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I’m not a fan of the Left Behind series. I read the first novel in 1995 before any of the other books came out. After that, I began buying each one with a plan to binge read the whole series when it was finally done. But I never did. By 2003, I began to see that the series misses Revelation’s true meaning.

I know Left Behind is a work of fiction but it’s also based on a real way of interpreting Revelation known as Dispensationalism which sees Revelation, for the most part, as a literal series of near future events. The events occur largely within a seven year period know as the tribulation which begins with a rapture or catching away to heaven of all true believers. After the seven years, Christ returns to earth and reigns for another 1,000. I grew up in a church that taught me to read Revelation and the world with this eye and we watched the news for signs that seven year period was about to begin. But by my early twenties as a history major, I started asking a question no one I knew seemed to be asking. What did Revelation mean for the first recipients? Was it really intended as gibberish for 2,000 years until someone could at last match times with signs?

It was then that I came to see the key to Revelation is really simple. Revelation hinges on a repeated pattern. Five times, the book ushers readers to the throne of God where angels and people of every ethnicity sing songs of thanksgiving and worship to God and Jesus. John describes the first worship scene in chapter 4 and then goes on to describe the effects of Jesus’ breaking of seven seals. The sixth seal leads to a second scene of worship. In chapter eight, the seals give way to the blowing of seven trumpets which yet again ends in a scene of worship. The pattern goes on. The key to Revelation is worship ands it’s intended effect is worship. In fact, Revelation has been called the Psalms of the New Testament because no other book contains the number of worship songs. What we try to solve as a mysterious puzzle was meant more as a hymnal. And as we stain our brains to get it to fit the specifics of our current world issues, we miss it’s intended effect of moving our emotions and turning our hearts to God.

Revelation is not so much about the future as it is a series of symbolic visions of our past, present, and future. The imagery which occurs between each of Revelations worship scenes is in fact indicative of the same time period. Like the metals and beasts of Daniel 2 and 7. Revelation repeats again and again from Christ to the end of time… from Christ to the end of time… from Christ to the end of time. And in all this John shows that all our pain and suffering is being worked by The One Who Suffered for a redemptive end. And again and again, it leads us to worship.

Is Jesus Jehovah?

May 23, 2016  2 Comments

Toni knocked on my door yesterday. She’s a five-foot, 80-year-old woman with a warm grandmotherly disposition. As I opened the door, she gave me a big smile and said, “Well Hello, Matt! I’ve moved, but I wanted to make sure you had someone calling on you.” She then introduced Greg – a much taller gentleman in his late 50’s. “Have you read the booklet I left you? Do you have any questions?”

I love talking with Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s a great deal about them I respect. They’re willing to suffer for their beliefs. They read the Bible. And though they distort some essential Christian truths, there are some things they get right more than the average Christian. Many Christians, for instance, have this idea that our only goal in life is to go to heaven when we die. And while this is true, it’s not the entire picture. The Bible points beyond this intermediate state to renewed bodies in a new heaven and new earth. JWs get that right.

But I can’t just let the JWs off on their false teachings.

Toni and I (and occasionally Greg) ended up talking on my front porch for more than an hour. The topic at first rotated around the JW’s less controversial view that consciousness ceases at death.

She opened her Watchtower magazine and turned to the section answering the question “What happens When you Die?” She then pulled out her gray New World Translation (the distinct “Translation” of JWs) and read from Ecclesiastes 9:5. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” She next turned to Genesis 2:7, “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” And from there she jumped to Genesis 3:19, God’s curse for sin, “for you are dust and dust you shall return.” Toni tried to convince me that these verses prove consciousness ends at death. The soul was created with the body and ceases to exist when the body dies.

“No,” I said. “It’s not that clear. What about other passages which indicate that consciousness continues after death, apart from the body – like when a very dead and disembodied, Samuel appears and speaks to Saul in 1st Samuel 28?

“That wasn’t Samuel. It was a demon,” she said.

“Really,” I asked. “because 1st Samuel doesn’t say that. It says it was Samuel that spoke to Saul. I think you’re mistaken in your interpretation.”

The conversation continued in a friendly manner like this for some time. Toni would offer a proof text on a given topic which appeared to undermine some Christian teaching. And I’d counter with another text which undermined her argument.

“The Bible doesn’t disagree with itself,” She chastened with a smile.

“No, it doesn’t,” I said returning the smile. “But it’s not clear in the way you make it out to be.”

But the intermediate state isn’t my concern. I think JWs are wrong on this issue but there are genuine Christians who hold to this idea, and I wouldn’t cease to call them brothers and sisters because of it.

As our conversation continued, I told Toni and Greg, “There are many things I really do admire in your teaching and practice. But there’s just some major issues you totally get wrong and are deal breakers.”

“Like what,” She asked. She had tried to stay away from the topic of trinity.

“Well the Bible says that Jesus is God,” I said.

“How can that be?” She replied. “Jesus said, ‘the Father is greater than I.'”

Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe Jesus is God in the same sense God the Father is God. For them, he’s a lesser deity, the first created being through whom God created everything else. And they detest any suggestion that Jesus is Jehovah (God’s name by which He revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelites).

This is where there New World “Translation” fits in. In it, they’ve attempted to erase any proof that Jesus is God. For instance, they’ve changed John 1:1 “and the Word was God” to “and the Word was a god.” And they’ve altered Jesus words in John 8:58, “before Abraham was, I am (which is the meaning of God’s name, Jehovah, in Hebrew) to the much less specific, “before Abraham was, I was.”

But the Bible’s more than a list of unconnected verses, a fact they often fail to forget.

“Can I see your Bible,” I asked?

She handed it to me. I turned to Isaiah 9:6 and handed it back to her.

She read aloud: “For a child has been born to us, A son has been given to us; And the rulership will rest on his shoulder. His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

She looked up at me. And somewhat hesitantly said, “Yes, I believe he’s talking about Jesus. But that doesn’t mean Jesus is Jehovah. Jehovah said he would not give his glory to another (Isaiah 42:8).”

“Precisely,” I said. “Can I see your Bible again?”

She handed it back to me. I turned to John 12:36 and read,

“Although he (Jesus) had performed so many signs before them, they were not putting faith in him… The reason why they were not able to believe is that again Isaiah said: ‘He has blinded their eyes and has made their hearts hard, so that they would not see with their eyes and understand with their hearts and turn around and I heal them.’ Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory, and he spoke about him.

“Who is John referring to,” I asked. “Whose glory did Isaiah see?”

“Jesus,” she replied.

“Right,” I said. “And what passage is John referring to when he quotes Isaiah, “He has blinded their eyes and has made their hearts hard…? Isaiah 6:10, I answered.

I turned to Isaiah 6 and handed the Bible back to her.

“Now in that passage, whose glory did Isaiah see?

She started reading from verse 1. “In the year that King Uz·ziʹah died, I saw Jehovah sitting on a lofty and elevated throne, and the skirts of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were standing above him… And one called to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is Jehovah of armies. The whole earth is filled with his glory.

“Whose glory did Isaiah see,” I asked.

Toni closed her Bible and tucked it under her arm. “Well there’s a lot we could talk about, but we really have to be going.”

No joke! It was that quick!

“No, no, no,” I said. “Let’s do another one.”

I reached out and tried to take the Bible from under her arm. She held it there tightly before releasing her grip.

It’s time to take a closer look at Mark’s arrangement of scenes! So throw out graphic divisions, like chapter and verse, as indications of the book’s plan and listen instead to what Mark says! Mark wrote specifically for hearers and weaves his organization into the very words of his story.

Let’s start by reading Mark 1:1-15. Hear any repeated words?

“Gospel” and or “good news”
“Messenger” or angelos in Greek, which is the same word for Angel.
Wilderness
The phrase “baptized by him (John) in the Jordan”
Spirit

Now consider where they occur!

The words in the first section are repeated in the last. And the ones in the second are repeated in a third. It’s A-B-B-A sequence. Though on the surface the story unfolds in a linear progression, the repetition creates an underlying pattern which packages these scenes together and, in turn, point to the start of a new unit.

Do you hear more repetitions in the scenes that follow? Mention of Jesus preaching in Galilee and the naming of Peter, Andrew, James and John? Where do they occur? Concentrically around Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue. It’s an A-B-C-B-A pattern. Once again, the echoes signal to a listening audience the units beginning and end.

Mark creates still a third sequence in the five stories after that. Echoes appear at the outer limits, in Jesus’ cleansing of the leper and his healing of the man with the withered hand. In both stories we find the phrase “stretched out his (your) hand” and the mention of Jesus becoming “angry.” Now most translations of Jesus encounter with the leper still say Jesus was moved with compassion. But the majority of scholars today have come to the conclusion that Mark originally said angry. And that incidentally finds a correspondence in the later scene when Jesus becomes angry at the religious leaders. Echoes within these five accounts also occur in the second and fourth stories, the story of Jesus forgiving the paralytic and the account of the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. In both scenes, Jesus uniquely cites his authority as the Son of Man. Again these echoes appear concentrically around a center, Jesus’ calling of Levi, and are packaged together in A-B-C-B-A sequence.

Its here at the end of the third sequence where we encounter Mark’s inciting incident, the first indication of a plot to destroy Jesus. But Mark further emphasizes this narrative turn by packaging these three sequences together, revealing in this turn a termination to this larger unit.

We see this in the expressed parallels between the beginning of the first sequence and the end of the third. In chapter 3, Mark summarizes the effects of Jesus ministry, stating that people came from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Three of these place names (Jerusalem, Judea, and Jordan) appear in a remarkably similar summary of the Baptist’s ministry at the beginning of the gospel, though we don’t hear them mentioned elsewhere together. And it’s here we find another parallel. Immediately before Mark introduces John the Baptist, he tells us that Jesus is “the Son of God.” A title which we’ve already seen is extremely significant though its only repeated three times in this form. The first is here in Mark 1:1 and the last, the centurion’s climatic statement in Mark 15. Which leaves the summary of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 3, as the only other instance. Which further suggests a connection between this summary and Mark’s beginning. Though these parallels, Mark has packaged these sequences together and brought this section to a close.

The termination of these three sequences simultaneous with the first mention of a plot to destroy Jesus marks this point as major turning in the narrative. In the next episode, we’ll explore where the turn leads and how Mark builds his story to the next major point.

See you then.

Mark is Like a Movie

February 23, 2016  1 Comment

So I’ve hinted at this over the last few episodes, but it’s time I come out and say it. Mark is the first-century equivalent of a modern day movie. By that, I don’t mean fiction. I mean Mark recounts Jesus’ ministry in the same way today’s filmmakers typically tell true stories. Working in a remarkably similar venue (something we touched on in Episode 3), Mark has, in fact, stretched historic events over the same structural canvas still used today.

Think of what you know about movies. While characters and settings change, movies share a sequencing of events which is remarkably similar; Five basic plot points divide three structural acts.

We can refer to these points as the inciting incident, the lock-in, the midpoint or first culmination, the second culmination and the third act twist.

When a film opens, we’re introduced to a status quo. But an incident soon occurs which challenges a hero and sets the plot in motion. Within several film minutes, the challenge grows to a point where the hero can no longer ignore it. The hero takes on the problem, setting a new course of action.

This new course of action makes up the second act. Here, the hero faces one obstacle after another, the struggle mounting until the midpoint where they seem about to achieve their goal. But then everything falls apart. And they’re forced to start over again.

Act 2 ends with a hero’s major success or failure. This propels them to a new goal and creates a new tension for the final act. Here the story reaches its maximum tension between forces in opposition. And the hero faces their ultimate test. Finally, in the third act twist, the story is resolved, leading to a brief period of peace at the films end.

Now let’s look at what we’ve learned about Mark so far. In the last episode, I noted the parallels between Jesus baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion. These three scenes act as signposts to Mark’s larger organization and message. The links between the baptism and crucifixion make up Mark’s major sandwich, tieing the story’s end to its beginning. While their connection to the transfiguration, in the middle, bisects the book into two major halves.

It’s not by accident that the transfiguration follows so closely after Jesus’ partial healing of the blind man (an incident we looked at in Episode 2). This is Mark’s midpoint, not only in terms of length but in structural plot design. It’s the point at which the growing tension between Jesus and the disciples seems to break before it sets in once again. The disciples finally see that Jesus as the Christ but then refuse to accept his declaration that he’s going to suffer and die.

What about the other points?

Mark’s inciting incident occurs at the beginning of chapter 3. While Jesus has done many remarkable things up to this point, It’s here that we first learn of the plot to destroy him. This introduces the challenge and sets the plot in motion.

Mark’s lock-in occurs at the beginning of chapter 6. Jesus returns to his hometown and is promptly rejected by his own clan. This represents the ultimate rejection in a series which has grown only more pronounced since the inciting incident. Jesus engages the problem, by turning his focus to his disciples and a broader mission to the outside world.

Mark’s final culmination occurs in chapter 11 when Jesus enters Jerusalem to the shouts of royal acclaim from the people. Jesus has taken his fight to the very den of religious authority. And he’s winning!

The third act twist, however, occurs when, in chapter 14, the religious authorities hatch a plot to put Jesus to death, a plot which proves successful when Judas agrees to be their inside man.

Mark stresses these points in the way he has arranged the scenes between them. Through repetition and the patterns they reveal, Mark has packaged these scenes into complete units. Over the next five episodes, we’re going to zoom in on these units and see how Mark’s arrangement of scenes ties these plot points together.

See you next time.

Repeating a pattern three times is a common storytelling technique and Mark uses it to great effect. Through it, he ties his book together and highlights his message that Jesus is the Son of God.

Have you noticed the parallels between Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration?

If you haven’t read Mark, take the next hour and read it all in one sitting, just like you’d watch a movie. Finding these parallels and patterns is just part of the fun of a good story’s game.

Let’s start with the transfiguration in chapter 9. Jesus goes up on a mountain with some of his disciples and there, his clothing begins to glow. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear! And the disciples are utterly terrified. Then a cloud envelops them and we hear God say, “this is my son…”

Sound familiar? Well, that’s almost identical to what we heard in Mark 1. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn open and God says, “You are my son…”

Do you see the others?

In both scenes, there’s a major shift in the heavens. The enveloping cloud in chapter nine and the ripped sky in chapter one.

And then there’s Elijah. He appears at the Transfiguration and yes, also in the Baptism. You might have missed this one! But Mark implicitly describes John as Elijah when he tells us that he wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist. If you know the Old Testament, like Mark’s original audience, you’ll know that it’s this same description which leads a king in 2 Kings 1:8 to identify the person so dressed as Elijah.

So in the baptism and transfiguration, we have these three parallels. Elijah, Movement in the Heavens, And the identification of Jesus as God’s Son.

Pretty cool! Right?

Now think of Mark’s description of the crucifixion. Darkness covers the land! And Jesus cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi…” which means “My God, my God…” But the bystanders think he’s calling for Elijah. Then Jesus breathes his last and the temple curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom. And the centurion remarks, “truly this man was the Son of God.”

There it is, again! The pattern is in fact repeated three times.

What’s Mark doing?

Well if you think about the whole book of Mark, you’ll remember that stories told in threes happen quite regularly. There’s Jesus’ three passion predictions, the three times he wakes his sleeping disciples, and the three times Peter denies him.

Three is huge! And not just for Mark. This is, in fact, the way we tell stories. Think of Goldilocks and the three bears (bowls, chairs, beds) or Charles Dickens Christmas Carol (Ghosts of Past, Present, Future). It’s a common literary device.

Three shows completeness. Emphasis. It’s the smallest number that forms a pattern. The first instance is chance. The second a coincidence. But three times reveals a design.

And this is what Mark is doing in some of these triads. In telling us three times, he stresses to his listening audience the disciples inability to change. And at the same time, drives home the point to his hearers. Don’t be like them! Don’t miss the point!

Mark is for sure creating emphasis in the parallels between the baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion but he’s also at the same time doing something more.

This too is common in storytelling: because twice suggests a pattern, we naturally anticipate its continuation at the partial appearance of a third. Which allows the storyteller to hit us with the twist.

Think of the way jokes are told. Three guys walk into a bar. The first guy says something. The second guy says something similar. But the third guy takes it in a whole new direction. But the twist isn’t only found in punchlines. We find it in the third part of three little Pigs and the boy who cried wolf. We even see it in longer films like the Shawshank Redemption. Remember Red’s third parole hearing?

Mark, having built a pattern in the baptism and transfiguration, hits his audience in the crucifixion with a twist. This time, it’s not God’s voice declaring Jesus His Son. It’s a person. The first person, in fact, in of all of Mark’s story to express this idea.

Now think of the progression in these three scenes. In the baptism, it’s Jesus alone who hears God say “You are my Son.” It’s a private experience. No one else seems to know what’s going on. But in the second instance, that experience is repeated for others, God tells a few of the disciples “This is my Son.” But in the crucifixion, we find this idea finally taking hold and being repeated at last by a person. And what’s really remarkable, it’s not one of the disciples. It’s not even a Jew. he’s a Roman soldier. The enemy! The person, we least suspect. Declaring it, at the point we least suspect it.

See you next time.