Old Testament Shape Revisited

A day off, chillin’ contentedly in a clothing store as my wife tries on some clothes, with One Direction “Drag me Down” on the radio (great song) and my mind turns to the Old Testament…like it does so often these days…

One of my particular interests is to consider the original arrangement of the Old Testament and tease out any implications of that arrangement when it comes to “putting your Bible together” as they say. The standard order of books in basically every Christian Bible starts with the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and then moves into the Histories from Joshua to Esther with books like Ruth and Chronicles spliced in chronologically.

However, there is really good evidence, actually overwhelming evidence, that the Old Testament the early church inherited was arranged like this:

  1. Pentateuch
  2. (Former Prophets) Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings and then (Latter Peophets) Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Twelve minor prophets.
  3. Then the collection finished with the Writings, which was something of a catch-all: Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Somg of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Job, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 1-2 Chronicles.

The Hebrew collection (also called the Tanakh) was threefold – Law, Prophets, and Writings – and it was arranged with less of a strict chronology compared to our English order, which follows an order found in Septuagintal codices (compilations of Greek manuscripts). For example, in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth was lumped in with Psalms and Proverbs likely due to its connection to David (Boaz was David’s great grandpa) rather than after the Judges, even though it recounts events in the time period of the Judges. 

The books that made up the Writings probably were written on individual scrolls housed in a chest and so it’s best not to make too much of their specific arrangement within the third section. That said, these books do seem, by and large, to be organized thematically around King David and his son Solomon.

So what?

The first thing to say is that the books themselves are inspired, not their order in the collection. So any considerations of order and arrangement are questions of secondary importance. These matters have some consequence for how we put our Bibles together and how we do biblical theology, but they do not affect significant doctrines of the faith.

With that caveat, the significance of the threefold structure of the collection is that the Pentateuch is the primary foundation of the entire Bible – it is God’s foundational disclosure of himself and his will; the Prophets are an extended commentary on the Law, meant to drive home the implications of that Law in the society and the governance of the nation; finally, the third section – the Writings aka “Hagiographa” – are all an extended meditation about the Messiah and “the good life” – the life of wisdom lived under the Law. This third collection is meant to show us what it means to have a heart that is governed by the good and gracious rule of God.

That is why this arrangement is such a beautiful thing. Sometimes a chronological preoccupation can obscure a rich thematic arrangement. The Law is primary and then it gets driven into politics and then driven into the heart.

Your thoughts? Comment below.

“Nobody nobody – with your love nobody’s gonna drag me down.”

The New Life: Tongue, Hands, and Heart

Related image

Hogweed

Ephesians 4:25-32 (ESV):

“Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

We have been working through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and today we arrive at end of chapter four. In this section we learn more about what it means to live a Christian lifestyle. Christians are people who live truly alternative lifestyles. We are the ones, today, who are truly counter-cultural. In a day where everyone is embracing the unrestricted expression of self-rule, we are the ones who want to follow God’s rule for the good of others. So we are the new rebels.

The driving principle in the latter part of Ephesians chapter four is to be done with the old way of life and to press on in the new way of life – put off the old, and put on the new.

This principle applies first to your identity as a person – you are no longer outside the people of God and walking in the darkness of the Gentiles, but now you are part of God’s people – the people he loves and has chosen to reconcile to himself.

Our new identity then leads to our new lifestyle – our identity in Jesus now shapes our actions.  Now we have a new way of life, and that way of life is the natural outworking of who we have now become. 

Yet for all of us the pull back towards the old way is so strong.

So the Apostle Paul takes a couple key areas and tells us how we put off the old way and put on the new way. The whole ideas is that of substitution. You know, at McDonald’s you can say – instead of fries I’d like to substitute a garden salad – not that any of us do that – but the idea is you take out one thing and put something else in it’s place.

And that right there – taking of evil habits and substituting them for holy habits – is the key to growing as a follower of Jesus.

There are three key areas of Christian maturity that the Scriptures address here: destructive speech, theft, and anger. Or I suppose you could say, the tongue, the hands, and the heart.

The Tongue

“…having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (25) And, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (29).

These are very important things to consider. Rather than speaking deceptively – and those are words that will always lead to problems, division, and friction between people – we are to speak truth – and the truth is what builds people up. If we are people who constantly lie then we are essentially hiding who we are from people – we never get to relate to each other as we really are.

Notice here that healthy speech is speech that fits the occasion. We are to speak truth – but not every truth needs to be spoken all the time – there is a time for everything and learning wisdom means knowing when to bite your tongue and when to unleash it.

Notice also that good words are words that give grace – what does that mean? It is like I was saying two weeks ago – we need to encourage one another with the grace that is in Jesus. Reassure one another of the goodness of God and his work in our lives. Remind one another of who we are as sons and daughters of God. Essentially, we need to speak the gospel to one another.

A months ago my wife did this. I was feeling so down with sin – my sins – the sins of others – and she spoke to me the most encouraging and gracious words. She reminded me of who I was as a Christian and a man of God. This very thing, I am tempted to say, is the reason the church exists – we need other Christians to speak God’s life-giving truth to us. And we need to do it in return.

Does your speech lead to the benefit of others? Does it make them feel encouraged, blessed, strengthened? Or does your speech lead to corruption – does it create rot and stench like a decaying fish?

The Hands

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”(28)

Now here is a good verse for young people. When I was a young kid I was a thief. I stole things – little things like candy and coins. But I was a thief and there is no denying that. One of the ways God grabbed a hold of me was to show me that I needed to repent of stealing.

So, following the same principle of taking off the old and putting on the new, then what do you do? Use your hands to work for the good of others. I want you to see that the Bible is a very hands-on book. There is a lot to think about in this book, but ultimately the Christian life comes down to your hands. Use your hands to serve people – like many of you did in the kitchen this past Sunday. Use you hands to work for the common good. And then when you acquire wealth – and generally-speaking everyone who learns the importance of working with their hands will acquire wealth – then you can share that with others and you can give sacrificially to important things, like the ministry of the church for instance.

One of the best things that ever happened to me when I was a teenager is an older lady in the church hired my brother and I on Saturdays to do yard work for her. We did TONS of different things for her. We chopped firewood. We stacked firewood. We weeded. We mowed the lawn over and over and over. We tilled soil. We mulched. We pruned trees. We landscaped and edged her lawn. We turned the compost over in her composting system.

And the thing we did most of all was killed Hogweed.

Her property was on a small river and the river carried this weed that grew fast and spread through the lower, moist ground by the water’s edge. And Hogweed was nasty. It grew up into a big stalk and if you touched it, it would burn your skin. The poison it left on your skin was activated by sunlight and so then it would blister up every time the sun touched it. So we had to wear big coveralls and then go out and chop this stuff down and kill it right at the root. We did this for days and days and days.

The point of me telling you all this is that I hated a lot of this work at the time. But I have come to look back on it with a real thankfulness. It is exactly what I needed. Good, honest work with my hands. I  want to encourage all of you to find some honest work with your hands to do in the summer and in the years ahead. Even people planning to go into acting, or teaching, or writing, need to find some work to do with their hands. Construction, landscaping, tree-care, washing dishes, installing drywall. Whatever. The point is to be able to give to those in need – in both the work itself and in the profits from the work. And also you can save for your future education or training so you can use that training to contribute to others in an even greater way.

What skills might you learn this spring and summer? What will you do with your hands to contribute for the good of others?

Anger

Now look at what the Scripture says about your heart – anger.

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil.” (26)

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” (31)

What do you think the Bible means here when it tells us to be angry?

Did Jesus ever get angry?

Why did he get angry?

When Jesus was angry in the temple he was angry about what God was angry about – injustice. Jesus was angry along with God. This is what the Bible means here. We are to get angry, not when someone personally offends us, but when we witness things that personally offend God.

Some of you maybe remember last year I told you of a time I got really, really angry. I saw one man punch another man and left him unconscious and bleeding on the side of the road. I was so mad at that guy. I went on a vigilante rampage. My wife and I helped the guy who was injured and then left him with some other people as the ambulance came. Then I followed him in my car, while talking on the phone with the police, for like four blocks until I lost him.

That is an example of godly anger. And many of you probably have righteous anger over things that you see in the world. You are angry about poverty. Or social greed. Or issues around the world here women are taken advantage of. Be angry, the Bible says – but don’t fall asleep dwelling on all of it. Let it go when you go to bed. Don’t let anger continually fester indefinitely because the devil can use that against you and against others.

Anger is like fire – it’s easy to light but very hard to put out. And it does great damage.

But if I am honest – and if you are honest – we are often too quick to get angry about things that personally upset us. So the Bible says get rid of bitterness and slander and malice. Bitterness is when we just get so deeply jaded towards people because they have hurt us – and then eventually we lash out against them in return. Let that go. Be done with that. Slander is when we try to destroy another person’s reputation behind their back because we are so mad at them. Don’t do that – let God take care of people who wrong you and don’t try to beat down their reputation. Malice – malice is when you deliberately and intentionally hurt someone. You make a choice to make them hurt. Be done with that.

Then the general command is given not to grieve the Holy Spirit – and also to be kind, tenderhearted towards one another and forgiving, just as God forgave. That is how this passage ends.

That is the new life – it involves your tongue, your hands, and your heart. And it is the life of joy. It’s not always easy, but it is the good life and it’s the life that Jesus invites us into as we learn to follow him.

Assisted Suicide and Boiling Goats

I recently read an article by CNN that said approximately 13 medically-assisted deaths are happening in Ontario every week. The same article said that Canada is one of the few countries, along with Switzerland and Germany, that have a legal provision for assisted suicide or physician-assisted dying.

This is a big topic and when it comes to ethics I follow an old approach, oft-mocked in academic circles: divine command theory. What does God have to say about such matters? If men and women are merely clumps of evolved goo devoid of any intrinsic value or significance then the ethics of assisted suicide are significantly altered. But I have come to believe that men and women are made with a value and significance that comes from the Living God – we are all stamped with the imago dei. 

I also believe that God revealed himself in the Scriptures – his words. Really the foundational, written aspect of that self-revelation is the Torah, or what Christians refer to as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In that Torah we find a very fascinating, but hard-to-understand verse which, I believe, has great relevance for this discussion today – there is a divine command here to recon with.

The verse comes up in Exodus 23:19 and then again in Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21 and in each case the wording is the same: “you shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

The obscure reference has been variously understood, as J.I. Durham writes: “The prohibition of cooking a kid in the milk of its own mother has been variously explained on magical grounds…or as a reaction against Dionysian…or Canaanite…religious practices” (Exodus – Vol 3, p.334, Word Biblical Commentary, 1998). In some Jewish writing they have used this passage to argue that you should not eat meat at the same time as you drink milk.

That might be true. But I don’t see any explicit warrant to understand the verse this way emerging from the text in question. I think there is a more straightforward interpretation:

Don’t use what is meant for life as an instrument of death. 

Milk is meant for the nourishment of the young goat. That is the goat’s primary source of life and growth. To boil that goat in the very nutrients meant to give it life is sick and twisted. So the Old Testament people of God were not to violate the natural order in this way – it’s cruel and unusual.

A parallel in modern times would be something like this:

  • In Somalia, for instance, don’t confiscate the humanitarian food drop intended for the starving people to gain leverage for your tribal war.
  • Or similarly, don’t use your foster-parent income to pay for your cocaine addiction.

Don’t use what is intended for life, as an instrument of death.

We need to consider this principle afresh today, especially in the ongoing cultural discussion regarding assisted suicide. Some of my readers might object and say “but that is the Old Testament and we are not obligated to follow that anymore!” No – the Old Testament is God’s wisdom and God’s revelation and even though, as I believe, the Christian is no longer bound underneath this covenant, or this package of laws, there is still much good to be gained here – for all Scripture is exhaled from God, including this obscure little verse (2 Tim 3:16).

In Canada, assisted suicide, also known as physician-assisted dying, or medically-assisted suicide, is becoming increasingly popular socially and also, by extension, legally.

What we need to recognize, based on this verse, is that medicine is intended for life. Medicine ought never to be used as a means of death. That is twisting its natural use.

Likewise, physicians are meant to encourage life. Don’t use physicians as instruments of death – that is not why they exist.

Moreover, a publicly-funded medical system is for the welfare of its citizens – don’t use this public welfare as an instrument to remove Canadian citizens.

In all of this the standard God wants us to acknowledge is that He has created the world in an ordered and structured fashion. Milk is for life. Medicine is for health. We do a great injustice, not only to one another, but even to God’s natural order established in creation, when we subvert that structure and use what is intended for life as a means of death.

And, by the way, the glory of the cross of Jesus, the Son of God, is that He used a means of death as an instrument of life. He defeated death on a bloody Roman gibbet and rose to life after three days. That is what we celebrate on Easter, or Resurrection, Sunday and it is the heartbeat of Christianity (and reality). That is the better path – and repentance means following his path to life, and everlasting life, personally, socially, and legally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bible Interpretation: Apocalyptic 101

To “get” Daniel 7-12 read it in light of Daniel 1-6; similarly, to “get” Revelation 4-22 read it in light of the letters to the churches in Rev 1-3. How would the churches in Asia Minor have understood this imagery? How would Daniel’s contemporaries have understood the imagery?

Apocalyptic imagery is fantastic for sure, but it’s always historically tethered and the history provides the window to gaze into the heavenlies. Both of these texts contain history. So consider reading Revelation 1-3 in between every other chapter of the book. Blend the history with the heavenly to get the important points for today – and there are many.

By the way, the essential message in both cases is to faithfully trust in God, who rules history, rather than getting seduced by the world that seeks to assimilate the faithful into it’s perversion and judgment. It’s all, at it’s core, a contrast between two cities – Babylon and Jerusalem – and then an invitation to decide which city you want to live in. Babyolon, the pleasurable, but doomed one? Or Jerusalem, the difficult and often painful, but ultimately blessed one?

Why does this matter so much? It matters because there are so many wackos and wing-nuts out there saying ridiculous and foolish things today about this imagery. (For example, the “mark of the beast” isn’t a micro chip inserted into your hand. The mark of the beast is a life lived in selfishness, pride, lust, and revelry – a life lived in allegiance to Satan.)

The outcome is that they mute the relevance of these texts and rob them from sweet and level-headed Christians who should be reading them rather than dismissing them (in troubled times when they need to hear from their God).

For those taking an interest in this. This is the only place to starthttps://www.amazon.ca/Four-Views-Book-Revelation-Counterpoints-ebook/dp/B003TFE8MY

N.T. Wright – A Helpful Illustration

“Five people are describing the same event. One says ‘I was aware of a blur of colour and a sudden loud noise.’ The next says ‘I saw and heard a vehicle driving noisily down the road.’ The next says ‘I saw an ambulance on its way to the hospital.’ The fourth says ‘I have just witnessed a tragedy.’ The fifth says ‘This is the end of the world for me.’ The same event gives rise to five true statements, with each successive one having more ‘meaning’ than the one before.” (The New Testament and the People of God, 282-83).

Right there, my friends, is why the Old Testament and the New Testament are speaking about exactly the same thing; namely, the death and resurrection of Jesus with all its implications. Jeremiah and Peter had different vantage points on the same event.

Failure to get this has led, outside the church, to endless writing on the “contradictions” in Scripture; inside the church, it led to old-school dispensationalism. Oh bother.