Archive for January, 2016

Who is Nathanael? And is John’s gospel historically reliable?

January 13, 2016

Early drafts of my sermons always include things that don’t make the final cut, not because I don’t find them interesting (I’m always immensely interested in what I write), but because I don’t have time to include them. Last Sunday’s sermon on John 1:35-51 was no exception.

I intended to include more information about the unnamed disciple in v. 40—whom I believe to be John himself, the author of the gospel—and Nathanael in vv. 45-51.

When I studied John’s gospel in seminary, at least one of my professors rejected the traditional understanding that Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew (not mentioned in John) in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Why? Because, she believed, “John” (who in her mind wasn’t John the apostle) wasn’t interested in communicating history at all; John’s gospel was valuable as literature only, whose truth was communicated mostly through symbolism and myth. In which case, why bother reconciling or harmonizing John with the other three, more “historical” gospels? Nathanael is a symbol, alongside so many other characters in John.

Among many problems with this approach is that it assumes that those Christian thinkers who lived within one or two generations of John (Polycarp and Justin Martyr, for example), who believed that John, among its many other virtues, also told historical truth, weren’t nearly as smart as we are today. For some reason, these thinkers, who knew the language, the culture, and the Greco-Roman world better than any of us do, couldn’t figure out what the fourth Evangelist was up to when he wrote his “symbolic” and “spiritual” gospel.

It also ignores how easily discrepancies or omissions between John and the Synoptics can often be reconciled. The issue of Nathanael and Bartholomew is a case in point. As D.A. Carson points out in his commentary, the fact that Nathanael, as depicted by John, is a friend of Philip’s from the same hometown, Bethsaida, agrees with the what the Synoptics say about Bartholomew. Moreover, Bartholomew is a patronym only—a last name meaning “Son of Tholomaeus.” It stands to reason that the name he was given at birth was Nathanael. Moreover, Bartholomew is coupled with Philip in the Synoptics (Mt. 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk. 6:14), just as Nathanael is here.

Of course, in defending John’s historicity, I’m completely ignoring our orthodox Christian belief that the Holy Spirit ultimately gives us the Bible that we have, and it is the Spirit who ensures its infallibility.

Regardless, here’s what I cut out of my sermon:

[Andrew and the unnamed disciple] were originally disciples of John the Baptist: Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of them, and an unnamed disciple who is likely John himself, the author of this gospel, was the other. Why do I think the unnamed disciple was John? Because John is always the unnamed in the gospel of John. He’s referred to as the “beloved disciple,” the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The fact that he isn’t named is a sign of his humility. Another sign that it’s the author of this gospel is that curious little detail in verse 39: “So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.” It was about the tenth hour. Ancient Jews counted the hour beginning at 6:00 a.m. So ten hours after that would make it four in the afternoon.

My point is, it’s an oddly specific time. It seems unlikely that if it didn’t happen to the author himself, he would have bothered to mention it. Whereas if this was the very moment at which the course of your life changed forever, well, it’s natural that you would remember it. All that to say, we’re not dealing with myths and legends here; we’re dealing with history passed on by eyewitnesses.

The third disciple, Philip, was a childhood friend of Peter and Andrew, and the fourth was Nathanael, who we know from other three gospels as Bartholomew. Why the different name? “Bartholomew” was a last name, meaning “son of Tholomaeus.” Nathanael would have been his first name.

And while I’m on the subject of “clearing up confusion,” if you’ve read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you may wonder why the call of these four in John—especially Peter, Andrew, and John—seems different from the other three gospels. In the other three, Peter, Andrew, and John, along with John’s brother James, are in their boats fishing when Jesus walks by and says, “Follow me”—at which point they drop what they’re doing, leave behind their families and their fishing business, and follow Jesus. It seems like they follow Jesus without even knowing who he was. So John’s gospel actually makes sense of the other three by furnishing a key detail that’s missing there: they did already know Jesus before they they left their homes and families and livelihoods and decided to spend the next three years of their lives with him.

You want unity in the church? Then agree on these questions

January 13, 2016

Anne Kennedy, a gifted writer and evangelical Anglican blogger (of the American variety—ACNA?), reflects on the most important questions facing leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion as they gather this week in Canterbury. Despite what you’ve heard, these questions don’t pertain directly to homosexuality; rather, the debate surrounding that issue is an inevitable symptom of our problem.

We United Methodists should bear her words in mind when leaders from our denomination gather in Portland, Oregon, later this year for General Conference.

How is a person to be saved? More importantly, does anyone need saving? That is the question that the Anglican world has not been able to come to grips with. Tragically, I am of the mind that the human person, every single one of them in fact, is very far gone, is like a sheep who has gone astray, who can’t find her, or even his, way back, is needing to be rescued. I know this because the scriptures themselves say it. And I have taken the trouble to read and understand those same scriptures. I have discovered that they can be known, that they are reliable and true, and that Jesus can’t be grasped apart from them. He himself is the savior, he desires that all should turn from the self and sin and repent. For the one who repents he is faithful to forgive.

But you can’t pry him away from the scripture and expect him to be the savior who saves you. You just can’t do that. If you pry Jesus out and reform him into something that is more suitable to yourself and the culture, any culture, you no longer have a Jesus who can save. That is the essential point. It’s always been the essential point. It hasn’t changed. It isn’t complicated. Meeting together all day long, if you don’t agree about that, isn’t going to bring unity of belief and purpose. It only continues to confuse.

And confusion abounds in every direction. Christianity of every brand and flavor is in chaos. Prominent pastors and teachers are every day inching up closer to that alluring, siren call of heresy. Ordinary people in the west largely believe they are going to heaven, because they are good, and God, whoever he is, and it doesn’t really matter, loves them. In the era of the BuzzFeed Christian, a clear, full throated proclamation of who Jesus is is of the essence.

And on that note, I will go and enjoin my spirit to God in prayer, that he will not only save the lost, but that he will also save and rescue his church.

It’s not about our own glory

January 7, 2016

I talked in my sermon last Sunday about how our Lord gives all of us disciples a job to do. We’re all on a mission. We’re all “sent” by God to do something, just as John the Baptist was sent. That mission may only be to glorify God in the midst of adversity.

As I said, I struggle with glorifying God. More often than not, I can’t do it without also wanting glory for myself. This is why I found the movie The Gallant Hours, which I referred to on Sunday, so helpful to me.

In the first clip below, Admiral Halsey, alone among his staff, believes that their recent mission to defend Guadalcanal was successful. Why? Because, humble though it was, they accomplished their objective—to fight the Japanese to a standoff. For Halsey and his men, this objective couldn’t be less “glorious” for them.

Most of life’s battles, large and small, are no better than a standoff. But we remember our objective: to glorify God.

In the second clip, Halsey talks one of squadron commanders out of resigning from the command, reminding him that “there are no great men.”


“Behind the hardened armor of self-justification”

January 6, 2016

lgcoverIn my Advent sermon related to Elf and Mark 10:13-16 (“Suffer the little children to come unto me…”), I discussed one important reason Jesus says we must become like children in order to enter God’s kingdom. Among other things, I said:

Recall that I spoke earlier about how salvation is a completely free gift. Now think about how we adults receive Christmas gifts. If a gift is too lavish, too ostentatious, too luxurious, too expensive, we will naturally be reluctant to receive it. First, we might worry that it comes with strings attached: Why are you giving me this? What do you want me to do in return? See, we don’t quite trust the gift-giver that the gift is really free. So we’re suspiciousBut more often, even when we know that the gift-giver has no ulterior motive, when someone gives us a gift that we perceive is too lavish, too luxurious, too expensive, we’ll be reluctant to receive it because we’ll say, “This is too much! I don’t deserve this!”

But when it comes to God’s gift of salvation, that’s exactly right! That’s the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ! You don’t deserve it!

By contrast, think about how children receive gifts. They couldn’t care less about how much it costs the gift-giver! Money means nothing to them. They don’t give a thought about somehow being worthy of the gift, or earning the gift, or paying the gift-giver back. They just gladly, joyously receive it. “Mine, mine, mine! This is mine! This belongs to me! This has my name on it!” And that’s wonderful, in a way—to receive a gift so wholeheartedly.

If you can’t receive this gift as a child, you’ll never be saved!

In the little book Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints), published by the brilliant thinkers at Mockingbird Ministries, they examine another reason for our need to become like children: Each one of us, at heart, is a child. This child is the only part of us that’s real. What we perceive to be our “grown-up” self is really only protective armor we’ve created to protect the inner child. If we are to be saved, the gospel must reach the real self.

Poet Ted Hughes, author of The Iron Giant, shares the following insight in a letter to his son:

Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child…

It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realize that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. When we meet people this is what we usually meet… [The child] is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced… At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality.[1]

Think of this in biblical terms: It’s easy to see how Adam and Eve fell into sin because they denied their childlike dependence on the Father and grasped for a kind of “adulthood,” as they perceived it, which meant self-elevation and independence. And we’re no different, obviously.

The problem is, we’re ill-equipped to be “grown up” in this way. We’re vulnerable. We need protection. Thus we create the armor of our “secondary self.”

As the authors point out, the good news—which is not yet the Good News of Jesus Christ—is first the Bad News of the Law:

In observing the secondary self, Hughes was, perhaps unwittingly, describing the Old Adam. And the Law, when it functions properly, exists to destroy and dismantle the armor, leaving the child vulnerable, afraid within…

[A]ny honest religion must… address precisely that child, the true self behind the hardened armor of self-justification and adaptation and calculation and coping and control. We may have the illusion of moral mastery when Moses tells us not to murder, but what about when Jesus says we’ll be liable to hell-fire for insulting someone?

Of course, Jesus did not speak to those with shiny secondary selves, like the Pharisees—except to condemn their righteousness as a lifeless pretension. Instead, the sinners and tax collectors, whose outer armor had long been shorn by addiction and shame and depravity, were the ones to whom Jesus addressed himself. Since only the inner child is truly alive, only that child can hear anything resembling Good News. The secondary self, or the Old Adam, hears only tasks and ways to increase his ego and standing—he only hears in the imperative voice. But the sinner, or inner child, desperately listens for the indicative voice: for some news relevant to his plight. That desperation is the only place an honest approach to the Law can leave us. Yet we still have no Good News, but only a quiet and lonely desperation, now that the illusory capabilities and consolations of the Old Adam are seen to be nothing but “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[2]

This, this, thisBut the sinner, or inner child, desperately listens for the indicative voice: for some news relevant to his plight. That desperation is the only place an honest approach to the Law can leave us.

Oh my goodness, I know this desperation! Do you?

I’ve heard the accusing voice of the Law, over and over again: “I ordered you to do this. You failed. And now you deserve death and hell.” So now I listen desperately for the indicative voice of the gospel: Christ says, “Child, here’s what I’ve done for you. I’ve become your failures; I’ve suffered your condemnation; I’ve died your death. Now I’ll give you my life: it’s free; it’s perfect; you can’t ruin it. In fact, in me you’re perfect.”

What is that cliché about Paul’s letter to the Romans? Something like, “It has to make you sinner before it can save you”? Close enough… Anyway, it’s true. The role of the Law is to make us (or, rather, ensure that we know ourselves as) sinners. Otherwise the good news of Jesus Christ can’t penetrate that armor of self-justification that leads to both a lifetime of disappointment in ourselves and an eternity in hell.

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 36-7.

2. Ibid., 37-8.

Another reflection on providence

January 5, 2016

This covers some ground I’ve covered many times before (even in last Sunday’s sermon), but it bears repeating. This is my comment in response to a post on God’s providence by Reformed thinker Derek Rishmawy. As I tell him, I mostly agree with his post.

If you think I’m wrong about any of this, please feel free to tell me why.

Conservative evangelical United Methodist pastor here. (Sorry to modify the kind of Methodist I am, but they come in a wide variety these days, unfortunately.) Even as a Wesleyan, I really like this post. Thanks.

You write the following of our Arminian emphasis on free will and how love must be freely chosen: “More Reformed theologians typically eschew that account because their view of human freedom sees it as fully compatible with God’s eternal decree for what will come to pass in human history whether by a decision to cause or permit different, human events.”

I would only add that we Arminians wonder why God must eternally decree that these things come to pass. Why can’t God foresee that they will come to pass when free human beings (however corrupted by sin their freedom may be) exert their will in this way—and then plan accordingly? We believe strongly that God redeems and transforms evil for good.

Regardless, like you, I’m sure, I don’t see nearly so great a difference between God’s “causing” and God’s “allowing” as many Christians see—especially my more progressive clergy colleagues. If you want to start a fight with them, tell them that “everything happens for a reason” (even if, as you indicate, the reason will likely will be unknowable to us). From my perspective, this is obviously true.

If we believe that God answers prayer and grants our petitions at least sometimes (even most progressives in my denomination say they believe this), then what happens when God doesn’t grant our petition? Do we say that God doesn’t have the power to do so? Do we say “that’s just the breaks, kid” because whether God does or doesn’t is completely arbitrary? Or do we say, “God heard our petition, considered it, and chose not to give us what we asked for”—and here’s the inevitable conclusion—”for a good reason”?

But as you say, if we knew what God knows, and we were as good as God is, we would understand the reason and praise him for it.

What’s the alternative to this? My progressive colleagues end up implicitly saying (as far as I can tell) that God doesn’t really do much of anything—except, you know, be with us (whatever that means) and suffer alongside us (whatever that means). Providence isn’t real. God’s hands are tied.

Thanks again. I like your blog and the Mere Fidelity podcast. I listen to it whenever it comes out.

Sermon 01-03-16: “The Voice of the One Crying Out in the Wilderness”

January 4, 2016

James Cagney (right) in The Gallant Hours

Many of us look ahead to the new year and think, “I hope this year is better than last year!” While I understand the impulse to do so, we need to remember this: everything that happened last year happened according to God’s plan for us, even if his plan didn’t correspond to our own. Therefore we can be grateful even for the hard times, because God used them for our good.

John the Baptist provides a great example to help us have a better year in 2016. He reminds us to stay focused not on what we want—on our plans and desires—but on what God wants. We should be so focused on his agenda that we don’t have much time to worry our own!

Sermon Text: John 1:19-34

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

I can tell from Facebook that many of us have made New Year’s Resolutions. Indeed, early January is the time when gyms across the nation pay the bills for the other eleven months of the year. Because in January we resolve to do what most of us resolved to do last year but failed. And what we resolved to do the year before that, but failed. And what we resolved to do the year before that, but failed: which is, to finally get in shape! So we join the gym in January. And we go many times in January. And we go a little less in February. And March… even less.

One of my Christmas gifts that I asked for this year, and received, was running clothes for cold weather—and finally, on Friday for the first time this winter, it was cold enough to wear them. The outfit is made of this stretchy material that is form-fitting. Unforgivably so! When I put the shirt on, and looked in the mirror, I said, “Oh, my goodness, when did I become the Michelin man? I have to wear a baggy T-shirt on top of this.” So I’ve resolved to get in better shape in this new year.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Behold, the Lamb of God!”

January 4, 2016

I sometimes wish I were one of those megachurch pastors who was able to preach for 45 minutes or more, because yesterday would have been a good time to do so. My sermon text, John 1:19-34, was rich with meaning, to say the least. And I never got to the best part of the text: John 1:29, in which John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” 

The good news, since this is just the beginning of a sermon series on John’s gospel, is that I will have another crack at this “Lamb of God” metaphor in next week’s scripture (John 1:35-51). In verse 36, John says to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

I was surprised to learn in my research last week that there is some controversy surrounding the meaning of the “Lamb of God.” Some New Testament scholars doubt that it refers to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. After all, in the Old Testament sacrificial system, goats and bulls were sacrificed for sins, not lambs.

This strikes me as a bizarre objection by scholars motivated by a refusal to believe in substitutionary atonement. There are at least three very clear atonement-related Old Testament passages that relate to John’s metaphor. The first is the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

After God stops Abraham from killing his son, scripture says:

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Can I confess with embarrassment that I only learned last week that a “ram” can be either a male goat (as I always pictured it) or a male sheep?

Regardless, here we have a lamb sacrificed in exchange for the Isaac’s life, just as Christ is sacrificed in exchange for ours. While this passage doesn’t mention propitiation for sins (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Abraham didn’t understand it that way), we have other scripture passages that point to propitiation: Exodus 12 and Isaiah 53.

In the Exodus passage, the blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the lentil and door posts, is a propitiation—for the sins of the Egyptians, obviously, but also for the sins of the Israelites.

I think we often miss this point. Although the occasion for the Passover was to punish Egypt, both Israel and Egypt are guilty before God and deserving of judgment, wrath, and death—as are all human beings (see Romans 3:23 and 6:23). So if the angel of death is going punish for sin, God is nothing if not fair: Israel isn’t exempt from this judgment, either. The only reason that Israel is spared is by the blood of the lamb.

In Isaiah 53, which prophesies Christ’s substitutionary death explicitly, we’re told that the Suffering Servant, who carries our iniquities, is “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.”

Finally, if the John who wrote Revelation is the same author of the gospel (as tradition holds), we’re not surprised that atonement imagery for the Lamb of God returns (Revelation 5:12, among others).

Am I missing anything else?