The Death of Jesus – Why We Miss the Point

the_date_the_revolution_beganI finished reading NT Wright’s latest “The Day the Revolution Began” on Christmas day 2016, and have been ruminating on it since. It is indeed the paradigm challenging book that it was touted to be, although some of his arguments are familiar to fans who have read his other books. And though Michael Gorman helped exorcise my atonement theory demons last year, it seems Wright has put the final nail to the coffin. So I intend in this post to share some lessons I have learnt from these 2 theologians about how to read the Bible properly in order to understand Jesus’s behaviour and actions, including understanding perhaps the most important action of all – his death on the cross.

1Center The Discussion – Start from The Gospels

Just like Gorman, Wright challenges us to answer this all important question by not first looking to later commentaries about Jesus’s death, especially from Paul’s letters, but by starting from the the best record of Jesus’s own life themselves ie from the Gospels. And just like Gorman, he brings in the significance of Jesus choosing to die not on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), but rather during Passover. Some of the results of doing this is already mentioned in my review of Gorman’s book, and in this respect he and Wright are aligned in their thinking so I will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that they point out a very obvious problem that I have noticed in Christendom – we just don’t pay enough attention to the Gospels, and even when we do, we totally ignore the fact that the context for understanding the Gospels is 2nd Temple Judaism, not 21st century Christianity (or any other period of Christian history).

2“According to Scripture” – Know the Story of Israel

In 1 Cor 15:4, Paul makes a very important statement – “Christ died for our sins, ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURES”. Many Christians I have met and interacted with assume that Paul is talking about proof-texting ie finding 1 or 2 passages in the Old Testament that seem to foreshadow Jesus’ death. And in the case of answering why Jesus died, the go-to place has been Isaiah 53. But as Richard Hays points out in his book “Reading Backwards”, such attempts to look for individual passages or chapters in the OT to explain the NT without understanding the story of the people of Israel always leads to abuse of scripture. When Paul said “according to scripture”, he meant according to the whole witness of the Old Testament regarding the purpose of existence of the people of Israel, and not according to individual scriptural passages taken out of their historical context – which is the aforementioned story of Israel.

Let me give a clear example of how this bad attitude within Christianity towards the story of Israel has so distorted our understanding of scripture.

If you were to ask an ordinary Christian, or myriads of pastors, what Jesus meant by “forgiveness of sins” in his statement at Passover ie. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)”, you will get the classical answer which goes from Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden to how Jesus died to save us from the effects of this one particular sin. They will totally jump over the biblical story of Abraham, the Exodus, Israel as a nation as well as the exile and return from exile, as if none of that intervening bit recorded in the bible matters.

But when a Jew of Jesus’ day hears Jesus talk about “forgiveness of sins”, the “sins” that would have come to mind are not Adam’s sin which they inherited, but the sins of their forefathers which led them into exile, and even after returning from exile, into a state of slavery in their own nation. In an interesting set of coincidences (all Chapter 9), one can see which “sins” they mean by reading the prayers for Yahweh’s mercy on Israel recorded in Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 – 3 different prayers from 3 different people offered during and after the exile. I quote from some of these passages below.

Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws … All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore, the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses … have been poured out on us … You have fulfilled the words spoken against us … by bring on us great disaster” (Dan 9:4-12, Daniel’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy during the exile).

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens … Because of our sins, we and our kings and priests have been subjected to the sward and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hands of foreign kings, as it is today” (Ez 9:6-7, Ezra’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy after returning from the exile)

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had waned them in order to turn them back to you … So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them … But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so that they could eat it its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, it’s abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress” (Neh 9:26,27,36-37, A prayer of the people of Israel to Yahweh for mercy after returning from exile)

But one may then ask – if “forgiveness of sins” was about the sins of Israel leading to exile, then how can we, non-Jews who didn’t participate in the “sins” that lead to the exile, receive “forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’s death on the cross? Here we go to the 3rd lesson.

3Covenant is the Key – Repent of Your Legal Filters

For centuries, and especially within Protestant tradition, many have focused on using law-court metaphors to understand not just places where they seem to appear – like Paul’s letters, especially to the Romans – but to read all of scripture, including the Old Testament. This is despite the fact that ancient Israel was founded on Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh – a relationship that was entered into not on the basis of “law keeping” but on the basis of trust – Abraham’s trust in Yahweh. The giving of the law was meant to keep the covenant relationship that had already been enacted intact, and not the basis of foundation of the covenant. Yahweh actually specifies the reason why he calls Abraham right from the get go.

I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).

The purpose of the relationship of Yahweh to Abraham was the salvation of the world. This is reiterated again to focus specifically on the nation Israel as the “inheriters” of Abraham’s task and promise.

I, the Lord have called you [Israel] in righteousness, I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you [Israel] to be a covenant for the people, and a light to the Gentiles” (Is 42:6)

Hence, when Abraham’s offspring missed the way, the means of salvation for the world had been missed. And since the exile was caused by the “sins” of idolatory and injustice, Yahweh needed to forgive these “sins” in order to restore covenant relationship. Hence the words of the prophets

The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah … for I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:31,34)

Note that Yahweh didn’t say “I will make a new covenant with everyone in the world”, but with Israel and Judah – the northern and southern parts of the divided nation which had both gone into exile.

Abraham (and subsequently, Israel) is God’s vehicle of salvation of the world, including Gentiles like you and I. Therefore, Jesus’s death is the means of restoration of the covenant so that you and I, 2000 years after, can also be beneficiaries by becoming part of the chosen people of God – becoming part of the new Israel constituted “in Christ”.

This is why Paul says

Christ redeemed us [Jews/Israel] from the curse of the law [exile] by becoming a curse for us; for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’. He redeemed us [Jews/Israel] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:13-14 NIV)

Reading the bible with legal-metaphor filters however prevents one from seeing why covenant is so crucial to the bible. To make sense of the bible in a legal manner, Protestants especially, following their favourite forefather St. Augustine, have had to resort to reading Adam and Eve as breakers of moral laws, which sin is transmitted via direct inheritance (aka Adam as the first man) in order to make everyone guilty so that Jesus can come to save us all. It has been interesting to me listening to friends and pastors who read scripture with this filter explain Paul’s references to Israel, Abraham, “law”, “sin”, “inheritance”, “promises” etc that appear all over his letters, all the while skipping over the details of Israel’s story and trying to universalize the guilt of everyone so scriptures which applied to Israel will somehow apply to us all.

4Recover Vocation – Re-Read Genesis and Revelations Again

And so we begin at the beginning. NT Wright makes a very important suggestion about reading the bible, not just in individual books but especially about the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelations). Reading the end of every story helps you to understand what the beginning and middle was all about. This is obvious advise, which is why the end of a movie or a novel explains all that happened before. And in that sense, he points out a very important but critically overlooked point in the book of Revelation. That there are 3 passages which point out the purpose of salvation, but which hardly feature in most people’s conversation about salvation.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Rev 1:6)

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6)

You will note that the idea of being made a kingdom of priests and a royal nation is exactly the reason why Yahweh chose Israel in Ex 19.

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).

Now, step back a bit, and ask yourself how God made human beings? He made them “in his image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). This would mean then that salvation is about that primary reason he created man – to set us free to become fully human, properly bearing the image of God. Humans were created with a vocation – to be priests and kings mediating God’s presence on the earth and reflecting his praises to him. The failure of Adam and Eve then is not simply about “law-keeping”, but about refusing to act as images of God through reliance on him as their source of wisdom, and deciding to be images of themselves, making themselves the ultimate source of wisdom. This is why “Wisdom” is such an important concept in the Old Testament – there was no true wisdom without “the fear of Yahweh” (Prov 9:10).

As Paul mentioned in Romans 1 when condemning non-believing Gentiles, whenever humans refuse to worship Yahweh and follow in his ways, they become less of themselves, falling to immoral behaviour. The solution then, is a restoration to covenant relationship, and learning from the Human One – Jesus the Messiah – what it means to worship Yahweh, and to be made in Yahweh’s image – which is fully revealed in Jesus.

Afterall, a certain apostle once wrote.

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son” (Ro 8:29)

I have more to say about salvation as a recovery of the human vocation as “the image of God”, but let me finish reading J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, and i’ll give you my thoughts.

Suffice it to say that moving the conversation from “savings souls from hell to heaven” to “inviting people into a community where they can live life as genuine human beings both now and in eternity” is where we need to be headed. And I’m definitely on board with Wright, Gorman,Walton, Middleton et al.

The revolution against the powers of sin and death has begun in the death of the Messiah on the cross. Long live the revolution!!!

Detecting the Old Testament in The Gospels With Richard B. Hays

Reading Backwards - Richard B. Hays
Reading Backwards – Richard B. Hays

I finished reading Richard B. Hays’ “Reading Backwards” last week, and on an ordinary day, this blog post should be a review of the book. But these are not ordinary days, and Richard Hays is no ordinary New Testament scholar. And so with him as a conversation partner (more like mentor), I’ll like to address a problem that I’ve encountered within the church when we talk of Jesus “fulfilling” prophecy, and for which I’ve written about indirectly on this blog before.

The Problem

It is standard teaching within every church I have ever attended in my short lifetime that Jesus’s life fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, and if the people of Israel had been paying attention, they would have accepted Jesus as Messiah. This is one of the “defenses” that is employed by many people eager to defend Jesus and the Bible from criticism. But many have pointed out – and any serious unbiased study shows – that the ways that the writers of the Gospels make use of the Old Testament to paint a picture of Jesus’s can sometimes seem as if these Evangelists (i.e. writers of the Gospels) are misquoting scripture to support their point. Unfortunately, many people – especially those unfamiliar with history and context of 1st century Judaism – are unwilling to consider this criticism because of its implications to their Christian faith. Some friends I have spoken to have indeed expressed this disquiet to me, but others simply ignore this dissonance in favor of a dogmatic defense of the Evangelists’ usage of the Old Testament. After all Paul says that the events of Jesus’s life happened “according to Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3), and the matter is ended by simplistically pointing out proof-texts that the Evangelists quote from the Old Testament.

But what if there actually is a way to acknowledge these difficulties, whiles still making sense of this usage pattern of the Evangelists? Along comes Richard Hays and his adoption of the method of figural reading of the Old Testament. In this book, he applies it to focus on Christology (Jesus’s divinity), and the results are stunning!! He traces far more passages than many standard proof-texts used to defend Jesus’s divinity, and so we’ll look at a few of them to see whether we can understand how and why the Evangelists (and Jesus) used the Old Testament the way they did.

Reading Backwards vs “Prophetic Predictions”

Hays sets the tone with the following statement, explaining how figural reading (aka reading backwards) is different from prediction.

There is consequently a significant difference between prediction and pre-figuration. Figural readings need not assume that the OT authors – or the characters they narrate – were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective” (pp 2, my emphasis).

By this statement, Hays is pointing out an important fact – that the Gospels were written as a reflection on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus AFTER the actual events (in fact many decades after the actual events). The Gospel writers, especially Mark, do not hide the fact that Jesus’s life and ministry actually confused his own disciples, much more ordinary people who heard him. This is primarily because Jesus didn’t stay in character as just a messiah. He claimed to be these as well:

  1. The embodiment of Israel itself. Jesus’s usage of language regarding being “the vine” and his disciples being the “branches” in John 5 is language that the Old Testament uses to speak of the nation Israel e.g Isaiah 5:1-7.

  2. The embodiment of Yahweh. In Mt 12:6, whiles defending his “abuse” of the Sabbath, Jesus states that “something greater than the temple is here”. To make life easier, I quote Hays.

We are not told precisely what the “something greater” might be, but the inference lies readily at hand that it must be Jesus himself. What could be greater than the temple other than the one to whom it is dedicated, the one who is worshiped in it?” (pp 45)

  1. The replacement of the Temple. In 1st century Judea, the only legitimate place that one could go to receive forgiveness of one’s sins was the temple with it’s high priests and its sacrifices, and yet Jesus goes about telling people “your sins are forgiven”. Not only does Jesus become a “mobile temple”, he further calls down judgement upon the existing one in his act of scattering the tables of the money changers and driving away the merchants there, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah (who prophesied the destruction of the 1st temple) to boot.

These and other angles were way beyond the simple category and prophetic expectations of a Messiah and only made sense after Jesus’s resurrection (a resurrection after which he still needed to spend much time explaining to his disciples like those he met on the Emmaus road in Lk 24). Speaking of these Emmaus road disciples, Hays says

The disciples on their way to Emmaus had already heard it reported that Jesus was live, but because they did not know how to locate this report within Israel’s story, it seemed a curious and meaningless claim” (pp 16).

Therefore the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) were no longer reading the Old Testament with a simple one-to-one correspondence between what the OT said and what Jesus did – they were wearing a multifaceted lens to discover patterns of a multifaceted person that an ordinary Jew of Jesus’s day largely WILL NOT have understood. The Evangelists were “reading backwards” from the event of Jesus i.e. they were doing a figural reading. In fact, the Gospel of John makes this very explicit.

John tells us, [that] the disciples’ understanding came only later, only as they read backwards to interpret Jesus’s actions and words in light of the paradigm shattering events of his resurrection. That is the point emphatically made in Jn 2:22: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. They they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:22). Even more explicitly than the other Gospel writers, then, John champions reading backwards as an essential strategy for illuminating Jesus’s identity … Only by reading backwards, in light of the resurrection under the guidance of the Spirit, can we understand both Israel’s Scripture and Jesus’s words” (pp 85)

So let’s look at some examples of how figural readings explain some ways in which Jesus didn’t “fulfill prophecy”, but actually DID fulfill prophecy. Are you confused yet?

Test Case 1

Matthew is the most “problematic” when it comes to statements about Jesus fulfilling prophecy. There are about 15 statements in which this Evangelist explicitly points out that Jesus fulfilled a prophecy by a certain action. Hays points out that this has somehow blinded many readers to the more than 100 allusions to OT prophetic fulfillment simply because he didn’t put the words that say those actions of Jesus fulfilled prophecy.

Our first test case will be Jesus’s childhood escape to Egypt in Mt 2:13-18. In this test case, Herod has heard about the baby Jesus, and intends to send out his soldiers into Bethlehem to kill all children under two years of age. An angel appears to Joseph, and instructs them to escape to Egypt. And out of the blue, Matthew the Evangelist says

And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Mt 2:15)

Here my NIV bible has a footnote pointing me to Hosea 11:1, which reads

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that Hosea is not talking about a singular person, but about the nation Israel being rescued through the exodus by Yahweh. If you dispute it, just read the rest of Hosea 11. So on the plain surface of the reading, good old Uncle Matthew has certainly “proof-texted” scripture to “prove” his case, just as many Christians do today, sadly. And the frightening thing is that this is no mere Christian. This is in sacred scripture we call the Gospel of Matthew.

But wait? What did I say about a multi-faceted Jesus who refused to stay in one mold? Jesus’s ministry involved him claiming to be the embodiment of Israel. Therefore if one takes Jesus’s claims about himself to be true (and that’s what after the resurrection, the disciples did), then it is a legitimate usage of scripture to quote a text about Israel and apply it to the person of Jesus, not so?

Test Case 2

We take a look at a second test case, this time on how Jesus appropriated scripture in a way not consistent with expectations of the Messiah, but fully consistent with the portraits of himself he sought to reveal to his disciples as the embodiment of Yahweh, or the new temple etc etc. Here we look at a story recorded by John in John 1:35-50.

John the Baptist had already been preaching to everyone about the coming kingdom, the need for repentance and the imminent arrival of the Messiah. Therefore when he meets Jesus, he points him out as “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29) to everyone, including his disciples. As a result, some of John’s disciples follow Jesus, and Andrew, Peter’s brother, goes to tell him that “We have found the Messiah”. This is simply in repetition of what John had already told them.

Jesus proceeds to call Philip and Nathanael, and in conversation with Jesus, Nathanael again declares Jesus to be “the son of God; you are the king of Israel” (again, in line with John the Baptist’s broadcast message and expectation of the Jews). Jesus’s response is totally unorthodox, and not the kind of response that a simple Messiah will give.

Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man” (Jn 1:50)

Here, Jesus is quoting Gen 28:12, where Jacob had a dream of a ladder between heaven and earth and angels climbing up and down that ladder. What did Jacob do when he woke up? He surmised that “Surely, the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it” (Gen 28:17), and so builds an alter and sacrifices to Yahweh on it, calling the place Bethel aka. house of God.

What has such a weird response got to do with being a Messiah? Not much, unless Jesus is trying to say that he is more than just a Messiah – the he is the actual temple of God walking about on this earth. It is not surprising then that in the chapter immediately following this conversation (Jn 2), Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers and calls down judgement upon the temple of Jerusalem – because he Jesus was now the temple. It is not surprising also that it had to take his resurrection before the disciples made sense of this link (Jn 2:22, quoted above). At worst a Messiah may call for cleansing and re-dedication of the temple like Solomon did in 1 Ki 7 or like Judas Maccabeus did a few centuries before Jesus. But no right thinking Messiah would call for the destruction of the temple and claim they were the replacement of it. That is political suicide, as it turned out to be.

Observations

The above test cases point out some important things that modern readers of the New Testament, especially the Gospels need to pay attention to.

  1. The centuries old accusation that the 1st century Jews should have all believed Jesus’s message if they were actually minded to just because Jesus “fulfilled Old Testament prophecy” is a very simplistic accusation that we need to lay to rest sooner than later. Jesus fulfilled prophecy in his own way because he had a mission that stretched beyond simply being a political Messiah and saviour of the world. If we are quick to judge the Jews, maybe its because we ourselves are busy wearing the same unifocal spectacles that 1st century Jews wore when reading scripture – perhaps ours being the spectacles of dogmatism.

  2. Modern Christians need to shed their pious posture of thinking that they would have fared much better than 1st century Jews in terms of believing in Jesus. If Jesus’ own disciples needed the resurrection AND the Holy Spirit before it clicked what Jesus was about, maybe we need to be a bit more humble and acknowledge that many in our day will not recognize Jesus when he shows up as he did in the 1st century Judea. Incidentally, Jackson Wu just blogged last week on developing empathy so we can understand the failures of others and not repeat them, and he expresses my feeling on this issue much better than I could have put it here.

  3. Peter’s accusation that the Jews killed Jesus (Ac 2:23) is a legitimate accusation, but should not be used to prevent us from digging into the history and understanding the complexity of events surrounding Jesus’s ministry and the “fulfillment of prophecy”. Such language is normal throughout the New Testament and is a form “corporate solidarity” (thank you to Bruxy Cavey for this one). A simple example is a President or King deciding to go to war. It doesn’t matter if we participated in it ourselves, but we as citizens of that nation headed by the king/President are deemed guilty of whatever excesses happened during the war. I’ve been around enough Germans to know how this guilt works in regards to Hitler’s atrocities in World War 2, especially amongst the generation during and immediately after that war.

  4. If we are going to be a people who understand Jesus’s behaviour in the Gospels properly, as well as the Evangelist’s usage of Old Testament, or Paul’s statements of “according to Scriptures”, we need to do better than simply quoting proof-texts from the Old Testament. Here are two warnings from Richard Hays on this matter.

    What would it mean to undertake the task of reading Scripture along with the Evangelists? First of all, it would mean cultivating a deep knowledge of the OT texts, getting these texts into our blood and bones” (pp 103).

    Scripture was not merely a repository of ancient writings containing important laws or ideas or images; rather it traced out a coherent line that stretched out from creation, through the election of Israel, to the telos of God’s redemption of the world … One implication of this is that a Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to the large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, proof texts, or halakhic regulations” (pp 105).

Conclusion

In conclusion, there’s a reason why I can’t wait for the release of Hays latest work “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels”, (coming out in a few days from now) where he applies “figural reading”  beyond just the divinity of Jesus, but widens it to other major themes that the Evangelists were trying to communicate about him. The amount of lessons to be learnt in this small, 108 page “Reading Backwards” is belied by its size. Thank God for the likes of Richard B. Hays, and may his tribe increase. I pray that knowledge like his spread into the church and teaches modern Christians a little bit more humility, empathy and “appropriate” love for the Old Testament as we read the bible and see the Jesus who is prefigured in all of it, not just in places quoted by the Evangelists and other NT writers as “fulfilling prophecy”.

How Being With The Underprivileged Changes the Way You Read the Bible

Bible StudyI read Brian Zahnd’s “My Problem with The Bible” in 2014, and found it an interesting take on how perspectives and filters can either distort or correct one’s reading of scripture. He pointed out that instead of reading from the perspective of the beneficiary of a powerful empire, we must learn to read the bible from the position of the powerless who are totally dependent on God (which is what Israel as a nation was in biblical times). I found his points interesting, but I never thought I’d be writing my own “version” of this article a year and a half down the line.

I co-lead a very small (less than 20 people) house church in one of the poorer surburbs of Accra, Ghana called The Jesus Community, Agbogba. My church is dominated by mainly semi-literate, unemployed/under-employed men and women who will be classified as poor by any economic standard, with only 3 of us properly employed. Of course you can imagine the multitudes of needs in this community, and the struggle to meet them on a regular basis with the virtually non-existent resources we raise. Those of us better employed are asked on a regular basis why we choose to be in this impoverished church community, when there are nice, shiny, glossy megachurches next door that we could attend and meet some of our “middle-class” (if that is the right term) friends who we meet in our professional lives. The answer? We didn’t choose this life, neither did we choose these friends. God sent them our way just as he sent us their way, and for us then, faithfulness and love is all that matters as he works to shape and mold us into something beyond our wildest dreams.

But living life with these brothers and sisters, engaging scripture and being free to ask the kind of daring questions for which we would most surely have been excommunicated or would have been told to “shut up and take it like that” in Ghanaian Christendom, has totally reworked our hermeneutics – our way of interpreting scripture. And so here I offer my thoughts on how this shared life with people less socioeconomically advantaged than I am has changed my reading of the bible. This is not to say that everyone who is in the same state as we are will experience the bible the same way. I’m just telling part of my story.

A New Appreciation for Jesus and the Gospels

The first thing one notices is that the Gospels does portray Jesus as spending a lot of his time with the disadvantaged. One may choose to ignore this, especially a more privileged reader of the scriptures. But being i) a prophet , ii) the Messiah and iii) the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh, it is not surprising that he manifests in his incarnation, the “ways” of Yahweh – of being with the poor, oppressed and outcast. This is not because Jesus hated the privileged, but simply that from the giving of the Torah to the critique of the prophets, the privileged were commanded to meet the needs of the underprivileged and stand by them. And what better way to show this than when Yahweh himself takes on bodily form in the person of Jesus and does exactly that, as we see in the Gospels.

A Greater Affinity With the Prophets of Israel

Having been hooked by the the Gospels has forced me to look again at the life and times of the prophets of the Old Testament (seeing as they are quoted all over the Gospels), and the result I find astonishing. It becomes obvious to me the similarities between the concerns and critique of Jesus Christ and these prophets – the two main concerns being idolatory and injustice. The link between these two is much more evident these days. Someone once said that “You become more like what you worship”, and when the people of Israel departed from their worship of Yahweh, both his character of mercy and his commands of same went flying out the door. And one easily sees the same going on in Christendom today, where many love the notion of “worshiping God” more than the action of “following God” in his ways – ways revealed to us by Yahweh made flesh, Jesus the Christ. For me the poverty and injustice is not far away – I see them many times every week, and I’m reminded of how Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea felt watching the people of Israel abandon the poor and the weak, and still claim “this is the house of the Lord” (Jer 7). I watch contemporary Christendom sing the emotional ooh-aahs of the “I wanna be more like you” and the “Jesus I love you” and “I want more of you” blah blah, and I can only shake my head in sadness. Yes, sadness does fill my heart a lot, re-reading scripture through the eyes of the prophets. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I love Handel’s Messiah and Bob Marley with almost equal ferocity – the vision of the Messiah captured by the prophets and put to music by Handel is very moving to me, and Marley’s critique of the “system” is so apt.

A Greater Interest in the Story and History of Israel

Being born Protestant, my default mode was to read Genesis 1-3, skip over the story of Israel and head straight for Jesus and his cross, and then the Pauline epistles to explore his “grace” teaching as opposed to the “law” requirements of Israel. But those days are gone. With my interest piqued by the prophets, I’ve been much more interested in the historical background of the story of Israel and of the times of Jesus. I’m reading more of Ancient Near Eastern culture and looking to see how Israel fit in or critiqued it. I look to 1st century Judaism to understand the struggles of Jesus himself and early Christianity after Jesus’ resurrection. Of course this is a work in progress, but the insights already gleaned have reshaped me drastically, and make me see much more the big picture of humanity’s struggle to either eclipse one another or feel safe/superior over against another, into which God placed Israel, and into which God entered himself in the person of Jesus.

A Valuing of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

One of the benefits of conversation and friendship with both people who are and people who aren’t like me, but who love Jesus with the same passion has been that I’m becoming more interested in ways in which we are both being faithful to Jesus, and less worried about battles over the bible or how exactly my theology lines up with a tradition or the other’s way of reading scripture. Jesus’s own way of interpreting AND living out scripture was not always palatable to the theological gatekeepers of his time, but in so far as it was leading him to display a love of God and a love of neighbour, he was game. And when you live the bible with people who aren’t so theologically (or even educationally) savvy but whom you desire to still be in community with, you learn to focus on what is really important, and be less of a watchman. This feeling of mine is best captured by Scott McKnight’s book “The Blue Parakeet”, which I quote below.

St Augustine once said in his “On Christian Tradition” that if the bible leads the reader to be more loving, then the Bible has accomplished its mission … he offered a graphic image [to explain his point]. Getting the right result of becoming more loving, even if we aren’t as accurate in our interpretation as he’d prefer, is like a person on a journey who gets lost but somehow finds the way to the right destination … its not as if Augustine thought every interpretation was as good as any other … but Augustine knew the Bible’s main mission: so that we become people who love God and love others” (Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, pp 104).

Many (including luminous Christian leaders of the past) have killed in the name of “orthodoxy” – a rightness of belief. I prefer to lose my life in defense of orthopraxy – a rightness of action. That’s not to say I don’t care about good theology (those who know me know that I do), but I’m more worried about what kind of Christianity is being produced by a theological position taken. Some people are miffed when I say I judge a theology by this standard, and I simply like to remind them of Jesus’ own ways of judging what was “standard teaching” around him.

Community Is the Life Blood of the Bible (and of it’s God)

As I read, think and try to practice the bible with other people like and not like me, I’m amazed at the insight that they are able to bring to scripture and life, and yet some of these people do not read the big fat theological books that I read often. It brings home the reality of the tradition upheld by early Christianity that scripture is best interpreted in community.

It becomes more obvious that the grand goal of Paul’s efforts and letters was to create a unique people who learnt to live together in unity and love despite all the sociocultural reasons why they shouldn’t be together. This community was meant to be a sign of the new age launched by Jesus which he called “the kingdom of God”. Thinking back further on the trinitarian nature of God, I’m not surprised that the ability to express the oneness of mind of 3 persons in the Godhead becomes the driving force for creating human communities that also are able to live in the same way. With this in mind then, one is saddened to watch the impact of individualistic readings of scripture that has ravaged the Christendom landscape for centuries.

The Bible is A Call To Action and Participation

Seeing Jesus’ vision of kingdom now, a kingdom filled with people of different social, economic and cultural backgrounds learning to live as one and supporting one another in this journey, we are galvanized into making choices to overcome the challenges of injustice, poverty, unemployment, deprivation and segregation that exists amongst us. As we read scripture, we see God on a mission to bring blessing to the world through the actions of the church, and are encouraged to seek out ways in which we can be a source of blessing to the underprivileged amongst and beyond us as well. As action reinforces knowledge, sitting and talking again about these same issues and steps we’ve already taken, alongside wrestling with scripture, we can truly see how the “the ways of Yahweh” are indeed ways of mercy, love and reconciliation. We are indeed reminded of Micah

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

A Greater Appreciation for the Plaintive Psalms in the Bible

Sometimes despite all our prayer and all our efforts, things still do go wrong, and we are forced to ask God why. Thankfully we have developed the habit of reading many Psalms everytime we meet, and we noticed the huge number of complaining Psalms that many in Christendom prefer to ignore in preference for only the upbeat ones (or as some Ghanaian churches do, read the Psalms about enemies and use them to heap curses on their personal enemies). Some of these psalms express a hope that God will in the end, come to their aid, but one particular Psalm (Ps 88) simply ends without hope, filled only with accusations against God. Given that God chose to preserve such Psalms in the bible for us, its taught me the foolishness of pretending that life will always be rosy for “those who have faith”, and also the foolishness of not sharing my disappointment with those in community with me when things don’t go well. After all, I live with others who are a lot worse than me, and I believe sharing my own struggles with others reminds us all that we are in this together, and that suffering is not the preserve of the underprivileged. It reminds us that we are not in control, the Spirit of God is, and ours is to take up our cross and follow, even if we seem lost and feel frustrated along the way.

Conclusion

A lot has changed about my reading of scripture, and it’s becoming more obvious how we all can be a people who love reading it, theologizing it, apologizing for it and yet be miles removed from the reality of what scripture is and is meant to be. And in this respect, I offer a reminder

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful … SO THAT the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17)

Scripture is for the purpose of making us fit for good works. When Peter spoke about what these “good works” were, he had no other place to point to but to Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good … “ (Ac 10:36-38)

My hope is that scripture leads us indeed to be a people who are schooled in Yahweh’s righteous ways – ways he embodied in Jesus of Nazareth who lived, loved and died to show us these ways – ways that indeed lead to good works.

 

The Daily Devotional – Help Or Hindrance?

Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

It is a well known and oft-repeated mantra that Christians should read the bible on their own to further develop a relationship with God. But I find a worrying trend among Ghanaian Christians that will rather retard that relationship, if not kill it, and that trend is the rise of the “daily devotional”.

Growing up, I remember there were only a few devotionals that were recommended for Christians to read as a means of “doing their quiet time”. Typically the focus on 1 verse of scripture with a other proof-texts to support the main one, and an explanation, story, illustration etc and some praying points. These were mostly written from a typical evangelical Christian perspective by a wide range of respected Christians sometimes from different church backgrounds, and as much as possible kept the focus on one’s salvation and daily walk with God. Back then, we were encouraged to read the bible for ourselves and then add on these devotionals, but overtime many people who actually desired the ability to have “quiet time” simply substituted reading the bible with reading the devotionals only. After all, the devotionals were also quoting the bible, not so?

The trend however began to shift when every pastor worth their salt decided that their church members needed to not only hear their voices on Sundays, but carry them along all through the week as well. Matters have now deteriorated to the point where everyone who feels they have some level of understanding of the bible wants to write one, and with the advent of social media and chat platforms, easily spread their devotional to friends and family.

In my opinion this trend is however leading us down a very dangerous path – it is blinding us from discovering the bible ourselves in it’s fullness and complexity, and has become a sure means of spreading bad theology amongst Christians, to their own detriment. And here are the reasons why.

  1. It encourages proof-texting. Devotionals pick a verse or 2 out of their contexts, and then try to make sense of the verses on their own. Sometimes the authors try to draw in from the surrounding context, but since these devotionals are meant to be short, they woefully fail at doing this and focus on their interpretations of the the quoted verses. This is a sure formula for distorting scripture, as any single verse in the bible can be quoted to support any interpretation one desires, even including killing people.

  2. It props up individualistic readings of the bible. Most devotionals focus on giving their readers some snippet of encouragement, advice etc on how to live their personal lives. This means that every quoted verse is plumbed for its application to the individual, without realizing and emphasizing the corporate nature of the biblical texts themselves from which these verses are lifted. Where for example Paul is speaking of the church, devotionals teach their adherents to read them as speaking of themselves as individuals. I was amazed when someone was quoting Eph 3:10 from a devotional and feeling abuzz, letting us all know that the rulers and principalities will know God’s wisdom through him, a total distortion of the whole bible’s teaching on the critical nature of the nation of God – the church.

  3. It fails to situate Christians in their place as participants in God’s mission. Because of the explicit focus on giving Christians a personal boost for their daily lives, devotionals fail woefully at bringing to the fore God’s mission of care for one another and care for creation that can only be acted out by communities of dedicated Christians, not by individuals. The bible is meant to guide the life of a community of people who are working to make the kingdom of God felt on the earth today. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. Individualistic reading of scripture promoted by devotionals prevent one from seeing this point.

  4. It hides the complexity of the bible from it’s audience. Devotionals by their nature are very selective of scripture. This means that its readers will get the sense of a bible which is very simple to read and understand, where every verse of scripture is self-explanatory. It propagates the well-cherished Protestant teaching that with a plain reading of scripture and the holy spirit’s help, everyone can come to the same conclusions on bible passages as the writers of these devotionals have. Given the millions of different denominations all stating that their interpretation of scripture is the right one, its amazing the irony of such teaching hasn’t dawned on us yet.

  5. It keeps it’s readers ignorant of the history and background of the biblical texts. By their nature, there’s very little understanding of the history and background of the bible that one can get from devotionals, which actually have a huge impact on how to actually interpret a particular verse of the bible. Some devotionals try to give themselves a sense of going deeper by doing “the greek word means …”, but really, if it was a simple as quoting words from the original languages, we will all still be reading the KJV as the only English translation.

I could go on with more reasons to be wary of devotionals, but I think the point is made. By its very nature, there is no real way that devotionals can make one a better student of the bible. The best it can do is to give you a boost for the day. And frankly that won’t cut it if we are going to produce Christians who actually know what the bible has to say and who will not fall for deception. As they say, “give a man fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” Devotionals are the equivalent of giving a man a fish – Christians who rely on them will never learn to discern scripture themselves. Our churches need to be equipping Christians with the right methods to enable study the bible for all it’s worth, and in addition realize the value of community in the interpretation of scripture. In addition, the false pressure that one must read the bible EVERY DAY is one that needs to be countered – so we don’t fall into the temptation to fill up the “quiet time” slot with rather unhelpful material. Jesus’s didn’t say we need to read the bible daily – he said we need to carry our cross and follow him daily (Lk 9:23). That cross was a cross of self-denial for the other, just as he denied himself for us. What are we denying ourselves for our fellow Christian and even non-Christian on a daily basis?

We are in an unprecedented time in history where the bible is very easily obtainable due to the invention of the printing press, but sadly we are also in a time when the ignorance of the bible is even higher. This is simply due to the fact that those who actually can read aren’t reading it, and those who are reading it haven’t been trained in proper methods of understanding it.

Tips

Here are some tips for you if you are serious about reading the bible for all its worth,

  1. Stop reading devotionals. Some of them may sound like they have some depth, but if you develop the habit of reading the bible yourself, you’ll realise that there’s nothing special about them, and very soon you’ll be poking holes in them yourself.

  2. Pray to God to give you the strength to read the bible for yourself.

  3. Read whole chapters of the bible at once. Don’t feel pressured to do so everyday, but if you can then read one chapter a day. To be frank with you, I don’t read the bible everyday, so you are in good company (or rather I’m in good company).

  4. Rediscover Jesus by intentionally reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) once every year. Just read them in chapters.

  5. There is an amazing magic about the Psalms, which I intend to write about soon. But I’ll encourage you to read them on a regular basis. Come up with your own schedule. Anytime you do your regular reading of the bible, read a Psalm to boot, even the confusing ones. I’ll be sharing very soon the songs that we’ve written at church from the Psalms following this practice.

  6. No matter how you do it, start small. A chapter a day and a Psalm a day. Or a chapter a week and a Psalm a week. It’s about consistency, not about “Read Your Bible, Pray Everyday”.

  7. Find friends in your church who are practicing/want to practice reading the bible this way and plan this together so you can share your thoughts with each other. Remember, the early disciples didn’t have bibles in their homes. They had to have the books of the bible read to them and they interpreted it together.

  8. Commit yourself to reading a book by a theologian at least once a year which discusses a theological concept. By a theologian I don’t mean pastors. I mean a world renowned biblical scholar. This is not to condemn pastors and teachers. The goal of this advice is to open you up to learning from people who are not found in your usual comfort zones, but who have dedicated their lives to explaining the bible for both academic and spiritual purposes, and who are aware of the complexities of the bible.

Conclusion

One of the questions I ask my friends who take themselves seriously when it comes to Christianity is this. Are you in the business of producing believers, or you are in the business of producing disciples? Jesus called us to do one of these, and we should know which one by now.