East and West Meet at the Tower of Babel

I have been listening to the BEMA podcast. I highly recommend it. As summarized one the website, “‘BEMA’ (or bimah) is a Hebrew word that refers to the elevated platform in the center of first-century synagogues where the people of God read the Text.”

The early Christians knew their Scripture. They built their lives around it. They devoted themselves to it, and to prayer, and the apostles reaching, and to fellowship and shared meals. (Acts 2:42

The BEMA podcast attempts to approach Scripture the way easterners would have, the way the early Christians in the Middle East would have approached it. My Jewish professor in college told us one day that Jews were not westerners; they were easterners, and they thought differently than westerners.

Christianity quickly became westernized, but it’s origins are eastern. We would do well to gain some new perspective from a more eastern way of thinking. I encourage you to listen to the first couple of episodes of the podcast linked in the opening paragraph if you want an introduction to an eastern perspective of the Bible.

Reading the first 11 chapters of Genesis from an eastern, Hebraic perspective, opens up new insights. Not the least of which is the genre of literature these chapters represent. They are poetry. They are chiasms with intricate organization and emphasis that is found in the structure of the chiasms.

The Tower of Babel story is one of the chiastic passages in Genesis. The story actually begins in the Hebrew with the last verse of Chapter 10 (as it is organized in English Bibles), and it goes like this (ESV):

These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, ‘Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.’ They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Hebrew has no vowels, only consonants. There are vowel signs over the consonants that denote where breaths should be taken for anyone reading Hebrew out loud. 

The consonants in this chiasm are repetitive: N, B, L, H; then H, L, B, N in reverse. There is a front half and a back half. The middle of the story is 11:4, which I have emphasized by bolding it.

The verse in the middle of the chiasm is where the emphasis lies: the peoples’ concern about being scattered over the face of the earth. They didn’t want to be scattered.

Why not? That’s the question we should be prompted to ask.

I am not sure I can do any justice to the layers of meaning and the questions that arise in these verses in a short blog post. I can only scratch the surface, but here goes….

Continue reading “East and West Meet at the Tower of Babel”

When It Gets Hard, to Whom Shall We Go?

I had gone back to medicating myself and chasing weekends. I was lost in a spiritual wilderness.

The passage from the Gospel of John reproduced below was the subject of a sermon recently where I attend church. It is also the catalyst for one of the most important turning points in my life.

Jesus had just finished telling the crowd, “I am the bread of life….” (John 6:48); “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51); and, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John 6: 54)

The Romans called the early Christians cannibals because of words like these and “the Lord’s Supper” that Christians observed ritually when they met. The crowd didn’t understand what he was saying either. The apostles also didn’t understand, as is evident by the following interchange in John 6:

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit[e] and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68 Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (Emphasis added)

These words Jesus spoke were allegorical of course. In the sermon on this passage the pastor developed the principal that we feed on what we follow.

Paul says, “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Corinthians 15:33) “Garbage in, garbage out”, as “they” say. It’s biblical, and it’s common wisdom, but this passage is about much more than an adage for life.

Continue reading “When It Gets Hard, to Whom Shall We Go?”

What Does It Mean to Be Transformed By the Renewal of Your Mind?

Broad is the way and wide is the path that leads to destruction.

I listened to a sermon by Tim Keller this morning. Before I get into what Keller said, though, allow me to share the verse I was meditating on before I listened to Keller. and some thoughts I down to write this article. The verse is:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2 ESV

As I meditated on this verse this morning, I was first struck by the the command, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” This is something Paul was telling the Romans to do.

As I went on in my meditation, I became aware that the patterns of this world and the renewal of our minds happens from agents outside of us. We either allow ourselves to be conformed to the patterns of this world, or we allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.

We have a choice to make, but the choice is in the allowing, in the submitting either to the patterns of this world or to the renewing of our minds. It is something that happens to us that we participate in.

The HELPS Word study (on biblehub.com) of the Greek word, sysxēmatízō, explains that “be conformed to the patterns of the world” means to be identified with those patterns and to assume a similar outward expression by following the same patterns. This may happen consciously or unconsciously.

Paul is urging us to be conscious, to be willful and intentional, in resisting conformance to the patterns of the world and to submitting ourselves to the transformation (metamorphóō ) caused by the renewal of our minds.

The transformation Paul means is a metamorphosis. The Greek word means literally metá “change after being with” and morphóō “changing form in keeping with inner reality”. Like the caterpillar that changes into a butterfly, this is something that happens to us (within us), but only if we submit to it.

We will be influenced one way or the other. We will conform to the patterns of this world unless we take a stand against them. We will not be transformed by the renewal of our minds unless we choose to submit ourselves to God’s renewal process.

Although my first thoughts focused on the fact that this is something that we do and do not do, that fact is that we are acted on by outside agents either way. Yes, we take participate in our own condition, but our participation is merely a matter of what we choose to submit ourselves to.

Continue reading “What Does It Mean to Be Transformed By the Renewal of Your Mind?”

Christmas Thoughts: The Heart of God’s Redemptive Story is Revealed through Mary

The final woman mentioned in the lineage of Jesus is central to God’s redemptive work in human history.

I have written a Christmas series of blog posts on the genealogy in Matthew that sets the stage for the narrative of the birth of Jesus, but I haven’t finished it… until now. The theme is the redemptive work of God in human history through the perspective of the five (5) women mentioned in the genealogy.

If that last statement gave you pause, you may have a hint of the radical nature of that storyline, which is the point of this redemotive story: There are five women mentioned in the genealogy. Five women.  

The Hebrew culture was paternalistic, like all cultures in the Ancient Near East, and almost all cultures down through history (and even now). The oldest male in that culture inherited his father’s estate. Lineage was traced from male to male.

So, what are five women doing in the sacred lineage of Jesus?

That Matthew mentions five women in his genealogy is truly remarkable. We might gloss over it in our modern thinking, maybe even being tempted to sneer that he didn’t include more. That he included ANY women is the the amazing thing.

I described four of those women in previous blog posts. I began with a post that sets out the genealogy in full and links to each of the subsequent blog posts. (Christmas Thoughts: God’s Redemptive Actions Through Women of the Old Testament). The posts continue in the following progression, from oldest to most recent:

  1. Christmas Thoughts: God Redeems the Line of Judah through Tamar;
  2. Christmas Thoughts: Rahab, a Foreign Prostitute & God’s Redemptive Plan;
  3. Christmas Thoughts: Ruth & God, the Kinsman-Redeemer;
  4. Christmas Thoughts: Uriah’s Wife and the Redemption Plan of God

All of the stories I have covered so far are of women from the Old Testament, showing God’s redemptive work leading up to the birth of the long awaited Messiah. The last of the woman is Mary, who gave birth to him.

This piece is inspired by Craig Keener, who has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins from Duke University and is a prolific writer of scholarly works on the New Testament, among other things. He was interviewed recently by Preston Sprinkle on Theology in the Raw as part of a series on Christmas.

He contrasts the appearances of an angel to Zechariah (Luke 1:8-22) and to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). The passages are parallels, announcing the birth of the Messiah, but the response of the two are different. The contrast is intended, no doubt, to catch our attention: Zechariah responds with unbelief, while Mary responds, “May it be according to you word!”

The parallelism of the two passages is striking, so the difference in the responses stands out. It is meant to stand out.

Zechariah is an aged man, a priest operating at the center of the life and culture of his people, serving in holiest place in Hebrew culture: in the temple. He is male of course. Zechariah, of all people, might be expected to recognize and embrace God’s great entry into human history and the fulfillment of the long-foretold Messianic prophecies.

Contrasted to him is Mary, a young female (probably in her mid-teens), a relative nobody in a nowhere place in the eyes of that culture. She would not have been privileged to know Scripture like Zechariah She would have no stature, no power, no influence nor importance.

The contrast in status would be more evident to First Century Hebrews, but we can understand it even today. Despite the elevated stature of Zechariah, Mary is the hero of this story. She embraces what the angel says, while Zechariah hesitates in doubt at the threshold of God’s entry into the world.

Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) is one of the most eloquent and poignant responses to God’s redemptive work in all of Scripture.[i] Mary is glorified over the venerable old priest in the story. The spotlight is on her, and

Mary’s words also set the tone for the coming of the Messiah. She says God scatters those who are proud, but He lifts up the humble. He fills the hungry, but he empties the rich.

Leading the way to God’s appearance human history are five women who stand out in Matthew’s genealogy by the very fact that they were included at all. Their stories are at the center of God’s redemptive work and plans for mankind that He envisioned from before the foundations of the world.

The mention of five women in the genealogy of Christ, the Messiah, is no accident. In our western minds, we might tend to gloss over genealogy as a mundane recitation of historic fact. For Hebrews, the composition of a genealogy is not just about fact, but an emphasis of key facts.

The genealogy with the mention of five women sets the stage for the appearance of God. It is foundational and a central a part of that story. Take a moment to consider how utterly unusual that genealogy would have seemed at the time, and it’s significance in story of Jesus. Consider Mary’s grand response to God, and take some time to read the stories of the other women in the lineage of Jesus.

[i] And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

Are Christians Required to Evangelize? Are They Morally Wrong to Force Their Views on Others?

Evangelism should flow naturally out of relationship and community with God and His people. it should begin and end with community.

These competing questions bookend the following statement I borrowed from a social media group that was a preface to some questions about evangelism:

“As I’ve been doubting my Christian faith one of the issues I’ve been wrestling with (and frankly have always been averse about) is the reality of forced proselytizing.
Those of us raised in a Christian (and specifically evangelical) churches are all too familiar with being shamed, guilted, and forced to have awkward conversations with friends and strangers in which we were expected to sell them our brand of Christianity.
This sell was to be aggressive. We could not take no for an answer and we were to continually pester and compel the person until they either converted or broke contact with us (for obvious reasons).
Given that the message of Jesus seems to be that we are to give up our lives and enjoyment of them for the kingdom, to wear ourselves out in serving the poor, all while carrying a heavy moral burden, it appears all the more immoral to compel this message on people and to be indignant when they don’t take it.
This is not even mentioning the threat of hellfire for the salesman and prospect.”

The truth is that many Christians have difficulty with the thought of doing evangelism. Many people in our culture today think that forcing one’s views on others is morally wrong, yet evangelism has long been something expected of Christians, especially in evangelical churches.

Before diving in, I need to make the point that we all have freedom of speech in a free country. Exercising that freedom is no more forcing one’s self on others than expressing the belief that forcing one’s views on others is morally wrong. We have equal rights to speak and equal rights to reject what others are saying.

I don’t believe that sharing the Gospel is morally wrong. If it is, then it is morally wrong for you to tell me that it is morally wrong to share the Gospel. I don’t share your views on that position, but I would never say you are being immoral or have no right to express your views or even to try to convince me of the truth of them.

With that said, I feel fortunate not to have grown up in a church tradition that is “aggressive” about evangelism and “forces” people to evangelize or risk hellfire and brimstone. Not that anyone is “forced” to do anything. We all have a choice in the matter.

More importantly, though, God doesn’t work that way. In fact, I maintain that such an attitude is exactly contrary to the will of God. Further, no one can be forced into the kingdom of God. Not even Jesus forced people to be saved:

“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:9-13)

God became man, and He appeared to “His own people” – the ones with whom He established a close relationship characterized by great demonstrations of power in their favor – and they didn’t even recognize Him. What did he do?

He didn’t rain down fire and brimstone. He also didn’t stop sharing the good news, but most of the people who were willing to listen were the poor, the downtrodden, and the “sinners” who knew their own deficits.

People become children of God not by not by blood: not by being born into the right family line. People become children of God not by the will of the flesh: not by their own desire or wishing that it were so. People become children not by the will of man: not by decree, or force, or proclamation.

People who “receive him” (receive Jesus, believe on his name) are the ones to whom “he gave the right to become children of God”, and that is not of their doing, or of anyone else’s doing; it is God’s doing!

The key word here is “receive”. That is how we become God’s children: we receive him, which requires, first, that we believe him. The believing comes before the receiving. Believing is accepting what he is saying and trusting him so that we put our faith in him and enter into relationship with him.

To receive him means more than simply believing, however. It means receiving him into our lives (into our “hearts”). It means not only trust, but commitment. It means receiving him in to have relationship with us, but this is not of our own doing. The invitation is His, not ours!

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God….” (Eph. 2:8)

We simply have to receive it, accept it, and make “room” for him in our hearts and lives – as our Savior and Lord. We don’t do this on our terms, but on His terms.

Notice to the elite, religious leader, Nicodemus, Jesus said, “You must be born again to enter the kingdom of God”, but to the outcast woman at the well, Jesus said, “I will give you Living Water.” The invitation Jesus gives to everyone is ultimately the same (to receive Jesus), but people have to be willing to exchange what they have to receive him. Those are God’s terms.

The Gospel isn’t a dogma or propaganda to be enforced and forced on people who do not want to receive it. It is a gift that God offers, a “free” gift (Romans 6:3), but people must be willing to exchange what they have for it.

Though we have reason to believe that Nicodemus did ultimately receive Jesus and become a follower, the outcast woman at the well likely found it easier to receive Jesus than Nicodemus did. Nicodemus had most of what the first century world had to offer: power, position, prestige, wealth, reputation, etc. The outcast woman had little of it.

Perhaps, this is why Jesus presented a different way of looking at the offer to Nicodemus – you must be born again, you must be willing to give up what you think you have and start over. To the woman at the well, who had little to hold onto in this life, Jesus said, “I have Living Water to give you.”

Both of them had to give up what they had. There is a cost to the free gift of salvation that God offers, but some of us are unwilling to let go of what we have to receive it. We aren’t willing to make room.

How does this tie into the statements that prefaced the questions about “doing” evangelism?

We have to understand what evangelism is and why we might want to “do” it. We have to understand what it is that we are presenting when we do evangelism. We need to understand, ultimately, what God is offering and how people must receive it.

Continue reading “Are Christians Required to Evangelize? Are They Morally Wrong to Force Their Views on Others?”