Iron sharpens iron
This world takes the Bible for granted, failing to appreciate it for what it really is. It’s always there, always available, easy for us to access, carried around in our pockets in the form of smartphone apps so that it creates not the slightest inconvenience, in this day and age, to have God’s Word with us no matter the location, no matter the time, no matter the occasion, basically for free.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when you’d have had to buy a Bible, in order to have access to God’s Word. At least they were cheap. Not so long before that, they were expensive family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Before that, they weren’t available to the common people, being held securely by Catholic clergy—and in Latin. They were generally fastened to pulpits with actual chains, and for a long time, in many places, possessing and even reading the Bible in private was banned by the Catholic church.
None of that rises to the level of difficulty Christians faced before that, however, because in the early 4th century AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian mandated the destruction of all Christian Scriptures in the midst of his efforts to eliminate Christianity. Even before that, while the church was flying under Rome’s radar, the Scriptures were scarce, difficult to come by, difficult to replicate, and treasured deeply. This scarcity didn’t cripple the attempts to spread the Gospel, though. The church spread rapidly, even though it was persecuted, and even though its foundational texts were scarce.
This followed a period of what Amos called a famine of “hearing the words of the Lord.” In that time, he said,
They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. (Amos 8.12)
We have no such shortage. In fact, we have an abundance. Yet, how much do we appreciate it? We’d miss it, if it disappeared, as with other things we take for granted, but it’s all too easy to ignore it, while it’s in front of our faces.
The Jews in the 1st century were in a situation fairly similar to ours, in which centuries of a culture that enormously valued God’s word had led to an astonishing availability of the Old Testament texts, as well as a literate society encouraged to read, as well as memorize, vast portions of the Law, Prophets, and Writings. Many of them kept those traditions; but many others thought of them as antiquated, excessive, and unnecessary. The religious-political sect called the Sadducees fell into this latter category.
On one occasion, some of these fellows tried to trip Jesus up, by presenting a hypothetical case to be adjudicated:
The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” (Mt 22.23-28)
It’s quite a conundrum, especially because we’re just not accustomed to this sort of law, and struggle to see the rationale behind it. But Jesus’ answer is beautifully simple:
“You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” (Mt 22.29-32)
His argument hinges on the tense of a verb. God said, “I am the God of Abraham,” not “I was the God of Abraham,” and Jesus says that this implies Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob aren’t forever gone, not annihilated in the sense that the Sadducees thought. This wasn’t exactly an obscure reference, it’s from Exodus 3, when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. We teach that story to little kids. But these people hadn’t paid attention to the details, and were thus led astray. They didn’t know the Scriptures, or the power of God.
How in the world could they attain resurrection and heaven, without believing they existed? They had the tools, of course, and they thought they had the answers. But although they had easy access to the Scriptures, they didn’t make use of them. They didn’t study them. They didn’t take them as seriously as they should have. They believed they already knew the whole truth, and missed out on God’s plan as a result.
Today, we have even better access to the Scriptures than the Sadducees did, and on top of that, the New Testament, in general, speaks much more clearly about things like resurrection and final judgment. God has made it easier for us than ever before to learn and understand his word and his will. But it still requires effort on our part. In order to do his will, we need to know what his will is. In order to know what his will is, we’re going to have read what he said.
It’s dangerous to tie small details in one book of the Bible to offhand remarks in another. It often descends into the kinds of weird, numerology-based superstition that quickly turn cultic and idolatrous. These 66 books were written by dozens of hands, over more than 1500 years, and not every fine point is intended as a deliberate, technical commentary on every other fine point. However, there is one hand that crafted and shaped the entire thing, as Peter reminds us:
No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2Pe 1.20-21)
Paul pushes it a hair farther, saying that not only obvious prophecy, but “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2Ti 3.16-17).
On top of that, most of the Bible is, as I’ve heard it aptly described using a modern analogy, hyperlinked. That is to say, much of the text is interactive with other parts of the text, including quotations, allusions, direct and indirect references, and an underpinning of common understanding that so saturates the whole, that you can’t fully understand Hebrews, without having a solid awareness of Genesis and the Psalms, as well as the Law of Moses, and the Major Prophets, and the Minor Prophets, too—so, the entire Old Testament. Likewise, all of the laws and regulations of the Old Law were “a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Co 2.17), so that you can’t fully comprehend the Old Testament, either, without seeing its fulfillment in the New.
So, while we must be careful and discerning, we also ought to avail ourselves of the vast wealth of lessons found even in the minute details of God’s extended letter to mankind. Many of these tidbits can stick with us for a lifetime, springing to mind when we encounter a similar scenario, helping us along our way as we strive to be like our Redeemer and to take actions that please him. One of these lessons is found in the connection between two details, one of which is found in Mark’s Gospel, the other in Luke’s.
Mark casually tells us, as he is listing off the twelve apostles early in his book, that to James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Jesus “gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder” (Mk 3.17). He leaves is at that, offering no explanation and immediately moving on to the others on the list. Well, thanks a lot, Mark! It sounds like there’s a story behind that, but he piques our interest, and then leaves us hanging.
Luke, however, helps to explain. Whether he deliberately included this detail in order to explain what Mark had written is a matter of pure speculation, as is the question whether Jesus gave them this nickname solely as a result of the incident we’re about to examine; but it’s fair to say that the incident shines a light on the character of James and John, which surely was, one way or another, the reason behind the affectionate appellation Jesus gave them.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. (Lk 9.51-56)
Jesus pronounced clear judgments pretty routinely, and warned sinners of the fate that awaited them, of the unquenchable fire of hell. Additionally, James and John had, so to speak, clicked all of the hyperlinks and connected the dots between Sodom (Ge 19), Egypt (Ex 9), Carmel (1Ki 18), and the road to Ekron (2Ki 1), and thus over-applied the principle of God’s righteous anger and judgment on those who shamelessly reject him. We can see pretty easily what they had in mind and how they got there, but it’s also obvious, from Jesus’ response if nothing else, that they went a little overboard!
My wife once encountered a man in an environment uncomfortable to her, who just creeped her out. When she voiced this to our oldest son (four years old at the time), he very thoughtfully replied without a hint of jest, “I could kill him for you.” The look of joint alarm and amusement that accompanied her verbal response probably compares closely to the look that was on Jesus’ face after James and John made their suggestion. There’s something slightly humorous about the childishness of jumping to such a misguided and extreme solution, and it shows the level of spiritual maturity James and John had attained, by this time. They had loud, powerful words to say—warnings of violent, destructive, and unpredictable flashes of fire from the sky. But they lacked the ability to back it up, they lacked precise direction, they lacked the sense to wield such power properly. They were…thunderous.
What does this teach us? Perhaps many things. The most important is to confine our judgements to the ones God pronounces, and not presume a higher level of authority than we really possess. People are passionate about the things that matter to them, and often moral imperatives are (quite rightly) near and dear to our hearts. It’s easy to develop a malevolence—a desire to see harm done, or even to actively participate in doing harm—toward those whom we deem unrighteous, but we must remember that doling out rewards and consequences to all of humanity is God’s job, not ours. It’s a good thing, too, because every one of us would make a mess of that process, while conveniently ignoring our own worst shortcomings. Destruction will come to the wicked, and Jesus will wield that sword himself (ever read Revelation?); but remember that his purpose is salvation, not destruction (Jn 3.17, 12.47). Make sure that you’re on the proper side of the battleground, and busy yourself with bringing others out of his line of fire.
One of the most comical characters in the Bible, from a modern perspective, is Nehemiah. The parts of the story that we usually remember aren’t so much comical as exemplary—we think of his deep love for the Lord, and willingness to leave his cushy position as cupbearer to the King, in order to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and bring God’s holy city back into repair as a safe citadel, impervious to the inevitable attacks from the surrounding Gentiles. We think of his dedication to building the walls even under constant threat, and how “each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other” (Ne 4.17). That only gets us up through chapter 4, though. There are nine more chapters to follow.
It starts out pretty somber—Nehemiah was functioning as governor of Judah (5.14), and it was brought to his attention that the wealthy Jews of the area had been oppressing the poor ones, lending out money at interest contrary to the Law, and then taking away their fields and vineyards, and even enslaving them as payment for the debt. Nehemiah “was very angry” (5.6) about this, and confronted the nobles and officials who were enriching themselves unscrupulously at their brothers’ expense. They quickly agreed to shape up, but that didn’t stop Nehemiah from making a somewhat silly-looking display of his frustration: “I also shook out the fold of my garment and said, ‘So may God shake out every man from his house and from his labor who does not keep this promise. So may he be shaken out and emptied’” (5.13). After detailing other ways he helped the poor during his tenure as governor, he closes out the section with a written prayer, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (5.19).
Following this and some further external strife, the wall is finished, the people celebrate, Ezra the scribe teaches the people about the Law, and things generally look like they’re headed in the right direction in most ways, with the people even keeping the Feast of Booths as prescribed—something that hadn’t been done properly since the time of Joshua (8.17)! They make a blanket, nationwide confession and apology for all the ways Israel had continually transgressed God’s commandments over the generations, and renew the nation’s covenant with him, with much attending pomp and circumstance.
Yet, affairs are not all moving in as positive a direction as it would seem. There’s more to be done, and the final chapter of the book chronicles several changes Nehemiah effected later on. Here’s where it gets really good. After his term as governor is up and he has returned to Artaxerxes’ court for a while, he takes a trip to check on things back in Jerusalem. On finding another way in which the Jews had been ignoring God’s Law in his absence (this time the priests were allowing an Ammonite into the Temple complex, contrary to De 23.3), he says, “I was very angry and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the chambers.” I’m sure it looked less comical in reality than I tend to imagine, but the picture of this respected, dignified wordsmith hurling a mattress out the door…well, it makes me chuckle. After addressing a second oversight, he repeats again what we saw before: “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service” (13.14).
He’s not done. When he sees the people failing to keep the Sabbath, he tells them their fault, and then simply locks the doors of the city, preventing commerce one day a week, and even threatening the merchants that if they don't stop trying to desecrate the Sabbath, “I will lay hands you” (13.21). Having succeeded in this endeavor as well, he repeats, “Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (13.22).
The best is saved for last. He notices a number of Jews who have transgressed the Law by recklessly marrying Gentile women (contrary to De 7.3-4). Here is the most entertaining of Nehemiah’s reactions: “And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair” (13.25). This man was on speaking terms with the most powerful man in the world, had been governor of his home province, and was a respected leader of his community—and here he is, beating the snot out of other respected members of society and pulling out their hair. When he discovers that one of the priests had married the daughter of Sanballat, the Moabite leader who’d done so much to disrupt the building of the wall years before, he says, “I chased him from me.” It sounds almost like an extended playground squabble, not rational interaction between adults. This would not be acceptable in just about any other context; I’m not certain it was completely acceptable when Nehemiah did it, even. And yet, he closes out the topic, and the book, by repeating the refrain once more: “Remember me, O my God, for good” (13.31).
We could nitpick and detract from the way Nehemiah went about correcting these problems. We could certainly point to the different between Old and New Testament to find our own guidance from God for our conflicts in the present time. But that should not detract from the spirit in which Nehemiah undertook all of these actions. Can anyone question his love for the Lord? Can anyone cast doubt on his devotion to God, and to God’s Law?
Here was a man who didn’t care (clearly) about damaging his own reputation; who didn’t care about looking silly, or receiving blowback, or hurting feelings, or any such thing. Here was a man who cared passionately for his God, for his people, and for the relationship between the two. While we should be cautious of the exact methods he used, we would do well to imitate Nehemiah’s devotion to God; and God will remember us, too.
One of the odd things about this pandemic has been its ramifications on the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Hygienic concerns were occasionally brought up in the past over the rather silly one-cup question, but beyond the obvious “don’t be the one to serve it if you’re sick,” it just didn’t come up. Now, we’re hyper-conscious of all the little germs changing hands, and while our present method of single-serving, sterile kits has been working out relatively well, I’m afraid it may be a distraction from what is supposed to be the focus.
Tomes have been written on the Lord’s Supper. It’s the defining act of Christian worship each week. It is a deep, powerful expression of Jesus’ love for us, and our devotion to him. It neatly symbolizes the relationship we ought to cultivate with him, and the manner in which he proved his care for us. Yet, comparatively little is said about it in the Scriptures themselves.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the scene in that upper room in Jerusalem, but Matthew spends only four verses on the Lord’s Supper (Mt 26.26-29), and Mark’s version (also four verses—Mk 14.22-25) manages to be a hair more concise even than Matthew’s, with the omission of several explanatory words and phrases, in favor of a more economical, man-of-few-words approach. Luke, ever the academic, gives it a little more space (Lk 22.14-23), devoting ten verses to the memorial and including a few small details passed over by Matthew and Mark. But John throws us a characteristic curveball, spending chapters 13 through 17 of his Gospel on the events that took place in that upper room, while neatly avoiding the centerpiece, the memorial Jesus established.
The longest treatment of the Lord’s Supper in the Bible is found, not in the Gospels, but in 1 Corinthians—a letter to a church struggling in many respects, including their observance of this act of worship. Even here, it only gets 18 verses (1Co 11.17-34), and Paul dedicates a fair amount of his verbiage to reminding these people what they’re supposed to be doing, and why they’re supposed to be doing it. As for his narration of the scene in that upper room…well, that comprises just three verses, covering just the basic facts.
What I hope this demonstrates is that it is unnecessary to theologize, christologize, science-ify, and pontificate about the precise spiritual mechanisms by which the power of communion imbues the participant with Eucharistic grace, or some other such arcane nonsense. Did Jesus convey such a notion to his Apostles, when he said simply , “Take, eat; this is my body” (Mt 26.26)? Of course, it’s worth contemplating the full meaning of all that Jesus told them, and all that Paul told the Corinthian Christians as well, but it’s ludicrous to develop a highfalutin, jargon-filled, binding orthodoxy, when God himself left it somewhat vague—to be taken on faith.
Jesus called it a remembrance (Lk 22.19, 1Co 11.25), not a sacrament. He didn’t even call it an ordinance, the term used by most Protestant denominations—although in a non-technical sense that’s at least an accurate description. Jesus focused first on the tangible, visible, and obvious, while also drawing on their shared knowledge and awareness of God’s covenant with the Israelites.
When he distributed the bread, he told his disciples to take and eat, and said, “this is my body, which is given for you” (Lk 22.19). He didn’t launch into a treatise on vicarious atonement. Instead, he simply let their shared understanding of the Passover they were celebrating that night point them in the right direction—which is not to say, even, that they all fully understood what he meant (when did they ever?). No, it is simply his body, “given for you.”
For the cup, the most verbose account of Jesus’ words is Matthew’s: “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26.27-28). Once again, we might have expected him to go into more detail about exactly how that transaction occurs, and when, and precisely for whom; but he doesn’t. His few words have already told us a lot: that his blood would establish a “new” (Lk 22.20, 1Co 11.25) covenant, replacing the old one; that his blood would be “poured out”—i.e. that he would die violently; that the sacrifice would be made on behalf of “many,” not just those present in the room; and that it would be made for the purpose of securing forgiveness of sins.
All of those terms need defining, of course, and the only proper way to accomplish this is by further study of God’s Word, in both Old and New Testaments; however, Jesus was putting this into terms that uneducated fishermen from Galilee could comprehend, and comprehend it well enough to (with God’s help) effectively teach it to others, both Jew and Gentile. We shouldn’t be completely satisfied with this as we grow and mature, but neither should we treat a fundamental understanding of these basic principles as if it fails to reach God’s standard. Jesus gave himself to die for us, to rescue us from sin and secure us a place in God’s Kingdom. Now, he wants us to fill ourselves with him—with his body, blood, and memory. That’s not the whole story, but it’s a start. Don’t lose sight of it.
This pandemic is getting old. That’s pretty much been the case since it started, but now that we’ve been living under its shadow for four months, I imagine we’re all very ready to move on, to one degree or another.
As I’ve observed behavior across the country throughout this, and especially as I’ve paid attention to the responses of Christians far and wide, it has struck me that many have developed a spirit of fear. Not all—in fact, most of the Christians I know who fall into the categories of highest risk for death due to the virus have been the most resolutely fearless, most at peace with the prospect of going to see Jesus sooner than expected, and frankly, the most crotchety and irritated with others who don’t see it the same way.
It’s easy to dismiss their attitude as unscientific, misguided, or stuck in the past, but the simple fact is that they’re the ones who bear the greatest burden of risk in this scenario, and the patronizing responses to them have often been downright disrespectful, by young and healthy folks whose lives are not at any elevated risk.
As I’ve watched this and wrestled with facts, interpretations, and most importantly tried to determine God’s will in all of this, the distinction that stands out most in my mind is not between young and old, between, scientific and unscientific, between caring and heartless, between rational and irrational, between humble and arrogant, or any of the other dichotomies we might have expected. It’s simply between those who are fearful, and those who are courageous.
This doesn’t always correlate with general attitudes toward the pandemic—often the fearful ones don’t take it seriously at all, and some courageous ones are convinced they’ll be dead by next Tuesday; but the way we handle these divergent beliefs is the point. It reminds me of Paul’s situation when he wrote the letter to the church at Philippi. Imprisoned and facing a death sentence if convicted, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. (Php 1.20-22)
He isn’t even sure what he wants to happen, continuing on to say, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (v23). Having reasoned through to that conclusion, he expects to be spared, apparently through God’s providence. Yet, as the letter continues, he shows that he’s not entirely confident, in 2.17 entertaining the notion that he may “be poured out as a drink offering,” and saying that he wants to send Timothy with further news, “just as soon as I see how it will go with me” (2.23).
We may sympathize with his plight to some degree since, whatever our tentative conclusions may be with respect to the virus in whose shadow we now live, the possibility that we’re wrong always hangs in the back of our minds, tempting us into ambivalence and vacillation. While we can’t do much at the present time to validate our theories and predictions (apart from simply waiting), we should certainly “join in imitating” Paul, as he encouraged the Philippian Christians to do, so long ago. His was in an unthinkably stressful situation—not a mere 4% maximum death rate, among the less than 1% of the nation’s population that has tested positive for the virus over the past four months, but instead something much closer to a genuine 50-50. Yet, even in his uncertain situation, what was his overall demeanor? What characterized his spirit? “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,” he tells them in 1.12. “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death,” he said in 1.20, as we noted already above. We began to look at 2.17 earlier, but didn’t complete the verse: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” He tells these Christians, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4.6).
His other letters written during this time (Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon) all display the same resolute courage, that he will defend his Lord before both Caesar and anyone else he has the opportunity to teach; that whatever the outcome of his next few weeks might be, he will “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Php 3.14). We would do well to imitate his brand of strength, in our own uncertain times.
In that instance, Paul’s well-reasoned conclusion proved to be correct, and he was freed, allowing him to continue his fruitful work. However, he wrote a letter to Timothy later on having been imprisoned a second time, and by all indications, he didn’t make it out alive this time. Yet, he didn’t build unnecessary walls, suspend God’s less convenient commandments, or allow these fleshly concerns to take control of his spirit. Instead, he opens up his letter by reminding Timothy, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2Ti 1.7). We, too, must remember this fact, and refuse to take on a spirit of fear.