Monday, April 30, 2012

Repentance, in the Weaker Sense, in the Parable of the Two Sons, Matthew 21:28-32

The verb metamelomai is used twice in Jesus’ parable of the two sons, first in verse 29, and then in verse 32. As noted in a previous posting, this verb is weaker than the verb (metanoiō) used by John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and Luke 3, and by Jesus in preaching to the crowds. The KJV and ASV render metamelomai in both of these verses as “repented” or “repented himself,” but most modern translations render the two instances as different words, in much the same way as does the WEB:

28 But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind [metamelētheis], and went. 30 He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent [metamelēthēte] afterward, that you might believe him.

However, it is noteworthy that, even though Jesus used this weaker verb in this parable, the result of the first son changing his mind in verse 29 was that he actually went into the vineyard and did as his father had asked. His change of heart was accompanied by action. This observation is particularly relevant given the context of the parable—Jesus’ answer to a challenge to his own authority.

Earlier in Matthew 21, Jesus had cast the money changers out of the Temple, and had in the process very provocatively quoted Jeremiah 7:11, accusing the Jewish leadership of converting God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. Matt. 21:12-13. When he subsequently returned to the Temple courts and began teaching there, the chief priests and elders came to him demanding to know:

By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?

Jesus’ answer to this question started with a question: who gave John his authority to baptize? Did God or men authorize him to do this? Matt. 21:24. The Jewish leaders, of course, understood that if they admitted that God sent John, they would also have to admit that God sent Jesus. But they considered it politically unwise to say—in front of a crowd that had believed John—that John was only a self-appointed crackpot (which is what the leaders really believed). So they refused to answer Jesus’ question. Matt. 21:25-27.

It is at this point that Jesus told the parable of the two sons, to bring into clear focus the full implications of the leaders’ attitude. Jesus’ invited his hearers—both the leaders who had come to challenge him and the crowd—to compare themselves to the two sons. The first son was a picture of gross sinners, the kind of people the Jewish leaders rejected, who had believed the preaching of John and changed their lives. These people, like the first son, had at first refused to do what the Father asked, but later changed their minds and did it. The second son is a picture of the religious leaders, who publicly professed their willingness to do what God asked, but then failed to do it. Indeed, even when John came, they did not repent (like the tax collectors and prostitutes did) and believe his message. Therefore, Jesus said that the tax collectors and prostitutes, who listened to God when He spoke through John, would enter into the kingdom of God—where God is king—ahead of them. In this parable, Jesus’ answer to the religious leaders’ question regarding the source of his authority was that the leaders themselves had rejected God’s authority. It was the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes, rather than the unrepentant religious leaders, who ultimately did as God asked them to.

Jesus amplifies this point with his next parable, the wicked tenants (Matt. 21:33-41), then answers the leaders’ question directly with a quotation from Psalm 118:22-23, which, as applied to Jesus, asserted that God had made him the capstone (and, thus, had given him authority to do what he was doing). Jesus then concluded:

Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and will be given to a nation producing its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but on whomever it will fall, it will scatter him as dust.

Matt. 21:43-44 (WEB). Thus, in this passage, even metamelomai, the weaker verb rendered repent (or change one’s mind), is clearly associated with actions—doing what the Father asks—and with producing fruit.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Repentance, Changed Way of Life, and John’s Baptism

The first mention of baptism in the New Testament is found in Matthew’s account of the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist, Matthew 3:1-12, with a parallel account in Luke 3:3-14. The heart of John’s preaching according to Matthew was “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 3:3) (KJV). Here, I prefer the KJV because it properly reflects that John’s statement was a plural imperative, directed not just to individuals but also to the whole crowd that listened to him. I will explain the significance of this a bit later. Now, however, I would first point out that John’s words are an imperative. When John told the people to repent, this wasn’t a mere suggestion. It was a command. Moreover, the verb here translated “repent” was metanoeō, a verb which has in the NT a uniform connotation of changed behavior, not just remorse, as explained in the last entry in this blog.

In Matthew’s account, John explained the reason that the people needed to repent to be that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is also the message Jesus preached early in his ministry: “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 4:17 KJV). Without belaboring the point (as I do in my article on “God is King”), a “kingdom” is a realm that has a king. A “kingdom” is where a king is obeyed. John’s, and Jesus’, explanation of the need for repentance in terms of the nearness of a “kingdom,” thus, also clearly implies that repentance has a behavioral component (obedience to the King).

According to Luke, John preached “the baptism of repentance for remission of sins,” (Luke 3:3, WEB; KJV is similar). Although Luke doesn’t quote John’s command to “repent,” he summarizes that “repentance”--metanoia, a noun that also implies changed behavior—is critical to the remission of sins.

Next, it is important to see that changed behavior, demonstrating a changed way of life, is a major common thread between the two accounts of this event. Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-10 are almost completely parallel, presenting this warning (quoting from Matthew):

You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore produce fruit worthy of repentance! 9 Don’t think to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.
Matthew 3:7b-10 (WEB).

These words are clearly calling for behavior—“fruit”—that shows repentance, and warning that those who remain without “good fruit” will be cut down. The only significant difference between the two accounts of these words is that, in Luke, Jesus is said to have addressed this warning to the whole crowd coming out to him to be baptized, whereas Matthew says it was addressed specifically to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out to the place he was baptizing. However, the two accounts are not mutually exclusive, as John may have repeated himself (as teachers often do), addressing one instance of the warning to hypocrites who had only come out to spy on him (the Pharisees and Sadducees) and a second instance to the crowds who professed repentance, faith in his message and a desire to deal with their sins. To both groups, the warning was the same—if you come to God professing repentance, you must leave acting like it!

This point is made even plainer in Luke’s account of the exchange between John and various groups of common people who heard his message, understood him to be telling them to change their behavior, and asked him “What then must we do?” (Luke 3:10). John answered each group by telling them behaviors that had to change. He told everyone to stop being selfish and share their possessions with those in need. (Luke 3:11). He told the hated tax collectors who came to him, not that they had to leave their work, but that they must collect only what they were required to collect, and, thus, not to use their power to take advantage of people. (Luke 3:12). He told soldiers to be content with their wages and stop extorting money from the people through false accusations. (Luke 3:13). Each of these answers involved not only changes in behavior, but changes in the way the penitent treated other people. This is the focus of true repentance. True repentance may be an individual response, but it happens in community. This is why I prefer translations that accurately show that John’s (and Jesus’) command in Matthew is stated in the plural.

Historically, the clear behavioral aspect of the repentance John the Baptizer called for in Matthew 3 and Luke 3 has tended to become lost, obscured by arguments about whether John’s baptism was “in” water (immersion) or only “with” water (the preposition en can be translated both ways), and about whether baptism is only a demonstration of repentance and remission of sins or is a cause of remission (again, an ambiguous preposition is at fault). I won’t try to answer these divisive theological issues in this blog entry. I merely wish to point out that, no matter what position is taken on the divisive issues about baptism, both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of John’s message clearly teach that repentance is necessary for forgiveness of sins, and that repentance involves a change of our behavior toward each other.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Repentance: Definition of Terms

The online version of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “repentance” as “the action or process of repenting especially for misdeeds or moral shortcomings.” This dictionary in turn defines the intransitive usage of the verb “repent” alternatively, either as “1: to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one's life,” or as “2: a : to feel regret or contrition b : to change one's mind.” Moreover, while Webster’s indicates that the synonyms of “repentance” include “regret,” “remorse,” “guilt” and “shame,” plainly these words are only synonymous with “repentance” applying the second definition of the verb “repent.”

The definition of “regret,” for example, is “1: a : to mourn the loss or death of b : to miss very much; 2: to be very sorry for.” Regret is, thus, entirely an emotional condition, involving only feeling sorry for having done something, and does not involve any “action or process” at all, let alone an action or process of turning from sin or amending one’s life. It is entirely possible to deeply regret something one plans to do, or is required to do, without changing the plans to do it. (How many times have we heard people say “I regret that I have to do this…?”)

Similarly, Webster’s definition of “remorse” is “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” Even more pointedly than was true of “regret,” this is entirely a matter of emotional distress. Moreover, while it is possible to regret a decision prospectively, remorse can only be caused by past wrongs. It is fully possible—indeed, quite common—to feel remorse over acts done in the past without having any plans to change or desist from similar acts in the present. Moreover, I should need to cite no dictionary definitions to demonstrate that “guilt” and “shame” describe purely emotional states that do not imply in any way a decision to change any present behavior. So, none of these terms are, in fact, synonymous with “repentance” in the primary sense in which it is used in scripture.

A somewhat similar grouping of overlapping, but not synonymous, terms exists in New Testament Greek. (I understand this situation also exists in Hebrew, but I will pass over this subject until later).

Under “Repent, Repentance,” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words lists two verbs, one adjective and one noun. The two verbs are metanoeō (μετανοέω) and metamelomai (μεταμέλομαι). Vine’s explanation of metanoeō points out that this verb involves a change (meta-) of the mind or, more accurately, the perception (nous, hence noeō), the “seat of moral reflection.” Vine also points out that the New Testament always uses this verb to describe a change for the better, not for the worse, and in all but one instance (Luke 17:3-4) uses it specifically to refer to repentance from sin.

Other lexical sources amplify Vine’s observation that, at least as used in the New Testament, metanoeō implies a positive change in one’s behavior, not merely a feeling of regret. The Wigram Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament defines this word as “to undergo a change of mind and feeling, to repent; to make a change of principle and practice, to reform.” Louw and Nida are even more pointed, defining metanoeō, as used in the NT, as “to change one’s way of life as the result of a complete change of thought and attitude with regard to sin and righteousness.” Louw and Nida then go on to explain that, while sorrow and contrition are focal elements of the English word “repent,” in most of their uses in the NT “the emphasis of μετανοέω and μετάνοια seems to be more specifically the total change, both in thought and behavior, with respect to how one should both think and act.” Thus, there is good lexical authority that, to “repent,” as that verb is used in the New Testament, involves a complete change of life much more than it does an emotional feeling of guilt, at least where the English verb is used as a translation of metanoeō.

The noun listed by Vine is metanoia (μετάνοια). It is related to metanoeō. The Wigram Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament defines this noun as “a change of mode of thought and feeling, repentance; practical reformation; a reversal of the past.” As already noted in the discussion of metanoeō, Louw and Nida understand the meaning of this word to generally include a complete change of behavior. Vine generally agrees with this, except in one instance—Hebrews 12:17—in which it is said that Esau could bring about no change of heart (metanioa) on his father Isaac’s part, after Isaac had been tricked into giving Jacob the patriarchal blessing. But perhaps this exception merely proves the rule. (This will be discussed in a later posting).

The second verb listed by Vine under “repent,” metamelomai, corresponds more closely (though not perfectly) to the English “regret” or “feel remorse.” Vine himself states that the verb signifies “to regret” or “to repent oneself.” Wigram’s primary definition for this verb is “to change one’s judgment on a past point of conduct,” although this lexicon also allows the renderings “to change one’s mind and purpose; to repent; to regret.” Louw and Nida give two separate definitions of this verb in two different semantic domains. In the domain of words describing “Attitudes and Emotions” (their domain number 25), Louw and Nida define metamelomai as “to feel regret as the result of what one has done.” On the other hand, in the domain of words relating to “Hold a View, Believe, Trust” (their domain number 31), these authors define metamelomai as “to change one’s mind about something, with the probable implication of regret—to change one’s mind, to think differently.” Obviously, whether metamelomai should be understood (and translated) with English words that come from the domain of attitudes and feelings or from the domain of opinions and beliefs depends on the context.

However, by contrast, Louw and Nida place metanoeō and metanoia solely in their domain number 41, “behavior and related states,” again reflecting the consensus that these words have much more to do with a change of behavior than with feelings of remorse.

I will be referring to, and refining, this discussion in future posts about specific scriptural passages dealing with, or exemplifying, repentance. I will also attempt to carefully distinguish uses of the two distinct sets of words that are sometimes translated “repent” or “repentance.”


Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Second Ed. (NY: United Bible Societies 1989).

Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson n.d.).

Vine, W.E. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co. 1966).

Wigram Analytical Greek Lexicon of the New Testament. (Wilmington, DE: AP&A n.d.).

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Christians should pray that Muslims' daily prayers will be answered (and offering similar prayers)!

Observant Muslims offer Salat prayers five times a day, repeating the same core prayer each time, with some variable additions from the Qur'an. At the heart of the Salat prayers is Al Fatihah ("The Opening"), the first Surah of the Qur'an, which I present here in Yusuf Ali's English understanding:

(1)In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful;

(2)Praise be to God,
the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;

(3) Most Gracious; Most Merciful;

(4) Master of the Day of Judgment.

(5) Thee do we worship,
thine aid do we seek.

(6) Show us the straight way,

(7) The way of those on whom
Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace
Those whose (portion)
Is not wrath,
and who go not astray.
Qur’an, Surah 1.

I believe as Christians we should pray that, as our Muslim friends, and Muslim world leaders, pray this prayer sincerely, God would graciously answer their prayers. In this regard, note particularly ayas 6 and 7: "Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray." On its face, this is a prayer for wisdom, a prayer to be shown the right way.

Of course, the Bible speaks to prayers for wisdom. James tells us that "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." James 1:5 (KJV). This text doesn't distinguish between Christians and others, it says that God is willing to give wisdom to anyone who asks. The next few verses explain that the only qualification for asking and receiving direction from God is being willing to listen and obey:

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord.A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.
Bible, James 1:5-8 (KJV).

God promises wisdom, if we will follow it. But He doesn't give advice.

Jesus himself also said that the only qualification for knowing the truth is willingness to follow it:

Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
Bible, John 7:16-17 (KJV).

So, it would appear that, as Muslims pray to be shown the straight path, we should pray that God will answer these prayers. If I understand correctly, as Christians we should also be praying a somewhat similar prayer. (That means me--I should be praying for wisdom!) May the best understanding of God win!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Beatitudes: Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Mt. 5:8

A. Two possible lines of interpretation:

1. Those who are pure in heart are blessed because they will see God in Heaven, in the future (and others won’t). OR

2. Those who are pure in heart are blessed because they will perceive God here and now (and others won’t).

The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the distinction is important for understanding what is in view when Jesus speaks of the “pure in heart.”

B. This beatitude is closely related to an earlier one, Mt. 5:6. To hunger and thirst for righteousness—give it first priority—and to be satisfied with God’s righteousness, appears to be at least a prerequisite for purity in heart.

C. Understanding the promise—“they shall see God.”

1. The future verb “shall see” (also a simple future in Greek) favors the “eternity future” reading, but only slightly. Tomorrow is also future.

2. Several commentators also favor the “not in this life” interpretation.

3. It is argued that no one will literally “see” God in this life. But we all perceive God, at some point in our lives. (Rom. 1:19-22). The verb here (οράω) is a primitive verb that has a fairly broad range of meaning—it can mean “perceive” (with an emphasis on visual perception).

4. During Jesus’ time among us in the flesh, MANY people saw God, but did not perceive His presence in His Son. (John 14:9; Phil. 2:6-10.)

5. In the final judgment, EVERYONE will both see and perceive God (Rev. 21:11-15; Mt. 25:31-46).

The blessing that distinguishes the pure in heart is their ability to perceive God. This flows directly from their purity in heart…

D. The “heart”—καρδια, the broadest of several different words that are translated “heart,” “mind” or “soul” depending on context (or simply “inner being” in some modern translations). The first of the three words used in Mt. 22:37, the first and greatest commandment. “The center and source of the whole inner life, with its thinking, feeling and volition” (per Bauer’s Lexicon), but with a focus “more upon the result of thought” than upon emotion (per Louw & Nida).

E. Pure—καθαρος—a simple word: “clean, pure, unadulterated.” Would be used of hands that have been washed (a derived verb is used in James 4:8 for exactly this), dishes that have been washed (Mt. 23:25-26, with reference to the Pharisees!), or metals that are free of impurities (the gold in the streets of the New Jerusalem, Rev. 21:18, 21). Also used of ritual cleanness or purity. (E.g., Luke 14:11). So to be “pure in heart” would appear to mean a state of being washed free of all impurities in the very center of the inner life.

F. Where purity in heart leads:

1. Love (from a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith) (1 Tim. 1:9); compare the works of “pure and undefiled religion” in James 1:27.

2. Righteousness, faith, love and peace; fleeing youthful passions (2 Tim. 2:22).

3. Sincere love of other believers (1 Pet. 1:22).

G. Examples from the Sermon on the Mount (the immediate context of Matt. 5:8):

1. Negative examples of keeping God’s rules with an impure heart: harboring anger like murder (5:21-22); harboring lust like adultery (5:27); divorce also causes adultery (5:22).

2. Positive examples of a pure heart in contrast to misapplied parts of the Law: being truthful rather than relying on oaths (5:33-37); giving to those who make demands, even evil people, rather than seeking revenge (5:38-42); “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (5:44).

3. Doing right, but not to be seen by other people and praised by them (6:1), specifically: giving alms in secret (6:2-4); praying in secret (6:5-6) and without imagining that it is my words that make God hear me (6:7); fasting in secret (6:16).

4. No one can serve two masters. (6:26).

H. What does all this have to do with being able to perceive God? Everyone who practices evil hates the light, and avoids it, so that what they are doing will not be exposed. But those who live by the truth come to the light. John 3:19-21. Or, as Paul says, God’s wrath is revealed against an unbelieving world that once recognized Him, but suppressed the truth “by their unrighteousness,” with the result that their understanding was darkened. Rom. 1:18-21. It was because the people of Jesus’ day clung to the impurity of their hearts that they were unable to perceive God walking among them—except for the minority Jesus chose to give sight. This is still what prevents people from perceiving God today, even though He is working among us. This also has effect in my life as a believer. To the extent my loyalty is divided, and I am clinging to myself and my own interests, I will not clearly perceive God at work.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit

Beatitudes—Matthew 5:3

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”



Matthew 5:3 is the first saying in a list of short, shocking sayings commonly known as the beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12. These sayings are called “beatitudes,” based on the Latin word for “blessings,” because they all start with the word “blessed.” The beatitudes themselves are the opening part of Jesus’ first recorded sermon, Matthew 5:3-7:27, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount because it was delivered on a mountainside. The Sermon on the Mount is partially paralleled by Jesus’ shorter “Sermon on the Plain” (actually delivered from a boat) in Luke 6:20-49. Indeed, the beatitudes of Matthew 5 are paralleled by a similar but subtly different list of beatitudes—and corresponding woes—in Luke 6. Both sermons were delivered to Jesus’ disciples in the presence of a large crowd that had followed Jesus because he had recently been healing many people and casting out many demons. (Matthew 4:23-25; Luke 6:17-19). It is significant to the message of the two sermons, and particularly that of the beatitudes, that under these circumstances Jesus directly addressed, not the crowds that had come to receive miracles at his hands, but his disciples who had committed themselves to follow him and learn at his feet. The crowds were merely welcome to stay and listen to what Jesus taught his disciples.

The beatitudes are a list of shocking sayings that appear to have been designed to turn away people in the crowd who were merely looking to Jesus to have their needs met. Following Jesus requires looking at things in an entirely different way than the world does. For instance, the world, then and now, says “blessed are the self-confident,” who have acquired all they need and act confidently on the belief they can do everything they need to do on their own, with maybe only a little “help” from God. The first beatitude insists on just the opposite:“blessed are the poor in spirit.” (Matt. 5:3). The world says that happiness is the avoidance of mourning and anything that can cause it. Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn.” (Matt. 5:4). The world says “blessed are the assertive,” those who know their power and aggressively use it to get what they want out of others (and also, some would say, out of God). Jesus says, “blessed are the meek.” (Matt. 5:5). The world says that showing mercy is a sign of weakness. Jesus says, “blessed are the merciful.” (Matt. 5:6). And so it is throughout the rest of the list: the world’s value of seeking self-gratification (the American “pursuit of happiness!”) is reproved by Jesus’ value of purity of heart (Matt. 5:7). The world’s norm of advancement through self-assertion and intimidation is countered by the blessing Jesus places on peacemakers (Matt. 5:8). The world’s expectation that we are to “fit in” with those around us in order to avoid making them uncomfortable about the way they are living is contradicted by Jesus’ blessing on those who are persecuted because of righteousness. (Matt. 5:9). Finally, the world’s appeal to our desire for popularity is reproved by Jesus’ blessing on those who are insulted and falsely accused because of Him. (Matt. 5:11).

With this introduction, I will now discuss Matthew 5:3 in more detail.

The Message of Matthew 5:3

The jarring message of Matthew 5:3 is that I must recognize that I am powerless, totally without resources, unable to do anything for God or, in the end, for myself, before I will enter His kingdom. This message is inescapable in the text.

Matthew 5:3 describes a group of people who are “blessed” because the kingdom of heaven belongs to them. In various translations, the word “blessed” is also translated as “happy” or “fortunate.” Bauer suggests a that the Greek word involved can mean a “privileged recipient of divine favor,” an interpretation which must be close to the intended meaning in this verse, because the group of people who is described as “blessed” is not a group the world would generally describe in this way. It is not the wealthy and powerful of this world, or even the popular and highly talented, who Jesus calls “blessed.” It is beggars!

Jesus says, in this verse, “blessed are the poor in spirit.” He is even more terse in the parallel verse in Luke, “blessed are you poor,” which he contrasts a few verses later with “woe to you rich.” The word translated “poor” in both verses (πτωχος) does not refer to someone who is merely somewhat low on funds. Rather, it refers to a “beggar”—this being one of the alternate translations listed for the word in several lexicons—someone who is flat broke and hopeless. To demonstrate this usage, the word πτωχος is used three times in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 and following) to describe the “beggar” Lazarus, who was covered with sores and longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. This same word is also used very pointedly as an adjective in Revelation 3:17, in which Jesus warns the complacent in the church of Laodicea, who thought they were rich and did not need anything, that they were in fact “wretched, pitiful, poor (πτωχος), blind and naked” (NIV). It is in very much this sense of a beggar, one who is absolutely dependent on others, that Jesus appears to be using the word in Matthew 5:3.

In Matthew, in contrast to Luke, Jesus does not end his description of the blessed person with the word “poor;” instead, he says “blessed are the poor in spirit.” However, the added words intensify, rather than soften, the intended message that the truly blessed person is one who is powerless and absolutely dependent. On the one hand, the limitation of the poverty of which Jesus speaks to poverty “in spirit” means that merely outwardly possessing some degree of worldly wealth will not exclude one from the blessing of possessing the kingdom of heaven, as long as that wealth does not possess us. It is, as Jesus said in another place, more difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom, but with God it is possible. (Matthew 19:23-26; Mark 10:22-27). It is noteworthy, however, that when Jesus spoke of the difficulty a rich man has in entering the kingdom, he was referring directly to a rich man who had just turned away from following Him because He had asked the man to give away His wealth before becoming a disciple. So, while a person who has outward wealth is not necessarily excluded from the kingdom, it can be a hindrance, and Jesus may ask that it be given away. Those who trust in their wealth cannot enter. (Mark 10:24).

On the other hand, the limitation of the blessing to those who are poor “in spirit” also means that the blessing is not upon those who, though financially impoverished, retain their pride and independence and go on in their own way. Rather, Bauer’s lexicon appears to be correct when it states that, in Matthew 5:3, “the sense is probably those who are poor in their inner life, because they do not have a Pharisaic pride in their own spiritual riches.” What Jesus blesses here is recognizing our own need and our own powerlessness to do anything for him.

For those who are poor in spirit, the blessing is this: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Though it would have shocked Jesus’ hearers, and still shocks us today, this message actually makes sense. Whatever I believe I can do adequately by myself, I will not submit to God. It is only when I recognize my helplessness that I will bring myself under the rule of heaven. Jesus’ saying in Matthew 5:3 assures me that, when I do recognize my complete powerlessness, the kingdom (or rule, βασιλεια) from heaven belongs to me. This is a blessing I cannot obtain as long as I am trusting in my own wisdom and ability. God does not want to be my adviser. But if I let Him be King, recognizing my own inability to direct my steps, He will be King.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Two More Messages about How God Works with His People to which I should have Paid More Attention

I wrote Believing What God Says Is More Real Than What I See in 2001, and it has since been mildly rewritten and improved by my friend Jonathan Brickman. This page deals with the definition of “faith” and starts with an explanation of much of Hebrews 11. At the center of the article is the observation:

Thus, it is by faith that we understand that the world we see was made by (or, "through," or "from") God's words, so that God's invisible Word is the reality behind what we see. Compare verse 3 with Col. 1:16-17 and John 1:1-3. For the same reason, it is impossible to please God without faith -- if we are so captivated by our own needs and by what we see around us that we can't see God as the reality behind it, we can't believe God (who tells us that He, not what we see, is real) or believe that He rewards us in a reality we can't yet see. Verse 6. And as verse 2 says, it is by faith, faith that God and His unseen reward are more real than what we see, that the ancients obtained approval.
It goes on from this to observe that our faith in God and His yet-invisible reward may lead us into a place of great abundance and protection from harm, as much of the Church (at least in America) now routinely expects. On the other hand, faith may also lead us into trials and dangers through which God will deliver us. Or it may lead us into privation, persecution or martyrdom. Any of these paths, followed because we believe God and His reward are realities higher than any reality we can see, please God. (Thus, the point of this is identical to that derived from consideration of the persecuted Coptic and Assyrian Christians in my previous posting, of many of whom it could no doubt be said that “the world was not worthy.”) But without faith it is impossible to please God.

If I know that God is pleased with my faith, I can walk with Him, citing the example of Enoch, who walked with God, “and had this testimony, that he pleased God.” It is a walk, and it starts with believing that God and His promises to me are a higher reality than the problems I see around me. No matter what I see, no matter what frightens me in my world, ultimately He is bigger and will work it out. It’s not about me, it’s about Him. He is reality.

Following on from this, in 2003 I wrote, When God's Provision Seems Too Slow, Remember. This was originally written mostly as an answer to “Name-it Claim-it” preaching. However, for purposes of this public confession, the most important parts of my conclusion were these:

Here, then, is the explanation of our common observation that God usually seems slow and somewhat inadequate in meeting our "needs." God has committed Himself to provide what we need only as we seek His kingdom. Everything He is doing is directed toward building that Kingdom, within us individually and among us as His Body. None of the good things God does for us are intended to make it easier or more convenient to live our own lives as we choose. All of God's work in our lives is directed at making us dependent on Him and obedient to His voice as King…

Likewise, in John 15:7, the promise is that "if you remain in me and my words remain in you" — this showing the need for a living relationship with Jesus and dependence on Him — we may then "ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you." But if we live in Christ and His words live in us, His wishes will be our wishes. We will be asking Him for what He wants, because we want it, too. And He has promised to give us what we ask, because we have made Him King by asking it. It all works together, and it is all about God being King. We can't expect to receive if our purpose in asking is to make our rebellion more comfortable.
Unfortunately, oftentimes I have been expecting God to make things work my way. I have gotten some idea of what He wants, and then made my own plans to do it in a way that seems to work well for me, to appear “responsible” or “prudent,” or to be likely to be inoffensive to others I think have claims of ownership on my life. Instead, I must be willing to do things His way, even if it is His will that I crash and burn in this world. He is reality. His unseen Kingdom will one day be seen, and it will eventually be obvious to everyone that His reward is more real than anything in this world. This is how the ancients obtained approval by faith.

This point will be amplified in the next two posts, which are expositions of two of the Beatitudes that I wrote for a series of small study meetings last year.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Of Assyria, Egypt and an Unlearned Lesson about God’s Sovereignty

Many years ago, I started to wonder about the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the punishment, then restoration of Egypt in Isaiah 19, prophecy which appeared to be unfulfilled. Because, like most Westerners, I thought the Assyrians had been totally annihilated or assimilated after the Babylonian conquest in 612-605 B.C., I found the last three verses of that chapter particularly puzzling:

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and the Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be a third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”

Isaiah 19:23-25 (NIV).

I have always preferred interpreting scripture literally, when possible, but I didn’t see how a literal fulfilment of this prophecy might be possible. It was plainly not literally fulfilled in antiquity, and one of the people groups to which it referred appeared no longer to exist today.

I started thinking about this puzzling prophecy more seriously in late 2002 and early 2003, as my country started to cultivate hysteria in support of imminent war in Iraq. I opposed the Iraq war--and still do--on the grounds that spiritual battles can’t be successfully fought with planes and tanks, so if we went into Iraq, we would lose, and kill many innocent people in the process. I stated my opposition on these grounds publicly on February 5, 2003 on the web page “Notes on the King of Babylon and the Peace of Jerusalem.”

However, on that webpage, as originally stated, I made one serious historical error in my interpretation of Isaiah 19:23-25: I identified the Assyrians in the prophecy with the modern Kurds, because the Kurds claim sovereignty over much of the old Assyrian heartland. That is, because I thought the Assyrian people no longer had a separate existence, I interpreted the prophecy as running with the land.

About eighteen months later, I discovered my error. The Assyrians do still exist, as a Christian minority in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. I posted a correction to my web page in August 2004. That is where things remained until last fall.

In August 2011, I matriculated at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the Fall term of 2011, I took two online courses: Old Testament Survey I and II. I was only able to fund that single term in seminary, and have not had any funds appear to continue in the present term. In Old Testament Survey II, I decided to use the term paper as an opportunity to satisfy my long-held curiosity about the interpretation of Isaiah 19:23-25. The result was the paper “The Highway from Egypt to Assyria: The Meaning of the Prophecy of the Restoration of Egypt, Israel and Assyria in Isaiah 19:23-25,” of which I have posted a pdf copy at the link above. Even though I got an “A” on the paper, it is really a rather crude approach to the question. I wish I had had more than six weeks to write it, and that I had found better sources. However, in writing the paper, I learned that no commentator I was able to find interprets this passage literally, and that one of the reasons for this is the exact problem I had in 2003: it is generally believed that the Assyrians no longer exist.

However, I came to the conclusion that Isaiah’s prophecy can and should be given a literal interpretation. I found some references supporting the continued existence of both the Assyrian people and the descendants of the Egyptians of Isaiah’s day (the Copts) as separate minorities in the Arab world. Indeed, both the Assyrians and the Copts maintain their cultural identity by adhering to Christian religious beliefs. This certainly renders a literal future fulfillment of the prophecy possible.

This brings us to the conclusions of my paper, which, until a few days ago, I applied to academic scholarship and to politics but not to my own relationship with God. The conclusions most relevant to my walk are:

The best interpretation of Isaiah 19:23-25 starts with a literal understanding of these verses: in the future, with God’s open blessing, Egypt and Assyria will be joined with Israel in peace. This literal understanding of the passage does not exclude the obvious effect this will have on the other nations of the world. Of course, in that day Egypt and Assyria will serve as living examples (rather than mere literary types) of God’s rule of the nations and of his acceptance of people from every nation in Christ. Thus, both of the typical interpretations of this passage contain a kernel of truth. But the best interpretation starts with the literal understanding...

However, God is not as limited as we think. He scattered Israel among the nations, and allowed them to face centuries of persecution, but has never permitted them to be exterminated. Rather, he has been preparing them to accept his Son, Jesus, as a nation, when the time is right. This much is generally accepted among Evangelical Christians.

What is less well understood is that God has also been continuing to work with other groups of people to whom he has directed specific prophecies. The apparent failure of those prophecies in the short term does not mean they will never or can never happen. The early conversion to Christianity and preservation of the Copts and the Assyrians—though as small minorities in Islamic countries—demonstrates this. In Isa. 19:23-25, God said there would be a time when Israel, Egypt and Assyria will live and worship the true God together in peace, and, true to his Word, God has preserved a remnant of all three nations through the centuries to make this possible. This demonstrates the power and faithfulness of God.

If God was able to preserve these three nationalities through persecution across two and a half millennia, to bring about His purposes and fulfill the words of His servant Isaiah, does He need my “help” to bring about His will in my life? Or does he need my “help” in making the world right?

No. He has the power to do these things without my “help.” He is also totally faithful to His people, including me. I just need to stay with Him, where He is, in what He is doing.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Jeremiah 45—Do not seek greatness

I have long felt some affinity for chapter 45 of Jeremiah, in which the prophet warned his faithful scribe Baruch that he should not seek greatness in a time of judgment:

The word that Jeremiah the prophet spake unto Baruch the son of Neriah, when he had written these words in a book at the mouth of Jeremiah, in the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah, saying, Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, unto thee, O Baruch; Thou didst say, Woe is me now! for the LORD hath added grief to my sorrow; I fainted in my sighing, and I find no rest. Thus shalt thou say unto him, The LORD saith thus; Behold, that which I have built will I break down, and that which I have planted I will pluck up, even this whole land. And seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not: for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the LORD: but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.
Jeremiah 45:1-5 (KJV)

The underlying message also seems to be directed to me, though I’m not Baruch!


Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.
Hebrews 12:1-4

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Extension of the Vision, May 20, 2007

Colossians 3:1-4 was the central passage in the Sunday School lesson I was to teach this morning. I came to see that a portion of my May 1, 2007, vision explained it in a way that differs from the usual "church" understanding of the passage.

Colossians 3:1-3 tells me to set my heart on things above, where Christ is seated on the right hand of God. Why? Because I have died with Christ, and my real life is now "hidden" with Christ in God. This agrees with what I was seeing three weeks ago, and continue to see, that I am really in Heaven with God. I am really one of the throng praising Him in Heaven—right now. This doesn't happen in the "heavenly future," it's happening right now. In fact, there really is no heavenly "eternity future" for God or for me that is separate from the present. The last six words are important. There is a heavenly future, but for us that future is not entirely separate from the present. God's throne is above all time, again as I saw three weeks ago, and I am really with Him. My body is curiously trapped in time, for now, but my real place is with God above it all. Therefore, I am to set my heart and my thoughts on heavenly things, things that reflect my real location and my real relationship with God.

The result of setting my heart on the things where I really am, with Christ in God, is that Christ also lives through me here, in this world, in time. Colossians 3:4 says, "When Christ who is our life appears, then we also shall appear with Him in glory." Traditionally, this is read as a reference to a heavenly eternity future—when we get to heaven, only then will we have His glory. But verses one through three do not refer to heavenly eternity future; they tell us to set our hearts on heavenly things right now. Verse 4 is actually saying that, as Christ lives through us, as He appears in us, he does not leave His glory at home in Heaven. He brings His glory with Him.

The transposition is thus complete—we're each really with Him in Heaven, and, exactly to the extent we permit Him to live through our bodies (collectively, His Body on earth!), He is really here on earth with us, showing His full glory through us.

At tonight's service, I saw, again as a picture, how this relates to John 6:37-38. The real me has been transposed to heaven, though still connected to my body here on earth. My place is now near the Throne. Jesus, on the Throne, now really exists in me. The rivers of living water that satisfy the thirst of the world pour out of Him, living in me. It's exactly as He appears in us in His glory, that rivers of living water from Him pour out of us individually.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Notes on Review of the Prophecy of Georg F. Handel, May 5 and 6 , 2007

At the beginning of my day of vacation on Thursday, instead of rushing about my agenda as I normally do, I lay in bed and listened again to the prophecy of Georg F. Handel—the oratorio he named the Messiah. The effect was so powerful that I did it again Friday morning, to review and expand what I had learned. You may question whether Handel was a prophet and this piece of music was truly a prophecy, but I believe it was. It spoke, and still speaks, for God. (As an aside, I believe that gifted musicians are generally prophets, and are expressing spiritual visions and messages—good or bad—in their art.) Indeed, it is said that it spoke so powerfully to King George II of England when he first heard it that he stood up during the singing of the "Hallelujah," explaining later that he was compelled to stand because he was in the presence of a King greater than himself (I'll write more about the Hallelujah later). Not everyone likes Handel's musical style; that's a matter of taste. But to those who enjoy the musical style, this music can speak powerfully, as it spoke again to me today.

Three of the lessons I learned, or re-learned, in these days, came with pictures. The first picture came during "For behold darkness shall cover the earth." and the next song. I could see the darkness, I could see the light rising upon the darkness, and I could see that most of the people had their backs turned away from the dawn. (It's interesting that all of the scripture passages Handel chose as descriptive of the Glory of God coming upon us—and they are scattered throughout the first two parts of the Messiah—speak not of God coming down upon us, but of God rising upon, within or among us, like the dawn). The people of the world are still in profound darkness, the shadow of death, but that shadow is their own collective shadows, as they face away from the rising Glory of the Savior. We are placed among them as a people facing the Light, reflecting the Light, carrying the rising Glory with us because we are facing it (and His Glory shall be seen upon us), and reflecting it in the faces of those who have chosen darkness. "And the Gentiles shall come to Thy Light, and Kings to the brightness of Thy rising."

A related picture is the Lamb of God, taking away the sin of the world. He has lifted the dark cloud of sin off of the world by His light. Any darkness that remains is not our sins, but our own shadows, rejecting and refusing to face Him.

The most vivid picture came during "And with his stripes." This chorus, and the solo before it ("Surely he hath borne our griefs"), quote Isaiah's prophecy that God would lay upon Jesus all of our griefs, that he would bear all of our sorrows, "and with his stripes we are healed." During the earlier part of this passage, I had been seeing, though somewhat faintly, Jesus on the Cross, with the dark cloud of our sins, sorrow and grief on top of him. But with the chorus "and with his stripes we are healed," the picture became very vivid—Jesus tied to a whipping post, and I was holding the whip. The most vivid part of the picture was the whip handle in my hand. I started crying. I was holding the whip. He bears the wounds for my healing. I caused some of the wounds.

Then, from "The Lord gave the word" on through the "Hallelujah," I was seeing pictures again. I could see the stars, His creation, whose sound is gone out through all the world. Many are the preachers sent into the world, and the creation itself speaks of God. Yet, the world and its rulers reject Him. They say, let us break their (God's and Christ's) bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes (Jesus' easy yoke!) from us. I could see the rulers' tantrum, and appreciate that they were casting aside an easy yoke (as I do sometimes). And God's response: He laughs. He "has them in derision." He will install His King, who "will break them with a rod of iron." They didn't want the easy yoke, and will get the rod of iron instead. I could at least faintly see kingdoms being broken with the rod, before the Hallelujah started. I understand why King George stood up, if he was seeing the same things I was seeing. After seeing the kingdoms of this world, broken by God's rod, there come the words of John, quoting the heavenly choir:

For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth…
The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ
And He shall reign for ever and ever.

King George had reason to stand. And I was weeping again at this point, seeing the same picture I had seen Tuesday night: God's throne on top of the universe. This time it came after He had broken the nations.

The music also had other lessons that came without pictures.

The first message I heard in these days was the opening message of the piece, being amplified. "Comfort ye my people." Jesus didn't come to distress and condemn God's people. He came to comfort us. And that is my purpose, too.

A lesson I heard repeated today is that I must accept myself, and the gifts and role God has given me.

When God comes, he shakes things up, before He reveals Himself. Few can stand His coming. And He purifies his people, who serve Him. He is like a refiner's fire. In the end, my purification is His work, not mine.

He takes care of His flock like a shepherd. I am one of His flock. He is particularly gentle in leading those with young. Has he been so gentle with me, in many areas of my life, because He knows I have young?

I have a strong tendency to hold back because I'm fearful. Jesus has taken on Himself everything I fear:

I fear rejection;
He was despised and rejected of men.
Thy rebuke hath broken His heart.

I fear pain;
He gave His back to the smiters, and his face to them that plucked out the hair.

I fear being shamed;
He hid not His face from shame and spitting.

I fear criticism, what men might say;
All they that see Him laugh Him to scorn.

I fear sorrow and grief;
He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.

I fear sickness;
With His stripes we are healed.

I fear punishment;
The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all;
The chastisement of our peace was upon Him.

I fear abandonment;
He looked for some to have pity on Him,
But there was no man, neither found he any tom comfort Him;
The shake their heads, saying,
He trusted in God, let Him deliver Him, if He delight in Him.

I fear death;
But Thou didst not leave His soul in Hell,
nor didst Thou suffer Thy Holy One to see corruption.