Friday, April 18, 2014

Following Through: Numbers 36

In Summary: Numbers is over. We have reached the edge of the Promised Land, and now it’s time to wrap it up. Except for recapping it all through Deuteronomy, the wanderings are over. The people are ready to cross the Jordan into the Land of Promise.
There are a few final details to deal with. First of all, there’s a flashback to Numbers 27 and the case of Zelophehad’s daughters. These women were granted a special situation in the distribution of land by being alloted territory. Typically, only men were property holders, a fact common to most cultures in the region and time frame.
However, the daughters of Zelophehad were his only offspring and they were granted the right to his property. Interesting here is that the property allocation is based on who left Egypt, not on who entered Canaan: Zelophehad was due property to his family, even though he would never touch it. His daughters were not “married out” but continued the family line.
The final issue with this arose when others in the tribe became concerned about who the Daughters would marry. If they married into a different tribe, then the property would shift from Manasseh to another tribe. These leaders were concerned that their tribal prominence would be diminished if they lost the Daughters’ land. Moses then commands that the Daughters must marry within the tribe of Manasseh, securing the property into the tribe. The Daughters (named in Numbers 36:11) did as God commanded through Moses and married cousins.
(Insert Alabama related joke here.)
That’s the bulk of Numbers 36.

In Focus: The closing verse, Numbers 36:13, is worth focusing heavily on. This verse serves not as a summary for the chapter but as the summary for the entire book of Numbers.
This verse hits three major points:
First, THE SOURCE: YHWH, God of Israel is highlighted as the source of the Law given in Numbers. Whatever the people may have felt, the Law was from God. Any continuity between the laws of prior lands or neighbors was severed, and the issue was obeying not man or logic, but the Lord God Almighty.
Second, THE TIMING: the Law is given before the Israelites take the land. The responsibility is about to pass into the people’s hands, and God has been clear about it.
Third, THE INSTRUMENT: Moses has spoken and written the Law, but he is only an instrument in the hands of God. Because of this, the people are aware that the Word of God goes on, even as the human instrument changes.
In Practice: The, for us, the same three points:
First, THE SOURCE: If we think that the Israelites may have disliked God’s Law, consider how people react to it these days. Yet the source of the Word of God remains the Lord God Almighty. It is not a human invention that Jesus is the only way to salvation, or that God requires holiness. It is divine in origin, and must be obeyed.
Second, THE TIMING: Jesus even warned in Luke 14:26-27 that the Kingdom of God was not going to be an easy place for us, so we should be aware: their are consequences of coming to Christ in faith. The balance is tilted entirely in the favor of God’s grace, which is our salvation, but obedience results. As does rejection by this world. We should be aware of that.
Third, THE INSTRUMENT: God uses all manner of instruments to create the symphony of His work. Some of them are better than others. Some folks are just plain old out-of-tune, while a few are smuggling machine guns in their violin case. They were brought in to play and only harm. Yet we cannot hold the instruments against the Master. We listen, though, to the tune He creates through His people. Being His instruments, we strive to reproduce the tune beautifully. Being hearers, we strive to hear the beauty in the song behind the missed notes.

In Nerdiness:  Now, onto the Nerd part. One aspect of Old Testament study questions whether or not the Pentateuch is a good division of the Old Testament. There is a suggestion that Deuteronomy and Joshua belong paired together, crediting Moses with Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
This theory gains some credence with the closing line here in Numbers 36:13. It would setup the idea that Moses recorded all of the form of these books in Moab. (Now in Jordan, by the way, so go visit. Lovely place.)
Additionally, one should consider the impact a verse like this one makes on preceding material. The overall statement here is that the words before it are the very Words of God Almighty.
That’s pretty high claim.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

For Frank: Is Captain America a Christ figure?

In the modern era of American Christianity, we have a habit of trying to shoehorn an image of Jesus into every container we find. Mocking this, a blogger of ill-repute named Frank Turk has emerged from his hiatus long enough to poke Internet-based Christianity about Captain America and Jesus. While there were several efforts to line up Jesus with Superman last year, there have been no major efforts to align Captain America (Steve Rogers) with the Lord.

I am not the comic book junkie that my Inter-friend Frank is, so I cannot address the comic book Cap. I am familiar with him from the recent explosion of movies from Marvel Movie Studios, including Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, as well as the affiliated other films. As an aside, the Marvel/Avengers series has filled the gap abandoned by Star Wars when Lucas decided to justify Darth Vader as simply a maladjusted loving husband who made a few errors.

Back on track, the question that has been posed is this: How does Captain America compare with Jesus? Should we find a comparison? I expect that more than a few preachers will find those comparisons and make them this Sunday as we try desperately to be cool for all the folks who reject God’s plan of continual fellowship with believers.

I have found a few parallels, but unfortunately I find that Captain America, awesome as he is, is not Jesus. Nor is he a good stand-in or stunt double for the Lord Almighty. Here’s why:

First: Steve Rogers begins as a great heart with no power. That reason alone should stop the comparison points. Despite being a compassionate, self-sacrificing man, Rogers begins his journey without the power to act on his heart for righteousness. By comparison, Jesus comes in with life in the first place, with all power over Creation (John 1:1-4 suits that issue). Compare this to the Lord, who rather than needing to take on power, Jesus came with all power and retains it through this day (Matthew 28:18-20).

Second: Captain America trusts others. Take the scene in The Avengers when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner confront Steve about their doubts regarding SHIELD’s behavior. Rogers, to this point, has trusted Nick Fury without doubt. Nick Fury? As Stark points out, “his secrets have secrets.” Rogers trusts, because he expects others to be honest like he is. Compare this to Jesus, who had no such trust issues, as we see in John 2:24-25, that He knew what was truly in people.

Third: Steve Rogers fails at points. Take the first film and the battle on the train. Rogers’ has lost his best friend in that battle because he could not save him. (SPOILER) We know from Captain America: The Winter Soldier that Bucky is not dead, but is his fate not worse? Rogers has a friend and a follower in Bucky Barnes and he loses him, body and soul, to the forces of evil. Compare this to Jesus who did not lose one from those who were His (John 17:12).

Fourth: Captain America’s primary weapon is reflecting the enemy’s power back at him. That’s a little long, but it’s the second use of Cap’s shield. Generally speaking, you see him deflecting shots, explosions, or other rays of doom back at the sender. It’s effective, mind you but when you see Cap with a weapon, it’s no different than any other weapon on the field. Compare this to the Rider on the White Horse who brings His own weapon, the Word of God, wielded perfectly and effectively (Revelation 19:11-15). Jesus equips His people with His weapon rather than equipping Himself with whatever everyone else uses.

Fifth: Steve Rogers struggles to find his purpose. Across three movies with Cap, it takes him some time to know what he should do. He’s conflicted in his origin story; he struggles with how things work in the action gathering; and then he has to find his place in the second Cap film. He’s uncertain what he should be doing, other than to do what’s right. Compare this to Jesus’ prayer that He came for a purpose (John 12:27); that He should be about His Father’s business (Luke 2:49); that He came to give His life and to serve (Mark 10:45).

With all that, though, there is one major parallel between Steve Rogers and the Lord that I see. They both love imperfect spouses. Rogers is passionate about Lady Liberty, the beautiful image of the United States as the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, a place which does right in all things. Even with the flaws, the changes, Rogers does not suggest destroying America to create a different nation. He wants to see her come right, to turn toward the greatness that he saw so many give their lives for in the years gone by.

Compare this, though, to Jesus and Cap pales a bit. Jesus loves His bride, the Church. Loves us through the failures and shortcomings, loves us though we are not what we ought to be. Loves us, shown in His death for us. Loves us, and is working to make us without spot or blemish. Jesus does not want to see His bride go back to greatness but to progress in holiness.

Captain America is a great guy. Little would have helped Loki in Thor: The Dark World like trying to be like Cap rather than just look like him. And I’d rather my kids grow up to like a hero who defends with a shield instead of a narcissistic rich guy with a nice suit.

Yet Jesus is so much more. Our goal as Christians is not to be like a great hero but to be transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. We get good entertainment from good films.

We draw our life’s purpose from God’s Word.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Galatians 6: I'm done with this

In Summary: Paul is wrapping up his letter to the Galatians in this chapter. Compared to some of his letters, this one ends rather coldly because it lacks any of the personal greetings of his many other letters. This is remarkable especially in light of Romans, a letter to a church he has never been to, which features a substantial greetings section.

Galatians 6 shows how different Galatians is from other letters by focusing on practical, behavior-driven content. Typically, Paul’s letters take a hard turn about halfway through (usually marked with a “Therefore” in the NASB) where the emphasis moves from doctrinally underpinning to effective implementation of the doctrinal concepts. That’s a simplification, but you will see it in Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians.

Galatians, though, is not about the right actions. Galatians is tailored to address a group of churches that are, overall, acting morally and near to the ideal of godliness from Scripture. Their problem is doctrinal: they are doing the right things for all the wrong reasons. That is Paul’s focus in his letter: fix the doctrine.

There are a few basic implications that he wants to address. These are how people should interact based on their standing in Christ. Notice how Galatians 6:1 speaks to sin and restoration. There are very few New Testament references to sin without restoration and Paul keeps the two rightly together here. He highlights an important truth: if you are as mature and spiritual as you claim, you should be first in line to be gracious and restorative to the sinners among you.

We could use more of this in churches today. And in church-critics of today. I find it troubling how quickly I and my fellow pastors pounce upon sinners as if they cannot be restored. The other side of the sword is also troubling: you will find few people as harsh toward fellow believers as the ones who have become “spiritual” enough to see through what they see as weak churchianity. Folks, we need to surrender to the Lord and be crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), not just to a cultural Jesus who we hope for wish fulfillment from, but the Jesus of Scripture.

Yet if our only method is vicious attack, then our claim to “spirituality” is sheer nonsense. If you cannot bear the burdens of that church member who cannot attend another seminar, if you cannot bear the burdens of that pastor who still believes in Sunday night services, if you cannot be a strengthening agent for the church then you are wrong. Maybe not in thought but in implementation.

In Focus: Take a quick glance at Galatians 6:17 and see what Paul says there. I think this is his “I’m done with this issue” statement. No longer is he going to argue about salvation or racism or legalism. He has been clear about it, and he has been clear about what is right. The feeling is that there are better ways to spend the time of the church, and there are: serving the Lord.

In Practice: We should consider a similar approach. Some things are not worth fighting for—and I say this in light of being graceful and restorative. But there are bounds to what a church believes, and there comes a point where we would do better to say clearly “This we believe” and allow people to choose to go elsewhere or do other things. We do no favors to the Christian faith by defining it so broadly that anyone fits.

A clear definition of what Christianity does (and does not) believe aids all. We deal graciously with those who reject it, but we are not required to define non-Christian belief and behavior as allowable in the faith just to be gracious. When people desire to come in, though, we should be open to restoration of even the most troublesome of critics and forgive as we have been forgiven.

In Nerdiness:
A couple of Nerd-Points here:

1) Some take Galatians 6:11 as evidence of Paul having poor eyesight as a result of his being blinded on the road to Damascus. With all due respect, I can accept poor eyesight due to age but do not agree with the identification of residual eye problems from the Damascus Road as Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Why? Because Paul is healed by God’s command, and we do not see God healing people and leaving them unhealed. Further, such a result would have hampered Paul more socially than physically: the synagogues would likely have not allowed him to even begin speaking due to the apparent judgment of sin. More likely, Paul’s just tagging in his signature as was common, and either he wrote largely, or his amanuensis wrote small, or both.

2) Galatians 6:10 is a good guideline for how we structure aid ministries in churches. Focus on the household of faith, but help all we can.

3) I think Galatians is one of Paul’s later letters based on overall tone. He’s tired of writing and correcting the same old problems, and it shows through in his directness. Also, that would allow for the clearly large number of years in the first couple of chapters.