Traditions

We are creatures of habit.  We figure out how to do things and then usually that’s how we do things. It’s our tradition.  Here I now picture Tevye in the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition!”

As Christians there are various traditions that many of us follow today.  We hold tightly to our traditions.  It’s how we grew up.  It’s how we do church.  We believe in our traditions so strongly that they sometimes lead to conflicts, disunity, and church splits.  So how do we choose a tradition?  Is there a right tradition?

What does scripture says about tradition?

When Jesus walked the earth he was shaking things up.  The first century Jews, especially the Pharisees, were sticklers for tradition.  There are numerous occasions in the Gospels where Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees challenging him on why he or his disciples did not follow the tradition, that is the tradition that their fathers and their fathers before them had followed.  For example in Mark 7 the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples did not “walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with [non-washed] hands”.  Jesus’ response was to quote the prophet Isaiah:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their heart is far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
    teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”  (Mark 7:6-7)

His response was basically calling into question their true motives in following their tradition.  Was it to honor and worship God?  Or was it just for the sake of doing it because….that’s just what they do?  Was their behavior actually coming from the heart in worship to God?  Jesus follows this in verse 8 by saying “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”  Their traditions from man had replaced the commandments from God.

This is the danger we can run into today with our own traditions.  Putting our tradition ahead of Jesus’ instruction.  Our tradition needs to point back to Jesus and be in line with what he commanded, not become an idol in itself.  This is a risk no matter how we organize our churches, sermons, services, buildings, and worship.  If our answer for doing something is “because that’s just how we do it”, then we need make sure that we’re doing these things for the right reasons and go back to scripture with fresh eyes and mind to reassess.

Did Jesus have a tradition?

So what were Jesus’ commands?  What are we supposed to be following?  In Matthew 28, after Jesus was resurrected from the dead and before he ascended into heaven he instructed his Apostles to

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).  

In John 16, Jesus also explains that the Holy Spirit would continue to reveal his instruction to the Apostles after he was gone:

“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’  But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper [Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.  And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:  concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer;  concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:4-15)

Ok, so Jesus commanded the Apostles in things that they were to teach others and the Spirit would declare what Christ would continue to teach them.  Is this teaching written down somewhere?

  • In 1 Corinthians (a letter to the churches in the city of Corinth), Paul, an Apostle of Jesus, says “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” (1 Corinthians 11:2)
  • In 2 Thessalonians (a letter to the churches in the city of Thessalonica) Paul again says “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
  • and again in 2 Thessalonians “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
  • In 1 Timothy (a letter to Paul’s apprentice, Timothy, who was overseeing the churches in Ephesus) Paul instructs Timothy to keep a close watch on the ‘teaching’, something that must be measurable in order to keep watch or protect it:
    • “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
    • “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.” (1 Timothy 6:1)
    • “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3)

There was a tradition or a teaching that was handed down from Jesus to the Apostles which were then handed down to the churches and reinforced through the letters of the New Testament (Romans through Revelation).  Through studying the New Testament we can accurately reconstruct this teaching.

In conclusion, tradition can be a good thing!  But we must make sure we follow the right tradition.  That is the tradition that was taught and inspired by Jesus and handed down through his Apostles and recorded in the New Testament for us to follow.  Otherwise we run the risk of following the tradition of “our fathers” and “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”.

The Kerygma

The following in an excerpt from “Gospel and Law” by C.H. Dodd written in 1951:

The [First Century] Christian “preacher” thought of himself as an announcer of very important news. He called it quite simply “the good news”, or in our traditional translation, “the gospel”. It was this “good news” that was embedded in the “proclamation”, the [greek word] kerygma. It was essentially a public announcement of events of public importance.

The form and content of the proclamation, the kerygma, can be recovered from the New Testament with reasonable accuracy. It recounted in brief the life and work of Jesus Christ, His conflicts, sufferings, and death, and His resurrection from the dead; and it went on to declare that in these events the divinely guided history of Israel through long centuries had reached its climax. God Himself had acted decisively in this way to inaugurate His kingdom upon earth. This was the core of all early Christian preaching, however it might be elaborated, illustrated, and explained.

The preacher’s aim was to convince his hearers that they were, indeed, confronted by the eternal God in His kingdom, power, and glory; that they, like all men, stood under His judgment upon what they had done and upon what they were, and that this judgment was now immediate and inescapable; further, that those who would put themselves under God’s judgment would, through His mercy, find an opportunity open to them to enter upon a new life; that actually, as a result of these facts which they proclaimed, a new era in the relations between God and man had begun.

Those who responded to this appeal and placed themselves under the judgment and mercy of God as declared in Jesus Christ, became members of the community, the Church, within which the new life could be lived. These members were then instructed in the ethical principles and obligations of the Christian life.

Biblical Context

I recently saw this photo on Facebook:

This photo illustrates a common contextual error that many well meaning Christians make when interpreting biblical texts. Verses are pulled out of the texts that contain them and used in ways their authors did not intend. Chapters, verses, and sub headings in the text have encouraged readers to extract individual verses into pre-packaged snacks1 that might satisfy a craving but do little to fill the hunger that the entire text was intended to serve. The substance or meat of the text cannot be extracted through just one or two verses.

Verses and chapters in the New Testament were not part of the original text, but were added over a thousand years after they were originally written by a printer named Robert Stephanus (Estienne) in 1551. Stephanus added the verse numbers to the chapters which were devised in 1227 by Archbishop Stephen Langton. The excerpt below from Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna addresses some of the effects the chapters and verses have had:

“According to Stephanus’s son, the verse divisions that his father created do not do service to the sense of the text. Stephanus did not use any consistent method. While riding on horseback from Paris to Lyons, he versified the entire New Testament within Langton’s chapter divisions.

“So verses were born in the pages of holy writ in the year 1551. And since that time God’s people have approached the New Testament with scissors and glue, cutting and pasting isolated, disjointed sentences from different letters, lifting them out of their real-life setting, lashing them together to build floatable doctrines, and then calling it ‘the Word of God.’

“Seminarians and Bible college students alike are rarely if ever given a panoramic view of the free-flowing story of the early church with the New Testament books arranged in chronological order. As a result, most Christians are completely out of touch with the social and historical events that lay behind each of the New Testament letters. Instead, they have turned the New Testament into a manual that can be wielded to prove any point. Chopping the Bible up into fragments makes this relatively easy to pull off.”

“Pagan Christianity?” by Frank Viola and George Barna pg. 229

While the verse and chapter markings have made it convenient to reference particular sections out of the Bible, they also have influenced out-of-context handling of the texts. Many Christians today approach the Bible as a collection of daily motivations, and a few even think of the Bible as a book that can be decoded to tell us when the world will end, what shirt to wear, or what lottery numbers to pick. There’s something about the books of the Bible being divided into small segments that has changed the way we read the text. It’s almost as if we use a different part of our brain when we read segmented pieces of literature and no longer process complete thoughts in the form of sentence and paragraphs.2

Christians in our culture aren’t being trained in proper handling of the Biblical texts. The author’s meaning is too often being tossed aside for the more pleasing “what this means to me” in which the text can mean many different things for different people. In reality the text itself can have only one meaning. While, the significance3 of the text can have a variety of applications for different people, its significance must come from its meaning, not from what we want the text to mean.4

So what is the harm in taking the text out of context or letting it take on whatever meaning we wish? While someone may be encouraged by opening the Bible to a random page and reading the first verse they come across, the author had something more in mind. If this is how we approach the Bible then we dramatically fall short of our calling. We are called to be strengthened, established (Colossians 2:6-8), and renewed in our minds so that we may discern the will of God (Romans 12:1-2).5 God wants to equip and renew us so that we may no longer be weak in faith, tossed about by false teachings and the struggles that life brings, but immovable in faith and able to handle the challenges we will face in life. The texts of the Bible are meant to strengthen, encourage, and establish the people of God. If our only understanding of these texts is a superficial handling of select verses and not understanding them in light of the whole book then we will fail to become mature in our faith.

Christians weak in faith will lead to weak churches, since the churches are made up of individual believers. Instead, if believers are accurately handling the Bible and being built up and established in their faith, then the whole church benefits. The strength of Christ’s churches and the witness to those in our communities is only as strong as our families and each believer in our churches.

So, how can we accurately handle the texts of the Bible? The books of the Bible should be understood in their historical and cultural context and in their entirety so that we may understand the parts and the author’s intended meaning. We must understand that each book of the Bible is a complete entity and must be read and understood as such. Understanding the context of the text is also imperative. Understanding who wrote the text, when they wrote it, to whom they wrote, and any background information or cultural context will also help to inform the meaning of the text.

After we have successfully understood the text in its context and entirety we can then draw out principles. Principles are basic ideas from the teaching that can be applied to a wider range of situations rather than the specific one it was applied to originally. Principles allow us to make Scripture relevant for us today across different cultures and then to apply the teachings of the text to our lives in order to be strengthened and matured in our faith so that we our churches can be strengthened and fruitful.

 

Interpreting Philippians 4:13

Below is my attempt to accurately interpret Philippians 4:13 from the above picture in light of the whole text of Philippians.

The book of Philippians is a letter written by Paul while he was in prison in Rome to the churches in the city of Philippi. The majority of the letter is encouraging the believers in Philippi in their faith and thanking them for how they have served Paul through their support (both monetarily and physically through sending Epaphroditus to help him in his ministry). He also writes to warn them against people who were seeking to upset the churches in Philippi and encourages them in the midst of persecution, the same persecution that Paul himself experienced while in Philippi (Acts 16:11-40). Verse 4:13 falls at the end of the letter where Paul is again thanking them for their support and adds that he was not in need but was content with what he had. He explains that he has had times of abundance and times of great need, but no matter the situation he could do all things through Christ who strengthens him.

So contextually this verse is teaching that through times of great need and and great abundance Paul was able to be content and relied on strength through Christ. Where we get into trouble is when we pull verse 13 out of the letter and read it to mean something different than what the author contended. We center the meaning of the verse over our own desires and plans, claiming that we can do anything we decide to do, because we have the strength of Christ. However, Paul means that Christ will strengthen us and enable us to do everything that He asks of us, which most likely has nothing to do with push-ups.

Footnotes:
1 The phrase “pre-packaged snacks” is credited to my wife Anna

Books of the Bible by International Bible Society is a good “no verses or chapters” Bible that I frequently use when I want to read or study an entire book of the Bible.

3 The significance of a text relates to how the teaching of the text relates to you in your current situation.  If the text is teaching that we should rely upon God and not upon money and you happen to put all of your security in your large savings account or 401k then the significance of the text for you is that you need to change where your security lies (note: MY meaning here is not that we need to do away with savings accounts and 401k’s).

4 Does this mean that we cannot reference particular verses? Not at all., but our use of those verses needs to be within the meaning contextually laid out by the author.  

5 Here I referenced two short pieces of scripture which may appear that I’m committing the same error that I’m arguing against. However, contextually these verses fit with the meaning I’m attributing to them. Colossians 2:6-8 are contained within a whole section of text where Paul is encouraging the Colossians to be firm and established in their faith so that they won’t be “taken captive” by other philosophies. Romans 12:1-2 are transitional verses in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he goes on to explain to them the teaching in which they are to renewing their minds.

Peek-a-boo!

Ellie and I were trying to take pictures of ourselves with the DSLR

Proud Father Moment

image

I took Nora on a date for most of the day today, just the two of us.  During lunch Nora and I got on the topic of adoption and I explained to her that some little boys and girls don’t have mommies or daddies to take care of them so other mommies and daddies adopt them and become their parents and take care of them and love them.

This evening before bed Nora asked for a bedtime story about orphans.  I proceeded to tell her, in story form, about my December 2005 trip to Burma (Myanmar) and about the orphanage we visited where roughly 100 orphans lived.  I explained to her that they were poor and they had very few toys.  This made her sad and she suddenly exclaimed, “I could send them some of my toys!”  To which my heart lept for joy.  For her to understand that she has been richly blessed and has more than she needs and then to recognize that she could then bless those who are less fortunate out of her abundance is something I’ve prayed and hoped for her to grasp.

We decided we would go through her toys tomorrow and choose some toys for her to send to the orphans and she was surprisingly very excited. We’ll see how it will actually goes tomorrow when she is sifting through her toys choosing some to send to children half way around the world.

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We continued the story and I brought up some pictures and videos on my phone from our trip.  When she saw this picture she cooed and said that she wanted to be their Mommy and Daddy and smiled her excited, almost crazed smile that I love so dearly.  That’s my girl.  You make Daddy so proud.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/needsalt/sets/72157610783265294/

Renewing Our Minds

I call upon you, therefore, brethren, through the compassions of God, to present your bodies a sacrifice — living, sanctified, acceptable to God — your intelligent service; and be not conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, for your proving what [is] the will of God — the good, and acceptable, and perfect.

Romans 12:1-2 (Young’s Literal Translation)

The above excerpt is from Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome.  I chose to use Young’s Literal Translation here because of the way this version translates “intelligent service”.  Some translations use “spiritual service”; which, in my opinion, is extremely vague.  The word used in the original Greek is logikos, which is where we get the english word ‘logical’.  So another way of interpreting this passage is that presenting our bodies as living sacrifices is our ‘logical service’.  Since Christ gave His life for us so that we could not only be freed from sin but have eternal life, it is only logical that we give the lives we have on this earth in service to Him and His plan.

In the second part of this section Paul tells the Roman believers to not be conformed to this world but instead to be transformed by the renewal of their minds.  As a result He says that by testing you may discern (or discover) what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  That is, through renewing our minds we will be able to know what God wills for our lives and they will be pleasing to Him.

So what does it mean to ‘renew our minds’?  Verses 12:1-2 start a major shift in the book of Romans.  In the first 11 chapters Paul is describing all that God had done for them (salvation, new hope in Christ, and their power to live life in the Holy Spirit).  After verses 12:1-2 Paul shifts to how we are to live as Christians (i.e. “Let love be genuine.  Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” 12:9, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” 12:14 etc.).  After stepping back and looking at the full context of the book of Romans we can conclude that Paul understood the sections following verses 12:1-2, or the teaching, to be what they were to be renewing their minds in.  They were to be praying and meditating over these principles for the Christian life, then their lives would be transformed.  

So how can we renew our minds today?  I believe we can and should renew our minds in a similar manner, through reading and studying the teaching handed down to us in scripture, through prayer, and through the community that Christ grafted us into, His church.  We should challenge ourselves so that we won’t be conformed to the world around us but instead that we will be transformed into what Christ has designed for us to be so that we can participate in His plan for this age.  We need to re-evaluate the things we cling to in light of God’s word, renewing our minds, and let God transform us into His image.

Christian Hope

The following is quote from the book “Simply Jesus” by NT Wright.  This book, and NT Wright’s collection of books, have done a lot to shape my theological understanding over the past few years.  Wright has done significant work to clarify the muddied waters of my biblical understanding especially regarding Christ’s Kingdom, the resurrection, and heaven.

In this quote Wright has just finished saying that the typical understanding of the “rapture” as a grand event in which Jesus returns to wisk away his chosen back to heaven is incomplete and mostly wrong.  Instead Wright says Jesus’s followers will welcome Him back to earth as He completes the inauguration of His kingdom.  Wright goes on in this quote to defend the second coming in this context: 

Without the “second coming,” seen in proper biblical terms, following Jesus is reduced to a “way of being religious,” a private spirituality with a vague and uncertain personal hope, but with no propsect at all of a world radically transformed by Jesus as its rightful Lord.  Some, indeed, are content to make that reduction, leaving Christian faith as a “spirituality” that one might find helpful, but without any thought of the ancient vision of the Psalms and Isaiah, of the whole world healed, judged, put right, transformed under the soverign rule of Israel’s Messiah.  That fits quite nicely within the postmodern reaction against an older and arrogant Christian “triumphalism,” but is a lot less Jewish and a lot less Christian, and it has little to do with the actual Jesus himself.”

Simply Jesus by NT Wright (p.201)

What I believe Wright to be saying here is that the understanding that Christ will return and His followers will be taken away into heaven is a wrong one that minimalizes the faith and our ultimate hope.  Instead our hope is in Christ’s return and ushering in His kingdom “on Earth as in Heaven” where the whole world will be healed, judged, put right, and transformed.  All wrong righted, an end to suffering and pain, and an everlasting kingdom with Jesus ruling as the rightful Lord.  He finishes by saying that an understanding of Christian faith as a “spirituality” that one might find helpful, while although fits nicely with our postmodern way of thinking of Christianity as just one path to being spiritual, is not the pre-Christian Jewish understanding, not a Christian understanding, and actually has little to do with Jesus himself.

The Christian faith revealed through the Bible is bigger than this misguided incomplete understanding.  It’s bigger than a once a week spirituality that works for some people.  If the claims of the bible are true, then the ultimate Christian hope is for all creation, something to which all of history has been pointing, and something that should be desired and longed for by all people. I’m amazed as I read and study the bible more to realize how much of the “cultural understanding” of what the bible says is actually incorrect and non-biblical.  Instead the picture being painted through scipture is bigger and better than what many have come to understand and many more have rejected. 

The Resurrection of Christ

This Sunday is a day that many Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I’ve recently come to realize how much confusion there is in western Christianity around the resurrection and what it actually means and that I myself have misunderstood the tremendous amount of hope the resurrection of Jesus should give us.

I’m reading two books by N.T. Wright: Simply Jesus and Surprised By Hope.  Both of these books have served to reshape my understanding of Jesus and the resurrection as well as Heaven itself.  I remember when I was young and Istarted to learn about ‘heaven’.  I understood ‘heaven’ as a place my soul would go when I died.  Even at a very young age I understood this to mean that a part of me, not the whole bodily me, would be transported (or fly) to a place in the clouds or space or just somewhere else.  And truthfully it frightened me.  It frightened me because I enjoyed living and thought of this place my soul would go would either be extremely boring or a place where I wouldn’t have conscience thought but would be in a state similar to a type of dream, a less real place.

I believe many, if not the majority, of western people believe the Christian idea of heaven to be similar to this idea, a place your soul, whatever that really is, goes when you die.  A disembodied place for some immaterial part of ourselves to chill for eternity.  Many in our culture have redefined this to be a paradise that almost morphs itself to be a place that meets your every whim.  If volleyball is your greatest joy, then heaven will be a giant volleyball tournament.  If you like mountains, then heaven will be a vast landscape of towering mountains.  Basically removing God from heaven and it being just about us and only our pleasure.

In “Surprised By Hope”, Wright claims that this is not necessarily the case.  While I’m not completely through the book yet and don’t quite have a grasp on his entire view, he does point out that this is not the picture drawn by Jesus and believed by the first Christians.  Wright claims that we have misunderstood of the word resurrection, at least in what it originally meant to Jesus and the early Christians.  Resurrection was not a word for ‘going to heaven’ or coming back to life after dying.  When Jesus would raise someone from the dead (i.e. Lazarus and the ruler’s daughter in Matthew 9) they weren’t described as being resurrected.  Resurrection meant something different.

Wright claims historically that the Jewish faith understood resurrection to be what would happen to everyone on the ‘great Day of the Lord’.  A point in the future when all the dead would be raised and remade with new perfect bodies before the great and final judgment.  Wright says that if resurrection simply means that our disembodied soul goes to heaven, then death itself is not conquered.  No, resurrection meant something more, something bigger.  When Jesus was resurrected He was remade with a body different than our mortal corruptible decaying selves.  Jesus’ resurrection was not only a sign of our hope, a sign that He himself was God, a sign of our promised salvation, but also a preview of what is to come for everyone else when we are all resurrected and given new perfect bodies on the Day of Judgment.

I believe Wright is stating that he believes heaven to be the place where God ‘is’, a another dimension within close proximity to our own which at places and points in time overlap (i.e. the Temple, the tabernacle, Christ himself).  When we die we may, in some form, go to heaven, but this is not our final destination.  Instead our final destination is on earth, remade.  Wright claims that when our bodies are remade, so will the entire “earthly universe” be remade, the entire cosmos.  The “earthly universe” will be merged with the “heavenly universe” and the two will be made one.  Where we will have new bodies, perfect bodies.  Where pain, injustice, and evil will cease to exist and we will live life as God has always meant for us to live in communion with Himself.  This is the hope of the resurrection of Jesus.  It was a sign and promise of our salvation as well as a sign of what is to come, our own resurrections and eternity living with God.

This morning on the drive into work I looked out my car window and saw this beautiful sight.