Crazy Jesus . . . or Crazy Like a Fox?

Sometimes Jesus made statements that sound just plain crazy.

Once he was explaining why he taught in parables. The reason he gives in Mark 4:12 is this—so that, “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” In quoting here from Isaiah 6, Jesus makes it sound like he doesn’t want people to repent, to turn to God, to be saved. What in the world could he possibly be talking about?

Greg Beale’s We Become What We Worship helps us untangle this mess while walking us through an important theme that spans both Testaments. The book of Isaiah condemns Israel for its idolatry, for worshiping statues that can’t speak or hear. Israel’s punishment? She was sentenced to become like the idols she worshiped—deaf and blind.

That theme is found also in Exodus, the Psalms, the Gospels, the writings of Paul and elsewhere. As Beale often summarizes in his book, we become like what we worship whether for ruin or renewal.

His analysis of the golden calf episode in Exodus is especially instructive. The rebellious people were described as being like a stubborn, “stiff-necked” heifer. The use of “stiff-necked” in Deuteronomy, Hosea and elsewhere is particularly connected with idolatry, not just general disobedience. They turned into what they worshiped.

Yet our ruined state need not be permanent. Isaiah also tells us this condition will be reversed. A day is coming when “the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see” (Is 29:18). This theme is echoed through the New Testament as well. Yes, the punishment is intentional but not eternal. Its purpose is to get the attention of sinners so they do turn to God.

The whole of Isaiah is the context of Jesus’ statement about the people experiencing the same punishment of being blind and deaf that their ancestors suffered for their idolatry. The blindness caused by using parables was likewise intended to be temporary, not perpetual–a shock treatment to push his hearers back to their Lord.

Beale’s book makes the case that God created us essentially to be image bearers. If we do not reflect God, then we will inevitably reflect something else in creation (305).

What might even God’s people today be worshiping besides the true God? To find out, we can ask what we (individually or corporately) are like today. Are we focused on methods or message, on tradition or truth, on character or success, on winning or being winsome, on justice for the world or justice for me? What we give priority to matters. We’re choosing who we will be today and tomorrow.

image credit: Pixabay kryzoxstv

Christ’s Victory on Our Behalf

The center of Christianity is the cross. But how are we to understand the crucifixion? How is it that in the death of Christ we find salvation, forgiveness, new creation, justice, victory over the powers, and hope for the future? And why in particular was such a gruesome, publicly humiliating execution required?

This Lent, to assist me with such questions, I have been reading Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion, a book providing what she sees as the first substantive book on the cross for pastors since John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. Overall in her view Christ’s crucifixion is God’s victory over Sin, Death, and the Devil. The Powers are vanquished as the Apostle Paul so often gives testimony. But Christ’s substitutionary work—in our place and on our behalf—is the necessary partner to this cosmic rectification, a theme that arises out of the biblical narrative rather than a theological scheme.

She offers a robust defense of substitution throughout. In particular she thoroughly rehabilitates the eleventh-century archbishop Anslem when today it is popular to denigrate the person credited with bringing substitution to the fore of church teaching. She also finds much to admire in Calvin, though not necessarily in his successors. Rutledge believes both have been misunderstood because scholars fail to see that these two are not working primarily in the realm of academia. Their purpose is pastoral—as is hers.

Rutledge’s sword cuts both ways. She finds much to praise and criticize in both mainline and evangelical circles. For example, she has no patience for evangelicals who see penal substitutionary atonement as the only true way to understand the cross. The Bible offers a wide range of images, metaphors, and teachings on Christ’s death, and we do it much injustice by diminishing or ignoring these. Nonetheless, she also has words of praise for figures like Billy Graham and F. F. Bruce.

At the same time she upends superficial aphorisms such as “God accepts us just as you are” or “Forgive and forget” or declarations of radical inclusiveness. None of us can achieve this no matter how open we are. Our congregation may accept those with Downs but may give up on someone with narcissistic personality disorder. We may welcome a transgender person but find we cannot include an unwashed, unmedicated street person. Then there are times conservative evangelicals are disdained or discriminated against. All fall short, you see.

Another major theme throughout the book is the equivalence of justification and righteousness which derive from the same Greek word. Further, we should not see this as a static condition, says Rutledge, but as God’s activity of setting things right. God rectifies the wrong, the sin, the evil in us and in the cosmos. Rectify better emphasizes what is going on than justification or righteousness which have become encumbered with centuries of debate and misunderstanding.

She is right that the manner of Christ’s death is significant. Dying in his sleep or having the dignity of being beheaded like a Roman citizen would have meant entirely different things. I found her case unconvincing, however, that the crucifixion was the most horrific and humiliating death of all since she would have to survey every other possible form of death to prove her point, clearly an unachievable task.

This and a few others are quibbles however in a stellar work that deserves (as it is getting) a wide readership among pastors, scholars, and those in the pew. She fully achieves the goal of searching the depths of this core of our faith, leading us to praise, worship, and renewed hearts.

Blessing All

A Lenten Reflection

In AD 165, a terrible plague hit the Roman Empire that lasted for fifteen years. Some historians think it was smallpox, but whatever the cause it was devastating. Perhaps a quarter or more of the population died. A hundred years later another plague hit Rome, with similar results. Bodies were piled up in the streets, some being thrown there before people actually died. Thousands abandoned the cities for the countryside in an attempt to escape the pestilence.

But there was one minority group that responded very differently to both plagues. They stayed in the cities. Rather than avoiding the sick, they cared for them. As a result of receiving simple food and water when the ill were too weak to look after themselves, many survived when others who were forsaken by their friends and families died at a much higher rate. Some of those in this special group of caretakers also contracted the disease, however, and died. Why did they do this, knowing the danger? Why did they act so differently than many of their neighbors?

Largely, those that stayed to help the sick were Christians. They believed Christ’s call to love their neighbors, their pagan neighbors, even if it meant possible death. As a result, not only did Christians survive at a higher rate than pagans, but many of the pagans who were cared for by Christians—and who saw their sacrificial love for others—turned to Christ themselves. The reaction of Christians to these two plagues was one of the most significant factors in the conversion of half the Roman Empire to Christianity by about AD 350.*

Israel was chosen by God to be a blessing to all nations. That was the original promise and call God gave Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), which Jesus and the prophets reiterated. We likewise have no right to turn inward and keep our blessings to ourselves, as the Jewish leaders had done. Our focus is to be outward and welcoming, even toward those who may bring us harm.

Israel was to openly accept people of every ethnic group and nation to Jerusalem as Jesus reminded them: “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17). We as Christians should also gladly receive people from all nations to our churches, our communities, and our countries. We can fulfill the Great Commission not only by going to all nations but also by encouraging people of all nations to come to us. In this way they can hear and see and experience the gospel in ways that may not be possible in their home nations, where Christianity is illegal or suppressed. This is what Christians do—what mission-minded Christians do.

Might it be dangerous to do this? Might some people take advantage of us? Might some of those who come from other countries actually be looking for ways to do us harm? Yes, there may be some. But we can say two things in response. First, the vast majority of people who take the risk to travel from one country to another are simply looking for a better life. The Bible clearly calls us to assist those who are seeking to escape poverty or oppression. Second, Jesus never told the disciples that following him would be safe, or that telling others about him would be safe. In fact, he told them quite the opposite.

    “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:34-38).

Excerpted from Andrew T. Le Peau, Mark Through Old Testament Eyes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2017), 206-08.

*Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), 114-19; and Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 73-94.

Images: The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome. Reproduction of a wood engraving by P. Noël after J. Delaunay. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0); Jesus healing–falco pixabay

Who Killed Jesus?

A Lenten Reflection

Who killed Jesus? This question (and some unfortunate answers) have led to malicious, deadly attitudes and actions.

The Jewish leaders, who had been anxious to do away with Jesus for a long time, finally had the opportunity to put him on trial—even if it was in the dead of night in a kangaroo court. But because they had no authority under Roman rule to enact capital punishment on the charge of blasphemy, they instigated a mob to pressure Pontius Pilate. He then had his solders execute Jesus by crucifixion.

Though it was the Romans who hoisted Jesus on a cross, many Christians down the centuries have harbored anti-Jewish sentiment, labeling them Christ killers. Pogroms, persecution, cruelty, and the holocaust have been the terrible results.

All this comes not from a misunderstanding but from willful blindness. Did the Jews kill Jesus? Paul makes it clear this is completely wrongheaded.

“Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin,” he tells us in Romans 3:9. Jews and Gentiles killed Jesus. No one can claim moral superiority. None is guiltless. “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded” (Rom 3:27). Both groups have rejected God and his Son. Nonetheless, because of God’s love, “Christ died for the ungodly. . . . While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6, 8).

Who killed Jesus? We did. We, sinful Jews and Gentiles, put him on the cross. Those first-century Jews and those Gentiles who condemned and crucified Jesus stood in our place, symbolically representing us and our sin. At the same time Christ stood in the place of all of us who were not just bystanders but who were his executioners.

Thank God that Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive us. We didn’t know what we were doing.

photo credit: PublicDomainPictures Pixabay

He Died for Me, and More

A Lenten Reflection

Christ died for me. That is a wonderful, miraculous truth. The creator of the universe thought I and my relationship with God were of such importance, that it was worth his death to restore a broken relationship and turn an enemy into a friend.

As amazing as this is, there is more. The New Testament often speaks of supernatural powers, rulers, and authorities of this dark world that are opposed to Christ. (Romans 8:38-39; Ephesians 6:12).

At the cross Christ defeated these, disarming them and bringing them into submission (Colossians 2:13-15). He destroyed Death (2 Timothy 1:9-10). He broke the power of the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8).

During Lent we consider the cost of our salvation. At the same time, we dare not neglect that the cross reshaped the cosmos. We are part of that reshaping. Without this larger perspective, however, we diminish the cross. We fail to appreciate its full significance. The power of Sin, Death, and Hell are broken.

The cross was about us, but not just about us. We magnify Christ even more when we extol the universe-shaking story that lays low the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

photo credit: WikiImages Pixabay

The Grand Landscape of Scripture

When it comes to the Bible, scholars and non-scholars have something in common. We can both get lost in minutia.

Academics can get lost in the details of philology and morphology. The rest of us are prone to proof-texting, ripping verses or phrases out of context as if the Bible were a book of disconnected timeless truths or a mere handbook for living.

When we miss the big picture, Chris Wright and Gary Burge come to our rescue with excellent companion volumes—The Old Testament in Seven Sentences and The New Testament in Seven Sentences.

Each offers seven grand themes sparked by iconic verses in the Bible that help us see the majestic vista of God’s work. Wright’s choices from the Old Testament are creation, Abraham, Exodus, David, prophets, gospel, and wisdom. In the New, Burge walks us through fulfillment, kingdom, cross, grace, covenant, spirit, completion.

The two books link together in another way. Wright appropriately notes how the Old Testament points to and is fulfilled in Christ. Burge regularly points out how the New is based on and rooted in the Old. In plain and engaging language, both authors provide this necessary service because we have little hope of understanding Jesus or the apostles without engaging both testaments.

The result is a complete, brief, and readable overview of the Bible. Each book provides discussion questions for each chapter. Taking one a week, then, any church or small group could in under four months lift their heads from the weeds to see the grand landscape that is God’s story.

Note: I received complementary copies of both books from the publisher. I also was responsible for signing Chris Wright to do his book for IVP, though I had retired before the book was released and did not participate in its development or final form. My opinions are my own.

A Welcome Approach to Mark’s Gospel

One of the besetting sins of churchgoers throughout the ages has been to take verses out of context. We show disrespect for and do damage to the Bible when we act like it is a grab bag of timeless truths we can rummage through at will. We mislead others and ourselves about what the authors actually meant.

The paragraphs surrounding a particular verse are key, of course. But so is the way authors structure their work—how episodes are laid side by side or paired in different sections. Structure conveys meaning which we are wise to pay attention to that lies beyond the surface of the text.

In Dean Deppe’s tour de force, The Theological Intentions of Mark’s Literary Devices, he systematically unpacks the dense networks of meaning embedded in Mark’s gospel. Though not organized as a commentary, the book covers virtually the entire gospel.

Mark is famous for his “sandwiches” (also called intercalations or chiasms) in which he divides a narrative in two, inserting another in the middle. The story of Jairus’s daughter, for example, is interrupted by the woman who has been sick for twelve years.

In this academic work, Deppe also considers other devices such as framing (matched episodes that bookend a section), allusionary repetitions (recurrences of Old Testament references), mirroring (reflecting the experiences of the community Mark wrote for), and narrative surprises (such as a response of fear or lack of understanding to a miracle rather than amazement or faith).

Under his detailed analysis, four themes emerge: the Messiah is a suffering, crucified servant; discipleship will also be met with suffering, confusion, and failure; the Gentiles are welcomed into the new community in Christ; many Jewish regulations are fulfilled in Jesus and are no longer in effect.

In these last two themes, Deppe sees Mark closely aligned to the theology of Paul who pioneered mission to the Gentiles. Luke and Matthew, by contrast, regularly soften Mark’s diminishment of OT regulations (e.g., eliminating “The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean,” and others). In this vein Mark likewise suggests that Jesus’ temple action is more than a symbolic cleansing but a symbolic destruction.

Deppe comes to these conclusions partially through his use of biblical criticism. While this results in seeming to set Jesus against Mark at times, his approach also unearths interesting insights regarding Mark’s use of geography. His work on the absence of Jesus (when Jesus is separated from the disciples) is also worthwhile.

I have long favored Deppe’s general approach of paying attention to Mark’s sophisticated use of literary devices. In Mark Through Old Testament Eyes, I especially consider two interpretive keys. The first is, as the title suggests, Mark’s intertextuality and the second is the way he structures his gospel.

I welcome Deppe’s comprehensive work both for the overall emphasis he gives to these and other devices for understanding Mark as well as for the thirty, sixty, hundredfold yield of insights into the gospel that he harvests in this important book.

Did Jesus Make a Difference?

In the last century millions were killed in genocide, a hundred million in armed conflicts, fifty million more in political purges. Has Jesus, acknowledged as the most influential person in world history, really made any difference?

Thomas Cahill begins to answer this question in Desire of the Everlasting Hills by considering the written record of Jesus’ life and the other documents his earliest followers left behind. He doesn’t make the mistake of homogenizing the four gospels into one bland account. Instead he recognizes the distinct emphases of the gospel writers, devoting a chapter to each of the four, and as a result giving us a richer picture.

While starting with an introduction on the Greek and Roman history that led up to the New Testament era, chapters on Paul and the early church round out his account. Throughout he shows respects for the text by quoting many long New Testament passages—including the entire letter of Paul to Philemon! This Cahill shrewdly summarizes as “instructing the slave master in his Christian duty, while seeming not to do so” (237).

Cahill offers a popular history based in mainstream scholarship. Having written a book on Mark’s gospel, I take issue with some points, but I agree with far more. Cahill does not, for example, dismiss miracles and the resurrection as mere fantasy. He calls for us to seriously consider the evidence that supports such reports.

Rather than focusing on particularly “spiritual” topics, Cahill emphasizes other themes inspired by Jesus—peace, justice, and lifting up the poor and marginalized. While the book is not religious in its intention, the author seems not to be able to help lapsing into some wonderfully devotional passages.

What of the initial question that inspired the book? He only hints at answers. Certainly the crucified image of the righteous sufferer has remained strong, inspiring many to follow his example even at great risk. Also, it is hard to imagine the Bill of Rights and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights emerging without the widespread influence of Jesus. “The pressure to make peace [in various quarters of today’s world] is quite unlike anything the Greeks or Romans or even the Elizabethans could have imagined” (310).

We have far to go in becoming the people Jesus called us to. Yet because of Jesus, we know the way.


photo credit: Pixabay, wynpnt

Bible Myth #23

We all know the story.

Saul persecuted the early Christians until, in a flash of light from the sky, God knocked him off his horse. He heard a voice call to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And who was speaking? “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And that’s how Saul turned from tormenting Jesus Followers to being their foremost missionary.

But there’s one detail in this tale that is wrong. A mistake. The Bible never says it. Yet we have retold this error over and over. What’s amiss?

There was no horse. Acts 9 doesn’t mention it. What about the other two times in Acts that Paul tells his story of meeting Jesus? No horse. Maybe it’s in one of Paul’s letters where he gives a bit of his life story? Sorry. No horse. Even reputable writers like Thomas Cahill perpetuate the myth.*

Why do we keep insisting on a horse? No doubt something is at work here similar to the adage about repeating a lie often enough that it becomes the truth. But there may be another reason. Religious artists over recent centuries have depicted Paul with a four-footed friend, Caravaggio chief among them. So the image fixes itself in our minds.

Admittedly, not much hangs on whether Saul rode a mighty steed or even a bedraggled burro. No decisive doctrine is cast down. No historical record is blinded.

What it does tell us is that we must read the text. And read it carefully. Just because we think the Bible says something, doesn’t make it so. Even if we’ve heard it a hundred times, we need to read slowly, ask good questions, pay attention, write down what we see, be quiet, and listen.

If we do, we might even hear the voice of Jesus.

*Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 123.

Women in Mark’s Gospel

Ancient writers are known for sometimes considering women to be minor, unimportant, and perhaps not fully human. In the Gospels, that is far from the case. Women are not presented as lesser or one-dimensional beings. They are presented as people who show the full range of human agency, experience, and potential. Consider the array of characters we find just in the Gospel of Mark.

Sometimes women are simply recipients of grace such as Peter’s sick mother-in-law who was healed by Jesus or Jairus’s daughter whom Jesus raised from the dead (Mark 1:30-31; 5:21-24, 35-43). They are no less deserving of divine attention than men, regardless of their age or position.

In other cases women are honored overtly for taking public initiative to show their faith against the pressures of culture and circumstances. These include the woman who was sick for twelve years, the Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed, the widow who gave sacrificially to the Temple treasury, and the woman who anoints Jesus at Simon’s house with very costly perfumed oil (Mark 5:25-34; 7:24-30; 12:41-44; 14:3-9).

At least one woman is presented as evil. Herodias had long wanted to have John the Baptist killed for speaking against her divorce from Philip and marriage to Herod. When the opportunity arose, she callously used her daughter to have John executed without cause (Mark 6:17-29).

Women are also shown to have a complex mixture of faith and fear. Several bravely stood near the cross when Jesus’ male followers had deserted him. Yet two days later, after seeing the angel at the empty tomb, they fled in terror, afraid to tell anyone what they saw and heard (Mark 15:40-41; 16:1-8).

In short, women are presented much as men are—sometimes passive, sometimes evil, sometimes flawed, sometimes courageous. In the ancient world women were rarely allowed to hold positions of responsibility and were often treated much like servants. In contrast Jesus and the Gospel writers see women as full participants in the drama of humanity and of the kingdom.