Bible

“Perfect Love Drives Out Fear,” but Whose, of What?

1 John may win the prize for the most quotable single letter in the New Testament.  “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:6);If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9); “But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (2:1); “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth” (2:20); “No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (2:23); “But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (3:2); “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (4:1); “We love, because he first loved us” (4:19); “everyone born of God overcomes the world” (5:4), are just a few of the often-quoted verses.  You could almost read the letter as the “greatest hits” of pastoral maxims developed over a lifetime.

And among these quotable quotes is the simple phrase, “Perfect love drives out fear” (4:18).  I have quoted this myself many times, and often heard it quoted.  But it occurred to me recently to ask, for the first time, whose love?  Love of what, or whom?  And for that matter, fear of what, or whom? (more…)

Zephaniah 3:1: Modern vs. Ancient Translations?

By God’s grace, English translations of the Bible are generally of very high quality, far higher than the translations of any other ancient text.  More effort is put into securing just the right sense and nuance when translating the Bible than anything else, because so much is at stake.  Due to my over-education, I have the rare privilege of reading English translations not only alongside the original Hebrew, but alongside other translations used by the earliest Christians in Greek (the Septuagint), Syriac (the Peshitta), and Latin (the Vulgate).  And when I came to Zephaniah 3:1, I noticed something strange: unusually, all the English translations I looked at disagreed with all the early versions.  What’s going on here? (more…)

“This is Your Life”

The day was hot and dusty.  The sun beat down mercilessly on the hills, the rocks, the long-parched dirt.  The people were standing in the sun, sweating.  There were a lot of people!  Maybe half a million, maybe a million, perhaps more, unimaginably many people.

And they were on the move.  They had been walking for years with their tents and their families, their goats and their sheep.  More than years, it had been decades.  Most of them were not old enough to remember when they started; they had only heard the stories, terrifying stories what life was like before- before…  They didn’t even have a word to call the crazy events that had set them moving all those years ago, which only the oldest few among them now remembered.  But they knew the heat and the dust, the tents and the rocks, the animals and the sacrifices.

Their old leader, the last of his generation, the oldest one among them still alive, remembered those days, and he knew where they were going.  He said they were getting close, that in just a few more weeks now, they would get to their new home.  But he did not expect to live that long himself.  He looked healthy for one so unimaginably old, still sharp-eyed and walking around.  But he had already named his successor, another one of the oldest among the people (he was over eighty years old!), who remembered when it all started.  Their oldest leader warned them that he himself would not arrive with them to where they were going.

And so, on this hot, dusty day, they stood outside in the heat and the sun, in their sweat and their thirst, to listen to their old leader for what might be the last time.  He had a lot that he wanted to tell them!  He had been talking to them for days, preparing them for the future, but also reminding them of what happened in the past, before most of them were born.  They needed to know where they came from, and where they were going, and most importantly, why.  And they listened, because they knew he was speaking the words of their God to them.  Their old leader was the spokesman for the God who had rescued them back then and who walked with them now, the God whose tent was among them, who had come with them all these years and decades, the God who was with them here in this hot dry place, and who was soon going to bring them to their destination.

Their old leader struggled up a slope, helped by some of the younger men, so that his voice could carry above their heads.  When he finally reached a spot where most people could see him, he turned around slowly, and everyone hushed except for some of the babies scattered among the crowds.  The people waited in silence for his words.

But unlike previous times, when he had told them of their God’s care for them, had warned them to avoid evil, and instructed them how to live good lives with their God, this time he… sang.  He sang!  His voice, surprisingly strong in one so old, echoed off the rocky slopes above him, and the beautiful, mysterious words echoed in their hearts.  It was a song about their God and about his people – about them!  It was a confusing song about worship and rebellion, about their God and other gods, about how awe-inspiring their God was, in both his kindness and his unique perfection.  The oldest among them listened most intently, and tried to save the words in their hearts; they knew they would need to think about this more later.  And after the old leader sang, his appointed successor repeated it after him, just to make sure that it was remembered, that it would not be lost.

Moses finished speaking all these words to all Israel.  He said to them, “Pay attention to all the words which I am warning you today, which you will command your children to keep doing all the words of this Law.  For it is not a meaningless message to you, but it is your life, and by this message you will prolong days upon the ground which you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deut. 32:45-47)

Over three millennia ago on a hot dusty slope overlooking the Jordan River, Moses, the servant of God, taught a prophetic song to the Lord’s people and encouraged them to remain faithful to God and to pay attention to his message.  God’s message to his people is not just good advice, not just beautiful poetry, not just rules to live by.  God’s message to us is our life.  “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard” (Heb. 2:1).

Psalm 131: A Confession of Humility

Moses gets a bit of flack sometimes for writing, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).  Indeed, some people even make that into an argument that Moses could not have written this verse, although the argument presumes a surprisingly narrow realm of psychological possibility.  I’ve often thought that if God tells you to write something, the humble thing to do is to write it.

Humility is not often praised in American churches, not often held up as a model to emulate.  And this is despite the explicit blessing of our Lord Jesus: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).  Most sermons I have heard on this text take great pains to assure the audience that “meek” doesn’t mean “doormat.”  That is an accurate observation, but when the caveat dominates the message more than the positive meaning of the text, perhaps it is indicative of a vitamin deficiency in the churches with whom I have worshiped.  Humility is a virtue that we need more of. (more…)

Grace With Whom? A Text-Critical Exploration of Revelation 22:21

At the end of the book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, John wrote, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with…” whom?  The manuscripts, and the English translations, widely disagree on the conclusion of that verse.  We need to look at the evidence and consider how the different possibilities arose in order to figure out what the most likely original text was.  (This is what makes textual criticism so fun!) (more…)

Xerxes’ Wife

I’ve been particularly interested recently in Ancient Near Eastern history, and in particular how the Old Testament interacts with its context.  I have been repeatedly told by academics and intellectuals – including some Christians! – that the Old Testament is just a collection of myths and fictions with no connection to what really happened.  This seemed fishy to me.  So I’ve been digging over the past few months, and found many more connections even than I expected to find.  One, which illustrates the challenges and the possibilities, is the question of the wife of the Achaemenid Persian shah Xerxes I (r. 486-465). (more…)

Israel and the Church

Last month’s decision by the US president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought out the full range of responses, as usual.  Such responses always dismay me as to how poorly both sides understand what the Bible says about Israel, land, and the Church today.  Here are some notes for a discussion I led on the subject, specifically for Christians; the notes have been somewhat edited since the original version. (more…)

“Lead Us Not Into Temptation” To Erroneously “Correct” Tradition, or… If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Pope Francis made headlines recently for mandating a different translation of the Lord’s Prayer into modern languages.  He is urging Roman Catholics to switch from the traditional phrasing “Lead us not into temptation” to a new version “Let us not enter into temptation.”  Note that he was not suggesting changing the text of Scripture or what Jesus said; he was merely arguing that this prayer has been mistranslated into the languages with which we today are familiar.  Yet casting this as a translation issue is to misrepresent the theological basis for the objection and how it functions. (more…)

Corban, Religious Reasoning, and Being a Git

In Mark 7, Jesus got into a religious argument with some Pharisees and lawyers.  They accused his closest followers of loose living, not being respectable and doing what they’re supposed to as good, observant Jews.  Jesus accused them of nullifying God’s word to support their notion of respectability.  That’s a heavy charge.  The issue here is how they were reasoning about corban.  We need to see what corban is, then we need to see how the Pharisees got to their position on the matter, and finally we shall see how easy it is to imitate them. (more…)

A Loose Translation Within Scripture?

There are a number of places in the Gospels where the words of Jesus or someone else are reported in Hebrew or Aramaic, followed by a gloss in Greek (which is usually translated into English for English-reading audiences).  Thus “Immanuel” is glossed “God with us” in Matthew 1:23, and “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani” as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in Matthew 27:46.  But in one case the supplied translation adds a few words: in Mark 5:41, Jesus says to the dead girl, “Talitha koum!” which is translated as “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”  A rudimentary knowledge of Aramaic quickly indicates that talitha is “little girl” and koum (qum) is “get up!” but where did “I say to you” come from?  This has long made me scratch my head, but now I have a theory.  (Nerd alert!) (more…)