Orphans, Widows, the Poor … and Justice

God wants His people to live a certain way. To act a certain way. To have certain honest motivations. He wants His people to love one another, and to prove it by their actions.

The fruit of real salvation is moral and spiritual reformation, because you love God. You don’t “clean yourself up” to gain favor with God; that’s not possible. Instead, because God has already changed your heart and mind and given you spiritual life, you reform your life with His help. Part of that means you love your fellow believers.

Well-meaning Christians often cite biblical commands to care for the poor, the widows and orphans, and try to apply these to mercy ministries. Douglas Moo, a conservative commentator, is representative of this trend when he applies one of these passages (James 1:27) in a generic way to society at large. He implies James is issuing a call to mercy ministries in the context of evangelism:

Christians whose religion is pure will imitate their Father by intervening to help the helpless. Those who suffer from want in the third world, in the inner city; those who are unemployed and penniless; those who are inadequately represented in government or in law—these are the people who should see abundant evidence of Christians’ ‘pure religion’.

Douglas J. Moo, James, vol. 16, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 90.

This is all true, but it isn’t what James meant. That passage, and others like it, don’t teach this. Instead, they teach Christians to care for one another, to love one another, to watch out for one another. To be sure, it’s a wonderful evangelistic strategy to couple mercy ministries with Gospel proclamation. You can win a hearing for the Gospel by helping people. But, that’s not what these passages are about.

Who’s the audience?

When Jesus summarized the entire thrust of the Old Covenant law (Mk 12:28-34), He said it had two foundations:

  1. to love God with everything you had (Deut 6:4-5), and
  2. to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself (Lev 19:18).

If you look at both these citations, who was the audience? They were both addressed to Old Covenant members. They weren’t for unbelievers. They were for believers.

Regarding the first citation (Deut 6:4-5), Moses preached the Book of Deuteronomy to explain the Old Covenant to the people as they prepared to invade the Promised Land (“Moses undertook to explain this law …” Deut 1:5). As for the second, the context in Leviticus shows it was written for believers, too. But, beyond that, take a look at the context around the citation to “love your neighbor.” It tells us quite a bit:

  • Israelites had to leave some of their harvest from vineyards and crops for the poor and needy in their covenant community; their believing community (Lev 19:9-10)
  • They couldn’t steal or lie to one another. They also couldn’t bear false witness against one another (Lev 19:11-12)
  • They couldn’t oppress or rob one another; that is, they had to compensate one another fairly. They had to pay wages on time. They couldn’t take advantage of the blind or deaf. Why? Because Yahweh is Lord, and they should fear His wrath for disobedience (Lev 19:13)
  • They had to uphold justice and righteousness in legal matters (Lev 19:15)
  • They couldn’t slander one another (Lev 19:16)
  • They had to settle disputes among themselves, rather than let hate simmer in their hearts. There was no room for grudges or plots of vengeance; rather, they had to love one another (Lev 19:17-18).

What’s behind all this? What’s the concept undergirding all these commands? Simple: God’s people ought to love each other. They ought to care about each other. They should want to prove it by their actions. God expects His people to live His way, and part of that is to love fellow believers.

If you can understand this, then you can understand the references in the Bible to the widow, the orphan and the poor. You can understand who those commands are directed to.

Proving the point

The rest is pretty easy. Here are some representative examples from Scripture:

When Moses said this:

You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns.

Deuteronomy 24:14

He was referring to fellow covenant members; either native born Israelites or proselytes who had joined the community. He was referring to how God’s people should interact with each other. This echoes the commands from Leviticus 19.

Moses meant the same thing when he continued, and wrote this:

You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

Deuteronomy 24:17-18

This speaks for itself, and so does the audience.

One of the condemnations the prophet Ezekiel brought against nation of Judah was their moral wickedness; specifically, the way they mistreated one another. Ezekiel wrote:

Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you.

Ezekiel 22:7

You should read the entire paragraph for context, but Ezekiel’s point here is very clear. Part of their sin is their mistreatment of one another, especially those who deserve special respect – parents, proselytes who have joined the community, and the most vulnerable in the covenant society.

This was the same sentiment the Apostle John had when he wrote, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,” (1 Jn 3:18). His observation was borne out of the same worldview that Ezekiel had, that Moses had, that Jesus had. God’s people should love one another, and show it.

In Zechariah’s day, as he and Haggai struggled to encourage the returned exiles to rebuild the temple, he reminded them of their father’s mistakes:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” But they refused to pay attention hand turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.

Zechariah 7:8-11

Before the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, before the Babylonians crushed Judah, God was angry with His people for how they mistreated one another.

Even Amos, who wrote during the secular glory days of the Northern Kingdom, had the same message:

Thus says the Lord:

“For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment,
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—

Amos 2:6

What does this mean? It’s difficult to nail down precisely, but it’s clear the rich and powerful in Israelite society were oppressing the vulnerable. You get the picture of them accepting bribes to sell out the righteous for silver, or for material possessions. He continued:

those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth
    and turn aside the way of the afflicted

Amos 2:7

You get the image of those in power smashing the faces of the poor into the dirt, and turning away those who are afflicted and helpless. This is a perversion of the society God commanded the Israelites to model.

And, finally, we come to James:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

James 1:27

James is talking to Christians about what their faith should look like. The fruit it ought to bear. What is the mark of a true Christian, of true religion? Well, simple! This command is really an inversion of Jesus’ summary. James says we must (1) love fellow believers, and (2) keep ourselves free from this evil world, which really means an all-consuming love for God.

What about the parable of the good Samaritan?

This is a good question. Why did Jesus give the parable? What prompted Him to employ it? He had a reason, didn’t He? Here’s the context:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

Luke 10:25

The 72 disciples have just returned, and given an ecstatic report of their ministry success (“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven …” Lk 10:18). Jesus rejoiced with them; “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (Lk 10:23). He is glad God has revealed His plan to these simple men.

And, on the heels of this great event, the lawyer stands up and asks Jesus the question. He isn’t sincere; he wants to “put him to the test.” Jesus asks the man about the Old Covenant law, and he correctly responds by summarizing it the same way Jesus has done (Lk 10:26-28).

But, the man wants more. He’s “desiring to justify himself,” (Lk 10:29). He wants to limit his responsibilities as much as possible. He responds just like a stereotypical lawyer. Define “love.” Define “neighbor.” If he can narrow his target as much as possible, it’ll make his obligations so much easier to meet!

Think about it; would your spouse accept this kind of logic? What would you think if, at the altar on your wedding day, your husband halted the ceremony and said, “Now, I agree with all the lovey stuff, in theory. But, let’s clarify a few things. Define ‘until death.’ Define ‘love.’ Define ‘cherish.’ Let’s get this down on paper before we go any further!”

Are these the actions of a loving, would-be husband? I don’t think so! This is a guy who’s not serious. A guy who’s looking to do as little as possible. It’s the same with the lawyer. Jesus knows this; it’s why he tells the parable.

The Samaritan was a “good neighbor” because he didn’t care about legalistic qualifications, or legal definitions, or his strict scope of responsibilities. He saw a need, and he met it. That man is the good neighbor. That man fulfills the intent of the Old Covenant law, because he showed mercy.

What’s the point? The point is that a good neighbor is someone who shows mercy, not someone who seeks to do as little as possible in order to justify himself in his own mind. That’s why Jesus told the parable.

Wrapping up

The Old and New Covenant commands to care for widows, orphans and the poor are to believers, and their primary application is to widows, orphans and the poor within the believing community. True faith and Christian religion won’t seek to minimize this responsibility or shirk it; it will prove itself by genuine mercy and kindness to fellow believers in need.  

Mercy ministries to the general public are outstanding vehicles for evangelism. They just aren’t what these “justice” passages are talking about.

Abortion and the Christian

This past Sunday, I preached perhaps the most depressing sermon of my life, entitled, “What Should a Christian Think About Abortion?” It was depressing to study and prepare for, and even more depressing to deliver. It’s necessary to talk about this topic, because it is act of terrible wickedness. However, God is rich in mercy and grace, and can forgive anyone of any sin – including abortion. That was an important focus of my sermon, as I said here:

Today, both legislative houses in the State of New York passed a bill entitled the “Reproductive Health Act.” You can find a good article on this issue, here. But, the best place to go is the source. And, the excerpt of the new law I want you to see is this:

§  2599-aa.  Policy and purpose. The legislature finds that comprehensive reproductive health care is a fundamental component of every individual’s health, privacy and equality. Therefore, it is the policy of the state that:

The term “reproductive health care” is often a polite euphemism for “abortion.” As you read this new law, think about how the horror of the language’s meaning is clouded by the boring, bureaucratic prose. The law continues:

1. Every individual has the fundamental right to choose or refuse contraception or sterilization.

There is no argument, here. The crux is in what comes next …

2.  Every individual who becomes pregnant has the fundamental right to choose to carry the pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion, pursuant to this article.    

In my sermon, I mentioned there were two principles that formed the philosophical foundation that makes the pro-abortion mindset possible. To be sure, not every woman who has an abortion actually buys into this mindset wholeheartedly. But, I submit these two sinful principles certainly help provide moral justification for the act of abortion.

These principles are: (1) a denial that the unborn child is a “person” with a corresponding right to life, and (2) an insatiable demand for personal autonomy, to deny you’re under the authority of God, your creator.

You can see that with this language. The law declares, without any justification, that every person who becomes pregnant “has the fundamental right … to have an abortion.”

Says who? You can only buy into this idea if you (1) don’t believe the unborn child is a human being with rights, and (2) you’ve wholeheartedly bought the idea that you’re a law unto yourself. Both these ideas are sinful, wrong, and at odds with the Christian faith.

In my sermon, I talked about the why Christians should see human life is sacred, because people are made “in the image of God:”

I then spoke about the Christian definition of “personhood:”

3. The state shall not discriminate against, deny, or interfere with the exercise of the rights set forth in this section in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services or information.

If you deny the statement in #2 (above), then you “discriminate.”

§ 2599-bb. Abortion. 

1.  A  health care practitioner licensed, certified, or authorized under title eight of the education law, acting within his or her lawful scope of practice, may perform  an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence  of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.   

This law expands who may perform an abortion. Now, in the State of New York, any “health care practitioner” can conduct one. A “health care practitioner” can be a physician, midwife, or even a physician’s assistant.

When can an abortion be done? There are three circumstances:

First, the abortion can be conducted at any time up to 24 weeks (6 months). This up to the cusp of the third trimester. By this time, the baby has unique fingerprints, can grasp things with its hands, can smile, has visible sex organs, has vocal cords, the mother can feel movement, and the baby even has a bit of hair. Babies born at the 24 week mark have survived.

At this point, it’s likely one of these abortion procedures I described on Sunday will be used:

Second, the abortion can be conducted if there is reason to believe the baby will not survive to term.

Third, and this is the most chilling of all, an abortion may be performed if it’s “necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.” Who determines this? As quoted above, it depends “on the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case.” This is purposely vague language; you can make this mean whatever you want. Judgment based on what? The law doesn’t say, which means there’s a hole big enough to drive a Mack truck through. This is likely the point.

Here is a video clip from Planned Parenthood, documenting the spontaneous cheers which erupted in the New York legislature when this evil bill passed:

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Abortion is a terrible evil that has plagued our land. Christians have a duty to speak out compassionately and forcefully, emphasizing both God’s condemnation of this wicked act, and His mercy, grace, love and kindness to forgive any and everyone who comes to Him in repentance and faith.

Today, one Christian theologian said it best:


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Amen.

What Does it Mean to Follow Jesus?

This article is adapted from a sermon I preached on 13 January 2019, entitled “Following the Leader.” Video and audio may be found here.

Peter has just made an important confession; that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One (Mk 8:27-33). How do you sum up what this office means?[1] It’s common to see Christ as the prophet, priest and king. Millard Erickson shifts the emphasis from office to function, and presents Jesus as the revealer, ruler and reconciler.[2]

Because Jesus does these things; because He reveals God’s message, will rule over all creation and reconciles any and everyone who comes to God through Him, how should you follow Jesus? That’s what this passage (Mk 8:34 – 9:1) is all about.

Then, after Jesus summoned the crowd, along with His disciples, He said to them, (Mk 8:34).

Jesus’ lessons on discipleship aren’t just for “super Christians.” Jesus invited apostles and the crowd to listen. If you’re a Christian, this message is for you!

If someone wishes to be following me, he must deny himself, then pick up his cross, then keep on following me (Mk 8:34).

If you’re a Christian, what does Jesus say a faithful life looks like? What do you have to do to be the kind of Christian Jesus can smile at?

Here it is:

  • Deny yourself
  • Pick up your cross
  • Keep on following Jesus; don’t turn back!

What do these mean!?

Deny yourself

This mean God is on the throne in your life; not you. It means you aren’t in charge of your life, God is. Your life isn’t your own (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20). If you’re a Christian, then Christ is your Lord (Rom 14:8-9); do you live like it? The issue is motivation and drive; what gives your life meaning and purpose – your status in union with Christ, or something else?

Christ died so that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised,” (2 Cor 5:15). Do you live your life in service to Jesus? The point is that your purpose in life isn’t to please yourself, or to pursue your own goals – it’s to please God!

Does that mean that, in order to be a faithful Christian, you have to sell everything you have and move to Antarctica and preach the Gospel to penguins? Or, does it mean you have to live on top of a mountain alone, with your wi-fi, so you can be close to God?

No! You don’t need to become a monk; you just need to view your life in the proper perspective. What give your life purpose and meaning? This is a question that goes to motivation, and only you and God know what motivates and energizes your life. If you’re a Christian, it ought to be God. If you’re a Christian, your overriding drive should be to please Him, and serve Him with your life – wherever He’s put you. You aren’t your own, He bought you with a price – do you live for yourself, or for the One who for your sake died and was raised?

Does this mean your job is pointless? No! It just means you need to have the proper perspective about your job. There’s honor in working hard to provide for your family, and God gave you the gifts to do the job you do – it’s not an accident you have the job you do, or that you’ll get the next job you’ll get! It just means your job isn’t your life; it doesn’t define you – your relationship with Jesus Christ defines you (1 Pet 2:9-10). That’s the inspired blueprint for how you ought to think of yourself, if you’re a Christian. You’re a priest for God, saved so you can show and tell the message of the Gospel to the people God has put you around.

Who is on the throne in your life?

You must pick up your cross

This was the cruelest, worst form of capitol punishment in the Roman world. People took hours to die. They were often left to die on their crosses along the roadsides, as a warning to others, where birds and dogs would eat and pick at them as they died! So, what did Jesus mean by this?

He meant you had to be ready to be considered the worst of the worst by the same people who would kill Him (Jn 15:18-19). Condemned prisoners were made to carry the cross-beam of their own crucifixion cross to the execution site (Mk 15:21); Jesus meant you had to be willing to figuratively pick up your cross and march to your own death, if need be (1 Pet 4:12-13).

The Roman Emperor Nero infamously blamed Christians for a massive fire in the city of Rome. Contemporary accounts tell us Nero crucified and burnt Christians alive in Rome. These are the same people Mark probably wrote his Gospel to.

Real faith means that, if necessary, you’re willing to suffer and die for your Savior, for the sake of the Gospel. That means Jesus and His Gospel ought to be the most important things; everything else (including your life) fades far into the background (Phil 3:8).

Who is on the throne in your life?

You must keep on following Jesus!

The Christian faith isn’t a once and done event; it’s not something that stops. A faith that isn’t living, active, and bearing fruit is a faith that’s either in serious trouble, or non-existent (read 1 John). You need to keep on denying yourself. You need to keep on carrying your cross

Why does Jesus say all this?

Because, if he keeps desiring to save his life, he’ll lose it. But, if a person would lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s, he’ll save it (Mk 8:35).

If a person keeps trying to “save his life,” it means Jesus and the Gospel aren’t the most important things in his life. If that’s you, it means your own desires are more important. You’d rather save your life, then potentially lose it by following Jesus. It means everything about the “here and now” is more serious and more important than the great God and Savior, Jesus Christ

If that’s you, then you’re actually losing your life. You have no spiritual resurrection, the wrath of God abides on you (Jn 3:36), and one day your chance for salvation is gone. One psalmist asked, “what man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol,” (Ps 89:48)?

The answer is that God can, through Jesus, and you frittered it away because you valued the things of this world over the things of eternity; the temporary over the permanent, the fleeting over the transcendent.

Is this you? Do you desire to save your life? Solomon said everything in this world is transitory, momentary, fleeting, impermeant – there’s of lasting significance there to hold onto! Wisdom, great possessions, sex, money, living for pleasure, your work and career – all of them are fleeting and transitory. Whatever you’re hold onto instead of Jesus, whatever you’re not willing to let go of for Jesus, that thing will not be there for you in the end.

The only way you can save your soul is to be willing to lose it for Jesus and His Good News. If you’re a Christian, this means your rescue from sin your reconciliation with God, Jesus’ perfect, substitutionary life and death, His miraculous resurrection, your adoption into God’s family from the kingdom of darkness, your status as a brother or sister whom Jesus is not ashamed to call by name – all of these should be the most important things in the world to you. How can wisdom, sex, possessions, money, living for pleasure, or the idol of a career compare to these things?

Whose stamp do you bear and what’re you going to do about it?[3] Is your faith the driving, motivating factor in your life, the thing that gives you purpose and fuels you? Or, is it an add-on; something affixed to the tail-end of your life with dollar store scotch-tape?

Who is on the throne in your life?

For, how does it benefit a man to be gaining the whole world and be losing his life!? (Mk 8:36)

It doesn’t!

After all, what would a man give in exchange for his life (Mk 8:37)?

Everything! Anything! The moon! So, have you? Have you made the decision to deny yourself? Have you made the decision that Jesus and the Gospel are worth picking up your cross for? Have you made the decision to keep on following Jesus, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year?

These aren’t things you do to get salvation; they’re things a genuine Christian will want to do because of salvation; they’re the fruit of spiritual life. Apple tree produce apples. Orange tree produce oranges. Mexican restaurants produce nachos. A Christian likewise ought to do the things Jesus said

Now, Jesus backs up and lays it all out for us:

This is what I mean – if someone is embarrassed about me and my words in this adulterous and sinful age, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in the Father’s glory, [and] with the holy angels,” (Mk 8:38).

What does this mean? Here’s what it means:

  • If you won’t deny yourself for Jesus,
  • If you won’t take up your figurative cross and be prepared to suffer and die for His sake and the Gospel’s sake,
  • If you won’t keep on following Him, or at least have the honest desire to keep on following Him for the remainder of your life  

Then Jesus looks at you and says:

  • This guy is embarrassed about me!
  • This guy is ashamed of me!
  • This guy is embarrassed about my message, about what I said!
  • This guy is ashamed about my message and what I said!

It means Jesus looks at you and says:

  • This guy isn’t ashamed about his greed, but he is ashamed about me!
  • This guy isn’t ashamed about his loving his career more than anything in the world, but he is embarrassed about how nobody comes to the Father, but through me
  • This guy isn’t ashamed of the Gospel, as long as it stays a secret part of his life

If that’s you:

  • Jesus says, “I’ll be ashamed of you when I come back, full of power and glory, along with the holy angels, to set everything right”
  • He’ll look at you and say, “I never knew you!”
  • He’ll look at you and say, “I don’t know who you are!”
  • He’ll look at you and think, “This is sinful guy; a criminal!”
  • He’ll look at you and think, “This guy is unfaithful to the God who created him, just like so many other people – he’s a spiritual adulterer!”
  • He’ll look at you and say, “I’m embarrassed that you claim to belong to me!”
  • He’ll look at you and think, “I’m ashamed of this guy!”

Consider the contrast. A life lived for yourself, for your own ends, for your own transitory dreams, all so it can go into the trashcan at the end of your life? Or, a life lived in service to God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, using and channeling your gifts and abilities for His glory, having (perhaps) that same career, but with the right motivations, having (perhaps) the same money, but with the proper perspective, willing to suffer loss and perhaps die for the sake of the Gospel, and seeing Jesus return in power, glory and honor, and welcoming you with open arms and a great smile, by saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,” (Mt 25:21).

Jesus will return one day, with power and glory, accompanied by the holy angels – and what value will “whatever else” be for you, then?

Then Jesus said to them, “I’m telling you the solemn truth, that there are some people standing here who will not taste death until they see God’s kingdom coming in power,” (Mk 9:1).

As a way to encourage His disciples to take the longer view, to have the proper perspective, to see Him as he really is and (thus) to count everything as loss compared to Him, Jesus will lift the curtain a bit and show them a taste of His glory, power and honor … in the next passage (Mk 9:2-8)!

If Christian churches expected people to follow Jesus with the same passion and fervor He told us to have, then churches would be smaller, and the people left would be more zealous for Christ and the Gospel. If you’re a Christian, you need to follow Jesus with the same all-consuming passion He said you must have!

Who is on the throne in your life?

Choose to follow Jesus. Choose to put Him on the throne in your life. Choose to keep on following Him, just like He said


Notes

[1] I addressed this issue in a sermon from Mark 8:27-33, preached on 30 December 2018, entitled “Jesus is the Christ, But What Does That Mean?” You can find the audio, video and sermon notes at https://bit.ly/2R0IZt0

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 780ff. 

[3] See Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5:1-5. 

What is the Central Theme of the Bible?

There are lots of opinions on how to summarize the story of reality God gives us in the Bible. Mike Vlach argues “kingdom” is the grand theme of Scripture, which I first encountered at Seminary and through Alva McCain’s book. Indeed, Vlach’s new release is often seen as supplanting McClain’s tome as the premier biblical theological study on the Kingdom of God, from a dispensational perspective.

I agree that “kingdom” is the main theme of the Bible. Here is Vlach’s summary of the Bible’s storyline with “kingdom” as the theme (pg. 23):

What I Wrote in 2018

These statistics are rather interesting. Yesterday, I revealed what I read in 2018. My total was 36 books, which beats the 30 I read in 2017. Today, however, I wish to reveal what I wrote in 2018. Here it is:

Sermons and adult bible study lesson

I know sermons are just as much about communication as they are about writing, but I decided to put them in this category, anyway. As best I can tell, I preached 84 sermons in 2018. This is far, far below what I had to do as a pastor in rural Illinois, where my preaching and teaching load was twice this amount. You can find most of them at the link, above. Some of them, however, were not recorded and you’ll have to take my word for it!

My own website

I became a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church on 20 May 2018, which is precisely two years after I left my previous pastorate in Illinois. This means I have much less time to write. Even so, I managed to write 46 articles this year. Many of them were excerpts from books I’d been reading. I wish I had time to write more.

SharperIron.org.

I write every week for a website called … (you guessed it) … SharperIron.org. I write two original articles per month, and post one article each week about a theological topic. On this last bit, sometimes I post heretical points of view, and other times just “controversial” stuff to generate discussion. This doesn’t entail any original thought; I just have to find something flashy from which to post an excerpt.

I see I wrote 69 articles for SharperIron in 2018.

Summing up

So, as I figure it, I wrote and preached 84 sermons, wrote 115 articles and read 36 non-fiction books in 2018. That’s not too bad. Not bad at all. And, I happen to be reading four books simultaneously right now! Perhaps I can make it to 40 in 2019 ..

What I Read in 2018

I read 36 non-fiction books in 2018. Most are theological, and the rest are mostly history or biography. Here they are:

The Global Public Square: Religious Freedom and the Making of a World Safe for Diversity by Os Guinness

A wonderful book. I reviewed it here. This is a great book about religious liberty.

With Malice Towards None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates.

A great one-volume biography. Worth reading.

Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible by Mark Ward.

Great book. Ward tackles the King James Version Only (“KJVO”) movement without wading into the quagmire of textual criticism. I interviewed the author here, at length. It strongly complements James White’s book, for those who are looking for answers to the KJVO movement.

1 and 2 Maccabees by Who Knows (RSV translation).

I think the Old Testament apocrypha is very important for pastors to better understand the background and context of the New Testament. Good stuff; especially 1 Maccabees.

1 and 2 Esdras by Who Knows (RSV translation).

More Old Testament apocrypha. These books is usually grouped with the Old Testament Apocrypha, even though that really isn’t accurate. It’s actually a composite book containing three documents. The first is a Jewish apocalypse from the late first-century (also known as 4 Esdras), likely written just after the destruction of the temple in the aftermath of the Jewish Wars. It’s book-ended by two, shorter Christians works; the first from the second century and the other from the third century.

It’s a fascinating work. There are many, clear allusions to New Testament texts in the Christian documents. And, the discussion of theodicy in the Jewish apocalypse is very, very interesting.

A few highlights from 4 Esdras section; (1) the author took a literal, creationist interpretation to Genesis 1-3; (2) the theodicy shows a high respect for God’s sovereignty and has echoes of Job, and makes some excellent theological comments as it summarizes Israel’s sin, and (3) there’s even a Daniel interpretation.

Awakening the Evangelical Mind: An Intellectual History of the Neo-Evangelical Movement by Owen Strachan.

Good stuff. If you’ve read George Marsden’s classic Reforming Fundamentalismthen you’ll re-tread some of the same ground here. This book takes a slightly different approach. It uses Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry and (to a lesser degree) Edward Carnell as foils to discuss the intellectual awakening which prompted the evangelical movement in the immediate post-World War 2 era. It’s a fascinating, quick read.

It’s also sad, as you see the seeds of the “Gospel-centric” approach to coalition building which inevitably produced a movement characterized by theological Jell-O. As we survey the vast theological wasteland that is “evangelicalism” in 21st-century America, and consider the lessons learned from Ockenga, Henry and Carnell’s naive idealism (particularly Henry’s), we see the necessity for a confessional approach to doctrine. Coalitions and movements cannot exist without a strong confessional center. If that means the movements are smaller, I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing.

Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation by Zane Hodges.

I only read 40 pages of this book. I have no problem reading folks I disagree with; I do that all the time. But, Hodges’ book is pure trash. No balance. No scholarship. No fairness. Just angry trash. Hodges position, that repentance isn’t necessary for salvation, is a heresy and it’s not the Gospel. It’s very, very dangerous.

Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision by N.T. Wright

I don’t know what I think about this. I largely think Wright is arguing against Reformed straw men. I didn’t trace his textual arguments with my Bible open, so I’d have to re-read that section. My sophisticated opinion is that Wright is thinking way, way too hard. I know that makes little sense, but that’s my answer and I’m sticking to it.

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution – 1764 – 1789 by Robert Middlekauff

A great book, from the Oxford History of the United States series.

Overlord by Max Hastings

A great book on the lead-up to D-Day. Hastings is a world-class historian; he brings history down to the popular level without dumbing it down. Outstanding book.

Tobit (RSV translation)

My favorite book from the Old Testament apocrypha, dating from perhaps the 2nd century B.C. I appreciate it because it’s a wonderful story. It’s also a great snapshot of one expression of the faithful Jewish life, in the time before the New Testament era.

Judith (RSV translation)

Judith was one dangerous woman, lemme tell you …

Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle by Henri Blocher.

I was disappointed with this little book. Blocher did have a good point that the common analogy “sin as a virus” unwittingly de-emphasizes the human responsibility for sin, as though it isn’t our fault. Sin is our fault, catching a cold isn’t, and that’s where the analogy breaks down.

Blocher also has problems with federal and natural headship theories about the imputation of sin. His solution is to offer what I perceive to be a sub-set of federal headship. He suggests Adam’s sin is imputed to all of creation, because he was the representative head of creation.  I’ve read this section three times, and I don’t understand how this is different than federal headship.

All in all, this is an academic tome which has little practical connection or value to pastors or, heaven forbid, ordinary Christians. It’s written for the academy and interacts extensively with scholarly literature. I’m temped to donate it to Goodwill straightaway, but … my opinion about this little book is so negative I feel I should read it again in a few months. Perhaps I’m missing something.

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough.

This was a delightful book. I enjoyed it more than perhaps any other I read this past year.

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870 – 1914 by David McCullough.

Another outstanding book. What an amazing story!

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.

This is the first of a three-volume biography Morris wrote about Teddy Roosevelt. This is a marvelous book. The sweep of Roosevelt’s life from birth to the Presidency is extraordinary. The man was a published naturalist, a published naval historian, a New York assemblyman, a rancher, the defacto leader of the U.S. Civil Service Commission for seven years, a Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy on the eve of the Spanish-American War, resigned to lead a volunteer band of cavalry in the war and posthumously earned the Medal of Honor for his exploits, returned and was elected Governor of New York, then became Vice President of the United States in William McKinley’s second administration.

When McKinley was assassinated barely six months into his second term, Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States. This volume covers all of this.

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris.

The second volume of Morris’ biography on Roosevelt. This doesn’t move along quite as fast, but it’s still excellent. Here, we see Roosevelt as a consummate statesman, negotiating an end to the Pennsylvania coal strike and mediating to help end the Russo-Japanese War. We see a portrait of a brilliant man who has come into full and absolute command of his powers.

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Wilken

Very interesting. The more background context a pastor can have, the better. I need to read it again.

Solving Marriage Problems by Jay Adams

Jay Adams is the best. His books are great, and very helpful. Pastors should get his material.

John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock by Iain Murray

This book is not worth the $25.87 that Amazon is currently selling it for. It’s more of a sketch than a full-fledged biography, as Murray admits. The book is hagiographic, with some gentle pushbacks from Murray about MacArthur’s dispensationalism.

Murray makes some unworthy comments about Lewis S. Chafer, and suggests MacArthur believes Chafer’s weak anthropology laid the groundwork for the easy-believism of 20th century evangelicalism. I’ve read Chafer’s systematic theology, and this is a false charge. Chafer’s anthropology, hamartiology and soteriology are first-rate, and are clearly Reformed.

This book is worth checking out from the library, not buying. Its main weakness is that its more a sketch than a biography.

Historical Theology In-Depth: Themes and Contexts of Doctrinal Development since the First Century by David Beale (2 volumes)

Outstanding set; indispensable. I reviewed it here.

David Beale was a professor of church history at Bob Jones Seminary for 35 years. This two-volume set presents key doctrinal themes from church history in chronological format, through 57 chapters. It contains extensive citations and excerpts from the key players he’s discussing. This is probably the best introductory-level historical theology book I’ve ever read. It’s outstanding.

Every pastor should have this set; it’ll be a quick and ready reference for his entire ministry. Beale’s discussion on the early ecumenical councils (e.g. Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus [though, to be fair, this wasn’t a “real” council] and Chalcedon) is particularly good.

Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture by David deSilva

Very helpful. Very good. I need to read it again.

Baptist History in England and America: Personalities, Positions, and Practices by David Beale

A first-rate, profound study of the Baptist story. It’s better than Leon McBeth’s book. It’s might be the best Baptist history in print.

The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez

I read the 175 pages (or so) that dealt with the medieval church, because that’s an area I particularly want to brush up on. It was excellent. This was my assigned textbook in seminary for a church history survey. It’s a very, very good book. I need to buy the revised edition.

Duty by Robert Gates

I have great respect for Bob Gates. He was Director of the CIA, President of the Texas A&M system, and Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama. This is an outstanding memoir.

Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey

A good book about the Christian worldview. I listened to about half of it, but I’ve heard all this before, so I grew bored about halfway through and stopped reading.

The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord

A great book. The story of Dunkirk must be told, and Lord did a great job.

Seapower by James Stavridis

A book about the role of oceans on geopolitics. It’s sort of an updated version of Mahan’s The Influence of Seapower Upon History. Excellent stuff. I have great respect for Stavridis, the former U.S. Navy Admiral and Supreme Commander of NATO.

Relevance by Os Guinness

Guinness specializes in worldview books, and this one is good. Unfortunately, I can’t remember too much of it, right now. I do remember it was good!

Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush by John Meacham

I listened to this book after President Bush passed away. Very interesting.

Retribution: The Battle or Japan 1944-1945 by Max Hastings

Great book.

Jews in the Roman World by Michael Grant

Outstanding book that provides context to the New Testament writings.

Herod the Great by Michael Grant

This is an indispensable book for pastors who want to understand the New Testament world.

George Whitefield (vol. 1) by Arnold Dallimore

Whitefield was truly a great evangelist, raised up by God.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

This is a terrifying book. I follow President Trump on Twitter, and I believe every word Woodward wrote. In light of James Mattis’ recent resignation as Secretary of Defense, and comments from Rex Tillerson’s (former Secretary of State) and John Kelly (former Secretary of Homeland Security and White House Chief of Staff), I believe it all even more.

One is not like the other …

The Septuagint (“LXX”) is the Greek translation of the Old Testament, dating to sometime in the mid to early 2nd century B.C. It came about because many Jews living abroad, particularly in Egypt, had lost much of their ability to read and speak Hebrew. They need a translation of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures) in their own language. The Mediterranean culture was heavily influenced by Hellenism at this time; a legacy of Alexander the Great’s conquests. So, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek.

This Greek version of the Tanakh was the version Jesus and the apostles used. The majority (but not all) of their Old Testament citations are from the Septuagint. This means the Septuagint is important.

I’m preaching from Zechariah 12:1 – 13:1 next week, as our congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper. This passage contains the famous prophesy about the Israelites looking to Jesus, whom they pierced (Zech 12:10). This “piercing” clearly refers to Jesus’ death, and echoes an earlier prophet, Isaiah (“but He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities …” Isa 53:5).

But, there’s an interesting problem. The LXX is different from the Hebrew!

One of these is not like the other

Here is the difference between the two:

To be sure, there are a lot of similarities. Both have a transition statement (“and”) to let the reader know a new, related subject is coming. Both have Yahweh declaring that He’ll “pour out” onto David’s house and those who are living in Jerusalem a spirit characterized by grace and mercy. These are things that describe this spirit; it’s merciful and full of grace.

But, here is the difference. The Hebrew clearly has a reference to someone whom the Israelites pierced. They’ll look at Yahweh, who they pierced, and they’ll be ashamed. This isn’t in dispute. Look at some other English translations:

  • KJV: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced …”
  • RSV: “when they look on Him whom they have pierced …”
  • NASB: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NET: “they will look to me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NIV: “they will look on me, the one they have pierced …”
  • NKJV: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”
  • NLT: “they will look on me whom they have pierced …”

What does the LXX say? It says this:

Then they’ll stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded, because they treated me with hate.

The “look upon” part is still there; I just translated it in a more colloquial fashion (“stare fixedly at me, dumbfounded”). It’s the second part that’s different. The LXX says the Israelites will be astonished because they treated Yahweh with so much hate. How did they do this? Well, presumably, they treated Him with hate (or, despitefully) by rejecting Him for so long … until they didn’t.

The rest of the verse clarifies:

And they’ll grieve for Him, crying as for a loved one. And they’ll be in terrible, painful anguish, like for a firstborn son.

Because they treated Yahweh with so much hate, they’ll grieve for Him. You could translate the pronoun as it, but only if you believe the antecedent is an impersonal object, like the hateful treatment. But, if that were the case, the rest of the verse wouldn’t make too much sense. How can you mourn and grieve for an impersonal object like you would for a loved one, or even a firstborn son? The New English Translation of the Septuagint agrees, and so did Brenton’s translation. The Lexham English Septuagint, however, goes with “it,” but this deliberately a very literal translation.

The best way to understand this is as a third-person, personal pronoun (Him). But, who? Yahweh is talking in the first-person about Himself, but then shifts to third-person and says the Israelites will mourn for Him. This person is Jesus, who the Jews will turn to in the last days when the Spirit is poured out upon them, to convert them to the New Covenant.

Why the change?

The Greek text was clearly changed. The translators messed with it. The Hebrew reads “pierced,” and the Jews who did the translation altered it on purpose. They changed it to read “because they treated me with hate.” Why did they do it?

Maybe because they didn’t like what it said. How can someone “pierce” God? How does that even work? So, they changed it.

But do we know they being malicious? Not really! Perhaps it was more convenient to take this “piercing” in a more figurative sense. You know that feeling you get when someone you care about betrays you in an awful fashion? Isn’t it like having a stake driven right through your heart? Perhaps God felt that way when the Israelites hated Him, so this “piercing” was more metaphorical and poetic. In a colloquial way, the Israelites “cut God really deep” with their actions. Maybe that’s how they justified the change.

“Here, now,” they might have thought, “this is getting to the idea of being treated with malice and hate, so let’s just spell it out plainly, and drop the ‘piercing’ imagery!”

In a parallel way, the NET did a similar thing when it rendered Deuteronomy 10:16. See a comparison:

  • NET: Therefore, cleanse your heart and stop being so stubborn!
  • ESV: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.

The more literal rendering is to “circumcise” your heart. The NET decided that was too literal, and tried to get to the heart of the phrase by dropping the figurative imagery. That’s not necessarily a problem … unless you’re wrong about what that figurative imagery means!

In this case, assuming I’m right about why the LXX translators changed it, they were certainly wrong about what the imagery meant. It wasn’t imagery at all; Jesus literally was pierced (i.e. died). 

Am I right about the reason for the change? I’ve no idea. Nobody knows why it was changed, so I might as well speculate right along with the commentators. Their guess is as good as mine. When a good textual critical commentary on the LXX of Zechariah comes out, then maybe we’ll have a more informed opinion! After all, there is no monolithic “one Septuagint.” There are many versions of the Septuagint floating around!

Bottom line

The LXX is neat. The LXX is helpful. The LXX is necessary. If you’re a pastor, and you took two years of Greek, you can muddle your way through the LXX. If you took more than the two years of Greek, you can stumble your way through it, like I do.

The LXX of Zechariah 12:10 is different, but it still conveys the same essential meaning. There are two people in the verse; Yahweh and the Person the Israelites will mourn for when they come to faith. This verse is a small snapshot of our triune God.