George Floyd, God and Race Relations

The US is in the middle of a destructive culture war, with both sides trying to claim Biblical justification for their positions. But there are some things it’s impossible to justify Biblically – like tear-gassing a group of clergy doing a peaceful protest in church grounds so that someone can pose for a photo opportunity outside the church, or a police officer murdering an unarmed black man by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

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For some of us, this is something distant – events happening 4,000 miles away in a very different culture and another opportunity to despair at the state of America. For others of us, it’s very real and personal. I love the fact that St Jude’s is a pretty good reflection of the racial balance of our local area; heaven is a gathering of people from every tribe and language and people and nation and the church should be beginning to reflect that in the present. And while I love having BAME folks as part of the church, I hate the prejudice they tell me they sometimes experience, and the conversations they often need to have with their children that I don’t need to have with mine.

It’s important to remember that because the Church is a body, “when one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor 12:26). That means that when our fellow church members suffer discrimination because of the colour of their skin, we suffer too. Our brothers and sisters are being treated badly because of what they look like, and too often we don’t care or don’t act!

What does the Bible have to say on the matter? There are important verses like Galatians 3:28, which affirms we are all one in Christ Jesus – in the gospel there is no black or white. It’s worth noting that Jesus was discriminated against in Jerusalem because his accent marked him and his followers out as Galileans (and a big part of the tension in Holy Week is between the Galileans who welcomed him on Palm Sunday and the Judeans who called for him to be crucified). There are also passages like Numbers 12, where Moses’s sister Miriam starts to complain against Moses because his wife was black (Cushite = Ethiopian = common term for black-skinned people). God’s response to Miriam is to give her a disfiguring skin disease, and only takes it away when Moses prays for her. It’s also worth remembering that God included black Africans in the Kingdom long before white Europeans. (Acts 8 is still before Europeans hear the good news, but Ebed-Melek in Jer 38 is clearly a black African worshiper of the true God 600 years earlier), and that a far higher proportion of black Americans attend church regularly than white Americans.

But there is also a consistent theme throughout the Old and New Testaments that God’s people should be standing for and supporting those who are oppressed. In the Old Testament, that’s often “the immigrant, the fatherless and the widow”. For example, in Isaiah 1, God tells the people that he won’t listen to their prayers or take note of their worship because of the evil way they were living. In particular, they need to:

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)

How can we be standing up for and supporting the oppressed at the moment?

One key part of it is listening to their experience, of letting ourselves suffer with those who suffer and weep with those who weep, mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). But beyond that, rather than come up with my own ideas, I’d far rather listen to those who experience the discrimination first-hand to see what we can do. Here, for example, are some thoughts from Agu Irukwu, the (black) head of Churches Together in England. Here also are some comments from a non-ordained black British Christian who says that she’s encountered more racial prejudice in churches than anywhere else.

Culturally, I may be seen as different from you. However, I would appreciate it if you would embrace my differences in the same way that you would embrace a white person of a different culture. Do not treat me as special and do not treat me as any less than you. Do not make any assumptions about me, what I listen to, what I eat… speak to me and be interested in who I am as an individual. See me as me. Do not tiptoe around me, but engage with me.

See my giftings and utilise them. Encourage me…. and give praise where praise is due, but be genuine and don’t emphasise any thing I do as especially good because I’m black. e.g. “You speak very well (for a black person)”

Of the Anglican churches in Nottingham, we’re not the most diverse, but we’re pretty good at reflecting the racial demographics of the local area. But there’s still a long way to go; I’ve been very challenged over the last few days in thinking about how we can better welcome our black brothers and sisters, and especially encourage them to use their gifts for the kingdom of God, and how we can help everyone, whatever the colour of their skin, feel as welcome as God makes them in his kingdom.

Responding to Plagues (and Climate Change!)

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Like much of the Church of England, until last week we were doing a series on Green Lent. In our last service meeting together in person, one of the passages I focused on was 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 – and as the Coronavirus crisis deepened, I found myself more and more drawn into that passage. It’s God’s words to Solomon, after the Temple has been dedicated.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:13-14 (NIV)

It particularly struck me that v13 identifies three types of calamity – two of which (climate change and plagues) are very much with us at the moment.

He also outlines how God’s people should respond to them. (Yes, it’s Old Testament, and God’s people were one specific ethnic group in one specific place, so things are a bit different for us now, but there’s still a lot to learn.)

  • Humble ourselves – get down off our high horses, stop thinking that we’re better than others or that we know best, recognise we’re at least partly to blame, and follow the advice of scientists and doctors.
  • Pray – do we ask for God’s help in confronting the climate emergency or the coronavirus emergency? Because they are both too big for us to deal with on our own.
  • Seek God’s face – what’s the priority in this crisis? It should be wanting to see God more; wanting more intimacy with him. He is far more important than anything else, and far more valuable than anything we could lose in either crisis. It’s the same in Jeremiah 29:13ff.
  • Turn from our wicked ways. Not just platitudes or moral posturing, not just grief at the way things are, but actual change. Isn’t it obvious that these things are connected? A disease that started in a market trading in endangered species and spread around the world by too much unnecessary air travel. If we are actually sorry, we need to change.

We need to stop treating this world like we are just free to travel anywhere, especially by air, without consequences. Flying long distances creates far more CO2 emissions than just about anything else we do.

We need to stop eating meat from animals treated like industrial products rather than like sharers in this amazing breath of life.

We need to take the gift of time to learn to seek God’s face, as individuals, as families and as churches.

I don’t think in today’s context that this is God promising to stop the pandemic if a few of us ask him to, but in the present crisis, this has to be something of a template for what it looks like to respond.

Because God’s plan is always for hope and restoration beyond the disaster. Once the worst has happened to Israel and they have been driven out of their land, these are God’s words to them:

“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord.” (Jer 29:11-14).

So in this environmental crisis, and this pandemic, let’s seek God’s face, let’s trust in him and grow our relationship with him, because that is what matters most.

Did Jesus Grow in Wisdom?

We don’t have much information about Jesus as a child. To be specific, we have one short story between the death of Herod the Great (Jesus aged 2-ish) and Jesus’ baptism at age 30-ish – the account of Jesus in the Temple as a 12-year old boy.

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It is bracketed by two tantalising phrases:

 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Luke 2:40 (NIV)

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.
Luke 2:52 (NIV)

And this raises some interesting questions. How much did Jesus know about his mission? We know that Jesus wasn’t quite omniscient as a man (Matt 24:36) but certainly knew far more than other people. How much did he know as a child? And what does it mean for him to be God and human, when God is omniscient and humans aren’t?

We get some important insight into this in Philippians 2.

[Jesus], being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8 (NIV)

Jesus was in very nature God, but he emptied himself. The theological term for this is kenosis, which just means “emptying”. He emptied himself of all his power and wisdom and omnipresence and other divine attributes when he took the nature of a servant. When he does miracles, for example, he does them by the power of the Spirit working in him and following what he sees his Father doing (e.g. John 5:19).

So, back to Luke 2, and verse 40 is clearer in the original than in translation. Here it is with the verb tenses.

The child grew (imperfect active) and became strong (imperfect passive), being filled (present passive participle) with wisdom.

In other words, Jesus grows in size and strength, but is continually filled with wisdom (presumably by the Spirit) as his capacity increases.

Jesus is never less than full of wisdom because of the Holy Spirit, but a 2-year-old who is filled with wisdom is very different from a 30-year-old who is filled with wisdom because they have different capacities.

Therefore, when Jesus empties himself to become human, he empties himself all the way to the capacity of a baby. As he grows, the Holy Spirit keeps filling him with wisdom, presumably largely through the teaching of his parents and reading and hearing the Scriptures.

What is going on in Matthew 1:22-23?

It’s so easy to get through Christmas hearing the familiar story over again but not really being able to pause and give time to think about it in any detail. So that’s what I’d like to do this morning.

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So often when we’re reading the Bible, we find rabbit holes – little distractions and nagging questions that it’s easy to just ignore. And sometimes when we try to explore them they don’t really go anywhere. And sometimes, like in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland or the original Matrix film, we get to something amazing. And sometimes, like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or the sequels to the Matrix, we start getting somewhere but in the end we still don’t seem to get any coherent answers. Hint for preachers – don’t bother preaching those ones!

Let’s look at two quick rabbit holes from this familiar passage, which hopefully help us to see the Christmas story in far more technicolour.

First, what’s going on with this prophecy from Isaiah. “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: The Virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means God with us.”?

When there’s an Old Testament reference like that, it’s always good to look it up. And in this case you get to the other passage we had read, from Isaiah 7. And quite quickly looking at the passage, you realise there’s something odd going on. It’s the time of the slightly obscure Syrio-Ephraimite coalition of 735BC. Two neighbouring countries were ganging up on God’s people, their king was unfaithful to God and they were really scared. So Isaiah says this prophecy, but it looks very much as if he’s talking about how they will know that God’s people will be safe in 735BC. We’re told that before he grows up, both those countries will be destroyed. And if you do some reading around, you find that the word for virgin means “young woman of marriagable age”, and might well be talking about Isaiah’s fiance, who he married and then has a son with pretty soon afterwards. So it doesn’t look like it’s talking about Jesus at all.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. And if you’re a sceptical Bible scholar you stop there and conclude that Matthew didn’t really know what he was going. But if you want to dig a bit deeper, it gets more interesting still. Because that’s in Isaiah 7, and in Isaiah 8 he does indeed have a son, but then he describes his family as signs and symbols and in Isaiah 9 he predicts the coming of a more glorious child who won’t just be a sign of the destruction of two enemies, but who will himself be king of kings forever. You know “Unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” and so on. So what is fulfilled partly in Isaiah’s new wife becoming pregnant and them having a son is fulfilled far more gloriously in the future with a child born of a real virgin who will reign forever.

And then if you start to chase the other times Matthew quotes or alludes to the Old Testament, you see there’s something similar going on. For example, in Matthew 2:14, the prophecy he quotes from the Old Testament doesn’t look like a prophecy at all – it’s a quote saying something that God had done in the past when he brought Israel out of Egypt.

This is what’s going on. Some of the prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament are clear, like Isaiah 9. But a lot of them are much more like what we see in other great stories of similar length. What do you want in the ending to an epic story? Star Wars 9, say (no spoilers please) or Avengers Endgame. Avengers Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time, was the 22nd film in the series. Some of the events in the film were directly predicted by things that people said in previous films. But most of them were foreshadowed by them, Endgame picks up loose ends that had been left lying around and brings them together to a satisfying conclusion and a comparatively happy ending. Watching it you realise that many of the earlier films must have had this ending in mind. In that sense, it fulfilled them. That’s what Matthew shows Jesus as doing with the whole Old Testament, except of course that folk had to wait 700 years after Isaiah was written for the climax! So what do we see from this rabbithole? Jesus is the climax of the story – he is the fulfilment of the Old Testament in far more ways than we expect, and when we read the OT rightly, we do so looking for echoes of what God will do in Jesus.

Second rabbit hole – why is Jesus born of a virgin? The Hebrew in Isaiah might be ambiguous. Why would it need to be ambiguous if it was just talking about Isaiah’s son? But the Greek of Matthew and Luke isn’t, and it picks up and fulfils the whole theme of women who can’t have children becoming mothers of significant figures in the Bible. But more than that, it shows that Jesus is a man but he isn’t just a man. He’s not, like the Buddha or Mohammed, a normal-ish bloke who attains some special state maybe at his baptism or whenever. Right from the start, he is both human and divine. Nor is he a cross between God and people – he is both fully human and fully divine, right from the start. The same God who created the universe became a powerless human fetus. The God who spoke stars into being became a wordless baby. The one who knows the secrets of every heart had to be taught to burp and sleep and feed.

No other religion contains anything as outrageous as this. Some religions, like animism or Star Wars have a conception of a life-force filling the universe and so it makes sense that there might be people or objects where that force is particularly concentrated. But it’s only ever a force, not a personal god. Some religions have lesser gods, who are very much part of creation, like Thor from the Avengers films or the Roman and Greek gods, and they can become human but they aren’t all-powerful and sovereign. Other religions, like Islam and Judaism, have all-powerful sovereign personal gods, but it is almost blasphemous even to imagine the possibility that those gods might become incarnate, might become vulnerable.

JI Packer puts it like this:

God became man; the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child… The babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is as fantastic as is this truth of the Incarnation.

And that needs the virgin birth. If he was not born of a woman, just “found” like Superman, he would not be truly human. But if he was conceived in the usual way, then he would just be part of creation like everyone else. Jesus is utterly unique. Why did he do it? So that he could be “God with us” – fully God so that even though God is all-powerful, sovereign and amazingly far beyond us, we can really know what he is like, fully human so that he is really with us, so that the barrier between humanity and God has been forever broken down, so he’s not just a distant God on a cloud who watched us from afar, but who enters into human experience, who knows what it’s like to suffer and to mourn, who knows what family breakdown is like and the joy of celebrating milestones. So that he is not just a God who knows the secrets of our hearts and everything we do but has walked for 30 years in our shoes, who knows what it is like to be us and who loves us and has compassion on us. Jesus who took on human nature and came to be like us so that he could one day take us to be with him and to become like him in his eternity and perfection and joy.

Now there’s sometimes an objection to the virgin birth from people who just think it sounds implausible, as if Matthew and Luke didn’t understand where babies come from. Yes, they knew, of course they knew; the human race was doing just fine at reproducing for thousands of years before modern medical science. They knew that virgins don’t have babies. But that’s the point. They make this claim because it’s utterly remarkable that this one did. And if their story is correct – that the eternal God who created the universe decided to become fully human, then of course he could arrange for this virgin to become pregnant and creating whatever DNA was needed for that to happen.

So what does all of this mean for us today?

There will be some folk here, there usually are, who wouldn’t say they follow Jesus as God. And what I’d say to you is “welcome”. You’re always welcome here. Keep on coming. But don’t you think this is worth checking out? This story, written by dozens of people over a thousand years that hangs together so perfectly, where a man can come and completely fulfil a story and prophecies from 700 years before, this man who made claims like no-one else and then lived them out, who offers us joy beyond our imaginings and hope beyond our fears, who into our darkness and death offers to bring his unquencheable light and invincible life.

So what I want to ask this Christmas is this. Isn’t it worth checking out his claims? Isn’t it worth seeing if Jesus isn’t just the original inspiration for the festive season but the very meaning of life? So go along to an Alpha course near you, or come along to a Bible-teaching church and find out more about what God has done.

And for those of us who do follow Jesus, do we know the comfort of God with us this Christmas? Do we know that whatever painful memories and disappointment the season brings, God is with us and in Jesus brings his light that can never be overcome by the darkness? That however deep our experience, he has entered into it, and will bring us fully into the presence of God with great joy.

Do we know the excitement of going deeper in God’s word, of finding how every story whispers Jesus’ name and helps us see his glory more and more brightly?

Do we know the wonder and amazement of Christmastime – that it truly is the greatest story ever told; the beginning of the greatest victory ever won? Will we sing the old words of the great carols with a little more zest and excitement and joy and let Christmas lift our eyes a little higher to the wonder and joy and amazement when, just as Mary saw Jesus that first Christmas, we will see Jesus face to face?

[this is from a sermon preached on 22nd December 2019]

The Good Samaritan

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A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). I discussed some ideas I had about the parable with some clergy friends beforehand, and it turns out that the parable is very widely misunderstood.

I’d like to suggest that we can (and should) read it on three different levels.

On the first level, it’s a story about how we should help other people. It’s striking that the first two people to walk by, the priest and the Levite, had just about every excuse that we still trot out today not to help. Too busy, want to see family, certainly dangerous to help, might even be illegal, they’d already done enough to serve God, not doing any harm.

The Samaritan even had another excuse, didn’t he? This guy he saw lying on the floor was his natural enemy. (Samaria was a country neighbouring Galilee and Judea, and there was 600 years of bad blood between them and Israel.) But God says we should help anyone, anyone who is in need, when we have the opportunity.

I don’t mean helping scam artists pretending to be homeless in the city centre; and I don’t mean giving money when actually practical support or food is a lot more use. But Jesus says love your neighbour as yourself, and that means anyone.

But have you ever noticed that the parable isn’t the way round we’d expect? We’d expect it to be the story of the nice Jewish chap, helping even the nasty Samaritan. But it wasn’t. The real hero in the story is the person the hearers would have hated. They thought the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan.

This story is great at cutting through prejudice. Because it isn’t just about who you would help. The characters we’re meant to identify with either need help or do nothing. It’s the character we’re meant to hate who helps. So this says to the Ku Klux Klan in America – “Imagine you are dying by the side of the road and a black guy helps you. How do you respond?” It asks folk in our society – imagine that a Muslim immigrant or a Trump supporter or a member of those people you just don’t speak to saves your life. How do you respond? Live like that.

I wonder how the parable of the Good Samaritan makes you feel. If I’ve got it right, it’s probably meant to make you feel a bit guilty.

Maybe you’ve realised what it means – that we should love others the way we’d want to be loved in their situations, even if it means helping folk we don’t like, even if it’s inconvenient. Maybe you’re starting to realise that nothing you can do will ever be enough to fulfil Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself.

I think that’s right, and that’s the point. Because the lawyer Jesus told the story to was someone who was looking to prove that he was in the right. He asked “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He thought he could be good enough. He wanted to justify himself.

And Jesus tells him a story that shows that he never can be. Of course we should try. Of course we can seek to love others. But we can never get to be good enough for God that way. When it comes to our abilities to get to God, we’re all like that guy bleeding out by the side of the road. We need someone to come along and rescue us. Someone who is despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain, who can pick us up, bandage our wounds, and bring us safely home.

And that is exactly what we have in Jesus. We were naturally his enemies because of the way that we think and talk and act. He made the effort to come our way, he came down to earth as a man. He saw us in need, he paid the price to rescue us, and to care for us, and he offers to bring us safely home.

Jesus says “love one another as I have loved you.”

(Image above was from Free Bible Images.)

Where is the Garden of Eden?

Here’s an interesting point in Genesis 2…

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:10–14)

As far as I know, there isn’t a clear identification for Havilah.

But Cush is an ancient kingdom in Southern Egypt / Northern Sudan / Northern Ethiopia (i.e. a long way south of Israel), and the Tigris and Euphrates are in modern Iraq (and to travel there you go north from Israel, through Lebanon / Western Syria, rather than going east through the desert).

The main geographic clues in the text itself point in opposite directions, and to different continents!

That rather raises the question of whether the garden was ever intended to be understood as a literal place. Maybe it was, and the whole region was massively reconfigured by the Flood. Or maybe it was only ever meant to be symbolic. In either case, it’s rather tricky to find.

And yes, there’s lots I could then say about Eden symbolism in the Temple as pointing to the fact that humanity’s exclusion from Eden wasn’t permanent, and to the way that the Most Holy Place points a way beyond Eden, but that can wait for another time…

Was Jesus Literate?

The_Commentary_on_Habakkuk_Scroll_(1QpHab)_Written_in_Hebrew_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe four Biblical gospels are the only early detailed source for the life of Jesus, so let’s assume that we take them at face value. In the gospels, Jesus reads from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16), which indicates that he could read Hebrew. There are no other direct references to Jesus reading. There are lots of references to Jesus being well-learned in the Jewish scriptures, and expecting others to have read them, so it’s likely that he did it regularly. The Jewish scriptures were written in Hebrew and Aramaic.

Hebrew and Aramaic are pretty similar languages – much like Spanish and Italian today. They use the same alphabet and have a lot of overlap in vocabulary. Aramaic was the normal language spoken by Jews living in Israel at the time of Jesus, so it’s likely to have been Jesus’ first language. Hebrew was the language of religious worship, and as a Rabbi, it’s likely he would have been fluent.

So far, decent evidence for Jesus being able to read Hebrew and Aramaic. We’re told in John 8:6 that he wrote something in the sand; we’re not told what, but there’s no evidence that Jesus was skilled at using a quill. There are no other records of Jesus writing anything in any language.

Greek was the main language of the Roman forces who were occupying Israel at the time. It’s likely that Jesus could speak a bit of Greek – he certainly had conversations with Greek-speakers (e.g. Mark 7:26); some of his disciples (e.g. Philip who grew up in the bilingual town of Bethsaida) were clearly pretty much bilingual.

We don’t know anything about whether or not Jesus could write in Greek. We do know with a fair degree of certainty that Peter couldn’t; it seems that he got Mark to write down his memories of Jesus’ life (as the Gospel of Mark), and that he needed Silas’s help to write his first letter to the church (1 Peter 5:12).

The New Testament was almost entirely written in Greek, mostly by Christians who had grown up either as Jews in Greek-speaking areas (Paul) or as actual Greeks (Luke).

 

Book Review – How to Interpret the Bible by Ian Paul

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[disclosure – I know the author, and he gave me a free copy of the book so I could review it]

Biblical interpretation is a really challenging and multi-layered task. At one level, anyone can gain a lot from just reading the Bible, and most of it is pretty easy to understand at face value. At another level, it’s not unusual to find people writing books arguing opposite cases for slight shifts in meaning in a single verse or even to find non-Christians who have spent years reflecting on why a story works quite the way it does.

Ian Paul (Christian bible scholar, academic and blogger) has written this book as a very short (28 page) introduction to the task of interpreting the Bible. I suppose it’s mainly aimed at the thoughtful person-in-the-pew, or possibly at a rookie Bible College student.

He asks and introduces four main questions:

  • What kind of writing? (Genre)

  • What did it mean? (Context)

  • What does it say? (Content)

  • What part of the story? (Canon)

I agree that they are four of the most important questions to ask when trying to understand a passage, and Ian generally handles them well, often illustrating it with controversial examples which he has done a lot of work on, especially New Testament apocalyptic literature and women in ministry. At least one of the examples (seeing the promise of healing in James 5 as being a wisdom statement rather than a promise) was a series of dots all of which I knew, but which I hadn’t joined before in quite that way.

He also recognises some of the big dangers – for example letting our loyalty to a group within the church stop us from reading a text rightly if it disagrees with the group view, or the danger of an effective “priesthood of Bible scholars”, though there’s not always space to discuss how to deal with the problems effectively!

The one big weakness, and the thing that would give me hesitation about using this book with folk I’m teaching to understand the Bible, is that it’s very New Testament – heavy. Almost all the examples, and all the difficult ones, are from the New Testament. That makes sense – Ian is a New Testament scholar, but the Bible is mostly Old Testament and some of the key principles for working with the OT are missing.

For example, what Ian says about reading one passage as part of the big story of the Bible is true and helpful, but there’s nothing about what it means for the whole Scripture to be about Christ (Luke 24:27, John 5:39). He recognises that the Old Testament was written for us (1 Cor 10:11), but doesn’t really engage with what that means for interpretation.

All in all, I’d say it’s a good place to start with learning how to interpret the New Testament, but I think it’s missing a few key tools for the Old.

Ecclesiastes and the New Testament

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So what does the New Testament do with the big idea in Ecclesiastes? As I’ve written previously, the key idea in Ecclesiastes is the idea of hebel – that everything in this life is “just a breath” – it passes away.

When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, hebel was translated to ματαιοτης / mataiotēs, which my (borrowed) big Greek dictionary translates into English as “emptiness, futility, purposelessness, transitoriness”. So pretty much the same idea.

Mataiotēs is only used three times in the New Testament. In Ephesians 4:17 it describes the way that “the nations” think – taking no notice of God. In 2 Peter 2:18 it’s used to describe how false teachers in the church are speaking – attracting Christians to go back to “fleshy desires” and “sensuality” instead of following Jesus. But it’s the other use that’s the most interesting.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to mataiotēs, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8:18-25, ESV

The mataiotēs of the world is like the suffering of the Christian. It is itself passing away. But it seems that Paul says more than that.

Did you ever wonder why in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve sin, God curses the ground instead of them? I think Paul tries to answer that in this passage. I don’t pretend to understand it fully, but it seems that Paul is saying when Adam and Eve fell, God deliberately pushed creation down with us so that just as we are broken and do things wrong, so too creation is broken and things go wrong, because when he rescues us through Jesus, so creation too will be rescued and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God, and just as things will be even better for us then than they were for Adam and Eve before the Fall, so too with creation.

Glen Scrivener summarises the gospel as follows: “Jesus comes and joins us in our mess, so that we can join him in his family.” I think what Paul is saying here is that the same happens with creation. God makes it join us in our mess so that when we are rescued, it is too.

But it also serves as a signpost. We’re in a world that is passing away to remind us that our present situation is only passing away. Everything will be made new in the end.

The pointlessness of life is in itself a pointer to the fact that the groanings of this life – the fact that we never manage to live up to what we aim for, the tension between being dead to sin but alive to God, the present suffering and the hope of glory – that they are also transitory. They will go, and be replaced by something much better.

The Christian hope of heaven isn’t sitting on a cloud semi-disembodied but wearing a nightie and playing a harp. It is of a new life in a new heavens and a new earth – this world renenwed, remade, perfected. The frustrations of this life show us that this life is not the ultimate reality. And they happen because it’s part of God’s plan to bring all the good things in the world into his new creation.

Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

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Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books of the Bible (it’s in the top 66 anyway), but it’s also one of the most misunderstood. Even one good, generally evangelical commentator (Tremper Longman, NICOT) argues that because the message of the main part of the book isn’t obviously Christian, Ecclesiastes is actually another author doing long quotes from a book he disagrees with.

Ever since I became a Christian, the book always had some resonances, but I wasn’t entirely sure how it fit with the rest of the Bible. I guess the turning point came when I read this post by Hebraist Chris Heard, which got me thinking about translation issues.

The key phrase in Ecclesiastes can be seen in the second verse.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, ESV

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV

Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That’s what the Quester says.] There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
Ecclesiastes 1:2, Message

Clearly there are some issues in translation. The key word is הבל / hebel, which is translated “vanity” (more “literal” translations), “meaningless” or “smoke”. It usually means something much closer to “breath” in Hebrew. Oddly, given that no-one uses that translation, it makes more sense to me translated as “breath”. Everything is just a breath – it’s “meaningless” because it’s ephemeral; it’s passing away.

In addition, as Heard argues, the longer form of hebel is also frequently mistranslated.

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, NIV

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV

I’ve seen it all and it’s nothing but smoke — smoke, and spitting into the wind.
Ecclesiastes 1:14, Message

A more literal translation of “and a chasing after the wind” is “a neighbour of wind”. It makes more sense too! The point of Ecclesiastes isn’t that everything is meaningless like chasing after the wind is meaningless – it isn’t. The point is that everything “under the sun” – everything in this life – passes away, therefore it doesn’t make a long term difference; in a sense it’s futile. It’s just a breath, the neighbour of wind.

So then, what’s the point of Ecclesiastes? To remind us of the fact that things in this life pass away, so we shouldn’t put too much weight on them. It’s exploring what meaning can be found in life when that life is transitory.

In the following quotes, remember that “meaningless” is referring to the idea that it’s only a breath – it will soon pass away. This is what Ecclesiastes says about the purpose of life.

What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
Ecclesiastes 3:9-14, NIV

Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.
As goods increase,
so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owner
except to feast his eyes on them?
Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, NIV

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.
So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 11:9-10, NIV

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”-
before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Everything is meaningless!”

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12, NIV

It’s about the futility of trusting in wisdom, riches, power, sex to bring meaning to life and the importance of being content with what you have and of fearing God, because what God does lasts forever, unlike what we do (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

As book recommendations go, the best one I’ve found on Ecclesiastes (so far; I’ve skim read quite a few) is the NIV Application Commetary by Iain Provan.

Up next – Ecclesiastes in the New Testament

(reposted from 2007, when I was doing a fair bit of work on Ecclesiastes.)