Archaeology and the Bible’s big picture

Eric Metaxas summarizes some recent findings in Middle Eastern archaeology, ones that confirm not just isolated facts in the Bible but the “big picture” of the Biblical narrative:

Israeli archaeologists recently discovered a coin, dating from the 11th century before Christ. It depicted “a man with long hair fighting a large animal with a feline tail.” Ring any Old Testament bells?

The coin was found near the Sorek River, which was the border between the ancient Israelite and Philistine territories 3,100 years ago. Sound vaguely familiar?

The archaeologists thought so, too. While Shlomo Bunimovitz and Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University don’t claim that the figure depicted on the coin is proof that Samson actually existed, they do see the coin as proof that stories about a Samson-like man existed independently of the Bible.

Stated differently, the story of Samson was not the literary invention of a sixth-century B.C. scribe living in Babylon, as has commonly been assumed by mainstream biblical scholarship.

Bunimovitz and Lederman made another interesting discovery: the Philistine side of the river was littered with pig bones, while there were none on the Israelite side. . . .

The findings at Sorek are only the latest in a series of archaeological discoveries that are changing the way modern historians look at biblical narratives. It’s becoming more difficult for them to maintain that the narratives are pious fictions invented long after the era being depicted.

The most famous of these discoveries is the 1994 discovery of a stele in Tel Dan bearing an inscription that contained the words “House of David.” It was the first extra-biblical evidence of the Davidic dynasty. Prior to the discovery, many scholars doubted that David ever existed, much less founded a dynasty. The discovery was so out-of-line with expectations that more than a few insisted it must be a forgery.

Today, it is clear to even the most skeptical scholar that-surprise!-there really was a David who founded a ruling dynasty. That dynasty included his son, Solomon, and evidence of Solomon’s building projects described in Second Samuel have been found by archaeologists as well.

Some of the discoveries go beyond history and tell us about Israel’s sense of what it meant to be God’s chosen people. Sites dating to before the Exile are littered with Canaanite idols, evidence of the apostasy the prophets denounced and warned would lead to disaster.

Yet there has never been a single idol found in sites dating after the Exile. Clearly, the Jews who returned from the Exile had finally, truly learned that “the Lord our God is one.”

via Archaeology and the Bible.

John the Baptist and us

We had another great sermon from Pastor Douthwaite on the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29).  A sampling:

John the Baptist never was at home in this world. He was an interloper. A stranger. A misfit.

It began with his birth which was not the usual way. He was born miraculously to a couple who could not have children because they were too old and she was barren.

He was given the wrong name (in the opinion of all who were there when he was born). Everybody wanted him named Zechariah, after his father. That was how it was done; that was the tradition – to name the first born son after the father. But no. His name would be John.

He didn’t wear what everyone else was wearing. If he was around today, he’d be one of those people you notice walking down the street that everyone points to and snickers and says “really?” A camel’s hair shirt with a leather belt around your waste?

Then there was his diet. John went primal before it became a fad diet! Locusts and wild honey.

He did his preaching out in the wilderness. And he didn’t pander to the crowd – he was a fiery preacher of repentance. And if you got into his crosshairs, he wouldn’t let you out. He didn’t care who you were – Pharisee, Sadducee, Scribe, King. And he’d keep after you, even from prison . . . he didn’t care. He just didn’t care.

John was like a bizarre visitor from another place and time. The world was not his home. It never would be. . . .

Truth is, Christians do have a little John in them; a little bit of weird in them. Because like John, we have a whole lot of Jesus in us.

Think about it. Like John, you too were miraculously born – born from above by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism.

Like John, you too wear different clothes – the robe of righteousness given to you by Christ.

Like John, you too eat strange food – the Body and Blood of the Lord in His Supper here.

Like John, your thinking and values and loves are different.

And so as a Christian, like John, you’re never quite at home in this world and life. Just a bit out of step.

Then again, we are also like Herod:

King Herod, on the other hand, was a man of the world. He lived large. He saw what he wanted and took it. And he made no apologies for it. Yet even so, though Herod gets what he wants, he never seems to get what he wants. He’s never satisfied. Never at peace. But that’s the way of the world. That’s the way of it with sin. It never leaves you satisfied, but always wanting more. It enslaves in that way.

And it enslaved Herod on his birthday. A lustful king made a foolish promised and an angry wife took advantage of the situation. And Herod, who didn’t want to disappoint his guests or look out of step with the world, is trapped. Sin isn’t as harmless as it looks. A dancing girl, a little lust, what’s the harm?  . . .  But Herod’s hand is forced. He’s not as free as he thinks. So he sadly gives the order, and John loses his head. . .
To confess that we’ve played the Herod and played the Herodias and listen to John, who though he was beheaded so many years ago is still preaching to us today. Preaching to us to repent – but not only that! But even more, preaching us to the cross. To behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

To see Jesus there on the cross as the one who became enslaved for you and bound to the cross with the chains of your sin, in order to set you free. For that’s what forgiveness is. The word for forgiveness in the Greek is the same word for being released, for being set free. And so forgiveness is to be set free from your sin, from your slavery to sin, from the condemnation of sin – free to be a child of God. And that is what you are. In Jesus. . . .

And so Jesus, in your place, enters the prison of sin, death, and the grave. He puts His neck on the chopping block for your foolishness, your lusts, your murder and anger and pride and hate and rebellion . . . and as the blade is coming down says: Father, forgive them. Set them free. And He does. And you are.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 7 Sermon.

A youth group’s Bible-reading project

I was driving down Main Street and saw a tent pitched outside of a residence that was next to the downtown business district.  A bunch of teenagers were milling about.  There was a podium, and it looked like someone was reading from it.  A sign said, “I ate”

Of course that aroused my curiosity, so I went to the site and saw that the reference was to Jeremiah 15:16, about “eating” the Word of God.  What was going on downtown was a Bible reading marathon!

The website, designed I assume by the group, featured a video, produced I assume by the group, which gave two different perspectives on the Bible from atheists as well as believers, and then challenged people to read the Bible for themselves to form their own opinion.

The site also included evangelistic and apologetic material, with links to other sites on these topics, as well as Bible-reading resources.

In a day of stupid youth group tricks, I thought, this was an ingenious, fun, and meaningful project!

Imagine my surprise yesterday to learn that the inspiration came from this blog!   Rich Shipe, pastor of Blue Ridge Bible Church and frequent commenter here, wrote me yesterday saying he got the idea from this post.

Rich said it took them 70 hours and 34 minutes to read the whole Bible.  They were able to share the Gospel with about a dozen passersby.  And reading the Bible in shifts was a devotional experience.  He said he himself realized how helpful it is to read the Bible in big chunks, so as to get the contexts and continuity, as opposed to the verse sampling that has become more common.  They went on to make a time-lapse video of the three-day event (see below).

So I salute those of you who participated in the “I ate them” project.  (Rich invites other churches to do the same and said that they could use their website.) | Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart -Jer. 15:16.

I ATE THEM Promo Video from Kylene Arnold on Vimeo.

i ate them 2012 from Rich Shipe on Vimeo.

Love that bears burdens

Jim Rademaker passed along this quotation from Luther from the collection Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional (June 20).  It’s a meditation on Galatians 6:2:  “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  It relates to the purpose of every vocation, to love and serve one’s neighbor, which entails bearing other people’s burdens:

 EVERYWHERE LOVE TURNS it finds burdens to carry and ways to help. Love is the teaching of Christ. To love means to wish another person good from the heart. It means to seek what is best for the other person. What if there were no one who made a mistake? What if no one fell? What if no one needed someone to help him to whom would you show love? To whom could you show favor? Whose best could you seek? Love would not be able to exist if there were no people who made mistakes and sinned. The philosophers say that each of these people is the appropriate and adequate “object” of love or the “material” with which love has to work.

The corrupt nature – or the kind of love that is really lust – wants others to wish it well and to give it what it desires. In other words, it seeks its own interests. The “material” it works with is a righteous, holy, godly, and good person. People who follow this corrupt nature completely reverse God’s teaching. They want others to bear their burdens, serve them, and carry them. These are the kind of people who despise having uneducated, useless, angry, foolish, troublesome, and gloomy people as their life companions. Instead, they look for friendly, charming, good-natured, quiet, and holy people. They don’t want to live on earth but in paradise, not among sinners but among angels, not in the world but in heaven. We should feel sorry for these people because they are receiving their reward here on earth and possessing their heaven in this life.

This is priceless.  We are quite willing to love “friendly, charming, good-natured, quiet, and holy people.”  But we are called to love “uneducated, useless, angry, foolish, troublesome, and gloomy people.”  That is, people with burdens.

Church constitutions trumping creeds

D. E. Hinkle passed along an obituary for Prof. Wynn Kenyon, who sparked a controversy  in the Presbyterian Church back in 1974 for not going along with the ordination of women.  For our purposes here, consider the last paragraph in this excerpt:

Mr. Kenyon, who belonged to a forerunner of what is now the Presbyterian Church (USA), was an honors graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his ordination trial he was questioned about women and said that because he believed the Bible forbade women to hold authority in the church he could not participate in an ordination ritual. But he said he would work with ordained women and wouldn’t stop his own congregation from ordaining a female elder.

Pittsburgh Presbytery voted 147-133 to ordain him, but that decision was appealed to the highest court in the denomination. It ruled that “refusal to ordain women on the basis of their sex is contrary to the [church] constitution.”

Coupled with a decision allowing a Maryland presbytery to install a minister who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, at least eight churches and some prominent theologians in Pittsburgh and Beaver-Butler presbyteries left for the new Presbyterian Church in America.

The case still reverberates, said Charles Partee, emeritus professor of church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. It marked a shift from creeds to constitution for defining the church’s beliefs, he said.

“You didn’t have to believe everything in the creed. Of course, the constitution cannot be scrupled. It must be obeyed,” he said.

via Obituary: Wynn Kenyon / Became beloved philosophy professor after ordination ordeal – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In this mindset, which one sees quite a bit in church politics, the church constitution is not only supremely authoritative, it is clear in what it says and admits no wiggle-room in its interpretation.  Creeds, Confessions, and the Bible itself, though, are flexible, obscure in their meaning, and can be interpreted away.

The Law in the life of Christians

As promised yesterday, here is Jono Linebaugh discussing the role of the Law in the life of someone who has faith in the Gospel of Christ.  I know the Third Use of the Law is a big controversy in Lutheranism.  Paul McCain, for example, has been warning Lutherans–including some theologians  in the ELCA–of forgetting that Christians are, indeed, obliged to follow God’s Law.  Dr. Linebaugh, a professor at Knox Theological Seminary (a Reformed institution)  here seems to be downplaying the Third Use as it is often understood in Luther, but I think he is mainly fighting the Calvinist understanding and that he is restoring a properly Lutheran understanding of the Law in the life of Christians.  But, hey, I’m no pastor or theologian.  Let me ask those of you who are:  Does this account properly explain the use of the Law in the life of the Christian? What is the difference between the Reformed and the Lutheran understanding of this issue?  When they both use the same term (“Third Use of the Law”) are they meaning the same thing?

For Luther, it is within this unconditional context created by the gospel, the reality he called “living by faith,” that the Law understood as God’s good commands can be returned to its proper place. Freed from the burden and bondage of attempting to use the Law to establish our righteousness before God, Christians are free to look to commandments, not as conditions, but as descriptions and directions as they seek to serve their neighbor. In other words, once a person is liberated from the commonsense delusion that acting righteously makes us righteous before God, and in faith believes the counterintuitive reality that being made righteous by God’s forgiving and resurrecting word precedes and produces righteous action, then the justified person is unlocked to love.

For this reason, Luther would insist that the Law only applies to the second question of Christian living: what shall we do? It helps to answer the “what” question, the question about the content of good works. The Law, however, does not answer the more basic question, the question far too few people ask: How do good works occur? What fuels works of love? While the Law demands and directs, what delivers and drives? For Luther, the answer to this question always follows the pattern of 1 John 4.19: “We love because he first loved us.” Works of love flow from and follow prior belovedness. Thus, as Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer has said, the essential question of theological ethics is this: “What has been given?” The answer: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). . . .

Recognizing this distinction between the conditional and condemning function of the Law and the descriptive and directive statement of God’s will addressed to the unconditional context of faith in the God who justifies the ungodly is essential for understanding the purpose and place of New Testament imperatives, not to mention the Ten Commandments. The proper pattern is always “in view of God’s mercies…” (Rom 12.1), or as Luther pointed out with respect to the Decalogue, the pattern is the opening promise: “I am the Lord your God…” (Exod 20.2). In other words, the ears of faith are free to hear a commandment without a condition because the Christian conscience listens not to the condition and curse of the Law, but to the Christ in whom there is no condemnation (Rom 8.1).

This is why, for Luther, the phrase “the third use of the Law” (i.e. a use of the Law after the gospel and thus unique to Christians) is a category mistake. For him, as suggested above, Law names the divine speech that accuses and kills. Cut off from its conditionality and kicked out of the Christian’s conscience, a commandment is not Law in the theological sense. This does not mean that Luther didn’t think those portions of scripture that we think of as Law should be preached to Christians; he emphatically did (as his disputations against the Antinomians and his expositions of the Ten Commandments in the Catechisms demonstrate). But it does mean that “Law” is a slightly misleading term in this context because Law, for Luther, is defined by its “chief and proper use” which is “to reveal sin” and function as a “Hercules to attack and subdue the monster” of self-righteousness (Galatians 1535). Defined this way, Law only applies to the Christian insofar as they are still sinful. (For Luther, a third use of the Law – a phrase his younger colleague Melanchthon coined in 1534 and which Luther never adopted – can only mean that the first two uses [ordering creation and accusing sinners] still apply to the Christian because while they are righteous they are simultaneously sinful).  Insofar as the Christian is justified by faith, however, the Law has ended – and precisely because the Law has ended as a voice of condemnation, because it has been divested of its saving significance, a commandment can be heard by the ears of faith without a condition. Passive and receptive before God, the justified person is free to be active and giving toward the neighbor.

The end of the Law (Rom 10.4), understood by Luther as Christ kicking the Law out of the conscience and rejecting its role as the regulator of the divine-human relationship, is thus the end of the “ifs” that interpose themselves between God and his creatures. In place of the “ifs” Christ has uttered a final cry: “It is finished.” These three words are the unconditional guarantee of the three words God speaks to sinners in the Gospel: “I love you.” In this unconditional context the justified person is freed from the inhuman quest to secure a standing before God and freed for the human task of serving one’s neighbor. In Luther’s memorable words: “A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Freedom of a Christian 1520).

via LIBERATE » Luther on the Law.

HT:  Daniel Siedell