"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for the ‘The Bible’ Category

The death of Jesus

The death of Jesus Christ is the central event in Christianity and the defining event for the faith of every Christian.  Everyone has surely seen countless tracts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia bearing the two words “Jesus saves”.  Someone had even spray-painted those words on a street light near my house when I was a kid.  It’s a two-word summary of the message of Christianity.  The central fact of the faith of every Christian is salvation, yet not everyone knows what it means.  To some outsiders, it may appear that salvation is simply a feeling, as vaguely defined and wishy-washy as any other.

To understand salvation, one must first understand sin.  My pal Chesterton once called sin “a fact as practical as potatoes”.  You can pick up any newspaper and see evidence of human sin.  Christian dogma begins with the notion of original sin, meaning that all humans are sinners; nobody is perfect.  Moreover, ordinary human beings cannot shake off our sinful nature by ordinary means, such as good behavior, repeated ritual, or anything else.  No matter how hard we try, we continue to do things that we know we should not do.  Hence we carry the burden of sin, the shame of what we have done wrong.  This is not a vague feeling, but rather a well-defined, substantial fact within our psyche.

If the burden of sin is well-defined, then the removal of that burden of sin is well-defined.  Salvation is defined as that event in which the burden of sin is removed.  And all Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant or Eastern Orthodox, are in agreement about the means by which the burden of sin is removed.  It was removed by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary, as described in the gospels.

To some, that would raise the question of method.  How does Jesus dying on the cross lead to the burden of sin being removed from everyone who accepts it?  On this question there is not nearly as much agreement among Christians.  There are different viewpoints, which anyone can study is they wish.  The “Ransom” theory holds that Satan had a just claim on human souls because of our sinfulness, and that Christ’s sacrifice paid what was due, thereby eliminating the claim.  The “Penal Substitution” theory holds that intrinsically there must be a punishment for any person’s wrongdoing before the burden of that sin can be removed, and that the punishment which the rest of us deserve was instead applied to Christ.  There are others as well, and plenty of theologians willing to debate them, but most Christians acknowledge an element of divine mystery in the event of salvation via Christ’s death.

One thing should be born in mind, though.  There are many types of sins, in other words many ways in which human beings hurt each other.  Sometimes we inflict physical harm on each other, other times emotional harm, other times we neglect to help people in need.  During the twenty-four hours leading up to his death, Jesus suffered the following: his disciples falling asleep when he needed them; fear about the future so intense it lead to physical anguish; arrest; mob violence; a show trial that made a farce of the justice system; popular hatred; abuse by authorities; physical torture of several kinds; defilement with bodily fluids (spitting); mockery of his situation, his claims, and his social status; abandonment by his own followers; being paraded in front of a large crowd; being stripped almost naked; having his last possessions taken away; and finally being subjected to an extraordinarily painful and humiliating form of execution.  In that sense, it is reasonable to say that Jesus understood the suffering caused by sin–all of it–in a way far beyond anything that any of us could.

A two-day-late Palm Sunday Reflection

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, also known as Passion Sunday in some traditions.  The Gospel reading, as one might expect, was this passage from Mark:

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

 4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

   “Hosanna!”

   “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The sermon I heard was a fine demonstration of how additional meaning can hide in even the most straightforward passages of the Bible.  I’d certainly read and heard this passage many times in my life, but it never occurred to me to focus on the two things that the crowd did as Jesus approached Jerusalem.  Some of them threw their cloaks on the ground in front of Jesus, while others threw branches.  Mark doesn’t tell us what type of branch, but tradition accepts that they were palm branches.  Other than the fronds of the date palm tree, the locals would not have had many green leaves available at that time of year.

Why cloaks?  Why date palm fronds?  Cloaks were important articles of clothing in that time.  Your cloak was your main protection against the elements and getting a new one was not easy, especially for the poor.  As for the date palms, if you stripped one of its fronds, you wouldn’t get any dates that year.

Thus, when members of the crowd laid cloaks and palm fronds in front of Jesus, they were making a substantial sacrifice of clothing and food, declaring that preparing the way for the coming Kingdom of God is more important than those two physical items.  Interestingly, Mark’s Gospel does not contain the passage in which Jesus advises the crowd to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” rather than food and clothes. [Matthew 6:25-34]  But this scene indicates that the crowd at Jerusalem was familiar with what Jesus has said.  It also tells us that Mark himself was familiar with that teaching, since he otherwise would not have mentioned the cloaks and branches.  Thus it provides us with further confirmation that the different Gospels draw a coherent picture from the life of the real Jesus Christ.

Simon of Cyrene

One of the advantages of practicing Lectio Divino is the chance to explore the life of minor characters in the gospels.  Simon of Cyrene is a true one-hit wonder of the Bible.  In Mark’s gospel he gets exactly one verse:

20 After they had mocked Him, they took the purple robe off Him and put His own garments on Him. And they led Him out to crucify Him. 21 They pressed into service a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus), to bear His cross. 22 Then they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. [Mark 15:20-22, NASB]

Other than this and the corresponding verses in Matthew and Luke, we know nothing about this guy.  However, he had a close encounter of sorts with the Lord and salvation; he actually carried a portion of the cross where the salvation of the entire human race would occur.  (Experts agree that condemned criminals in Rome would not carry the entire cross, since it was too heavy.  Instead they would carry the horizontal bar, which was heavy enough by itself.  The vertical pole was already at the location of the crucifixion.)  So what can be said about Simon of Cyrene?

First of all, though few people know it, there is historical evidence outside of the Bible.  According to Craig Blomberg’s excellent book The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, archaeologists have unearthed ossuraries belonging to the family, mentioning Simon himself and his two sons among others.  The fact that so many real people appear in the gospels, and so many of them appear in realistic and detailed scenes, bears testimony to the high reliability of these texts as historical documents.  Very little biographical writing from ancient times can match the wealth of detail we find here.

But what about Simon himself?  First, he was almost certainly Jewish, as indicated by his name: Simon.  That was a Jewish name, and not likely to show up among gentiles.  His two sons are named Alexander and Rufus.  Alexander was a Greek name, but it had entered the role of acceptable Jewish names after Alexander the Great chose not to loot the Temple following his conquest of Jerusalem.  (Most conquerors looted freely and thoroughly.)  In fact, the author of this blog post would of had a different name if Alexander the Great had acted differently.  Who knows, I might have been named ‘James’ or ‘Bill’ or ‘Steve’.  I would not have been named ‘Rufus’ however, because ‘Rufus’ meant “Red-haired” in ancient Rome.  (I’m black-haired.)  So knowing nothing else about Simon of Cyrene, we know the color of his younger son’s hair.

And Cyrene?  It’s a city founded by Greeks during the 4th century in modern-day Libya.  Cyrene remained one of the largest and most influential cities in the region throughout Roman times, and today offers a wealth of ruins for archaeologists to dig through.

Lastly, Simon probably became a Christian.  The reasoning behind this claim is straightforward: Mark would not have mentioned him if he was not.  Most likely Simon was still alive when Mark’s gospel was written, and Mark mentioned him because he was well known in the Christian community.  Mark was urging readers to ask Simon of Cyrene for further details of Christ’s passion.

So what was life like for Simon of Cyrene, the only person on earth who literally shared the burden of Christ’s cross?

What I’m Reading: The Meaning of Marriage

My reading for the past week or so has been The Meaning of Marriage, by Tim and Kathy Keller.  The authors are a couple who can boast a successful 36-year marriage.  Tim is a pastor in New York City.  The book is what the title suggests, and examination of what marriage truly should be and how a biblical perspective differs from the modern world’s understanding of marriage.  The book is a perfect introduction for a recently engaged man like myself.

 

The authors structure the book around the passage that Saint Paul wrote in Ephesians concerning marriage:

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. [Eph 5:22:31; NIV]

As they point out, this view of marriage divides us sharply from both ancient and modern understandings.  In ancient times, marriage was for social and economic gains and alliances.  Families decided marriages for young people, and what each partner brought to the marriage was determined by their family situation.  In modern times, marriage has flipped to the opposite extreme and become based on selfishness, with numerous advisors tellings us that our marriage partner should “complete” ourselves, “fulfill” ourselves, and otherwise serve goals that are all about us.

By contrast, Paul tells that a Christian marriage is modeled on the relationship of Christ and the Church.  Christ did not seek to complete himself nor serve any other selfish goal when he sought out the Church.  Instead his goal was to lift up the Church and make her holy and perfect.  In a similar way, none of us should look at a potential marriage partner and ask how she will serve our temporary needs. Instead, we should each see a partner as a person who is on journey to the mountaintop where Christ will make us perfect.  We should enter marriage because we can see glimpses of where the partner is going, and we are uplifted and excited by the person that the partner will become with Christ’s help.  We marry because we want to take that journey together, each partner helping the other when necessary, and each growing more joyful as the other progresses.

Within that framework, The Meaning of Marriage has lots of practical advice, and it’s a worthy addition to any bookshelf, whether for the unmarried, the recently married, or those past their silver anniversary.

What I’m Reading: Four Witnesses

I’ve been woefully slack in documenting the books I’ve read over the past couple months.  I most recently finished Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words, by Rod Bennett.

Bennett begins with a common sense point.  These days everyone from the Seventh-Day Adventists to the Later-Day Saints to the Calvinists to the Jehavah’s Witnesses claims that their doctrine is a restoration of what the early Church actually taught and practiced, because the early Church had received it directly from Christ and the Apostles.  Obviously not everyone who makes this claim can be right.  So if we want to know who’s right, and what the earliest Christians actually believed, we ought to read what they actually wrote.  Hence Bennett presents summaries of the life and writings of four witness from the first 150 years after Christ: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin the Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyon.

Personally I knew fairly little about early church history and the church fathers before reading this book.  I’ve read the excellent two-volume The Story of Christianity by Dr. Justo Gonzalez, but with two thousand years of history to cover, it’s necessarily not that detailed.  I’ve seen various early texts mentioned here and there, but I’ve only actually read a couple of the shorter ones.

Bennett’s book is a worthy introduction to the four individuals he presents.  It gives a good summary of the struggles that confronted Christians during the first two centuries.  On the one hand, they faced violent persecution from the Roman authorities.  Traditional stories of Christian martyrs being fed to the lions in the Colisseum or burned alive are not myth but historical fact, backed up by copious evidence.  On the other hand, the Church was also challenged by false prophets and heretical teachers: the Gnositcs, Docetists, and others.  Against this backdrop, the four witnesses wrote and testified about the doctrine they had received from the Apostles–person-to-person, in some cases, and at least with minimal transmissions in other cases.

Bennett does write from a Catholic perspective, and he includes an afterward explaining how the testimony of these witnesses and others helped push him towards Rome.  His personal belief in the Catholic Church is not intrusive, however, and should not stop Protestants and others from appreciating a good work from a strong amateur scholar.

Polygamy

Much of the national conversation is dominated by issues on which the media and academic elite claim that they’re out in front of us backwards Christians.  What I find rather remarkable is the number of issues on which those same people end up figuring out that us backwards Christians were right all along.  One excellent example comes from this paper:

Monogamy reduces major social problems of polygamist cultures

You got that?  It turns out that “societies that institutionalize and practice monogamous marriage” have major advantages over those that don’t.  Among the bad things that researchers found in societies that practice polygamy are “greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality” and “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud”.  Societies that only allow monogamous marriage will see “lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict” and “increases [in] long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment”.  The researchers also note that “monogamous marriage has largely preceded democracy and voting rights for women in the nations where it has been institutionalized” and “monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.”  Sounds pretty good for monogamy, doesn’t it?

None of this should exactly be news for informed people.  All of it has been known for awhile.  For instance, The American Conservative published an article a decade ago, Sex and Consequences, which covers the same ground.  I’d hazard a guess as to why that article wasn’t announced all across the media landscape as this latest one is.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the earlier one was published in The American Conservative, and also because it tackles gay marriage along with polygamy, and the results aren’t very positive for either.

But nonetheless, the word is now out.  There is actual evidence that allowing polygamous marriage will lead to harm for individuals and society.  But why should we care?  After all, virtually no one thinks that polygamy should be legal, right?

Actually, I’d say this is very important.  Anyone can look and see that there’s a movement afoot to make polygamy acceptable in America.  There are whole TV shows dedicated to doing so, and to presenting a highly innacurate portrait of how a polygamous family functions.  Such families have been interviewed on Oprah and other high-profile places, again giving a misleading picture.  And it’s obvious, though some would try to deny it, that if it’s legally accepted that  the government can’t discriminate in its marriage laws, then eventually polygamy will become legal.  When that happens, the research tells us that we can expect higher crime, higher poverty, greater gender inequality, and other bad effects.  If we don’t want those things, we should ensure that monogamous marriage remains the only legal possibility, and that socially it’s encouraged as much as possible.  Indeed, I seem to recall that Jesus Christ took that general position, and if he were actually just an ignorant carpenter from first-century Palestine it would be rather remarkable that he stumbled on precisely the definition of marriage that is best for modern society.

Chesterton on the Bible

Before I post a wrap-up of the Thirty-Day Book Project–which, incidentally, took sixty-two days–I will offer this short but worthy paragraph from the end of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

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