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Relational Wreckage

This past Lenten season Jack Wisdom and I hosted a session on “Repentance” at our church.  For six weeks  we covered a variety of scriptural passages which talked about the damage done to ourselves and others by sin and the constant need we have for turning to God.  We touched on a variety of scriptural themes and books such as Jonah, Joel, Psalms, and 1 John in order to reflect on what it truly means to change our ways and turn to God.Stock Image

One evening we tackled a particularly difficult saying of Jesus from Matthew 5:23-24:

Therefore, if you are bringing an offering to God and you remember that your brother is angry with you or holds a grudge against you, then leave you gift before the altar, go to your brother, repent and forgive one another, be reconciled, and then return to the altar to offer your gift to God.

Jesus is illustrating what “deeper righteousness” means. Some might look at those who attend church often as being righteous (that is, in a right and proper relationship to God).  Others might look at how much people give to the church as a measure of how right they are. But notice what Jesus says.  Deeper righteousness means—among other things—that when we recall a broken or injured relationship, we leave the altar and our gifts, go to our offended brother or sister, and make it right.  Then when things are right between you, come back to the altar and present your best to God. Regrettably, many continue to attend church, give their gifts, with the pain of broken relationships not far away.

Here is my concern.  I have seen many Christians, some of whom are church leaders, with a series of relational disasters in their pasts. They have broken with friends, broken with family, and broken with co-workers.  In other words they have left relational wreckage in their wakes all while pursuing their lives and ministry.  They blame others and justify themselves.  They were in the right; the other was in the wrong.  They were reasonable; the other unreasonable.  They may well celebrate God’s reconcilation of the world through Christ and yet, for reasons only they know, they refuse to pursue reconcilation in their own lives. My major concern here is not with the person who has an occasional break with someone—though that must be addressed–but with those who have bodies stacked deep and wide in their pasts. 

Deeper righteousness means that we pursue reconciliation before we give a dime or attend worship. The way Jesus puts it and the priority he gives it, it is clear that we must do everything in our power to be reconciled.  Notice.  It doesn’t matter whether you are the offender or the offendee.  It is not appropriate for you to wait until the other person makes the first move.  You must be one to humble ourselves and seek forgiveness.  It is hard to swallow your pride and “get low” in humility—as my friend Jack Wisdom puts it—especially if you are a leader. But it is important, especially for leaders, to be the example and show others how it must be done. If the other person fails to respond or rejects our repeated attempts to make things right, then we must mourn the loss and look forward to a day when God reconciles all things.

“Adoption” in the New Testament

 For Paul the salvation he experienced in Christ was greater than words could describe.  That is why the apostle to the Gentiles used so many different kinds of images and metaphors to express the blessings of knowing Christ.  Under the Spirit’s guidance he mined the OT and the culture around him to find ways to articulate an experience and reality that lay beyond words.  With terms like “reconciliation,” “redemption,” “justification,” and “forgiveness,” he attempted to parse the blessing of salvation and create a new type of theological grammar for the young church.St__Paul_the_Apostle

One of those metaphors, “adoption” (Greek huiothesia), was a common part of family life in the Mediterranean world.  It means literally “to make [someone] a son”.  Paul used it to describe a change of status from an existence marked by slavery and Father-lessness to a new family or community characterized by freedom and Spirit.[i] 

Human societies have practiced adoption in one form of another since the beginning of recorded history.  Broadly speaking adoption refers to the creation of kinship relationships between two or more people through legal and/or ritualistic means.  Archaeologists have unearthed adoption contracts and law codes that provide us with some information regarding its practice in ancient Babylon.  While most adoptions were of a son or daughter, it was also possible to adopt a brother, sister or father.  Slaves were typically manumitted by adoption.  In the Jewish community identified today as Elephantine, an Aramaic papyrus dated to 416 BC describes the manumission and adoption of a slave.[ii]  The same practice is referred to in Gen 15:2-3 when Abraham suggests that his slave Eliezer will likely become his heir unless God acts.  First Chronicles 2:34-35 indicates that a son-in-law could become an heir when there was no male descendent.[iii]  

When Pharoah’s daughter drew baby Moses out of the water, we are told: “he became her son” (Exod 2:10).[iv]  Although this account appears to reflect Egyptian customs, the fact that Moses continued in Pharoah’s household indicates a change of family, a new kinship relationship had been formed.  In Acts 7:21 Stephen retold these foundational stories and said: “Pharoah’s daughter took him away [adopted him] and nurtured him as her own son”.  Since Egypt and slavery had become synonymous, Hebr 11:24 indicates that Moses refused to be called the son of the Pharoah’s daughter, chosing instead to identify with his own people.  This statement makes sense only if Moses’ family status was indeed “the son of Pharoah’s daughter.” 

Still adoption does not seem to have been a common practice in Israel since no biblical or post-biblical laws legislate for it.  We can cite four reasons: (1) the importance of natural or blood lineage; (2) the practice of polygyny (having multiple wives); (3) the custom of levirate marriage; and (4) the belief that barrenness reflected God’s will and displeasure, a situation which adoption could remedy.[v]   In other words, if it is God’s will for a woman not to have children, adoption could set aside God’s will.  There may well have been other reasons, but these seem sufficient to account for the fact that adoption appears rare among the people of Israel.

Paul used the term “adoption” (huiothesia) fives times in his letters (Gal 4:5; Rom 8:14, 23; Rom 9:4; Eph 1:5).  In each case it refers to God’s adoption, not of an individual, but of his covenant people.  In one instance Paul described his “kinsmen according to the flesh” as “Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons (huiothesia), and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law . . . “ (Rom 9:4). His usage clearly reflects the language of Scripture.  Hosea 11:1 says famously: “When Israel was a youth I loved him,/ And out of Egypt I called My son”.  Moses is to say to Pharoah: “Thus says the LORD, Israel is My son, My firstborn . . . “ (Exod 4:22).  So when Paul referred to Israel as having “the adoption as sons” (Rom 9:4), he is echoing a long standing tradition codified in the Bible.

The majority of Paul’s references to adoption, however, refer to God’s people of the new covenant.  The apostle wrote: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (huiothesia)” (Gal 4:5).  In Rom 8:15 he said: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons (huiothesia) by which we cry out, `Abba! Father!’”  Later he continued (8:23): “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons (huiothesia), the redemption of our body.”  Among the many spiritual blessings in heavenly places Paul included adoption when he wrote: “He predestined us to adoption as sons (huiothesia) through Jesus to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, . . . “ (Eph 1:5).  These passages indicate that “adoption” was an important metaphor for Paul in describing the glories and blessings of salvation.  In fact, Paul is the first Christian theologian to use “adoption” as a way to talk about the affects of Christ’s redeeming work upon His people.  So where does this come from?Paul the apostle

Many interpreters of the Bible think Paul took “adoption” as a legal category from contemporary Greco-Roman family life.  That makes sense for two reasons.  First, in the Roman world adoption (adoptio) was commonplace.  So both Paul and his audiences would have been familiar with the practice even if it were unusual among the minority population of Jews in the empire.  Second, inheritance rights were an essential component of adoption in Roman society in terms of both property and power.  Likewise, Paul connected the believers’ adoption with their spiritual inheritance obtained through faith in Jesus.  In Rom 8:17 the apostle claimed that God’s adopted children are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ”; and in Gal 4:7 he affirmed that an adopted believer is “no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.”  So it may well be that adoption practices in the Greco-Roman world provided Paul and his audiences with a ready-made image to describe the baptized-believers’ inclusion into God’s eternal family.  But there may well be another place from which Paul adapted this image.

As we suggested above, the OT indicates that God looked upon His covenant people as “son” or “sons.”  This was one of the ways Scripture described God’s unique relationship with Israel that began with the exodus (e.g., Exod 4:22).  Paul, having a mind steeped in Scripture, reflected the same notion in Rom 9:4 writing that God had adopted Israel as His son (huiothesia).  But earlier in Romans the apostle used that exact term to refer to the new status of believers, both Jew and Gentile, in Messiah Jesus.  Fortunately, Jewish documents from the intertestamental period provide an appropriate analogy.  Although they are not “Scripture,” they do provide evidence of a robust belief in God’s salvation during the time when Christianity is born.  They promise that God will free his people from exile in a second exodus, restore the covenant and adopt them as sons based upon 2 Sam 7:12-14: “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me” (e.g., Jub 1:24; T.Judah 24:3; 4QFlor 1.11).[vi]  This means that at least some Jews during Paul’s day expected God to end the exile and establish them as sons.  Paul seems to have shared this conviction but found its fulfillment in what God had already accomplished in Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection.  Scripture then and its later interpretation appears to have been Paul’s main reason for choosing “adoption” as one of his major soteriological motifs. 

It is important to note that Paul never used the word “adoption” (huiothesia) to refer to Jesus’ Sonship.  He referred to Jesus as “the Son of God,” “His Son,” or simply “the Son” (e.g., Rom 1:3-4; Gal 4:4).  This indicates two truths: (1) Jesus’ Sonship is unique and of a different order than ours and (2) our “adoption as sons” derives from Jesus’ life and work.  We cannot be adopted into God’s eternal family without relying on Jesus.  Furthermore, Paul explained our sonship in two stages, present and future.  In Rom 8:15 the apostle contrasted our prior condition of slavery (to sin, death and malevolent spiritual forces), animated by fear, with our present experience of “adoption as sons,” animated by the Spirit of God.[vii]  It is the Spirit who brings about this adoption by uniting people with Christ through the gift of faith.  Indeed it is only by the Spirit that we can cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6).  Still there is a “not-yet” component to our salvation, including our adoption.  That is why Paul wrote that those who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan along with the rest of the created order as we wait for “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:23).  This is another example of the already/not-yet feature of Paul’s Christian hope.  As James Scott notes: the “present and future aspects of huiothesia [adoption] in Romans 8 reflect successive stages of participation in the Son by the Spirit . . . “[viii]  In other words, God adopts all who believe in Christ into his forever family; but the fullness of our inheritance awaits us when Christ returns.  It is then that the living and the dead will be raised, that the new creation will be complete and that all God’s family will be home again.

[i] C. F. D. Moule, s.v. “adoption,”  The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962) 1:48-49.

[ii] Frederick Knobloch, s.v. “adoption,” Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday) 1:76-77.

[iii] Moule, 1:48.  Other biblical examples may include Naomi’s adoption of the son of Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 4:16), but by the laws of levirate marriage the son is already her descendent.  Mordecai also adopted the orphaned Esther (Esther 2:7, 15). 

[iv] All Scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Version.

[v] Knobloch, 79.

[vi] James Scott, s.v. “Adoption, Sonship,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 15-18.

[vii] C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 186.

[viii] Scott, 17.

“Why not just explain it?”

Frank Couch and I recently traveled to Lynchburg, Virginia to speak at Liberty University. We were invited by Dr. Vernon Whaley, head of School of Music. He and his staff did an excellent job preparing for our visit and making us feel welcome.  If you haven’t noticed, Liberty has grown exponentially in the last decade.  The university has 85,000 students (most of those online) and a $1 billion endowment. And, believe it or not, the school is only 41 years old.  The university is building new buildings, starting new programs, and realizing its grand vision like few schools I’ve ever seen.  If you have a son or daughter preparing for college, you might want to check it out.

Liberty UniversityFrank and I talked with several hundred students over two days about the Voice project and the reading of Scripture in worship.  We had a great time thanks to the good folks there.  Along the way Frank and I fielded a number of great questions. I wish I could remember them all. Some of the questions we had heard before, but there was one which sticks out in my mind.

After Frank and I gave some of the reasons why we translated the Greek word Christos as “the Anointed,” a student asked why we didn’t just explain what Christos means and stick to the traditional rendering “Christ.”  Now we’ve discussed this issue at some length in our new book, The Story of The Voice, so I don’t want to repeat that here, but let me give you another side to that.

Go back to the prophets. The word “prophet” means literally “one who speaks for God.”  So we find in the Scriptures a number of prophetic oracles or speeches in the prophetic books (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, etc). But when you read through the prophets, you’ll also notice that sometimes God calls prophets not just to speak a message; he calls them to act it out. And to be honest, God’s servants did some pretty bizarre things. Isaiah walks naked and barefoot for 3 years (Isaiah 20). Jeremiah buys a piece of real estate just a few days before the country is invaded and destroyed by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 32). Ezekiel laid mock siege against a brick he called Jerusalem and laid on his left side by the road for 390 days and then turned over to his right side for 40 days (Ezekiel 4). You might ask: why didn’t Ezekiel just explain God’s message and be done with it? It would have saved him a lot of trouble. Why didn’t Jeremiah just explain his message, keep his money, and not invest in what everybody else thought was a lost cause? It would have saved him a lot of trouble. Why didn’t Isaiah just explain his message and not go through the shame and humiliation that came from what God asked him to do?  It would have saved him a lot of trouble. Well the reason is simple: they sensed God directing them not just to explain a message but to act it out. Sometimes actions do speak louder than words. Had they simply stood up one day in a single place and given a sermon, then I doubt we’d be reading about them today. Their message would have been . . . well, forgettable. It was the combination of word and action which imprinted their messages so clearly on the hearts of their followers.

Now, I find what the prophets did instructive. In the Christian tradition we are encouraged to imitate the noble saints of the past. So, sometimes it is more important for us to act out and live out the message than it is to just explain it.  As we were involved in this translation project, we sensed God directing us to do some things differently with this translation.  We could have just explained the meaning of these key terms in a well written and clear essay somewhere but frankly, that would have been . . . well, forgettable. 

A few of our translation decisions may seem controversial to some, but the scholars, writers, and editors we gathered were aiming to do something unique with this translation. What one writer told me is this: when controversy comes, consider it a teachable moment. This translation project has given me an opportunity to share with hundreds of thousands of people (via television, radio, personal appearances, etc.)  key elements of the Christian faith.  What we continue to hear is how people are hearing in fresh and helpful ways the Voice of God.

Is It Time to Retire “The Old Testament”?

Old TestamentSo why do we call the first part of the Bible the “Old Testament”?  Well, for several reasons.  First, there is tradition.  For hundreds of years Bibles have been published with a page in front of the collection of 39 books from Genesis to Malachi clearly declaring these are the books of the Old Testament.  Second, there is Jesus’ declaration that he comes to establish a New Covenant in His blood.  We hear these words spoken first at the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread, blesses God and invites His followers to “take and eat.” That phrase “New Covenant” becomes identified later with part two of the Christian Bible; we call it the New Testament (the Greek word for “testament” means “covenant”).  If these 27 books from Matthew to Revelation make up the New Testament, then the first part must be, well, the Old Testament. 

Seldom, if ever, does anyone stop and ask “Why?”  Or perhaps even more significantly: “What do we mean when we call these books the Old Testament?”  Tradition is a powerful factor in how we think.  Now I have no real problem with calling these books the Old Testament as long as we do not fill the word “old” with the wrong content.  Frankly, I think sometimes we do.  When Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament—if by “old” they mean worn out, used up, obsolete, yesterday’s news—then  I think we ought to retire the term altogether.  Certainly that’s not how Jesus and his followers looked at their Bible. For them it was God’s Word.  In “the Law, Prophets and Writings”—the way they referred to the Scripture—the Voice of God could be heard and felt.  They heard prophecies there, stories there, poetry there that found ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant inaugurated by the Liberating King.  For Jesus and his contemporaries the “Old Testament” was not “old” at all.  It was as fresh as the morning, as relevant as the Internet news.  They were still waiting for some of its prophecies to be fulfilled.  There is no sense in which they considered their Scripture old or obsolete.  If that is what we mean by “old,” we ought to throw a retirement party and be done with it.  

 But if by OLD Testament we mean tested, tried and true,

if we mean the foundation upon which the New Covenant is built,

if we recognize that these books point toward the climactic moment of

God’s redemption of the world . . .

then why don’t we just call it what it is: the Classic Testament. 

In many ways I prefer “Classic Testament” to “Old Testament” because it can help us reframe the discussion about Scripture.  I suggest that this subtle change might pay big dividends when it comes to thinking about the relationship between part one and part two of the Christian Scriptures. Although this is an oversimplification, the Old Testament stands in relation to the New as promise is to fulfillment, as foundation is to temple, as classic is to contemporary.  You cannot have one without the other.  The earlier paves the way and makes the later possible.  That’s why the Christian Scriptures contain both Old and New Testaments or what I prefer to call the Classic and New Testaments.

Now I realize I’m not likely to change many minds on this.  I don’t expect Bible publishers to change the introduction page to part one of the Bible.  I just want to get you thinking.  When you say Old Testament, what do you really mean?



Easter: The ‘Big Bang’ of the New Creation

 I’m still thinking about Easter.  I know.  Easter is already past; I should be on to something else now.  But frankly, Easter is just one of those days that takes time to process.  When you think of it, Easter is more than a day; it’s a season.  Truth be told, every Sunday is “a little Easter” as we gather together to celebrate the risen Lord.big bang

As I was thinking about Easter, I also had reason recently to refer students in my New Testament class at HBU to 2 Corinthians 5:17.  This is an amazing passage about the new creation.   As anyone knows who is familiar with Greek and biblical theology, Paul’s language here is a notoriously hard to translate.  We struggled with that passage in The Voice.

Here is how we rendered it:

Therefore, if anyone is united with the Anointed, that person is a new creation.  The old life is gone—and see—a new life has begun!

The language of new creation is not original with Paul.  It goes back to the message of Isaiah who looked beyond his own day to a time when God will do something new and amazing in this good—but now disordered—world he had made.  What he will do, according to Isaiah, will be so astounding the only language to describe it is the language of “new creation” (Isaiah 65:17-25).  In John’s Apocalypse it is described this way (Revelation 21:1):

I looked again and could hardly believe my eyes. Everything above me was new. Everything below me was new.  Everything around me was new because the heaven and earth that had been had passed away, and the sea was gone, completely.

When we turn to the New Testament, we discover that the new creation has in fact already begun.  It began on that first Easter when the dead body of Jesus—composed as we are of carbon, hydrogen, and other elements—is suddenly and miraculously transformed into a new kind of body, a resurrected body.  In that moment a piece of the old order became new.  In that moment a piece of the earth—because we like Adam are all made of dust—became eternal.  Easter is “the Big Bang” of the New Creation.

No one was there to observe it, but no one can deny that in that moment everything changed.  As the risen Jesus appeared to one after another, the beleaguered and defeated disciples become powerful witnesses to the greatest miracle in history.  The church—which began small like a mustard seed—started to grow at an amazing pace and in a few decades stood to challenge the power of Rome.  If Jesus is Lord, they thought, then Caesar certainly is not.

Today the empire and her leaders are long gone.  Only fractured monuments to her greatness remain.  But the Church Jesus established is not only present; it has filled the earth.  To borrow a line from one of Jesus’ parables: the birds of the air are making their nests in it.

Paul wants the Corinthians to know that those who are united with Jesus through the ritual cleansing of baptism have entered into that new creation.  Their old lives are put away.  Their new lives have begun.  But the Lord’s emissary does not claim that they are new creations in and of themselves.  They are made new only in relation to the One who was crucified, buried, and raised to new life.  They are made new in that very first Easter.  In a sense they were there on the cross and in that tomb, already united with him.  Paul’s point is personal, but it is more than individual.  Every person who turns to Jesus is not only new creation, he or she enters into a community of individuals graced to be full participants in that new creation which began that first Easter.