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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Attack

The Attack

With the conclusion of his defense argument, at the height of his accuser's blood-red rage, Stephen realizes that his time on earth was finished...his immediate future is in heaven. Stephen exclaims aloud the incredible vision of the heavens opened and Jesus standing beside God.

Stephen's accusers, the religious rulers of Jerusalem, did not join him in wonder and awe.

"But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him." Acts 7:57 (ESV)

These were grown men, with the power to judge and convict, educated and experienced in dealing with people. Yet in the face of incontrovertible evidence of their own sin, they become like children, worse than children, they become like animals.

STOPPED: synecho (to hold together, to compress); from sun (together) and echo (to hold)

The enraged religious rulers literally held both hands to their ears to muffle the words of Stephen. His defensive argument and counter-accusation of idolatry and rejection of God had brought the court to the very edge of physical violence. They had barely held their temper, grinding their teeth, until Stephen described his vision of Jesus.

RUSHED: hormao (to start, spur or urge on, to dash or plunge); from horme (a violent impulse, an onset)

TOGETHER: homothymadon (unanimously); from homos (the same) and thymos (passion, as if breathing hard); from thyo (to rush, or breathe hard, to sacrifice or immolate)

The attack on Stephen was impulsive and reactive. It was not planned or pronounced, yet the entire council, as if controlled by one mind, reacted violently and passionately to Stephen's words describing Christ.

To act "together" is not always a violent behavior. "Homothymadon" is used to describe the prayer time experienced by the disciples in the upper room. The word is often translated as "with one accord".

The word, "rushed", however, is always found in connection with violent fear or anger. The demonized herd of swine "rushed" violently down a steep place and perished in the sea. An angry mob "rushed" into a theater, attacking two of Paul's companions, as if to lynch them.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What experience have you had with violent anger? What drives people to react violently to philosophical differences? What deeply held desires does religion threaten? What modern conflicts are most likely caused by this same religious fervor?

"They cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, - Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. - And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, - Lord, do not hold this sin against them.- And when he had said this, he fell asleep." Acts 7:58-60 (ESV)

STONED: lithoboleo (to throw stones); from lithos (a stone) and ballo (to throw)

Stoning was well-established as a form of capital punishment since the Law of Moses. The first recorded reference concerns idol worship:

"Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones." Leviticus 20:2 (ESV)

God required the stoning and death of any who sacrificed children to the god Molech.

STONE: ragam (to cast together stones, to kill with stones)

Stoning was required for wizardry, blasphemy, working on the Sabbath day, children who were stubborn and rebellious or gluttons and drunkards. Stoning was a method of cleansing evil from the people:

"So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear." Deuteronomy 21:21 (ESV)

During the conquest of Jericho, God required the entire city to be destroyed, allowing the Israelites to claim nothing as prizes or booty. An Israelite named Achan took for himself a beautiful cloak, 200 pieces of silver and a bar of gold, hiding them inside his tent. When discovered, Achan and his family were stoned to death. (Joshua 7)

There are many references in the Old Testament to stoning, sanctioned by God Himself. The New Testament is different. Only nine references to stoning can be found in the New Testament, and all of the references imply condemnation of the practice. In all of the instances in the New Testament, the act of stoning is described as unfair, undeserved or in other ways as unfavorable.

The most direct example of the contrast between the Old and New Testament's portrayal of stoning is seen in the Book of John:

"The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, - Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? - This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, - Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her. - And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, - Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? - She said, - No one, Lord. - And Jesus said, - Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." John 8:3-11 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How are Christians to view capital punishment? Should the response of Jesus to the adulterous woman influence the way our society punishes crime? How did the coming of Jesus Christ change the way God would have His people punish crime?

The work of killing Stephen with stones was physically demanding, requiring the executioners to lay aside their jackets in order to continue:

"The witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul." Acts 7:58 (ESV)

The garments were given to a young man named Saul, implying that Saul was part of the mob that attacked Stephen, but he must have been not yet of age to actually participate. The leaders of the mob, although responding with passionate anger, retained enough self-control to follow some degree of protocol, restricting participation in the death sentence to men older than Saul.

This foreshadowing hint seems to be an intriguing literary device, used by the author to heighten the surprise when we later discover the rest of the story. "Saul" will become a vicious agent of vengeance, persecuting many more "Stephens" on his own. At the height of his violent anti-Christian pogram, "Saul" will encounter Truth, becoming blind for a time and returning miraculously back to health, becoming a tireless disciple of the One Whom he formerly despised.

"Saul" will become "Paul", and will humble himself in prayer:

"Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him." Acts 22:19-20 (ESV)

Jesus Himself will forgive Paul, making the one-time persecuter one of his Apostles:

"He said to me, - Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles." Acts 22:21 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In what way can you identify with the young Saul, a proud, rigidly-religious leader, anxious to prove superiority, whether through verbal debate or violent conflict? What part of Saul's religious training would become useful after his conversion? What part of your experiences before Christ have become useful in your life now as a Christian?

Image provided by solylunafamilia, Creative Commons License, modified by the author using GIMP

Monday, September 17, 2012

Unholy and Profane

Unholy and Profane

The third and final pair of terms used by Paul in his letter to Timothy:

"We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane." 1 Timothy 1:8-9 (ESV)

UNHOLY: anosios (wicked); from a (not) and hosios (intrinsically or divinely right, hallowed)

PROFANE: bebelos (accessible, as by crossing a door-way; heathenish or wicked); from baino (to walk) and belos (a threshold)

"Unholy" is best understood by looking at its opposite meaning: holy.

"Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed." Revelation 15:3-4 (ESV)

HOLY: hosios (intrinsically or divinely right, hallowed)

This word only occurs eight times in the New Testament. It most often refers to God alone, but there are instances in which it refers to humans:

"I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling." 1 Timothy 2:8 (ESV)

"An overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined." Titus 1:7-8 (ESV)

Holiness includes the concepts of powerful deeds, justice and truth. God's actions spring directly from His essence, which is best described as "holy". God is holy, and humans are not, because only God can do what He does. God is a being apart from human, making His deeds uniquely different or "holy".

There is another word often translated as "holy" as well:

"As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, - You shall be holy, for I am holy." 1 Peter 1:14-16 (ESV)

HOLY: hagios (sacred, physically pure, morally blameless or ceremonially consecrated); from hagos (an awful thing)

Peter is citing the Book of Leviticus:

"You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them. For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground." Leviticus 11:43-44 (ESV)

HOLY: qadosh (sacred, ceremonially or morally; God, an angel, a saint, a sanctuary); from qadash (to be, make, pronounce or observe as clean)

"Hagios" and "qadosh" both imply utter and complete cleanliness. God alone is perfectly clean, physically and morally. The only way for humans to have this own condition of perfect cleanliness is to have it legally, spiritually, conferred or granted to us by God.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In plain language, what is the difference between the two words for holy? Can you reconcile the paradox of God alone being holy, yet Christians are commanded to be holy?

Paul connects another word with unholy:

PROFANE: bebelos (accessible, as by crossing a door-way; heathenish or wicked); from baino (to walk) and belos (a threshold)

"Profanity" has a popular meaning of "dirty words", "swearing" or "cursing". However, a more accurate definition would be "emptiness":

"Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths." 1 Timothy 4:7 (ESV)

"Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called - knowledge, - for by professing it some have swerved from the faith." 1 Timothy 6:20-21 (ESV)

"Irreverent" is the same word as "profane". The Greek word refers to superstitious sayings, "old wives' tales".

Some religions worship a guardian spirit that lives in the doorway of any house or building. Stepping on the threshold of the doorway is seen as an intense insult to that spirit. After years of honoring and praying to the spirit it can become seen as a member of the family, deserving respect, prayed to for good luck and worshiped with offerings. (Source: jadedragon.com)

Paul is urging Timothy to counter superstition with Scripture. Esau was described as a "profane" person, not because of a filthy mouth, but for his poor spiritual business sense:

"Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and thereby many be defiled; Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright." Hebrews 12:14-16 (KJV)

Esau sold his birthright in trade for a bowl of stew, exchanging something precious and irreplaceable with a bowl of water and meat that would be empty in less than five minutes time.

Human nature tends to disregard God, treating Him little different than a myth or superstition, denying His holiness and making themselves unholy in turn.

We also tend to prefer instant, physical gratification to long-term spiritual health and happiness. We too often open the door to devils who fill our minds with lies and hoaxes, rendering our lives empty with babbling.

The internet and World Wide Web has become an easy method of broadcasting empty, worthless advice and false facts.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What recent email forwards might easily be traced back to profanity, in the sense of being "irreverent, silly myths"? In what ways are the words "unholy" and "profane" strongly connected? Why is "profane" now commonly thought of as cursing and filthy language?

Image provided by Christopher, Creative Commons License

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ungodly and Sinners

Ungodly and Sinners

"The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane." 1 Timothy 1:9 (ESV)

Human nature can be described in terms of its relationship to God's Law. At times we act as if we were lawless, as if there were no law or command to restrain our behavior. At other times we act as if we are disobedient, acting defiantly, refusing to obey the law that we clearly understand.

Paul continues his letter of guidance to young Timothy, describing human nature in terms of its relationship to Jesus Christ.

UNGODLY: asebes (irreverent, impious or wicked); from a (not) and sebo (to revere or adore)

SINNERS: hamartolos (sinful, sinner); from hamartano (to miss the mark, not sharing in the prize, to err or sin); from a (not) and meiromai (to get as a section or allotment)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What thought process must a Christian go through when moving from reverence for God to selfish sin? How does lack of reverence for God make it easier to sin? What "prize" appeals to your desire and reverence for God?

Peter pairs the same two words together in a similar message:

"If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?" 1 Peter 4:18 (ESV)

Paul connects the terms "ungodly" and "sinner" with the concept of salvation. Peter is writing to Christians, warning them away from behavior that defines the ungodly and sinners of the world. The implication is that Christians are vulnerable to the same sinful weaknesses as non-Christians.

Peter, however, distinguishes Christian from non-Christian with the word, "righteous".

RIGHTEOUS: dikaios (equitable, treating others evenly or equally); from dike (self-evidently right); from deiknyo (to show)

"Righteous" in this verse is translated from the same Greek word used earlier, translated as "just".

Christians are accounted righteous, or just, by way of the decree of God, based upon our acceptance and desire regarding the obedient sacrifice of the Only Perfect Redeemer, Jesus Christ:

"For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." Romans 5:17-19 (ESV)

The terms "ungodly" and "sinners" may be seen as one step closer toward narrowly defining those to Whom God directed His law. The previous set of words, "lawless and disobedient", roughly separate the world into two: non-Jews, outside of the nation of Israel, those not under the law, and Jews, the nation of Israel, the ones under the law.

But the next two words, "ungodly and sinners" seem to speak to those who reject Jesus as Redeemer, perferring to meet God on their own terms, on their own merits.

Sadly, Christians may often turn their backs on grace and fall into a lifestyle that closely mimics that of the "ungodly and sinners".

The law was laid down by God to convince and convict humans of their sin, whether Jew or Gentile, Christian or non-Christian, sinner or saint.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What support can you cite from the Bible for the belief that Christians do sin, that God allows pain and loss as a consequence, but grace still remains for the sinning Christian and eternal life in Christ is not lost? When is righteousness best described as good behavior resulting from God's indwelling Spirit, and when is righteousness best described as gift of grace given by God despite our bad behavior?

Image provided by Ivan McClellan, Creative Commons License

Friday, September 7, 2012

Guest Post: Crumbs of Joy

Guest Post: Crumbs of Joy

Jeremy lives in Israel and has a unique opportunity to explore the roots of Christianity while living in the reality of modern Jewish society. I appreciated a recent devotional he wrote. Jeremy has given me permission to reprint it here.

The issue of relating to the local Arab population reminds me of a sermon which I had the privilege of hearing a couple of weeks ago. The subject was the approach Jesus took towards the non-Jewish population present in Israel at his time – a period which was also wracked by ethnic and religious violence. The story at the center of the sermon was that of the Canaanite woman who approached Jesus when he ventured into the non-Jewish region on the Mediterranean Coast near Tyre (Matthew 15:21-28). Her daughter suffered from demon-possession and she did not cease to plead with Jesus for her healing.

He initially turned her down, explaining: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." She persisted, and knelt before him, begging: " Lord, help me!" His next response has shocked many in the centuries since for its seeming callousness: "It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs." Undaunted, she reminded him: "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table." His next response was what she had sought: "Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted."

This is one of those hard sayings of Jesus that can cause the hearer to be greatly offended, since it seems as though he considers everyone not from the Children of Israel to be dogs not worthy to be fed. Understanding the context of the story, however, shows that an amazing truth was being revealed for the future of the Gentiles in God’s plan. Chapters fourteen and fifteen of Matthew are marked by stories of feeding thousands in a miraculous way, with always leftovers that were picked up and saved for future use (14:20 and 15:37).

The common theme is the abundance of leftovers which are no less perfect for being leftovers. This perfection is symbolized by the numbers of baskets mentioned as having remained: twelve and seven – numerals which represent perfection. The very concept of leftovers in these stories speaks of the provision for those who are next in line to be fed, and it is clear that even what was picked up from the ground would supply their all their needs. (By the way, carefully gathering up the crumbs of bread after a meal is still a common practice in Middle Eastern cultures – as I saw while living in the Arab village last year.)

This Canaanite woman instinctively recognized that Jesus was the bread of life which she and her daughter so desperately needed. She somehow understood that this bread was being broken and distributed among the Jews in order to fulfill God’s perfect plan, but she also sensed in her spirit that she and the rest of the Gentiles were the next in line to be fed. Those leftovers were going to be gathered up and given to the whole world, and even one crumb of the bread of life would be perfect and full of life-imparting power.

Jesus tested her faith by initially reminding her that the time had not yet come to break the bread of life beyond the borders of Israel in an unrestricted manner. Her response showed him that her eyes already had caught a glimpse of the power in even a crumb of this bread, and due to this faith her story was one of the first cases recorded of non-Jewish individuals who tasted of the living bread in a personal way. Far from being rejected by Jesus, she became an emblem of the step immediately following his death and resurrection: the joyous reception of the Gospel by countless Gentiles around the world. And so, when reading her story, we remember the loving plan of God for the next in line to be fed (even yet today), and that even one crumb of the living bread is enough to fill the soul, heal its diseases and to restore the fellowship with God.

Crumbs of Joy, by Jeremy, September 2, 2012

Slice of bread, crumbs and honey by Horia Varlan, Creative Commons License

Monday, September 3, 2012

Lawless and Disobedient

Lawless and Disobedient

Paul describes three pillars of love:

  • a pure heart,
  • a good conscience,
  • and a sincere faith.

Without this foundation, a Christian will swerve away into worthlessless, characterized by doctrine that rejects Christ, treasuring instead myths and endless genealogies.

A leader or teacher who has swerved from the foundations of love will not understand the lawful use of the very law they desire to teach. The utterly unlawful way of using the law is to consider it a path to justification. The most fundamental purpose of law is not to guide good people, but to convict bad people of their sin.

"The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted." 1 Timothy 1:9-11 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Is this a comprehensive list of sins? What common element connects each sin in this list?

God's purpose in laying down the law at Mount Sinai for Moses to deliver to the people of Israel was to convince the people of their intrinsic bent toward sin.

LAWLESS: anomos (lawless, not subject to, wicked); from a (not) and nomos (law, regulation or principle); from nemo (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals)

DISOBEDIENT: anypotaktos (unsubdued, insubordinate); from a (not) and hypotasso (to subordinate, to obey); from hypo (under) and tasso (to arrange, assign or dispose to)

These words characterize in general terms those who are under the law. From Adam and Eve's disobedience, to the idolatry of the nation of Israel; from the shameful malice of Joseph's brothers to King David's adultery and murderous machinations; from the rejection and killing of every prophet to the murder of the Anointed Son of God, Jesus the Christ, the Bible condemns natural humans as lawless and disobedient.

The Law seemed to do little toward changing the hearts and behavior of the people. From commoner to king, people continued to disobey specific commands laid down by God.

"Lawless" is a direct reference to all non-Jews:

"To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law." 1 Corinthians 9:20-21 (ESV)

"Those outside the law" is a translation of the very same Greek word translated in 1 Timothy as "lawless".

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What effect has the Law of the Old Testament served? Paul regarded the law as meant for the Jews...was it not meant for the entire world?

"Lawless" characterizes those not under the law, the non-Jews, the Gentiles, tribes and dynastys outside of the nation of Israel.

"Disobedient", however, appears to target those to Whom God directly gave the law: the nation of Israel.

The word translated as "disobedient" implies more than simply breaking a rule. To be insubordinate is to reject authority, to refuse to acknowledge another's right to make the rules.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews uses the same same word:

"What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet. - Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him." Hebrews 2:6-8 (ESV)

God created humans to rule as stewards of the world. Yet, after the curse of sin, there was much that became disobedient to the rule of humans: animals became predators, plants became invasive weeds and thorns, childbirth became painfully dangerous, and most telling of all, the human heart became deceitful and prone to disobedience.

"For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand." Romans 7:14-21 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can the words "lawless" and "disobedient" be easily distinguished? What behaviors or groups seem connected more strongly with being "lawless" than "disobedient"? Would you say your besetting sins are lawless or disobedient?

Image provided by Anders Sandberg, Creative Commons License