Taking the Hand of God, Literally; How We Read the Bible

Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What sort of house will you build for me? says the Lord, or what will be my resting place? Did not my hand make all these things?


Acts 7:49‭-‬50 CSB

I have thought and written about the fundamentalists and the atheists of the world who, ironically, approach the Bible in the same way. Both groups of people read the Bible in a wooden, inflexible, literal kind of way. (See Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Ehrman – Part 2 – Wooden Fundamentalism)

This passage above gets me thinking about these things again. The passage quoted above is from Steven’s address to the Jewish leaders who had him stoned after calling them stiff-necked like their ancestors in the desert (among other things).

Steven recited the Jewish history to them, including the Ark of the Covenant that was created for the Ten Commandments and Tent of Meeting that was carried through the desert. The Tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant became the inner sanctum of the Tent of Meeting. These structures the people carried with them became the place they would meet with God.

David desired to build God a home, a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant and Tabernacle, and Solomon accomplished David’s dream. David knew, however, that God does not live in a temple made by human hands. Solomon, David’s son who built the Temple, acknowledged this when he dedicated the Temple:

“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

1 Kings 8:27

They understood that the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and the Temple were symbolic. These physical structures and the activity organized around them and in them were meant to point to a metaphysical reality of much greater substance.

It’s ironic that David, a man after God’s own heart, knew these things, but the people of God generally often did not. David was a man after God’s own heart, but the Israelites on the whole were often stiff-necked, as Stephen said.

I find it ironic that people who try to interpret and apply the Bible in the most literal way fall on opposite ends of the spectrum. Fundamentalists and atheists both tend to interpret the Bible literally. They are the two sides of the same interpretive coin.

At the end of the passage quoted above, the Lord poses the rhetorical question, “Did not my hand make all of these things?” Does anyone literally believe that God’s hand made the universe? (Only one hand?)

I would venture to guess that nearly everyone understands this phrase to be allegorical. Yet, there are so many things in the Bible that people try to take and apply literally that are, perhaps, not as obviously allegorical.

I’ve heard the counter statement that we cannot pick and choose the things we believe out of the Bible. We must believe every word of it, or reject all of it. This is the literalist approach – all or nothing. Never mind that a verse like the one quoted above is clearly not intended to be taken literally!

Not to pick on “fundamentalists” (whatever that term might mean), but those people we tend to label with that term tend to push a very literal interpretation of Scripture. They, in a sense, double-down on the “facts” stated in the Bible and believe everything. Many atheists dig in on the same literal way of interpreting the Bible, but they believe none of it. They both approach the Bible the same way, but one believes 100% and the other believes 0%.

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Are Near Death Experiences Real?

I recently listened to episode #47 on the podcast by the Dr. Michael Guillen in which he explored the latest scientific research on near death experiences (NDEs). Michael Guillen is a former Harvard physics professor. You can listen to the half hour episode through Spotify at this link:

I have written on the research by Gary Habermas on NDEs. I chased down a rabbit hole to follow the NDE of an atheist. I also did a candid piece on what NDEs prove and what NDEs do not prove. My fascination with NDEs continues in this article with some of the basic conclusions Dr. Guillen notes from his look at NDEs.

He acknowledges from the start that scientific study of NDEs provides few clear answers. Even defining something as seemingly simple as death has become more difficult, rather than simpler, over time. We have gotten so good at reviving people that people we once thought were dead have been brought back to life.

Most people today define death synonymously with brain death. When brain activity ceases is when death is declared. Even patients who cease brain activity, however, sometimes go on living in fashion. Circulation and breathing may continue, the body may continue to regulate temperature, and the body may continue to excrete urine and feces for instance.

Determining the exact time of death is not an exact science. Dr. Guillen calls death “the ultimate mystery”. Death has been the focus of poets, writers, prophets, and scientists for centuries. For millennia, civilized societies have built elaborate rituals around death and the hope of life after death. Recent scientific studies have begun to shed some light on death.

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How Do We Demand Signs and Miss What God is Doing in the World?

The Gospel records a three year period of time in which Jesus seemingly performed miracles, signs and wonders everywhere he went. Perhaps, the accounts in the Gospels give us an impression that doesn’t correspond to the reality because they recount the many miraculous things he did, but they don’t describe all the times in between.

It seems strange, given all the miracles, signs and wonders that Jesus did that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus one day to test him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. (Matt. 16:1) Perhaps, they wanted him to do it on command, like a science experiment to prove himself.

Perhaps, they had only heard of the things Jesus did, but they hadn’t actually seen him do anything. Perhaps, they didn’t trust the accounts of the common people Jesus seemed to prefer to hang out with. They were more gullible and less discerning.

Attitudes like that haven’t changed much in 2000 years. The Sadducees and Pharisees were more learned. The Sadducees didn’t believe in supernatural occurrences, miracles or demons. The Pharisees did believe in those things, but they were skeptical. The two groups had very different worldviews, but they were aligned in their skepticism.

When these elite religious leaders asked Jesus for a private performance – “a sign from heaven” – he refused. And, he said this:

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign[i]; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” 

(Matthew 16:4)

The fact that these two groups, one that believed in the supernatural and one that didn’t, were aligned in their skepticism suggests that their “problem” with Jesus was that he challenged their dogmas. They doubted the fact that he did miracles, signs and wonders because of the content of what he was saying.

And, Jesus seemed to revel in provoking them on those differences!

The Pharisees (who believed in the supernatural) determined that healing on the Sabbath is work and is, therefore, prohibited by the Law of Moses. They demanded that Jesus not heal on the Sabbath, but Jesus did it anyway. (Matt. 12:1-14)

Ironically, this healing that was done right in the Pharisees’ presence occurred four chapters before they came to Jesus and demanded a sign from heaven. They had seen a sign from heaven already and dismissed it out of hand because it went against their beliefs.

Jesus challenged their preconceived ideas and expectations. He challenged their authority to determine what is work in violation of the Sabbath and what isn’t. They watched Jesus heal a man with a shriveled hand, but they dismissed it because of what he taught that was contrary to what they believed.

God showed the Pharisees a sign (the healing of a man with a shriveled hand), but they were too focused on his violation of their understanding of Scripture and religious dogma to notice it for what it was.

This story illustrates the danger of our religious dogmas and preconceived ideas of what God should do and not do. Even when the evidence is staring us in the face, we can be tempted to ignore it, gloss over it, and explain it away in favor of how we interpret and understand Scripture.

Continue reading “How Do We Demand Signs and Miss What God is Doing in the World?”

The Danger of Religiosity, Political Expediency and the Weight of the Cultural Moment

We can be so caught up in our own lives and the world around us that we fail to recognize the God who gave us life and created the world.

I have been reading through the Gospel narratives leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus during Lent. My reading included the following passage that jumped out at me:

“Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.” 

John 18:28 ESV

I will get the point, but first we need to build in a little context. This passage describes a passing moment leading up to the crucifixion after Judas betrayed Jesus in the garden. Jesus was taken, first, to the palace of Annas (John 18:13) and then to Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest. (John 18:14)

After Caiaphas questioned Jesus, Jesus was taken to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The High Priest wanted Jesus put to death for blasphemy, but only the Roman state had authority to impose capital punishment.

Caiaphas was the High Priest who presided over the Sanhedrin, the official religious body recognized by the Romans. Caiaphas was made the High Priest by the Roman procurator Valerius Gratus. Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, had presided over the Sanhedrin before Caiaphas.

They were the official heads of the ruling group of religious leaders in First Century Judea in the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin. They stood between the Romans, who conquered and controlled the region, and the Jewish people on matters of the Jewish religion.

During this tumultuous time, a group of violent men, the Zealots, who were opposed to Roman rule threatened to upset the political balance and peace. Similarly, the growing, unpredictable following of Jesus posed a threat to the Sanhedrin’s position as trusted middlemen trying to preserve peace and the status quo.

Potential disruption threatened the delicate balance. The Sanhedrin tried to walk the line between the threat of the Roman Empire on the one side and the Zealots and others who might provoke the Romans to tighten their grip on Judea, dismiss the Sanhedrin from their power position, and clamp down on the freedoms of the Jewish people they ruled.

Tensions were not just a threat to the Sanhedrin, who were officially given some overlapping authority the Romans; they were legitimately a threat to the well-being of all the Jews in Judea. Thus, we read in John that Caiaphas advised “advised the Jewish leaders that it would be good if one man died for the people”. (John 18:14)

The suggestion was based on practical expediency. Though Jesus wasn’t a Zealot, he was very popular among the people, likely including the Zealots who hoped Jesus would spell the end of the Roman occupation.

The concerns of the religious leaders were no doubt heightened to a critical level when Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in triumphant celebration greeted by a “great crowd” that lined the streets, waiving palm branches and shouting,

“Hosanna!…. Blessed is the king of Israel!”

John 12:12

I am going to get to the danger of religiosity, political expediency and the weight of the cultural moment as the title to this article promises. First, however, I want to develop the backstory a bit further. To do this, we need to jump forward several months in time.

Continue reading “The Danger of Religiosity, Political Expediency and the Weight of the Cultural Moment”

The Group Affiliations the Apostles Had and What It Might Mean for Us

When I look at American expressions of Christianity today, I wonder if we demonstrate the right way to follow Jesus.

Oil painting illustrating Jesus Christ and his disciples on a meadow

I have spent some time lately considering the various influential groups of people in the time of Jesus and the orientation of those groups toward Jesus. I have wondered why Jesus seemed to pick on the Pharisees more than the other, groups, especially since they seemed most aligned with him and had most in common with him.

As I researched and thought about the various groups of Jewish influencers in the First Century in relation to Jesus, I began to think about the apostles, and their connections to these groups. I am always mining for insight as I read Scripture, and today my mind turns toward the relationship of the twelve apostles to those same groups of First Century, Jewish influencers.

We don’t know much about the background of the twelve disciples, except that most of them were “common” men of humble means and many were of uncertain group identity. One disciple was identified with the Zealots (Simon, the Zealot, also known as Simon the Canaanite). Matthew, the tax collector, might have been Herodian (or may have been viewed as one).

We really don’t know about the group affiliation of the other disciples, at least not from the explicit text. They seem to have been more ordinary people with no distinct association with particular groups. They did not seem to be closely associated with any of the five groups Jewish leadership groups in First Century Judea.

Even Simon, who is known as the Zealot, would have left his group behind to follow Jesus. Just as Matthew left behind his livelihood (tax collection) to follow Jesus and Simon (Peter) and Andrew dropped their fishing nets to follow Jesus. It’s no stretch, therefore, to imagine that Simon, the Zealot, would have similarly “dropped” or left behind his affiliation with the Zealots to follow Jesus.

In fact, the theme of leaving behind your group seems to run throughout the teaching and example of Jesus. Jesus said, “[E]veryone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matt. 19:29)

He called Peter and Andrew and James and John away from their profession of fishing. He called Matthew, the tax collector, away from his profession. I think it’s fair to assume that Jesus called Simon, the Zealot, away from the Zealots to follow him.

The theme of leaving behind family, livelihood and group identity runs deep in Scripture, all the way back to Abram (as Abraham was known) when God called Abram to leave his country, his people and his father’s household and go to the land God would show him. (Gen. 12:1)

Hebrews 11 commends Abraham for the example of faith demonstrated in leaving behind the familiarity of all the things that typically identify people and their place in the world at God’s call. Abraham and all the people of faith commended in Hebrews 11 demonstrated that kind of faith that made them “aliens and strangers on earth”.

Jesus called the rich young ruler to walk away from his wealth. (Matt. 19:16-30) Jesus told Nicodemus, the Pharisees, that he would have to be born again to see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)

The kingdom of God is something I have been mulling over for many weeks, and months. It’s a theme I have written about often lately, as it has occupied a prominent place in my meditations lately.

The five main groups of Jewish influencers in the First Century had one thing in common – they were operating on a spectrum of relationship to the political structures and religious structures in their world. They were invested and embedded and entrenched into their positions, and identities, people with whom they affiliated.

Along comes Jesus, and he calls people “out of the world”. (John 15:18-19) Jesus calls people to leave their lives, and identities, and associations behind to follow him.

We don’t know much about the backgrounds and affiliations of the twelve disciples, perhaps, because they did just that. They left those things behind to follow Jesus. They became known, simply, as disciples of Jesus, Christ followers.

I am interested in these things because of what it means for us. If we would be disciples of Jesus and Christ followers, how do these things translate to our lives in the 21s Century?

Continue reading “The Group Affiliations the Apostles Had and What It Might Mean for Us”