Sundays in Mark (52) Enter Judas

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark. This week 14:10-11 and the sudden introduction of Judas’ act of betrayal.

In 10:1-2 the chief priests and teachers of the law were seeking to arrest and kill Jesus without causing a public uproar. Here Judas is seeking to betray Jesus and so two parties’ interests meet. ‘External’ opposition is joined by ‘internal’ betrayal. Judas would have opportunity to arrange a surprise arrest out of sight of the crowds.

Mark’s sparse text gives no real hint as to Judas’ motive. Money is promised as a reward but it is not clear if this was just a ‘bonus’ or the actual reason. Had Jesus’ upside kingdom message deeply disillusioned him?

Whatever the truth, Judas acts out of ruthhess personal self-interest in utter contrast to the immediately preceding beautiful act of selfless devotion by the unnamed woman.

One sacrifices Jesus to his own agenda, the other sacrifices the most precious thing she has for Jesus.

One resorts to lies and subterfuge, the other to risky and transparent vulnerability.

One chooses the route of power and violence, the ofter of service and love.


Judas’ Betrayal

10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

One.Life (13) Love.Life

Chapter 13 of Scot McKnight’s book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow is called Love.Life

In this penultimate chapter, Scot turns to the place of love at the heart of Jesus’ call to follow him.

He has a nice summary of the 4 imagined ‘Gods’ in Americans’ minds:

1.       Authoritarian God (32%)

2.       Critical God (16%)

3.       Distant God (24%)

4.       Benevolent God (23%)

[What happened to the other 5%?!]

Scot argues that if under ¼ of people think of God in loving / benevolent ways then we need to re-hear what the Bible says about God.

And it was for precisely these reasons (a mistaken views of God) that prompted Jesus to tell a famous parable about God’s identity – the parable of the Lost Son.

Scot does a nice job of retelling the story of the two brothers for American college life. One a selfish waster who has dishonoured and despised his father, the other responsibly obedient.

At every point in the story, Jesus sabotages expectations of how the Father (God) will act.

The Father doesn’t follow the rules of 1st C Jewish culture. He isn’t supposed to give the son his inheritance, he isn’t supposed to stand waiting for his son to return, he isn’t supposed to run to him and embrace him, he isn’t supposed to celebrate and he sure isn’t supposed to restore him to ‘son’ status.

Jesus tells the story to turn his opponents’ ideas of God upside down. And the sting in the tail is that they are the ‘older son’ who resists the picture of the Father that Jesus has drawn.

God’s love and grace are offensive.

And a lesson of the parable is that each one of us has to ‘come clean’ before the Father just as the younger son does – an attitude of deep repentance, humility and utter delight at being accepted by the Father.

The paradox is that the more we are honest with ourselves and with God, the deeper and more heartfelt our repentance will be – and the deeper our experience of God’s love and grace and forgiveness.

This is what confession is and this is what the love of God is – he accepts us back.

If I remember right, John Stott says this somewhere:

“the depth of our discipleship depends on the depth of our repentance.”

As usual, he’s right.

So to Scot’s closing words:

“The kingdom of God is designed for those who will tell the truth about themselves, turn from their sins and turn back to God, by banking on God’s gracious forgiveness in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God’s gracious welcome and the open seat waiting at the table in God’s family.”

I wonder if evangelical Christians are the ones most likely to be like the older brother?

That we can easily hold a pretty good opinion of ourselves? We serve others, we are committed to community, we study the Bible both personally and academically, we give money, we engage in mission, we go to prayer meetings, we read Christian books, we preach grace  ….

But all too gradually the place of confession and repentance within personal and church life can get displaced. Not deliberately of course; more by omission than conscious rejection.  But it can be marginalised nevertheless – in the hymns we sing, in the absence of corporate and personal confession, in our growth orientated ‘success culture’ .

Comments, as ever, welcome.

if there’s an original thought out there, I sure could use it now

Tell Tale Signs

I had a birthday recently and was kindly given Tell Tale Signs by Bob Dylan. Series 8 of the Bootleg Series. Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006.

First time I’ve confessed this on the blog – but if I had to listen to one singer / songwriter for the rest of my life it would happily be the man from Minnesota. No competition.

The best song on the album? Red River Shore. A magnificent ballad, unreleased from Time out of Mind.

My internet sleuthing skills aren’t up to finding a version online to link to, so instead here’s an audio link to probably my favourite song by the bard, Brownsville Girl from the otherwise undistingushed Knocked Out Loaded album.

Includes a great line for blogging, teaching and writing…

“if there’s an original thought out there, I sure could use it now”

Not an obvious choice maybe, but if you don’t like it, you must be dead already.

For whom the Bell tolls

One benefit of the furore unleashed by the pre-publicity marketing of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, is that Steve Holmes has been spurred out of blogging limbo.

Over at Shored Fragments he has begun what is shaping up to be a detailed and likely unsurprassed series on Bell’s book.

What is so refreshing is:

the honesty and catholicity of his critique – of Bell’s detractors and of Bell himself;

how his wide knowledge of historical theology gives a much needed context to what has been mostly an a-historical and sometimes hysterical debate. I suspect ‘outside’ observers must think that Rob Bell has daringly thought up questions that no-one else in the history of Christianity has ever risked broaching before. Post 2 on how Bell is articulating, probably without knowing it, a long tradition within Reformed orthodoxy (that God will save most people, not just a few), is wonderful, especially since his most hostile opponents are self-appointed defenders of Reformed orthodoxy. It’s worth a quote ..

I suppose that Bell does not even know that the position he is defending is traditional Reformed theology – surely, he would have mentioned it if he did know this? It remains the case, however, that on this point, on the question of the relative proportion of the saved to the lost, it happens that Bell is on the side of historic orthodoxy and his many zealous detractors are not.

This is profoundly important, it seems to me. This is about who God is. A God who saves only a few is niggardly and ungracious …   The broad witness of Scripture is overwhelmingly to the generosity of God in salvation, or so Warfield, Hodge, and most others thought.

and his tone, which is fairminded and generous. Maybe not being an American is helpful here, he has no axe to grind or soul of American evangelicalism to fight over.

Worth checking out.

One.Life (12) Eternity.Life (b)

A quick postscript to the last post on Scot McKnight’s book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow.

What do you hope for? Life in heaven, free at last from this broken world?

What is the relationship between what we do in this life now and the life to come?

Scot is sketching things here and argues that Jesus’ future kingdom vision finds fulfilment in the new heavens and earth picture of Revelation 21.

The main link here is Jesus’ language in the Lord’s Prayer of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.

the eternal state is a perfection of life on earth and not an escape from life on earth

This New Jerusalem is heaven life come to earth – justice, peace, love, wisdom.

The people of God, living with God, and living with one another in perfect shalom, and love and justice.

All made possible through the lamb, whose death brought forgiveness, redemption and liberation.

And so, in utter contrast to hell, what do you think of Scot’s definition of heaven? Does this vision inspire and shape life in the here and now?

heaven is a person’s awareness and overwhelming delight in being absolutely present in the utter presence of God.

Sundays in Mark (51) : a beautiful act

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections in the Gospel of Mark.

This week an astonishing act of love by an unnamed woman.

Mark sets the story in the context of mounting opposition with plans afoot to kill Jesus. The woman’s actions are to be read in light of Jesus’ impending death. Bethany is the last stop on the pilgrim route before Jerusalem.

Mark’s account is sparse in the extreme. Her motives remain unexplained. Her character is not described. Simon the Leper is assumed to be well known. Her identity is not revealed.

The nard was extremely precious, perhaps a treasured family possession.

Her actions reveal her profound love for Jesus. A love that is not sexual in nature but indicative of her ‘seeing’ something of Jesus’ unique messianic identity and responding accordingly.

Jesus interprets her actions at a deeper level, reading them through the lens of the cross and her annointing of his head as an act of preparation for burial. Implicit here is his knowledge that his will be a criminal’s death, to be denied annointing prior to burial.

Jesus has little time for convention, legalistic judgements and the niceties of etiquette. He looks to the heart and pronounces her actions ‘beautiful’.

Hear that word – beautiful.

Such was the beauty of her behaviour Jesus pronounces that it will never be forgotton and she will be honoured and remembered, as indeed she has been.

Notice that this is possibly the highest praise that anyone receives from Jesus in the gospels. Given to an anonymous woman.

What implications do you think Jesus’ radical affirmation of this woman has for the status and role of women in the church today?

Jesus Anointed at Bethany

1 Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

3 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Hurtado and God (6): God reconfigured?

Wrapping up our discussion of Christology around God in New Testament Theology by Larry Hurtado

Here are some of Hurtado’s conclusions towards the end of the book – and these are worth reading carefully.

As we have seen, on the one hand, the NT texts are consistent in claiming that it is the God of the OT, the God of Jewish tradition, who sent Jesus, raised him from death, and exalted him to heavenly glory, and now demands that Jesus be reverenced. On the other hand, these same texts emphasise that in view of these things it is now no longer possible to speak adequately of “God” without confessing Jesus’ significance and, equally important, that an adequate obedience  and devotion to “God” now requires the inclusion of Jesus as recipient of reverence and devotion with “God”. So, the NT texts express a major reconfiguring of God-discourse, and a major reconfiguring of devotion to “God” as well.

These important developments took place within a remarkably brief time span, so brief that the NT texts already presuppose them. As noted, a number of times already, in subsequent centuries the beliefs and religious practices reflected in the NT generated further developments in Christian doctrine and devotional life. But, simply as the remarkable developments in the history of religions that they are, the NT expressions of beliefs about “God” deserve attention.

This is quite a way from J D G Dunn’s conclusions in his book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? (also published in 2010). There Dunn, to my mind, draws ambiguous and somewhat contradictory conclusions – but I’ll come back to them another time.

Hurtado is very close to Richard Bauckham, even if he does not use the idea of Jesus being included in the ‘divine identity’. Hurtado prefers to stress how Jesus is included in what God does – in divine actions. And he is more explicitly trinitarian than Dunn in what he says here:

If, as the NT texts seem to insist, discourse about “God” now must include reference to Jesus, then this marks a significant alteration from the way that “God” was understood previously. In particular, Jesus’ resurrection constitutes the emphatic reaffirmation of Jesus (and precisely as the embodied human figure) as thereafter uniquely to be included in the understanding of divine purposes and even (per traditional trinitarian faith) in what is meant by “God”. To use trinitarian language, “God the Son” is eternal, without beginning or end. But in the incarnation, “the Son” became genuinely an embodied human, and in Jesus’ resurrection this incarnate move was irrevocably reaffirmed by “God”. In short, from Jesus’ resurrection onward, “God” in some profound way now includes a glorified human. That I believe, represents quite a significant alteration!

In other words, the very ‘make-up’ and experience of God himself is irrevocably changed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Will the real St Patrick please stand up?

This morning our family will be starting the day with breakfast organised by the St Patrick’s Foundation, the brainchild of my friend and minister of MCC Keith McCrory. A great way to begin St Patrick’s Day.

Check out their website and read about the vision of turning St Patrick’s Day into something constructive and life-transforming.

And without more words from me, here are some from another, much greater, Patrick!

According, therefore, to the measure of one’s faith in the Trinity, one should proceed without holding back from danger to make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, to spread God’s name everywhere with confidence and without fear, in order to leave behind, after my death, foundations for my brethren and sons whom I baptized in the Lord in so many thousands.

And I was not worthy, nor was I such that the Lord should grant his humble servant this, that after hardships and such great trials, after captivity, after many years, he should give me so much favour with these people, a thing which in the time of my youth I neither hoped for nor imagined.

[Extract from St Patrick’s Confession]

One.Life (11) Eternity.Life

The next chapter of Scot McKnight’s One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow is called Eternity.Life

Like many others I watched the ‘firestorm’ of comment circulating the blogosphere and other media the other week about whether or not Rob Bell is about to ‘come out’ as a universalist due to (deliberately) provocative marketing of his new book Love Wins

If you don’t know who Rob Bell is, congratulations and please just skip down to the discussion on Scot McKnight’s chapter on Eternity.

The funniest post was by Ireland’s own Soapbox, also alarmingly revealing that Rob Bell’s twitter feed is @realrobbell. Other Rob Bell’s obviously aren’t real.

To be honest I found it hard to get interested. Some of the tone of the debate was downright ugly. Bell is too media savvy not to know full well what he was doing and his pre-publication publicity generating video worked perfectly.

Another reason for disinterest is that whatever Bell does eventually say, it would be very surprising if it is anything that hasn’t already been said in much more depth by theologians and scholars. So this ‘firestorm’ is really a personality-driven in-house competition for the ‘soul’ of authentic American evangelicalism.  Hence John Piper’s depressing tweet ‘Farewell Rob Bell.’

Confession: I’ve long wearied of an evangelical obsession with ‘personality pastors’, especially those in another country and very different culture.

However, in the midst of it all, some interesting things emerged.

–  The debate is largely about the character of God not about exegesis of the texts on judgement and hell (and a recent book by Robin Parry aka Gregory MacDonald has seriously engaged with the biblical material in making his case to be an evangelical universalist). See Kevin Hargaden’s link to a review of the book by Oliver Crisp and see Scot McKnight’s series on the book at Jesus Creed.

– For developing cultural and theological reasons, universalism is now one of the big-ticket ‘live issues’ within evangelicalism.

– Bell’s book will sell not just because of controversy, but because its addressing (or promises to) real questions many people have.

And so to Scot’s chapter on Eternity where he is acutely aware of those questions and sets about engaging with them. [NB – for space I’m just going to talk about what he says about hell and judgement and will return to the second part of the chapter on the New Heavens and the New Earth’.]

We live in a curious time where most people believe in an afterlife and think they will end up in heaven. Yet the notion of hell is utterly repulsive and rejected as a monstrous self-evident nonsense.

Scot says he believes in hell because Jesus did, but he wants to believe in the same way as Jesus did – not in Dante’s inferno, not in God the eternal torturer, …

1. So what did Jesus say?

Well rather a lot of uncomfortable things. Scots lists examples from one Gospel;

Matthew 7:13-4

Matthew 7:19

Matthew 10:28

Matthew 10:32-33

Matthew 18:8-9

Matthew 25:41

Scot calls this ‘death after death’ – “a final endless death after physical death”

Jesus used the word ‘Gehenna’ – the fiery dump outside Jerusalem. This is obviously a metaphorical allusion, so pointing this out, as if this solves the problem of ‘hell’, actually gets us nowhere.

The question is what does the metaphor mean? Is it to be taken literally and hell imagined as a place of actual fire that never goes out? Medieval Christians did a nice line on that imagery.

Detail of a medieval chapel wall painting in La Brigue, France

It does certainly seem to involve judgement and death, but the imagery is best not pushed too far or the metaphor takes over and twists the message itself.

2. Justice

The entire Bible is concerned with justice – and holds out the eschatological hope that while injustice, violence, pain and suffering may reign in the here and now, things will be ‘put right’ in the new creation. God’s justice will be established over all. Scot puts his hope in this sort of justice and argues that this is all we can know and need to know:

God is the judge and we’re not

What God judges will be brilliant justice but

God’s justice will be soaked in God’s grace

I hope for a final day of overwhelming grace

That swallows up all sin and injustice

This leads him to question (cautiously and un-dogmatically) the idea of eternal conscious punishment.

“one cannot justly, and I emphasize “justly”, be punished eternally for temporal sins … it is hard to imagine an eternal, endless, infinite punishment for a finite amount of sinning. Eventually justice should be served.

We ought to avoid dogmatism here, but I agree that God punishing humans eternally for a finite number of sins seems to be an intolerable injustice and unworthy of how the Bible talks about our just God.”

And so this leads to temporal sins = temporal judgement. In other words conditional immortality (immortality only for those in Christ) or annihilationism (those not in Christ cease to exist).

So what does Scot conclude? This:

“I have thought long and hard about hell and have come to the view modifies the second view above [eternal conscious punishment]: hell is a person’s awareness of being utterly absent, which is what “death after death” means, but yet in the presence of God … I am unconvinced that annihilation fully answers all that Jesus says, but I also believe the second view doesn’t contain enough mercy and grace.

One thing, though, is quite clear to me: Jesus believed that death would lead us into the presence of God to receive what is just from a God who is utterly gracious and just. There were two options in his view of judgement: death after death or life after death. Jesus warned of the former and promised the latter. And he spoke like this to awaken people to follow him and to know that what we do now and what we decide now matter – forever.”

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Hurtado on God in NT Theology (5): God and Jesus

[I should say here I got my chapters mixed up. Chapter 4 is on ‘God and the Spirit’, not 3 (see two previous posts). I had skipped chapter 2 by mistake)

Chapter 2 Jesus and God in the NT

Hurtado starts this chapter by asking provocatively:

The key distinguishing feature of the presentation of “God” in the NT is the link with Jesus. Indeed, this link is so emphatic and Jesus’ place in the beliefs, claims, and devotional  practices reflected in the NT so prominent, that one might ask if “God” is pushed into the background or perhaps so thoroughly redefined in reference to Jesus as to constitute a new of different deity. (49)

That such a question can be asked is based on the overwhelming prominence of Jesus in the NT. Its constituent books are written primarily to explain and communicate the significance of Jesus. It is not an exaggeration to say the pretty well all of the NT is a form of Christology.

I won’t repeat all he says here, save to say that all the gospels are written to proclaim the good news of Jesus; Jesus is proclaimed Messiah and “Lord” (Acts 2:36); Christians are baptised in Jesus’ name (Roms 6:3); Christian worship is shaped by the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:23-26); he is worshipped through hymns of praise; prayer is “through” Jesus; Christians call upon the name of Jesus; Christians are united “in Christ”.

Yet, here’s the fascinating tension. By no means does Jesus ‘replace’ God. Far from it. God remains centre stage – sharing it with Jesus. Hurtado says

‘all the Christological titles and claims of the NT really boil down to one claim that Jesus is truly the unique expression and agent of “God”.’

In other words, Jesus’ identity is always linked with God – he is the Son of God; the wisdom of God; God’s Messiah; God’s servant; God’s Word; in whom the glory of God is seen (2 Cor 4:6); in whom all the fullness of God dwells (Col 1:19-20); the revelation of God (Hebs 1:1-4).

And this intimate link of Jesus and God in the NT is also seen in Jesus’ actions. Jesus is ‘sent from God’ (Gal 4:4-5); he displays the righteousness of God (Rom 3:21-26) where his death atones for sins; he reconciles the world (2 Cor 5:19-21); his resurrection is an act of God (Acts 2:32); he is empowered by God (Acts 10:38) and of course he proclaims the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ entire life and ministry are lived in obedience and fellowship and oneness with God. So while Jesus is the central figure of the entire NT, ‘he is consistently depicted with reference to “God” and as orientated towards divine purposes’ (59).

This all means that while Jesus is included in the devotional pattern of the NT, reverence for Jesus is never disconnected from “God”. Jesus is not a second deity, but has a unique status with and from God. Thus in prayer: to the Father through Jesus (Rom 1:8; 7:25; 16:27; 1 Thes 3:1-11); thanks to God through Jesus (Rom 7:25; 1 Pet 2:5), God is ‘glorified’ through Jesus (1 Pet 4:11).  Examples can be multiplied – the point here is how pervasive, and utterly unparalleled is the link between God and Jesus. See James 1:1 for another example.

The remarkable thing about this is how ‘assumed’ and ‘natural’ it is within the NT, how early it is, and how it is rooted in the first Christians’ experience of Jesus. Jesus is to be reverenced just as the Father (Jn 5:23). The exalted place and role of Jesus is God’s doing.

This, says Hurtado, represents a ‘significant adjustment’ in the theology of God as understood in the OT. For example, it is one thing to say divine wisdom is God’s agent of creation in Proverbs 8 and other Jewish writings, it is quite another to say an embodied human is that agent of creation in Colossians 1:15-20 and John 1:1-18 and Hebrews 1:1-3.

His final point. The NT God is not Marcion’s God. He stands in full continuity with the God of the OT who has now, in Jesus, ‘brought decisively forward fulfilment purposes that were set from the beginning of creation (e.g. Heb 1:1-2).’ (70).

Therefore, from now on, ‘God must now be understood and engaged devotionally in light of Jesus‘ (71)

Comments, as ever, welcome.