A Quick Thought on Christian Evidences from the Gospel of John

If I could have one event proven beyond doubt historically, it would be the physical resurrection of Jesus.

So it struck me as funny that, as I read the end of John chapter 19 in the last couple of days, the writer (for me, as I understand it, John the apostle) seemed to want to prove at this point in the story, not simply that Jesus really lived again, though he does spend time in chapter 20 establishing that too, but also, maybe especially, that he in fact really died!

John 19:34-35 in the Greek looks like this (thanks to BibleWorks):

ἀλλ᾽ εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν λόγχῃ αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν ἔνυξεν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ. καὶ ὁ ἑωρακὼς μεμαρτύρηκεν, καὶ ἀληθινὴ αὐτοῦ ἐστιν ἡ μαρτυρία, καὶ ἐκεῖνος οἶδεν ὅτι ἀληθῆ λέγει, ἵνα καὶ ὑμεῖς πιστεύ[σ]ητε.

And in the NET Bible it looks like this:

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water flowed out immediately. And the person who saw it has testified (and his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth), so that you also may believe.

So the author gives his best assurance at this point that Jesus really died (hence the blood has begun to separate). The temptation for his audience was apparently not to disbelieve the resurrection so much as to disbelieve the death of Jesus. Was John the evangelist to the Gnostics, attracted to the transcendent, pre-existent Christ but reluctant to believe that he was really physical, fleshly and mortal. (I’m reminded of the scene in The Matrix where Agent Smith has captured Morpheus and expresses his revulsion for his, and his real world’s, smell and sweat, its tangible, ‘sensible’ physicality.)

I know this is a world of debate and discussion, including when we can say Gnostics really got going, and when the Gospel of John was written. I’m not a New Testament specialist and showing my ignorance.

But it’s interesting, is it not?

Jesus and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Heard a great sermon at my parents’ church in Coffs Harbour, in mid-north coast NSW, Australia last week. (Coffs is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and a great place for a summer holiday.) It’s actually a rather old-fashioned church in worship style, but I respect the pastor, David Mitchell, and he was on the money last Sunday.

His talk was based on Matthew 27:16-26:

16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.
17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matt. 27:16-26 NIV)

In light of the Lindt Cafe hostage drama a couple of weeks prior in Sydney, and then only a few days before he spoke, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, David’s angle was to use the text above to help us think about how the Christian should view sacred vigilantes or holy war.

The message was simple. This episode in Jesus’ final trials presents to us alternate ways of advancing a cause: the way of Jesus, and the way of Barabbas. Barabbas is the partisan, the vigilante, the sicarius or dagger bearer. He was willing to kill for the cause and had such kills chalked up already. Were they Romans, or were they Jews who had co-operated with the Romans? It’s funny how the vigilante ends up killing his own people so freely where they are perceived to co-operate with the enemy. They are easier to reach, for one thing.

David admitted with simple honesty that Christians (or Christendom, we might say) had used this approach in the past to try to advance the cause, infamously during the Crusades. But the Crusades did not have good theological justification from the New Testament and specifically from Jesus’ teaching. If you want to run a Christian (military) crusade, you really need to ignore many parts of the New Testament. (Is the Old Testament a different story? Let’s hold that off for the next post.)

The way of Jesus is not the way of the sword. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of Jesus’ disciples decided it was time for a heroic last stand, and took a swipe at the arresting party with a sword (Matt. 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51).  John’s Gospel alone identifies the wielder as Peter, and he probably wasn’t just aiming to remove the guy’s ear. As a soldier, he made a good fisherman.

Each Gospel reports that Jesus brought this final resistance to an abrupt halt, while casting Jesus’ reply and reasoning rather differently. But Matthew offers the most detail. “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52 NIV). Jesus continues there by saying that if he wished to resist his enemies, he would sooner use heavenly troops and weapons. But that was not his purpose in any case. His victory would come ironically by way of abject defeat and death, followed by unexpected return from death.

A spiritual kingdom cannot be won and defended with human weapons (John 18:36), even if its citizens live in a human world. The Crusades were not only barbaric in practice but were theologically ill-conceived. The way of Jesus is not the way of Barabbas. The New Testament defends the secular government’s right to ‘bear the sword’ for purposes of maintaining justice in society, and arguably, for national defence, but it never authorizes the use of force or violent militancy to advance the Christian cause.

Jihad can never be the tool of the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus never has permission to kill for the cause.

The disciple of Jesus simply has permission to die for the cause. Indeed, where necessary, the obligation so to die.

But if it came to that, would I be willing to die? I hope so. Would I retaliate? I hope not, but when we’re angry, reason takes a back seat. Would I reneg? I don’t know. I hope I would join the great and honoured ranks of the martyrs.

What would you do?

Next post: Joshua and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Not Too Small to be Noticed: What Jeremiah 34 Says About the Value of the Individual

The Story in Brief: Zedekiah’s manumission of the slaves in besieged Jerusalem (Jer 34:8-22):

Under pressure from besieging Babylonian (or, as my young daughter read it out last night, ‘Babylion’) forces around 588 BC, Zedekiah, last king of Judah, secured the agreement of community leaders to release “fellow Jews” who were enslaved: 34:8-10, 15, 18-19. If we were to guess at his motives, and plenty of scholars have had a go, I think the most likely is that this was an attempt to set the covenant relationship with Yahweh on a better footing by fixing a point of obvious neglect of the law.

Civil laws in Exod 21:2-6 and Deut 15:12-18 set a six-year limit to the permissible period of enslavement of a ‘fellow Hebrew’, which by the time of the later Deuteronomy law seems to have simply acted as a synonym for ‘fellow Israelite’, though it probably meant something different in Exodus 21. My sense is that the prescribed limit of six years had long been neglected, and Israelite slaves had been kept indefinitely. Perhaps this rested uneasily on the conscience of some in Jerusalem, and it seemed an obvious point at which a gesture of renewed obedience to God could be made. Verses 18-20 imply that the covenant ceremony, which was conducted in the temple itself (v. 15), involved a ceremony of passing between the parts of animals divided in half, in a gesture of “let this be done to me if I fail to uphold this agreement,” i.e., a rather graphic self-maledictory oath. (The same practice lies behind Abraham’s dream in Genesis 15.)

Presumably upon the withdrawal of the Babylonian army in the face of Egyptian army manouevres (34:21), the slaveowners reneged on their covenant and re-subjugated their released slaves (34:11, 16). The effect was to make their gesture look particularly empty and artificial. This double-take elicited a judgment prophecy from Jeremiah, who condemned this violation of the recent covenant as symptomatic of Israel’s general covenant infidelity, and predicted Babylonian forces’ return and successful destruction of Jerusalem: 34:12-22.

Jeremiah 34 Prezi ScreenshotScreenshot of recent presentation on the slave release story. (See it at http://prezi.com/nd26ypqgpu-u/jeremiah-348-22-fresh-life-from-ancient-roots-bilingual/)

God’s Awareness of the Individual

Reading this story, my eye was caught by little phrase ‘לְנַפְשָׁם’ (l’naphshām). Translated “as they desired” (NET, w. NRSV similar) or “where they wished” (NIV), I now think “to live their own lives” (New Jerusalem Bible)’ is closer to the Hebrew. The important point is that either the will, or at least the wellbeing, of the slave is taken into account in this little phrase, i.e. the slave is considered as a person and not just property.

The same safeguarding of the slave as a person is seen in OT slave law. Exod 21:5-6; Deut 15:16-17 say that the choice to become a bondslave, i.e. to renounce the right to freedom after the stipulated ownership period of six years, remains the slave’s own. Deut 15:18 implies that this is an exception and should not quietly become the default arrangement, though it is possible to imagine this bondslave provision being exploited as a loophole, and it is hard to tell whether torah slave laws were ever properly enforced (though Jeremiah 34 and Nehemiah 5 provide case studies).

Deuteronomy often connects the slave’s domestic situation with the Israelites’ national past, most famously in the Deuteronomy version of the Ten Commandments:

“But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant,…so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. (15) Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:14b-15a NIV)

This care of the rights even of an owned individual fits a theme we see at various points in Jeremiah. Though the outlook for the nation is grim, as the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem is destined to fall as the inevitable expression of Yahweh’s judgment for Judah’s sin, the individual who remains faithful to God can, maybe not thrive, but survive:

  • Jeremiah, who is so afraid of his calling and continues to suffer through it, is made “iron and bronze” by the LORD and outlasts all of his rivals.
  • Ebed-Melech, the African royal court staffer who rescues Jeremiah from the cistern (Jer 38:7-13), is rewarded for his faith and faithfulness with survival of the crisis (39:15-18).
  • Baruch, who feels the burden of the prophetic ministry as his master does (45:3), is urged to let go of ambitions inappropriate to such a dark and difficult time (45:5a), but is also granted survival (45:5b).

Hinted at here is a possible freedom both from the mastery of ego and the grinding burden of self-loathing. The work and plan of God, we might say the Kingdom, is bigger than you or me. Like little children in a large family, circumstances cannot be ordered around our personal preferences. But like little children in a large family, each of us remains inestimably precious to God. To use Paul’s image, like the various parts of the ‘body of Christ’ (1 Cor 12:12-27), each of us who has been inducted into the family of God, a privilege anyone may claim who is so minded, has a role to play in the right functioning of that body as a whole. In a sense, while we’re not needed by God, the Bible’s witness is that we are wanted.

That makes me relax a little. The need to try to prove my right to breathe has passed. I don’t need to achieve anything on the sporting field or in the business world (or academically!) to show onlookers that I’m a worthy human being. I don’t need to publish a book to be someone. Just my being here shows that I’m wanted, if this is a world where God presides.

Hands up anyone who prefers it to be a world where God does not preside.

Romans 12 as Poetry, and a Draft Translation

Here’s a simple draft translation of this chapter of Romans, prepared for a small group study.  It gives limited allowance to text-critical issues and could be improved upon, but is meant to show that Paul was writing poetry when he wrote this chapter, or else his amanuensis (penman) was quite a literary scholar himself.  Paul may have decided to abandon his eloquence when he met the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 2:1-4), but he called upon every rhetorical skill he had available as he urged the Roman Christians to live a Christ-inspired life in Romans 12.  Just for example, spend some time finding all of the rhyme and assonance, not to mention matching line lengths at times, in the Greek column.

Romans 12 Greek and Translation Web Version

My take-away from this chapter?  Clearly the Roman Christians were already taking some heat for their Christian confession, and much of Paul’s urging is that they “let go of hate”, as yoda might say.  I’m reminded again, as so often, of the way of Jesus – the warning, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  It is so tempting when facing hostility to take up the sword ourselves, to fight fire with fire.  But it is not the way of Christ, and never has been.

Cybersex and the Sin Superbug

It has been discouraging to hear the news today via BBC channels that the worst of western society has been cultivating an ugly but alluring financial temptation in one eastern society.  Westerners have been paying to watch children in places like Cebu City, Philippines, being sexually abused via webcam, and certain poverty-stricken Filipinos have taken the bait.  It seems to me that wherever accountability structures are light or absent, and many online environments fall into that category, something sinister in human nature seems to flourish like a cancer or a superbug.

I think of superbugs because in my previous occupation as a Baptist pastor of a small country congregation, I knew a lady in our congregation who had a superbug resident in her respiratory membranes.  It was kept under control through drugs; but it could never be eliminated.  It remained imprisoned, as it were, but was ever capable of doing drastic damage if left unsupervised.

There is something like that resident in human nature.  Christian theologians have long talked about what some in modern times have called the ‘sin nature’.  I’m not always happy with how it is described, as if the newborn baby and Hitler at his legendary worst are pretty well on the same level of evil.  That is not how the world that I have witnessed works.  But I don’t see myself as a rosy optimist concerning human nature, and this reported evil does not surprise me.  Whether it be the common person or the high-profile politician, there is a tendency in human nature to indulge baser instincts to the extent that societal pressures permit.  ‘Power corrupts’ precisely because power removes the usual mechanisms of visibility and responsibility.

I am also suspicious that we are better at identifying the besetting sins of other societies than of our own.  Jesus was on to this, was he not, when he said, counter-intuitively, not to judge others in Matthew 7:1-5.  He in theory still allows the appropriateness of judging in verse 5, but points out our ability to see the ‘speck’ in another’s eye while ignoring the log in our own (verse 4).  A French version we have in our home describes the speck aptly – “le brin de paille,” which translates as a ‘bit of straw’.  Racism essentially is this further weakness indulged: we are not only prone to sin, but we’re prone to see the sin of others and not our own.  Racism then attributes sin, or certain sins and faults, to other societies as if inherent to and limited to those societies.  It is simplistic and self-satisfying.  And Jesus would say, it’s a deception.  No-one’s eye is clear, though the size and nature of the intrusive objects might be different for different eyeballs.

Instead of judging, then, there’s forgiving, another counter-intuitive practice for human beings.  Back a little in Matthew 6:12, the Lord’s prayer includes asking the Father to “forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us” (Good News Translation, bilingual English/French edition).  I had never noticed it before, but the most famous piece of Christian Scripture there is, the Lord’s Prayer, here acknowledges the universality of human sin, but rules out judging attitudes as the solution.  It’s really because of the universality of the sin superbug that judging isn’t the answer.  In fact, every one of us is forced to pray, “deliver us from (the) Evil (One).