she realizes she has a prophet in front of her and wants to take the conversation deeper. In this approach, she is thinking, “I’ve got a prophet on my hands here, so let’s talk theology.” And the question of sacred worship space is an important matter. In fact, the basis of the hostility between Jews and Samaritans is a dispute over sacred space. The Jews refused an offer of help from the Samaritans when the Jews were about to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Spurned, the Samaritans set up their own holy spot on a different mount, Mount Gerizim (which is the mountain she is referring to), and eventually built their own temple, a temple that a later Jewish leader destroyed.

Worship is about how people connect with God and is a worthy discussion topic, not a diversionary tactic. Jesus’s response about the proper place of worship humbles and invites her simultaneously (vv. 21-24). He humbles her by pointing out her and her people’s ignorance, for Samaritans “worship what you do not know” (4:22). The Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the OT as Scripture and therefore had only a partial picture of God and of the Messiah. More specifically they rejected a Davidic Messiah, which Jesus is. Furthermore, salvation is from the Jews in as much as the Messiah came from the Jewish people.

But Jesus’s next comment makes clear that salvation may be from the Jews but is not for the Jews only. The true worship that the Father desires is worship in Spirit and truth (4:23-24). By saying this, Jesus levels the playing field. All can worship in Spirit and in truth, and the Father is seeking such worshipers. The implication is that the Samaritan woman is invited to fulfill the role of worshipper of the Father.

The woman yet again takes the conversation to a deeper level, moving from place of worship to the role of the Messiah. She states: “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things” (4:25). Samaritans did have an understanding of Messiah, but it was a deficient one. Jesus reveals to her that the Messiah she had been looking for is standing right in front of her.

On hearing this revelation, the woman does two significant, symbolic, things – she leaves behind and she goes to. First, she leaves her jar behind. She had come to this place seeking water; she left it with an understanding of, and longing for, the “living water” that quenches every thirst. Her left-behind jar is a symbol of leaving behind lesser and lower pursuits. Second, she goes and tells her people about her encounter with Jesus. She, in effect, becomes the first evangelist in the Gospel, the first one to share the good news. She embodies what it means to be a disciple of Jesus – to leave behind an old way of life and old pursuits and to go forth with a new message of hope.

The woman’s testimony to Jesus sparks a mass conversion of Samaritans, who came out to hear Jesus because of the woman’s witness to him. In a striking confession, the Samaritans proclaim Jesus as the “Savior of the world” (4:42). The Samaritan woman went looking for physical water and became a channel of the living water that Jesus came to give to all people.

It’s no accident that the patriarch Jacob is mentioned numerous times in this episode (4:5, 6, 12). Seeing the Samaritan woman through the lens of her famous ancestor helps to draw together all the threads of her story. Jacob was an unlikely candidate for a faith journey with God, yet he wrestled with God (Gen 32:24-32), was forever changed by the encounter, and became an agent of God’s ongoing plan. This daughter of Jacob does the same and provides a model for us. She is an unlikely candidate to be the recipient of the most extended conversation with Jesus in the whole NT. She risks a close-quarters encounter with the son of God. Jacob wrestled physically with God; she wrestles in intense dialogue, subjecting herself to significant risks, crossing numerous boundaries, and thereby opening herself up to one who knew her deepest secrets.

Like Jacob, who dared to ask God for a blessing before he would release him (Gen 32:26), this woman has some pluck. She hangs in there with Jesus in a heady conversation and doesn’t back down. She is neither docile nor dense. She asks the hard questions and presses for the truth even when it reorients her beliefs and life. She continues to strive with the Lord even as she receives the Lord’s rebuke. Yet she also receives his invitation – to be the kind of worshipper God desires. Most importantly, she is changed by the encounter, just as Jacob was. Jacob left the encounter with God with a limp (Gen 32:25, 31), a consistent reminder of his encounter with the Almighty. As Jacob left behind his ever-shifting life, she leaves behind her water jar, symbolizing the things she previously thought were priorities. She came searching for H20 and she found the one who could give her living water, spiritual renewal. Jacob went forth from his encounter with God with a story to tell. So too did the Samaritan woman, who called her own people to “come see the man who told me all that I ever did” (4:29).

In the Samaritan woman, we see someone who dares to engage, who hears, who questions, who doesn’t quit, who is willing to be challenged in her thinking and willing to change direction, and who is willing to tell others. Jesus has a habit of making disciples of unlikely people. It’s just like him to use a Samaritan woman to give us a startling example of what it looks like to journey with him.

A Story of Two Healings: The Lame Man (John 5) and the Blind Man (John 9)

Jesus is in the business of healing people. Jesus wants to mend bodies, hearts, minds, relationships, and families. When Jesus heals, he plans for people to go in for the full treatment. The healings of the lame man in John 5 and the blind man in John 9 provide a fascinating comparison.

The stories have a lot in common. Both involve a healing by Jesus of an unsuspecting person. Both of the healings are spectacular because of the longstanding condition of the men who are healed. The lame man was lame for 38 years and the blind man was born blind. Both cause quite a stir with the authorities, because both take place on the Sabbath. Both show Jesus seeking out the previously healed person for a second encounter. What differs in the two accounts is the response of the healed person.

The story of the lame man takes place in Jerusalem, near a pool called Bethesda. Jesus initiates with the lame man, asking him what seems to be a rather strange question: “Do you want to be healed?” In this case, the question serves to show what the man is thinking about how he might be healed. Jesus neither asks for a show of faith, nor demands anything of him. He simply says, “Get up, take up your bed and walk” (5:8). Immediately, the man is healed, takes up his mat, and leaves.

Jesus’s specific command to take up his mat constituted a violation of the Sabbath law in the eyes of the religious authorities. On seeing the man, the authorities inform him that he is breaking the law by carrying his bed. The man’s response is to pass the buck, saying, in essence, “It’s not my fault! The man who healed me told me to do it.” When pressed about this man’s identity, the once-lame man has to confess ignorance. This might have been the end of the story, but Jesus is not finished with this man. Jesus seeks him out and for a second time initiates with him. Jesus isn’t interested in simply healing the man’s physical ailment. He is interested in the man’s total healing.

Jesus reminds the once-lame man that he has been made well. His next phrase is the curious bit: “Stop sinning, that nothing worse may happen to you” (5:14). Does this suggest that the man’s condition was a result of some sin? Or was it that his life was characterized by sin and Jesus is calling him forth to new life. In John’s Gospel, sin is often unbelief, so is Jesus challenging him for unresponsiveness, his failure to believe in and pursue Jesus? Whatever is the case with the man’s past, Jesus invites him to live out a new future, to walk not in sin, but in newness of life.

The man’s response to Jesus’s exhortation? Nothing! No, “thanks for healing me!” or “Yes, Lord, I hear and heed your words.” There are no signs of gratitude, transformation, or understanding. Instead the text says he “went away” from Jesus and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. “Told” is a strong verb, better translated “announced” or “openly declared.” He gives no response to Jesus, but immediately runs to Jesus’s enemies. The next verse (v. 16) makes clear that this event resulted in the Jews’ increased persecution of Jesus.

What are we to conclude about the once-lame man? There’s not much to go on and that’s the problem. Jesus’s healing elicits no thanks. His follow-up invitation elicits no response. In fact, the only thing he does do is run to the authorities to tattle on Jesus (his silence in regard to Jesus makes his words to the authorities all the more deafening). If he has been invited on a faith journey, he shows no signs of taking steps toward that path. He is cured, but not healed.

Things look very different when we turn to the man born blind in John 9. Jesus initiates with the man and goes about healing him in a rather odd way, anointing his eyes with a saliva-mud mixture. Jesus tells the blind man to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. The man obeys and his sight is restored. We read in v. 7 that he “came back.” Unlike the lame man, the blind man knows who his healer is, but he has not seen Jesus, as by the time he returns, Jesus has departed.

Jesus’s making mud constituted working on the Sabbath, the same charge brought against Jesus in John 5. The once-blind man is brought to the Pharisees, who question him about what happened. He tells the Pharisees: “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see” (9:15), and later concludes that Jesus is a prophet (9:17). Unsatisfied with the man’s answer, the Jewish authorities summon the man’s parents who confirm that this is in fact their son, but they are afraid to comment on how he was healed because they “feared the Jews” (9:22). More specifically, they feared they would be put out of the synagogue. Rather cowardly, the parents put the onus back on their son, saying “he is of age, let him speak for himself” (9:23).

Given this episode with his parents, the reader knows that there is a lot at stake in the man’s response to the authorities. They ask him to recount his story again. In v. 24, they say to the man, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” The phrase, “give glory to God!” is a form of oath. Ironically, he will give glory to God by what he is about to say. While the authorities assert what they think they know, the once-blind man acknowledges what he does not know, but reiterates what he most certainly does know: he isn’t blind anymore!

With no real way to counter this blunt fact, the authorities can find nothing better to do than to ask him to repeat the whole story. The blind man has begun to tire of this song and dance and starts to get a little saucy. He mockingly asks the authorities if they want to become Jesus’s disciples. This barbed comment hits the mark and the authorities, enraged, “heaped insults on him” (9:28 NET). They speak more than they know or mean to when they exclaim, “You are his disciple!” They mean it as an insult, but the reader understands that it is the unfolding truth – this man is on the express route to becoming a disciple of Jesus. Again, they spout off their so-called knowledge, claiming “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man we do not know where he comes from” (9:29). This is delicious irony. For once, the religious authorities say something true, but in a way they don’t know or intend. The whole problem is that they don’t, in fact, know who Jesus is.

Downright fearless at this point, the once-blind man again turns up the sarcasm, taunting the religious leaders for what they don’t know (and should know), demonstrating far more theological acumen than his challengers. Devastated by the theological beat-down, the authorities are reduced to name-calling and arrogance, claiming that the man was born “in utter sin,” the very point Jesus rejected in 9:3-5. In a condescending tone, the authorities snort: “and you would teach us?” At this point the reader should be screaming, “Well he did just teach you! As a matter of fact, he just seriously schooled you, but you’re too proud and blind to notice!” It shows how truly blind they are, that in the face of their utter ignorance, they can still be arrogantly contempt. The blind man received physical sight, but went on to an even greater sight, spiritual sight. The authorities, who physically see, are spiritually blind. Finally, they do the very thing that the man’s parents were afraid they would do. They cast him out, using their power to make the once-blind man pay for his defense of, and growing allegiance to, Jesus.

Jesus isn’t done with this man. Jesus is in the business of coming back to those he initially touches and taking them deeper. Jesus seeks him out and asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. The man responds with inquisitiveness and a desire to believe (9:36). Jesus reveals himself to the man, which elicits the man’s immediate confession (“Lord, I believe”) and worship. With the once-blind man we get the full arc of discipleship: initial obedience and trust, a powerful witness under fire and at great cost, willingness to grow in his understanding and knowledge, and finally, full confession and worship. Concerning healing, this guy signed up for the full treatment.

The contrast between the two is clear. One is cured. Another is healed. One saw the restoring touch of Jesus as an end (a “take the healing and run” kind of thing). Another saw it as a beginning. One saw it as an opportunity to walk away from Jesus. Another saw it as an opportunity to follow after Jesus. For one, Jesus was simply the guy who healed him. For the other, Jesus became Lord. One was motivated by self-preservation. Another paid the price to follow Jesus. One guy left his encounter with Jesus able to walk, but unwilling to follow in Jesus’s footsteps. The other man gained physical sight, but pressed on to gain spiritual sight. One man is an exemplar of faith. The other is a sad portrait of what might have been, a failed opportunity for discipleship.

Bodies Revealed, Bodies Restored

Over Thanksgiving Break I had the opportunity to visit the “Bodies Revealed” exhibit at the local library in my home county (the Bossard Memorial Library in Gallipolis, OH). My family was so excited to go to the now-famous exhibit and we all wondered how a small library in southern Ohio was able to pull off getting such a premier exhibit. The library assistants beamed with pride as they introduced the exhibit, gave the ground rules for viewing it, and informed us of how many people had visited the exhibit.

The exhibit was, in fact, fascinating. As I entered the room, there were smaller exhibits, individual bones, a skull, a leg bone, and the like. Farther into the exhibit, I found what the exhibit is famous for, full bodies remarkably preserved using “polymer presentation.” This technique preserves human tissue by using liquid silicone rubber. Sometimes the muscles were flayed, so they could be displayed in greater detail. The bodies were often put into real life postures. Some looked like they were ready to run a race. One held a golf club and looked like he had just hit the drive of his life off of the 18th tee.
hand

The plaques and signs throughout the exhibit described what the audience was seeing, explaining muscular systems, cardio vascular systems, nervous systems, and every other major system of the body. The exhibit also pointed out the advancement of medical science through the means of dissection and advanced postmortem techniques. The benefits were not just for the medical community. The average person was provided an unparalleled opportunity to appreciate the complexity of the human body. There were also cautionary tales to be told. The results of smoker’s lung were fully and grotesquely on display, along with a container to pitch your now-less-appealing cigarettes. I noticed that quite a few packs of cigarettes were in the bin. Visitors got to see firsthand the consequences of poor dietary choices in the form of diseased organs.

After being in the exhibit a few minutes, I started to get this weird feeling. It was a mixture of awe and wonder (the intended effect), but there was something else as well, which wasn’t as fitting for a plaque or advertisement. Something disconcerting. I wondered if I was just queasy at seeing these body parts. I think this was part of it. I thought to myself, “I chose to be the right kind of doctor,” since I don’t think I could handle being a M.D. But I think my unease had a deeper source than just being uncomfortable. I think my deeper discomfort was theological in nature.

My unease came to a head in the final room of the exhibit where there was a person completely cross-sectioned. The whole body was cut into thin slices from top to bottom. Once again, the sign pronounced the unique benefits of having this kind of “view” of the body. As I reflected more on the exhibit as a whole, I realized what it was that bothered me. The bodies weren’t alive. They were objects of observation. One of the bodies was in a position to run, but couldn’t run. Another held a golf club, but it was a façade; he couldn’t really swing it. One looked as if he was ready to talk but of course this body couldn’t talk.

In reflecting on my time in the exhibit, I think about Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. Seeing all the dry bones, God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” (37:3). Reflecting on those bodies, I kept hearing God’s question. The exhibit showed the wonder of the human body by dissecting and preserving. But the real wonder is seeing it all work together as a whole. The tagline of the exhibit’s website is “fascinating and real.” My response was, “Yes … but not alive.” I found myself longing for that cross-sectioned man to be reassembled and reanimated. I’m duly impressed with science’s ability to preserve but our Lord is the only one who can restore life and raise our bodies “imperishable” (1 Cor 15:52).

I don’t mean to imply that this kind of procedure shouldn’t be done. I am grateful for the advances in medical science that have arisen from these procedures. I don’t dispute the value of such an exhibit. I think that some young people walked out of that exhibit and thought hard about their smoking or fast food habits.

“Bodies Revealed” was fascinating. I marveled at the intricacies of the human body. I was duly impressed with what scientists and doctors could do in preserving the human body. I don’t doubt that some Christians toured the exhibit and came out thinking, “What an amazing Creator!” I certainly do not begrudge them that response. But for me, the exhibit stirred up a longing for something more, something better, something truly miraculous. I longed for the disassembled to be reassembled. “Bodies Revealed” was interesting, but “Bodies Restored” is the show I am most excited about.

Jesus’s Second Coming – When? What? How?

From the earliest days, Christians have asked “When is Christ coming back?” sometimes coming up with specific answers. Get on the internet and do a search on “predictions of Christ’s return” and you’ll see abundant evidence of 2000 years of getting it wrong. Yet all this failure has done nothing to slow down the predictions. As John Wesley Fellow Craig Hill puts it, predictions of the end of the world are “as malleable as Playdough and resilient as cockroaches” (In God’s Time [Eerdmans, 2002], 1). Part of the reason why the prediction game has been played by so many people is that the Bible does speak of “signs of the times,” things that will prefigure and/or precede Jesus’s return. Yet, as Mark recounts, Jesus himself, when asked about his coming and the time of the end, said, “Concerning that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). In the following verses, he repeatedly urges his disciples to be ready and watchful at all times. In the book of Acts, after his resurrection and before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told the disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (1:7). It isn’t hard to understand why knowing the time of his return might not be a good thing. Given human nature, people might choose to wait until the last moment to “make things right with God.” Thus, playing the “predict the date of Christ’s return” game has several strikes against it. First, every single prediction made throughout history has proven wrong. Second, Christ strongly discouraged it. Third, psychologically and spiritually, it might not be good for us. Most importantly, focusing on the when of Christ’s return has served to distract the church from other more important questions about Jesus’s second coming.

One of those questions is: “What is Christ coming back to do?” Simply stated, he’s coming back to finish what he started, namely, the kingdom of God. Christians live in a time between the first and second comings of Christ. This life between the times has often been described as the “already, not yet” kingdom. God’s kingdom has already broken into our world in Christ’s advent 2000 years ago. When Jesus forgave sins, reconciled people with God and with each other, healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead, these were all tangible demonstrations that God’s kingdom had in fact come. God’s power was unleased on the world through the saving, transformative work of Jesus Christ. After Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus returned to the Father, but in Acts 2, during the festival of Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to live and dwell among his people and to empower them to spread the good news of the gospel throughout the world.

God’s kingdom has been present and active ever since. We see it in the ways God is at work in individual lives, in the ministry of the church, and in the events of the world. We see people’s lives radically changed by coming to know Christ. We see God’s kingdom at work in radical acts of mercy and kindness. This is the “already” of the “already, not yet.”

But the “not yet” part stresses that God’s kingdom is not here in its fullness. You don’t have to watch the news for long to realize that evil is alive and well. Bad things happen to good people. Injustice abounds. Sickness and disease still destroy people’s health, sometimes despite our prayers. Dissension, disunity, greed, abuse, racial strife, and a host of other social evils are ongoing indications that all is not as it should be. God’s kingdom is “not yet” here in its fullness. Jesus is coming back to bring God’s kingdom in its fullness and to set things right.

Part of what’s involved in setting things right is judgment. As the Apostles’ Creed states, “He is coming to judge the living and the dead.” This creedal statement is based on numerous passages that speak of Christ’s role as Judge. Jesus’s second coming will be a day of reckoning, where everyone’s works will be exposed and God will judge each person in light of what he or she has done with Christ and for others. For those who have rejected Christ and his kingdom, his coming will be something to fear, a day of wrath. 2 Thessalonians speaks of God’s punishment on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:8). When Christ comes as judge, he will, in the words of Rev 11:18, “destroy the destroyers of the earth.” The devil and all those who follow or serve him will spend eternity separated from God. Even death itself, which Paul describes as the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26), will be defeated.

Yet for those who belong to Christ, the return of Christ will be the completion of their salvation and the fulfillment of every hope and longing. The righteous will be rewarded for their faithfulness. The downtrodden will be lifted up. Every tear will be wiped away. Every wrong will be made right. For the church, it will be the final and full revelation of the Lord in all his glory, where we will see him as he really is (1 John 3:2). From that point onward the children of God “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:17). The righteous will be able to embrace in bodily form the one who died for them and will be able to kiss the wounds that brought salvation and healing. The earth itself will be renewed and creation will be what God intended it to be. A new heaven and new earth will be the home of those who will live in the presence of God forever.

Another important question concerning the second coming is: “How do we live in light of his coming?” In 2 Pet 3:10, Peter notes that all of the works done on earth will be exposed at Christ’s coming. In light of this, he asks, “What sort of people ought you to be?” His answer is crystal clear – lives of holiness and godliness (3:11). To his struggling church in Thessalonica, Paul prays that the Lord make the church members increase in love for one another so that their hearts may be blameless at the coming of the Lord. Many of Jesus’s parables teach the lesson of expectant waiting on, and faithful doing in light of, his return. In Matt 25:1-13, Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins paints a vivid contrast between those wise virgins who are ready to meet the bridegroom and those foolish virgins who aren’t and are subsequently turned away from the wedding feast. Even more challenging are Jesus’s words just a few verses later, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where how one has treated the “least of these” determines one’s destiny when Christ returns. Those who provided food, water, clothing, greeting, or comfort inherit the kingdom while those who did not are told to depart from Christ into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” For all NT writers the expectation of Christ’s second coming isn’t “pie in the sky by and by,” nor some ivory tower abstract teaching, but a life-and-death matter, an ethical imperative to live life in the present in light of Christ’s future coming.

We are called to be “Maranatha people.” Maranatha is an Aramaic expression found in 1 Cor 16:22 that we might translate with the phrase “Our Lord, come.” But “Maranatha” is not just a word. It is an expectation, a longing, a prayer, a posture. Maranatha people take the Lord’s words seriously when he says, “watch and wait,” and “love your neighbor.” Maranatha people desire to live blameless, holy, other-orientated lives, and to be found faithful whenever the Lord returns. Maranatha people are those who, in the words of Peter, “set their hope fully on the grace that will be brought to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13) and who will not, in the words of 1 John, “shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28). In the penultimate verse of the Bible we hear the Lord say, “Yes, I’m coming soon,” to which the appropriate response is “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).

Jesus’s Second Coming – When? What? How?

From the earliest days, Christians have asked “When is Christ coming back?” sometimes coming up with specific answers. Get on the internet and do a search on “predictions of Christ’s return” and you’ll see abundant evidence of 2000 years of getting it wrong. Yet all this failure has done nothing to slow down the predictions. As John Wesley Fellow Craig Hill puts it, predictions of the end of the world are “as malleable as Playdough and resilient as cockroaches” (In God’s Time [Eerdmans, 2002], 1). Part of the reason why the prediction game has been played by so many people is that the Bible does speak of “signs of the times,” things that will prefigure and/or precede Jesus’s return. Yet, as Mark recounts, Jesus himself, when asked about his coming and the time of the end, said, “Concerning that day or hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (13:32). In the following verses, he repeatedly urges his disciples to be ready and watchful at all times. In the book of Acts, after his resurrection and before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told the disciples, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (1:7). It isn’t hard to understand why knowing the time of his return might not be a good thing. Given human nature, people might choose to wait until the last moment to “make things right with God.” Thus, playing the “predict the date of Christ’s return” game has several strikes against it. First, every single prediction made throughout history has proven wrong. Second, Christ strongly discouraged it. Third, psychologically and spiritually, it might not be good for us. Most importantly, focusing on the when of Christ’s return has served to distract the church from other more important questions about Jesus’s second coming.

One of those questions is: “What is Christ coming back to do?” Simply stated, he’s coming back to finish what he started, namely, the kingdom of God. Christians live in a time between the first and second comings of Christ. This life between the times has often been described as the “already, not yet” kingdom. God’s kingdom has already broken into our world in Christ’s advent 2000 years ago. When Jesus forgave sins, reconciled people with God and with each other, healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead, these were all tangible demonstrations that God’s kingdom had in fact come. God’s power was unleased on the world through the saving, transformative work of Jesus Christ. After Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus returned to the Father, but in Acts 2, during the festival of Pentecost, God sent the Holy Spirit to live and dwell among his people and to empower them to spread the good news of the gospel throughout the world.

God’s kingdom has been present and active ever since. We see it in the ways God is at work in individual lives, in the ministry of the church, and in the events of the world. We see people’s lives radically changed by coming to know Christ. We see God’s kingdom at work in radical acts of mercy and kindness. This is the “already” of the “already, not yet.”

But the “not yet” part stresses that God’s kingdom is not here in its fullness. You don’t have to watch the news for long to realize that evil is alive and well. Bad things happen to good people. Injustice abounds. Sickness and disease still destroy people’s health, sometimes despite our prayers. Dissension, disunity, greed, abuse, racial strife, and a host of other social evils are ongoing indications that all is not as it should be. God’s kingdom is “not yet” here in its fullness. Jesus is coming back to bring God’s kingdom in its fullness and to set things right.

Part of what’s involved in setting things right is judgment. As the Apostles’ Creed states, “He is coming to judge the living and the dead.” This creedal statement is based on numerous passages that speak of Christ’s role as Judge. Jesus’s second coming will be a day of reckoning, where everyone’s works will be exposed and God will judge each person in light of what he or she has done with Christ and for others. For those who have rejected Christ and his kingdom, his coming will be something to fear, a day of wrath. 2 Thessalonians speaks of God’s punishment on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (1:8). When Christ comes as judge, he will, in the words of Rev 11:18, “destroy the destroyers of the earth.” The devil and all those who follow or serve him will spend eternity separated from God. Even death itself, which Paul describes as the last enemy (1 Cor 15:26), will be defeated.

Yet for those who belong to Christ, the return of Christ will be the completion of their salvation and the fulfillment of every hope and longing. The righteous will be rewarded for their faithfulness. The downtrodden will be lifted up. Every tear will be wiped away. Every wrong will be made right. For the church, it will be the final and full revelation of the Lord in all his glory, where we will see him as he really is (1 John 3:2). From that point onward the children of God “will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:17). The righteous will be able to embrace in bodily form the one who died for them and will be able to kiss the wounds that brought salvation and healing. The earth itself will be renewed and creation will be what God intended it to be. A new heaven and new earth will be the home of those who will live in the presence of God forever.

Another important question concerning the second coming is: “How do we live in light of his coming?” In 2 Pet 3:10, Peter notes that all of the works done on earth will be exposed at Christ’s coming. In light of this, he asks, “What sort of people ought you to be?” His answer is crystal clear – lives of holiness and godliness (3:11). To his struggling church in Thessalonica, Paul prays that the Lord make the church members increase in love for one another so that their hearts may be blameless at the coming of the Lord. Many of Jesus’s parables teach the lesson of expectant waiting on, and faithful doing in light of, his return. In Matt 25:1-13, Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins paints a vivid contrast between those wise virgins who are ready to meet the bridegroom and those foolish virgins who aren’t and are subsequently turned away from the wedding feast. Even more challenging are Jesus’s words just a few verses later, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, where how one has treated the “least of these” determines one’s destiny when Christ returns. Those who provided food, water, clothing, greeting, or comfort inherit the kingdom while those who did not are told to depart from Christ into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” For all NT writers the expectation of Christ’s second coming isn’t “pie in the sky by and by,” nor some ivory tower abstract teaching, but a life-and-death matter, an ethical imperative to live life in the present in light of Christ’s future coming.

We are called to be “Maranatha people.” Maranatha is an Aramaic expression found in 1 Cor 16:22 that we might translate with the phrase “Our Lord, come.” But “Maranatha” is not just a word. It is an expectation, a longing, a prayer, a posture. Maranatha people take the Lord’s words seriously when he says, “watch and wait,” and “love your neighbor.” Maranatha people desire to live blameless, holy, other-orientated lives, and to be found faithful whenever the Lord returns. Maranatha people are those who, in the words of Peter, “set their hope fully on the grace that will be brought to them at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13) and who will not, in the words of 1 John, “shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28). In the penultimate verse of the Bible we hear the Lord say, “Yes, I’m coming soon,” to which the appropriate response is “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).

The Three Gardens

Gardens are beautiful and useful things. A flower garden inspires us. A humble backyard garden provides food. Gardens exude life. The image of a garden is a powerful one in Christian thought. The gospel is the story of three gardens: Eden, Gethsemane, and the garden-city of the New Jerusalem. God’s story begins in a garden, finds its climactic middle point in a garden, and reaches its final consummation in a garden.

The story of God begins with him “planting” a garden and placing humanity within it (Gen 2:8, ESV). The Garden of Eden is a place of beauty and bounty. The trees are “pleasant to sight and good for food” (2:9). Here is a place that both God and humanity can delight in, a paradise. As Gen 1 declares, all of creation is “good,” indeed “very good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Humanity, made in the image of God, not only enjoys the garden but is graciously allowed by God to play significant roles in it. They are to “work” and “keep” it (2:9). Humanity has God-given dominion over the garden, as is evidenced by Adam’s naming of the animals (2:19-20). The Garden of Eden is a picture of harmony and shalom. Man and women are made for and enjoy relationship with one another, with creation, and with their creator and Lord.

Yet, humanity is also made fearfully free. In a garden replete with blessings, one thing is forbidden. They are not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent tempts Adam and Eve by first raising doubt about God’s command and then directly challenging God’s word and character. The final move is to tempt Adam and Eve, in effect, to be God. Surrounded by the beauty of the garden, humanity’s first parents wonder if the grass is greener on the other side. By succumbing to the serpent’s temptation, Adam and Eve commit the primordial sin, but it is also a paradigmatic picture of all sin. In the face of God’s gracious provision and protective restrictions, we humans choose to doubt and disobey God, all in an attempt to make ourselves God. The consequences of this initial sin are catastrophic. Shame and fear consume the first couple and they attempt to hide from God. They are estranged from their creator, from each other, and from creation itself. They immediately begin throwing each other under the bus, playing the first ever game of “pass the buck” (3:12-13). The blessings of the garden now turn into curses. The cost of sin is expulsion from the garden. Death – physical, relational and spiritual – besets humanity.

Yet even in judgment, God’s mercy and redemptive purpose are on display. God clothes the newly ashamed humans (3:21). Even the expulsion from the Garden is merciful as the humans are banned from the garden to prevent them from taking from the Tree of Life and living forever in their fallen condition. In the curse on Eve, Christians hear a foreshadowing of the demise of the evil one through the triumph of Eve’s greatest descendent (3:15). The garden is lost but hope is not.

If God and humanity were estranged in the first garden, the God-human took the critical steps toward healing the breach in the second garden. In the Garden of Gethsemane we see some of the most poignant moments of the Savior’s life (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Betrayed by one of his own, failed by those closest to him, and soon to die at the hands of those he came to save, the burden of his “cup” is overwhelming. In fact, the cup of suffering was filled in Eden’s garden. In a bracingly honest prayer to the Father he asks if there might be another way. Yet, in the end, he steels his will and prays the greatest prayer ever prayed: “not my will, but thy will be done.” It is not too much to say that the fate of the world hung in the balance in that second garden. Gethsemane was the tipping point, the middle of the story, where everything was at stake. Though Christians are right to focus on the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as the salvific moments of our faith, it was in the Garden of Gethsemane that the battle was won. Whereas the first Adam faced temptation and chose disbelief and disobedience, the second Adam faced an even greater temptation and chose trust and obedience. The results of the acts in the first garden brought shame, death, and alienation. In the second garden, the Son of Man embraced the shame of the cross and tasted death in order to reconcile God and Man. The curse earned by the first humans was taken up by the best human. Those given life in Eden selfishly threw it away while the One who is life willingly laid his life down into order to give it back. If the Garden of Eden provides the paradigmatic negative example for humanity, here in the depth and despair of Gethsemane we find our ultimate exemplar.

Christ’s actions in the second garden looked back to the first garden and forward to the third and final garden. The renewal begun in Gethsemane reaches its conclusion in the New Jerusalem of Rev 21:1-22:5. In his helpful book A New Heaven and a New Earth, Richard Middleton calls the New Jerusalem a “Garden-City” ([Baker Academic, 2014], 172). Here is Eden renewed. Just as Eden was watered by a river, so too the New Jerusalem has a life-giving river (22:1-2). The Tree of Life, once blocked off by mercy, is now present and given for the eternal sustenance of God’s people (22:2, 14). But the New Jerusalem is more than Eden. This is a Garden-City (a combination envisioned in Isa 51:3). The city imagery suggests community, civilization, and culture itself, all of which God has redeemed and renewed. The end of God’s story envisions not a flight from the created world to an otherworldly existence “up there,” but a coming down of God to earth (Rev 21:2-3). God does not abandon his created world, both human and non-human, but remakes it as the glorious words of the Father attest: “Behold I make all things new!” (21:5). The closed gate of Eden (Gen 3:24) is now replaced with the eternally open gates of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:25). The curse, pronounced in Eden (Gen 3:14-19) and embraced in Gethsemane, is now removed (Rev 22:3). Death, which entered through the first garden and was courageously faced in the second, is eradicated in the third (21:4). The rule and reign of humanity gone awry in the first garden is restored forever in the final garden, where God’s people will reign forever and ever (22:5). The light of the heavenly bodies of the first garden gives way to the light of God and the Lamb and all because the Son of Man faced the darkness of Gethsemane. Though Adam and Eve enjoyed God’s presence in Eden, in the New Jerusalem God and the Lamb have made their permanent dwelling place with humanity on earth (21:3), enabling humanity to see their Savior’s face (22:4).

What was lost in Eden was won back in Gethsemane and fulfilled in the New Jerusalem. In gardens we find the beginning, middle, and end of God’s story.

Freedom and Slavery in Christian Perspective: A Fourth of July Reflection

Freedom. It’s one of our favorite words and most cherished goods. It’s something for which people live, die, and kill. It is an idea enshrined in our nation’s consciousness and one celebrated on the 4th of July. A quick perusal of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, or the great speeches of FDR, JFK, or MLK will bear out the importance of freedom. Freedom for many (perhaps most) Americans has come to be the ultimate good.

Despite the ubiquitous talk of freedom in our culture, the word is often used without much clarification or content. The concept of freedom has a long and complex history. The modern political theorist Isaiah Berlin claims that there are over two hundred senses of the word and notes that the word’s meaning is so “porous” that there is little interpretation that it seems able to resist (“Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty [Oxford University Press, 1958], 2). Philosophers speak of positive and negative liberty, where the latter is the absence of external threats to liberty, and the former is more internal and concerned with self-actualization or self-determinism. A simpler way to categorize different kinds of freedom is to ask the twin questions: “freedom from what?” and “freedom for what?” Whenever the topic of freedom arises, it’s always helpful to pose these two questions.

The freedom most extolled today is the freedom that says, “I can do what I want, when I want, how I want, with whom I want, as long as I want … and who are you to tell me otherwise?” Of course there is the usual proviso: “as long as I don’t hurt or impinge on anyone else’s freedom.” This notion of freedom has impressive roots. In his great treatise “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill wrote: “The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it” (On Liberty and Other Essays [Oxford University Press, 2008], 17). In fact, this notion of freedom has two aspects, which we may call “freedom of choice” and the “freedom of autonomy.” One can speak of this twofold freedom in terms of the two questions mentioned above. This is a freedom from in the sense that it seeks to be free from the interference of others, and especially free of the constricting forces of authority (indeed authority is often viewed as the enemy, the entity that seeks to minimize one’s personal freedom). It’s the freedom to be left alone to do one’s own thing. It’s a freedom for in the sense that it seeks to maximize the individual’s ability to do his or her own thing. In this understanding of freedom, the more choices one has the more free one is.

The Christian understanding of freedom is remarkably different. In terms of freedom from, Christian freedom is, first and foremost, freedom from the tyranny of Sin, Satan, and Self. According to Paul, all humanity is “under the power of Sin” (Rom 3:9). By “Sin” Paul does not mean individual acts of wrongdoing, but a spiritual condition of alienation from God and one another. Sin is a master against which we are powerless. By Satan, I mean the spiritual forces that work against humanity and are our default masters. In Ephesians, we read of one who is the enemy of our souls, the prince of the power of the air (Eph 2:1-3). In terms of Self, I have in mind the idea that the human condition is one of brokenness and self-seeking. Sin is a “turned inward-ness,” a chronic case of “me, myself, and I.”

Humans are powerless to throw off the yoke of these oppressive forces. If we are to be “free” from them, that freedom must come from without. Only through the work of God through Christ and the Holy Spirit can we be freed. The death of Christ frees us from the unholy Trinity of Sin, Satan, and Self, while the renewing work of the Spirit frees us for new life with God and with one another. Thus “freedom” is conceived of as a gift of God. This contrasts strongly with modern notions of freedom as a right or as something that we strive to win. Freedom is, first and foremost, a gift received, not a right demanded.

Paradoxically, the freedom found in Christ is a form of slavery, or servitude. To be set free from Sin, Satan, and Self is to become the slave or servant of God. Just as the Israelites of old were set free from the tyranny of Pharaoh to serve the one true God, so too Christians are freed for loving service to God and to others. 1 Peter 2:16 captures the true and paradoxical nature of freedom: “live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God” (ESV). Christian freedom is not autonomy. Indeed, Paul makes clear in chap. 6 of Romans that there is no such thing as autonomy (6:16-23). It is never a question of “will we serve someone or something?” but “what or whom will we serve?” We can serve the unholy Trinity of Sin, Satan, and Self or the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is no third option.

Autonomy is an illusion and a dangerous one at that, as it’s actually part of Sin’s power at work in us (we think we are free, but actually we are slaves). No, our freedom in Christ takes the form of servitude to Christ and this is why Paul embraces the description “slave of Christ” (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10). The Christian belongs to another and serves another (1 Cor 6:19-20). It is not about throwing off all masters, but having the right one.

The freedom that is in Christ is a freedom to “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). It is a freedom to deny the self, to live sacrificially (a non-possibility for those “under sin”), to put the needs of others in front of our own. Rather than maximizing choices, the one truly free in Christ will have fewer choices, since the range of self-serving options are no longer in play. This is a freedom to be, not whatever we want to be, but what we were made to be, image bearers of God, little “Christs.” Rather than demanding one’s rights, this freedom lays down its rights in order to do the right thing and to love.

Christian freedom is exercised within Christian community. Though modern talk of freedom tends toward individualism (“I’m free to pursue my goals…”), Christian freedom has a definitively communal shape. We aren’t free from community, but free for community. We serve not only God but others, as Paul makes clear in Gal 5:13: “for you were called [note the passive voice: “called (by God)”] to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another (NRSV, emphasis mine). To put it in the starkest terms, this freedom is a form of slavery, but not the dehumanizing, degrading, kind, but the uplifting, empowering, ennobling kind.

For Christians, it’s imperative that we speak and think clearly about freedom and that our thinking and speaking be shaped by our faith. At one level we need to resist the currents of modern society that seek to privilege a kind of freedom – the freedom to choose – which is, at best, a secondary or tertiary good. There are many freedoms that Christians can embrace, yet it’s imperative that we have a hierarchy of freedom. Freedom from Sin and freedom for loving Christian service are the highest forms of freedom and must frame all of our talk of freedom.

Such an understanding of freedom will allow us to fight for other kinds of freedom (freedom from economic oppression and exploitation, freedom of expression, political freedom, etc.). Even the kind of freedom I’ve taken aim at in this article – freedom of choice – can have a place in this hierarchy, just not a primary one.

Christians have a unique opportunity to offer a different take on freedom in a country where freedom is often thought of as the chief virtue. Christians will speak of freedom primarily as a gift received rather than a right demanded. Christians can speak of our freedom to love one another and to put another’s need and concerns above our own, the freedom to set aside our rights in order to do the right and loving thing. We can speak of our freedom in terms of the commitments we have to one another rather than our freedoms over and against one another. Though it is critical to articulate these important distinctions, much more important is the imperative to embody them. In a day and age when one is expected to fight for and demand freedoms and rights, and to define freedom in isolated and isolating terms, how powerful might be the witness that surrenders freedoms and rights to love the other? A self-denying, Christ-like freedom could go a long way in our day and age in making Christ known.

Building a New Testament Library: Hebrews – Revelation

The Gospels and Paul’s letters rightly deserve the vast attention paid to them, yet the final third of the NT has its own truth to tell. Fortunately for us, faithful interpretive guides for the final third of the NT abound.

Hebrews is well served by numerous superb commentaries. David deSilva’s Perseverance in Gratitude (Eerdmans, 2000) is a standout in Eerdmans’ Socio-Rhetorical series. His approach is multi-disciplinary, blending rhetorical analysis, socio-scientific criticism, cultural-anthropological perspectives, and ideological criticism, and he pulls it all together in a commentary that is extremely accessible. In a book that requires a lot of cultural sensitivity, deSilva provides it, showing how concepts such as patronage and honor and shame inform the reading of Hebrews (the difficult passage of Heb 6:4-6 is a great example of a text that becomes clearer in light of deSilva’s approach). The “Bridging the Horizons” sections that conclude each major division of the commentary are replete with helpful application points for pastors and teachers.

Craig Koester’s Anchor Bible commentary (Doubleday, 2001) is my go-to commentary for Hebrews. Koester begins with a substantial history of interpretation that situates his reading of Hebrews within the larger tradition, but then proceeds to offer a fresh reading of the text that focuses on God’s intentions for humanity as a pervading and integrating theme in Hebrews. Koester is a superb exegete who is also theologically sensitive. His commentary has something for both the scholar and the layperson, especially given the format of the Anchor Bible with its “Comment” (a reading of the text focusing on major interpretive and theological question) and “Notes” (more detailed notes underlying the main reading) sections.

Gareth Cockerill’s recent offering in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series (Eerdmans, 2012) replaces the solid volume by F.F. Bruce and is a substantial work that imagines the author of Hebrews as “Pastor” (introduction headings read “The Pastor’s Sermon,” “The Pastor’s Congregation,” etc.). A helpful feature of the work is that each section of exposition begins with an introductory paragraph that situates the section within the larger rhetorical strategy. Cockerill is chary of overly specific reconstructions of the background of Hebrews (author, location, identity of recipients, and the situation) and places more emphasis on structure, rhetoric, and the writer’s use of the OT. With regard to the last point, Cockerill stresses that Hebrews is more about continuity and fulfillment rather than the more typical contrast of continuity and discontinuity.

Pride of place among James commentaries belongs to Luke Timothy Johnson’s contribution to the Anchor Bible (1995). Johnson believes that the book was written by James the Just. His introductory section is excellent, detailing the history of interpretation and also offering insightful comments about James’ relationship to the rest of the NT and especially Paul. Johnson concludes that James and Paul have a lot more in common than is often thought, especially if the whole of James is considered rather than an isolated set of verses. The commentary is sophisticated in terms of its linguistic analysis and pays significant attention to the theological themes of the book. Ralph P. Martin’s Word Biblical Commentary (WBC) on James (Word, 1998) is a solid offering for both the scholar and the teacher. Martin believes that James the Just’s sayings were arranged in the form of a letter by his disciples after his death. Martin combines careful verse-by-verse analysis with an eye towards the theological meaning of the text as a whole, and he does it all with an admirable brevity. It is a commentary that will serve both scholar and pastor well. Douglass Moo’s Pillar commentary (Eerdmans, 2000) is shorter than the first two, but those familiar with Moo’s work will find his typical careful exegesis on display. Moo finds the right balance between exegesis, theological analysis, and application, making it a helpful and accessible commentary for the busy pastor. Moo’s expertise in Romans comes in handy in this commentary as he is able to make astute judgments about the relationship between James and Paul.

Often considered second class citizens of the canon, the Petrine Letters and Jude have much to offer and, thankfully, are increasingly well served by solid commentaries. Joel B. Green’s commentary on 1 Peter in the Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Eerdmans, 2007) is an excellent commentary that brings together keen passage-by-passage commentary with broader theological reflections. As the introductory book in the unique series, Green’s opening discussion of the nature of biblical studies and theology sets the stage for what the series as a whole is trying to do and repays careful consideration. One of the most important contributions of Green’s commentary is the way he shows how 1 Peter does not just contain theology but is theological reflection. A more traditional commentary is J. Ramsey Michael’s contribution to the WBC (1988). More detailed than Green’s in its verse-by-verse commentary, it focuses less on practical application. Especially helpful are Michael’s reflections on the “Theological Contributions” of 1 Peter, where he compares the book’s theology, Christology, and pneumatology with the rest of the Scripture.

In her Two Horizon New Testament Commentary on 2 Peter and Jude (Eerdmans, 2007), Ruth Anne Reese seeks to create a “dance pavilion” where exegesis, theology, and the community of believers come together. An explicitly theological commentary, Reese takes Jude and 2 Peter section by section rather than verse by verse. The second section of the commentary focuses on theological themes, connections between the target texts and the rest of Scripture, and contemporary considerations. Long considered the gold standard on 2 Peter and Jude, Richard Bauckham’s study in the WBC (1983) still wears the mantel well. Judicious in its judgments and careful in its interpretation, it will be a reference point for years to come. Bauckham masterfully handles the literature of Second Temple Judaism and thoroughly engages with the scholarship of his day. Though dated, the great historian J.N.D. Kelly’s commentary on 1-2 Peter and Jude (Hendrickson, 1969) has aged well, as is evidenced by the frequency with which modern commentaries still cite it. Kelly’s commentary does less with ancient literature and modern scholarship than does Bauckham, but plays close and careful attention to the text itself. In a day when there are few solid commentaries on all three books, Kelly’s careful work gives a lot of bang (and coverage) for the buck.

Concerning the Johannine Letters, Raymond Brown’s work in the Anchor Bible (1982) is a massive work of high-end scholarship that still impresses after thirty years. Though some of the particulars of Brown’s reconstruction of the Johannine community have been questioned by later scholars, the dean of NT Scholars is superb in his verse-by-verse analysis and his notes on the text are thorough. On the other end of the spectrum is Karen Jobes’s volume in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series (Zondervan, 2014). Eschewing hypothetical reconstructions behind the text, Jobes focuses on the text itself and offers a careful exposition of it. The format of the series offers a nice blend of in-depth textual analysis (including structural outlines of each section), theological reflection, and helpful summaries. Stephen Smalley’s work in the WBC (1984) is another older commentary that remains serviceable. Smalley believes that the three letters postdate the Gospel of John and were written by a different author. Yet these letters stand in close relation to the Gospel of John and seek to explicate the teaching of the Gospel for those members of the church who have drawn the wrong conclusions from it. He argues that the Johannine letters present a “balanced Christology” aimed at correcting those with either a too low or a too high understanding of Christ. Smalley’s interpretation is often insightful, though he is a bit lighter on application than Jobes.

No NT book requires more help from the experts than Revelation. Fortunately, there are many excellent commentaries to aid the fearful. I start with the recently released Anchor Bible entry by Craig Koester (2014), a superb and massive (881 pages) piece of scholarship that will take its place among the greats in the field. As with his Hebrews commentary in the same series, Koester begins with a thorough survey of interpretation, and such a survey is even more important in Revelation than in Hebrews, given the widely divergent ways the books has been read throughout history. Koester sees Revelation unfolding in a series of six forward moving cycles and he consistently shows how the author suspends judgment with offers of redemption and messages of hope (an important theme to highlight, given the rather gloomy estimation most have of Revelation). I’ve also found his shorter work, Revelation and the End of All Things (Eerdmans, 2001), helpful in my Revelation classes.

Replacing the brilliant, if a bit eccentric, commentary by George Caird, Ian Boxall’s 2006 work on Revelation in the Black’s New Testament Commentary Series (Hendrickson, 2006) is a fresh offering in a full field. Lean, but substantial, Boxall is judicious in his interpretations, striking the right balance between laying out the options and arguing for the best one. Despite its modest size, Boxall’s commentary accents some aspects of Revelation that are not always discussed, including the importance of the setting of Patmos and the nature and importance of John’s revelatory experience. He is also conversant with the history of interpretation. In the “an oldie, but a goodie” category, I commend John Sweet’s 1979 commentary (Pelican, 1979; Trinity Press International, 1990). Sweet’s concise commentary wastes no words and contains wisdom disproportionate to its size. A unique feature of this commentary is Sweet’s eight-page “Synopsis” of Revelation at the beginning of the book that provides a wonderful overview of the argument as a whole. Scour the used book stores and find a copy of this little gem.

Finally, a brief mention of Michael Gorman’s Reading Revelation Responsibly (Wipf & Stock, 2011) is in order. Though not a full size commentary, it does offer significant readings of critical parts of the book and raises interesting (and perhaps uncomfortable) questions about Revelation’s current relevance, especially for those living in the West in the 21st century (the subtitle – Uncivil Worship and Witness – hints at where his argument goes). His brief introduction to interpretive approaches is clear and concise and is useful for those teaching this topic to the uninitiated.

Improving Our Marks in the Apocalypse (3)

[This is part three of a three-part series. Part one. Part two.]

Response: Dates → Confession

As real as the allure of evil and the appetite for destruction is the human fascination with predicting the time and nature of the end. Christians have played the “guess when the end of time is” game for centuries with very poor results. The Revelation has repeatedly been pulled into this ongoing fiasco, often being combined with other texts (such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and Mark 13) to construct a timeline of the final days. In my view, this wrongheaded approach to the Revelation arises from a misunderstanding of the prophetic nature of the book. To be sure, the Revelation is prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Yet, biblical prophecy is not, as is so often assumed, mere “prediction.” In fact, the predictive component is a small (and usually contingent) part of prophecy. Prophets spoke into their present situation, diagnosing the spiritual pulse of their people and calling for a response in the present (either repentance if God’s people had moved off the tracks or endurance if they were being faithful but taking it on the chin). Predictions were a subordinate part of this process. If the proper response was not forthcoming given the call of the prophet, then fateful predictions loomed on the horizon. A shorthand way of making this point is to say the prophets were more forthtellers than foretellers. Misunderstanding prophecy as primarily prediction sets us up to read the Revelation incorrectly. We bring the wrong expectations to the text. We expect the Revelation to be primarily about predicting future events.

If the Revelation as a prophetic text is not primarily about predicting the future, what is it doing? It’s doing what all prophetic literature did – calling for a response of faithfulness to God, a confession of faith in him and him alone as Lord, and a rejection of all other false worship. The primary question that the text raises is not “When will he come back?” but “Whom shall you worship?” It is not a question of dates and signs as much as it is a question of faithfulness to the right Lord. The original readers (the seven churches addressed in Rev 2-3) were tempted to treat the mighty Roman Empire (and the emperor at its head) as the source of blessing and salvation. They were tempted to worship the emperor, the empire, and all the trappings that went with it. The temptation was real because the emperor and the empire saw themselves as lord, savior, provider, and protector. This is what made the emperor or the empire an “anti-Christ” figure (the word “anti” in Greek can mean “in place of”).

What was a present tense challenge in the first century AD is still a present tense challenge for Christians in the 21st century. Even if there is a final “anti-Christ” character looming at the end of time, every generation has its candidates for anti-Christ, pretenders to the throne of God. We too are tempted to trust in (i.e., worship) things and people that aren’t God. We’re still tempted to treat our government, our nation, our military, our economy, and a host of other things or people as God. Understood in this way, the ongoing relevance of the Revelation to our present situation becomes clear. We must ask, “What in our lives calls for the obedience and worship that only rightly belongs to God?” Whom or what do we “confess” as Lord and Savior? Preoccupation with dates and playing the prediction game takes our focus away from the relevant and present question of faithfulness today. Once again the three senses of focal can be seen: the church has spent a lot of time preoccupied with dates and predicting the future, making texts thought to contain these clandestine data focal points, resulting in a reading strategy that reads the whole book in an attempt to decode the hidden temporal predictions. But the book is primarily about worshiping rightly. It is about maintaining the right confession.

In terms of practical advice for changing our focus with regard to our response, preachers and teachers do well to remind the faithful of the sorry track record of end time predictions. I often joke with my students that end-time predictions are like making wrong turns with your GPS turned on – you often hear the word “recalculating”! When asked about the time of the end, Jesus himself offered a twofold response: “I don’t know” (Mark 13:32) and “be ready” (Mark 13:33-37), words it behooves us to heed. Just as grasping the nature of apocalyptic literature helps with the Revelation’s symbolic language, so too a better grasp of the nature of prophecy can help the church understand the relevance of the Revelation for the here and now.

In driving home the point that prophecy does not equate to predication, I’ve found it useful to point out a small detail in Rev 1:3. The verse reads: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (ESV, emphasis mine; NLT has “obey” instead of “keep”). But how does one “keep” (or “obey”) a prediction? We speak, rather, of “keeping the faith” (2 Tim 4:7) and “keeping/obeying God’s commandments” (Matt 19:17). We keep the prophetic call of the Revelation by confessing and worshipping Christ alone. However we do it, preachers and teachers must find ways to help the faithful see the present relevance of the book and to hear its present call for faithful confession.

One final note: I have contrasted the “D”s with the “C”s here, but I also see a logical connection on the vertical axes. The devil is in the business of destruction and I think would be quite delighted by the fact that the Revelation has often been confined to a determination of dates, an interpretive move that effectively moves the book into the future and diverts attention from the real focus of calling Christians to faithful confession to the one true Lord. Christ is the one who has conquered by means of his sacrificial death and invites us to conquer in a similar fashion; this emphasis involves confessing the only one true Lord and keeping all other pretenders off the thrones of our hearts. To exchange one “D” for a “C” thus prepares us to take the next step of exchange. By starting with the right focal character, we then turn toward the right focal activity, which leads us to engage with the right focal response. So let’s dump the “D”s for the “C”s and let’s get that grade up a letter!

Improving Our Marks in the Apocalypse (3)

[This is part three of a three-part series. Part one. Part two.]

Response: Dates → Confession

As real as the allure of evil and the appetite for destruction is the human fascination with predicting the time and nature of the end. Christians have played the “guess when the end of time is” game for centuries with very poor results. The Revelation has repeatedly been pulled into this ongoing fiasco, often being combined with other texts (such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and Mark 13) to construct a timeline of the final days. In my view, this wrongheaded approach to the Revelation arises from a misunderstanding of the prophetic nature of the book. To be sure, the Revelation is prophecy (1:3; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Yet, biblical prophecy is not, as is so often assumed, mere “prediction.” In fact, the predictive component is a small (and usually contingent) part of prophecy. Prophets spoke into their present situation, diagnosing the spiritual pulse of their people and calling for a response in the present (either repentance if God’s people had moved off the tracks or endurance if they were being faithful but taking it on the chin). Predictions were a subordinate part of this process. If the proper response was not forthcoming given the call of the prophet, then fateful predictions loomed on the horizon. A shorthand way of making this point is to say the prophets were more forthtellers than foretellers. Misunderstanding prophecy as primarily prediction sets us up to read the Revelation incorrectly. We bring the wrong expectations to the text. We expect the Revelation to be primarily about predicting future events.

If the Revelation as a prophetic text is not primarily about predicting the future, what is it doing? It’s doing what all prophetic literature did – calling for a response of faithfulness to God, a confession of faith in him and him alone as Lord, and a rejection of all other false worship. The primary question that the text raises is not “When will he come back?” but “Whom shall you worship?” It is not a question of dates and signs as much as it is a question of faithfulness to the right Lord. The original readers (the seven churches addressed in Rev 2-3) were tempted to treat the mighty Roman Empire (and the emperor at its head) as the source of blessing and salvation. They were tempted to worship the emperor, the empire, and all the trappings that went with it. The temptation was real because the emperor and the empire saw themselves as lord, savior, provider, and protector. This is what made the emperor or the empire an “anti-Christ” figure (the word “anti” in Greek can mean “in place of”).

What was a present tense challenge in the first century AD is still a present tense challenge for Christians in the 21st century. Even if there is a final “anti-Christ” character looming at the end of time, every generation has its candidates for anti-Christ, pretenders to the throne of God. We too are tempted to trust in (i.e., worship) things and people that aren’t God. We’re still tempted to treat our government, our nation, our military, our economy, and a host of other things or people as God. Understood in this way, the ongoing relevance of the Revelation to our present situation becomes clear. We must ask, “What in our lives calls for the obedience and worship that only rightly belongs to God?” Whom or what do we “confess” as Lord and Savior? Preoccupation with dates and playing the prediction game takes our focus away from the relevant and present question of faithfulness today. Once again the three senses of focal can be seen: the church has spent a lot of time preoccupied with dates and predicting the future, making texts thought to contain these clandestine data focal points, resulting in a reading strategy that reads the whole book in an attempt to decode the hidden temporal predictions. But the book is primarily about worshiping rightly. It is about maintaining the right confession.

In terms of practical advice for changing our focus with regard to our response, preachers and teachers do well to remind the faithful of the sorry track record of end time predictions. I often joke with my students that end-time predictions are like making wrong turns with your GPS turned on – you often hear the word “recalculating”! When asked about the time of the end, Jesus himself offered a twofold response: “I don’t know” (Mark 13:32) and “be ready” (Mark 13:33-37), words it behooves us to heed. Just as grasping the nature of apocalyptic literature helps with the Revelation’s symbolic language, so too a better grasp of the nature of prophecy can help the church understand the relevance of the Revelation for the here and now.

In driving home the point that prophecy does not equate to predication, I’ve found it useful to point out a small detail in Rev 1:3. The verse reads: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (ESV, emphasis mine; NLT has “obey” instead of “keep”). But how does one “keep” (or “obey”) a prediction? We speak, rather, of “keeping the faith” (2 Tim 4:7) and “keeping/obeying God’s commandments” (Matt 19:17). We keep the prophetic call of the Revelation by confessing and worshipping Christ alone. However we do it, preachers and teachers must find ways to help the faithful see the present relevance of the book and to hear its present call for faithful confession.

One final note: I have contrasted the “D”s with the “C”s here, but I also see a logical connection on the vertical axes. The devil is in the business of destruction and I think would be quite delighted by the fact that the Revelation has often been confined to a determination of dates, an interpretive move that effectively moves the book into the future and diverts attention from the real focus of calling Christians to faithful confession to the one true Lord. Christ is the one who has conquered by means of his sacrificial death and invites us to conquer in a similar fashion; this emphasis involves confessing the only one true Lord and keeping all other pretenders off the thrones of our hearts. To exchange one “D” for a “C” thus prepares us to take the next step of exchange. By starting with the right focal character, we then turn toward the right focal activity, which leads us to engage with the right focal response. So let’s dump the “D”s for the “C”s and let’s get that grade up a letter!

catalyst
news & events
catalyst
April 14, 2021

Diversity is an intrinsically complex concept. It is not redundant, nor a case of circular reasoning, to say that there multiple ways to think about diversity. The term itself invites as …

April 14, 2021

Diversity is an intrinsically complex concept. It is not redundant, nor a case of circular reasoning, to say that there multiple ways to think about diversity. The term itself invites as …

news & events
April 14, 2021

A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE) John Wesley Fellowships have been awarded to three doctoral students.

The John Wesley Fellows …

April 13, 2021

“To everything, there is a season and a time for every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes 3:1

The World …