A Christmas Story for “Ordinary Folks”

December 19, 2016

This little illustration was first published in a church magazine in 1984, when I was already sympathizing with fellow-disciples who were also being denigrated for doing their level best to be faithful. I think it is even more needed now, so I am offering it to you as an alternative narrative that just might bear consideration.
I called it “A Word in Defense of the Much-maligned Innkeeper”.

The Christmas season is upon us again, and with it the usual deluge of abuse, printed and preached, for the defenseless “villain” of the story, the innkeeper who sent Mary and Joseph to the stable, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” That is all that Luke says: yet from those few words, for some perverse reason, people have conjured-up the image of a heartless, unfeeling man, who had no sympathy at all for the lowly folks on his doorstep.

I wish I could have invited you to our home years ago, on Christmas Eve. You just might leave with a different view of the innkeeper. In fact, I am heretical enough to suggest that the innkeeper might have done for the expectant parents the very kindest thing in his power.

When we lived in the country, we enjoyed the delight of having a few animals. They included, at various times, sheep, goats, and a cow, as well as the ubiquitous dogs and cats. On our first Christmas there, one of the kids got the idea, “Why don’t we have our Christmas worship down in the barn with the animals?” Sort of the “authentic real thing?” We invited a few friends, and all were so impressed that this became an annual tradition.

All of our animals were pets, to the great amusement of the neighbors who were “real” farmers. Very likely, our relationship with our animals was more like what you would have seen in the rural Middle East of the first century, where people lived very close to their creatures, (even sometimes in the same house!) – than to the situation of those neighbors, for whom their animals had only commercial value. Our barn was sheltered, and surprisingly warm, in spite of being cheaply built of salvaged materials. The straw and hay was clean-smelling and cozy. The sheep, especially, were friendly and curious. One would often come and lie down with her head in my lap, sharing the warmth of her beautiful thick wool.

There would be a lot of worse places to have a baby! Starting with a smelly, crowded, vermin-infested inn! Remember, it was not a Holiday Inn that turned away the wandering couple. Inns of that day consisted of one large common room, shared by all, with no privacy and negligible sanitation. Give me a clean, quiet barn any day! I would much prefer friendly sheep as birth attendants, to a horde of stinking, swearing mule-drivers snarling their displeasure at being forced to register for yet another oppressive Roman tax!

The only people who think of a barn as a dirty, uninviting place are those who have never been around people who cared for their animals. Surely, for rural people accustomed to living with their flocks, the stable would have been the most comforting place imaginable, if they were denied the privilege of staying in their own home!

As we read the Christmas story, and the earlier prophecies, and gave thanks for the Lord who did not scorn to identify with humble folk, a very different scenario suggested itself:

A simple couple arriving at the door of an inn, tired from their journey, and somewhat frightened at the impending birth, is greeted by a kindly old grandpa-type and his wife. Hardened by the harshness of many of their customers, the sight of the soon-to-be-parents awakens a compassion that they had almost forgotten. “The inn is crowded – see for yourselves! This is no place to have a baby! You need quiet and rest. We ourselves have only a corner off the kitchen. But if you wish, out back here, there is a quiet spot…”

Throwing down some clean straw, and shooing the occupants out of one stall, they lead the young parents out of the noise and shoving, and into peace…..

Thanks be to God!

Word Study #204 — Strangers, foreigners, refugees

October 4, 2016

When I first received the suggestion to work on this subject, I was not sure how fruitful that could be. After all, in the early, often persecuted church, one was much more likely to be a refugee, than to be in a position to assist them! However, like so many initial impressions, that one turned out to be seriously mistaken. Not only is the subject amply addressed in the New Testament, but the treatment of strangers is held up as evidence of one’s standing in the Kingdom of Jesus! As such, it is well worth our attention. Please also refer to word study #145, “Neighbors and Enemies,” in this regard.

Paroikeo (verb), paroikos (noun), and the similar parepidemos, refer simply to anyone living in a foreign context, for whatever reason. L/S offers “a resident in a foreign city, a sojourner in a strange place”, and Bauer adds “a visitor or resident alien.” This is the word used of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt (Ac.7:29 and 13:17), the traveling disciples’ query of the resurrected Jesus (Lk.24:18), and both Peter’s (I Pet.2:11) and Paul’s (Eph.2:19) characterization of the faithful with respect to the rest of the world, for which Peter and the writer to the Hebrews also use parepidemos (I Pet..1:1 and Heb.11:13). As an eloquent song from the ’80’s put it, “We are foreigners who don’t belong.” Notice, however, that these terms do not carry any assumption of overt hostility; only strangeness.

Allotrios, allotrioo, on the other hand, originally included overtones of hostility or estrangement (L/S), and were used of enemy groups as well as those who were simply foreign; whose loyalty was definitely elsewhere. These terms appear in Jesus’ observation that sheep will not follow a “stranger” (Jn.10:5), and that governments impose taxes (tribute) on “others”, and not their own people (Mt.17:25-26) as well as situations of overt hostility (Heb.11:34) or alienation (Eph.2:12 4:18; Col.1:21). The idea of “belonging to someone else” appears in Lk.16:12, Rom.14:4, 15:20; II Cor.10:15-16, I Tim.5:22, and Heb.9:25.

More common than any of these is the much less specific xenos, xenizo, xenodokeo. This latter iteration appears only once (I Tim. 5:10), where having “welcomed / hosted strangers” is among the qualifications of a faithful woman, along with “having relieved those who were suffering.”

The verb form is used primarily of simple hospitality, and is applied to both guests and hosts (Heb.13:12, Ac.10:6, 18, 23, 32; Ac.21:16 and 28:7). Most of these involve fellow-believers, but the latter describes the hospitality of Publius, the Roman governor, to Paul and his shipwrecked companions.

Xenos , which may be used as either a noun or an adjective, is much more flexible. It may refer to anyone or anything that seems “strange” to the speaker (Ac.17:18,21; Heb.13:9, I Pet.4:12), or to any people outside one’s own circle (Mt.27:7), and is also used in a manner similar to parepidemos, of those who are deemed “outsiders” for any reason (Eph.2:!2, 19; Heb.11:13, III Jn 5).

L/S also gives xenos quite wide latitude: “a guest or friend; a stranger, wanderer, or refugee; a giver or receiver of hospitality”, or, as an adjective, “strange, foreign, or unusual; to be surprised, astonished, or puzzled.” As you may have noticed, virtually all these references are simply descriptive, except for the admonition mentioned in I Tim.5.

There is one account, however, which not only reaches far beyond that pattern, but carries much greater weight with respect to our understanding of faithfulness. That is to be found in Jesus’ exposition regarding “judgment” in Matthew 25, where a careful analysis of both the vocabulary and the grammar reveals seldom-noticed aspects of that scene. Please do not attempt either to accept or to reject this as any sort of “theological” treatise. These are simply observations of usually-overlooked features of the text.

1. The “cast of characters”. The interview is between the glorified “Son of Man”, finally enthroned, and a gathering of panta ta ethne – literally, “all the nations”. Please see Word study #62 for an exposition of “ethnos”, and remember that this term was usually used in Jewish settings of “Gentiles” and among Greeks of lesser-valued “foreigners” or “barbarians.”
The King (presumably Jesus) represents himself as personified in the person/people in any kind of need. (Do we all perhaps need some sort of “cataract surgery” in order to see him clearly?)

2. Both the commendations and the accusations are uniformly addressed in the plural. They are NOT targeted toward individuals. Please review study #142 on the use of the plural “you”, whose individual, collective, and selective aspects are combined so carelessly in English translations. Might this imply that a group could/should have clearer vision than an individual?

3. The criteria of judgment. “How did you-all (your group) respond to folks in need?” Note that neither group had correctly recognized that the King was represented by those needy. Both responded “when did we see you –?” The difference in this case was not one of discernment, but of caring response.

4. The “destiny” aspect. The kingdom which the faithful are invited to “inherit” was “prepared for you all from the foundation of the world!” Remember, these folks being addressed are ethnoi – outsiders!
In contrast, the “fire” to which the uncaring are consigned was NOT prepared for people, but “for the devil and his messengers”! (v.41) Might a bit of common rhetoric need to be adjusted in that regard?

Now, read the whole account again, very slowly and carefully. Do you find, even in the most carefully edited versions, any query about what anyone said they “believed”? Or, for that matter, any individual analysis at all? Please note, I am not denying individual responsibility, but suggesting that it is definitely not the entire story. This stance is supported by another very interesting word, not usually associated with either the “in-group” or the “out-group” – one to which we would all do well to take heed.

Most commonly translated “to gather, to come together, to assemble”, sunago appears in this passage four times: once of the “gathering” of the nations before the King, and three times of the inclusion of the stranger (xenos). The noun form of this word is quite familiar as “synagogue” – the gathering place of post-exile Judaism. Only in James (2:2) did traditional translators use “assembly”, and chose “congregation” (from a Latin equivalent) for Ac.13:43. Perhaps the “inclusion” of strangers is an assignment for the Body as a whole, rather than instruction for individual charity? This observation should precipitate very serious discussion among groups of the Lord’s people. Together, we could make a much bigger dent in the plethora of folks in need of the Master’s care, than could even the best and most skillful of us in our independent efforts.
As “strangers” ourselves in the world, we (should) know how it feels, and move to mitigate alienation wherever we find it. That effort will – and should – take many different forms, as varied needs are perceived and addressed.

Perhaps what we really need to study is the implication of “inclusion” — how, and to what extent “strangers” are/should be helped to become a functioning part of a faithful group? How does one “welcome” those who may not share the group’s objectives and commitment?

This study makes no effort at a coherent conclusion. It is offered rather as a “jumping-off place” for careful consideration and discussion by many “colonies of the Kingdom”, as we seek to be faithful to our King.

Adoption and Inheritance

September 18, 2016

Much of this information is available under the word studies of similar titles.  I am posting it here to give you an idea of how messages can be prepared from the topics treated in particular studies.  This one was prepared for our small fellowship on September 18, 2016.

“Adoption and Inheritance”

It is interesting that with all the noise in self-styled “evangelical” contexts about the concept of being “born”, or “born again” (which latter term appears only three times in the entire New Testament!), another rarely-appearing idea, the related topic of “adoption”, to which Ben referred in his message some weeks ago, in spite of its appearing more times – but still only 5 – seems to have escaped the fertile imaginations of the commentators, who so delight in establishing and defending long lists of regulations for including or excluding their fellows and narrowing their definitions of the Kingdom of Jesus.

Very interesting light is cast on this subject when one researches first century cultural patterns. Since inheritance is legally connected, and central in all of these cultures, it seems appropriate to examine together the two ideas, “adoption”, and “inheritance.” One could also include the references to one’s “birth family” and a “resurrection life” (more commonly mentioned than either “birth” or “adoption” in the New Testament) symbolized in baptism, and I have included those in other word studies, but in order not to become too ponderous, we will look primarily today at the much-misunderstood concepts of “adoption” and “inheritance”.

It is also interesting, that although the English translation “adoption” historically represented eleven different classical Greek words, related to at least three different roots, only a single form, huiothesia, appears in the New Testament writings, and it is unique to Paul’s epistles. It does not appear at all in the LXX. Accurate understanding of the cultural implications of huiothesia – etymologically a combination of huios (son) and a noun iteration of the verb tithemi (to put or to place) – is complicated by the fact that in the first century middle east, one is confronted with three major cultural streams: Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. These are augmented with a smattering of other customs introduced by traders who frequented the area from farther afield. Roman law prevailed, of course, since the legions of Rome had subjugated the whole area. I found the old classic, Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most helpful in this research. As pointed out in the Jewish Encyclopedia (online), the subject was not really addressed in the Hebrew context, because their system of requiring the brother (or another “near kinsman”) of a deceased man to provide for the decedent’s wife and children filled the need for both the responsibility and the privilege of inheritance. In the other cultures, however, “adoption”, or, rather, huiothesia, the word which has been translated that way, was an integral part of the legal technicalities of inheritance. It had little or nothing to do with our modern concept of providing for the care of young children. Now please understand, I am in no way intending to disparage the modern procedure of “adoption” to fill this need. It is a commendable institution: but it is NOT what the New Testament is talking about.

In all three cultures, an heir acquired not only the property, but also the debts and obligations of the deceased, as well as responsibility for the care and protection of the rest of his family. Under Roman law, there was even a provision for a debt-ridden father to arrange for his son/heir to be formally adopted by someone else, in order that the overwhelming debt might “die” with the father.

Although Greek customs in their various city-states were often more lenient and less highly defined than Roman law in many respects, it was important to both that a male heir be established to comply with legal requirements. Hence the advent of formal, legal adoption – especially when royal succession was involved. (The emperor Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, had been adopted by the family of Julius Caesar for that very reason.)

This version of adoption necessarily involved an older child, not a baby, as both the survivability and the competence of the adoptee were a serious issue, since the administration of an estate was involved.

Adoption was also a common way of cementing an alliance between families, in a way similar to the function of marriage in medieval Europe, and the son in question often maintained ties to both families.

The long-term welfare of a family without male progeny required the adoption of a son to whom responsibility for their care could be passed on. This could be the son of a friend or relative who had more sons than he needed, or even a trusted servant or slave. A formal court procedure sealed the agreement, and the adopted son assumed the name of the adoptive father.

Interestingly, under Roman law, a formally adopted son could not be disowned, as could a natural son.
Adopted sons shared all the rights and responsibilities of natural children.

Daughters were not adopted, for a very simple economic reason: a father would be expected to provide a substantial dowry for a daughter; whereas a son would be expected to add to the family’s wealth by marriage.

But there was another aspect of these cultural expectations that sheds important light upon the New Testament translations of the word huiothesia.
In the case of any family, but especially one with multiple sons, another legal provision came into play. When the designated heir attained majority – the age of legal responsibility – the father was required to make a formal legal and binding statement to that effect. This was necessary whether the son in question was naturally born or adopted. This too was described as huiothesia – the same word. It has been suggested that this requirement may have been culturally connected to the “voice from heaven” mentioned at Jesus’ baptism and again at the time of his Transfiguration. Although the word does not appear there, the statement “This is my Son” would have been readily recognized as the format of the standard legal acknowledgment. This is the reason for my choice of “acknowledgment” rather than “adoption” as a more accurate translation of the word.

On a purely civil level, responsibility would normally pass to the eldest son – the “firstborn” (prototokos)– which term, 8 of the 9 times it appears in the New Testament, uniformly applies to Jesus. Only in Heb.11:28, when the reference is to the death of firstborn sons in Egypt, is mention made of anyone other than Jesus. Twice the designation “firstborn” is in relation to Mary’s first child (Mt.1:25 and Lk.2:7), and it appears three times in Paul’s letters, twice in Hebrews, and once in the Revelation. Two of these reference Jesus’ resurrection: “the firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:18 and Rv1:5), his ultimate triumph. In Romans 8:29 he is called “the firstborn of many brethren”, in Col.1:15 “the firstborn of every creature” (or “of all creation”), in Heb.1:6 of the Father “bringing his firstborn into the world”, and Heb.12:23 speaks of “the church of the firstborn.” In assuming this title, Jesus has accepted responsibility for the welfare of ALL the other children! This realization also may help to shed light on the response of the eldest son in the parable read last week, of a younger son squandering his share of the father’s property: Now the eldest would need to provide his profligate brother’s total support! No wonder he was annoyed!

Huiothesia is the word used in all five New Testament occurrences of the English word “adoption” – Romans 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4, Gal.4:5, and Eph:1:5. All but the Rom. 9 passage refer to all the faithful. In Rom.9:4, Paul laments that the Hebrew nation, for whom the assignment was intended, refused the responsibility. Remember – huiothesia is a designation not only of privilege, but of responsibility faithfully to administer the assets and to care for the people and the property of the father! They were only interested in the privilege part! And unfortunately, privilege is the orientation of most of the modern rhetoric about “inheritance.”

That is why a correct understanding of the word huiothesia is so critical to the interpretation of the Galatians passage read this morning! Begin with 3:26:

“For you are all God’s sons, in Christ Jesus, through faithfulness. For whoever was baptized into Christ, has been clothed with Christ. There isn’t any Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise.” …. then follows an explanation that inheritance does not take effect until maturity, and then (4:5-7) “God sent out his son … in order that we might receive acknowledgment as his sons! …So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son also an heir, through God!”

Now before anyone starts getting bent-out-of-shape over all these references to “sons”, please consider the implication of this usage of the word “sons” in the cultural context we have just examined! Embedded in Paul’s explanation is the very clear, unambiguous statement that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are all one in Christ! The key is in the last clause: “if a son, also an heir!” We are ALL considered “sons”, because legally, only sons can be heirs! That statement is NOT exclusive, but gloriously INCLUSIVE!!! Like nothing the world had ever seen before – or since! Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are, by the decree of God and the life given by the Lord Jesus, equally gifted and equally responsible for the administration of the gift of his inheritance! He has made us ALL his sons” – his specifically designated heirs – in order that we ALL may become faithful executors of his will!

The idea of inheritance deserves its own study – and maybe that can happen at another time. But there are a few points that it is necessary to address here:

1. An inheritance does NOT take effect after you die! There is no “pie in the sky bye and bye” in this equation. The distribution of an inheritance requires the certification of the death of the testator – the one who wrote the will – the one from whom the inheritance is received! But the heir, who receives both the inheritance and the responsibility for its administration, is very much alive! There is a careful explanation of this process in Hebrews 8 and 9. The references to “inheritance” in Eph.1:11, Rom.8:17, and Gal.4:7 are present tense – not future. You/we ARE heirs. NOW. The Hebrews passage carefully explains that such certification is/was a major reason for the death of Jesus! Where have you ever heard that celebrated in song or sermon?

2. “Will” and “covenant” are used in most English versions as translations of the same word. And as explained in Hebrews, the new one instituted by Jesus is “not like the old,” which it labels a failure. A will has no connection with any sort of “sacrifice”, ceremony, or shedding of blood. It is a legal document. Period. No more and no less. A “covenant”, likewise, is a legal, business agreement, with carefully stated requirements assigned to both parties, and includes the stipulation that a breach by either party renders the agreement of no effect.

3. Nevertheless, the inheritance we presently are called upon to administer faithfully as executors of the Lord’s will, is not “all there is.” We have received a down-payment on our inheritance, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph.1:14), whose job is to enable the proper administration of the will – but there is much more to come – Heb.1:14 and Rv. 21:7 – participation in which is dependent upon the faithful handling of what has already been received. Jesus’ future tense statement, “The victor will inherit these things, and I will be God for him, and he will be a son for me,” again, the formal statement of a father concerning his designated heir, immediately precedes the arrival of the Bride of the Lamb, and the joyful final consummation of history.

Perhaps this historical overview will shed some light on the confusion of folks who wonder, “Why the interest in adoption, when we have already been born into the Lord’s family?”
Life does indeed begin with birth, the result of the expression of love.
But the acknowledgment / adoption of sons is an expression of earned trust – and that is for grown-ups!
Inheritance is the exercise of responsibility, not the popular but shallower concept of a personal, private “reward”.

Might it be, then, that Paul’s frequent admonitions to “grow up” into the life to which we have been called, have in view the faithful administration of our inheritance?

May we faithfully “grow up” together into the Kingdom of our Lord.

Word Study #203 — “Constrained” – “Straitened” – stressed-out?

August 25, 2016

Here’s another one that started at church, folks.
(Incidentally, I give thanks for – and wish for all of you – the delight and challenge of an interactive group of the Lord’s people! It’s priceless!)

Our brother Jim was recently brave enough to suggest that, contrary to the stereotypical image of Jesus floating through life on some sort of ethereal cloud, untroubled by the vicissitudes to which we mere mortals are subject, the encounter described toward the end of Luke 12 reveals very real stress – perhaps even frustration – when the people he was training to carry on his ministry just plain didn’t “get it”.
Maybe there’s still hope for the rest of us after all? He didn’t give up on them!

The image in question springs from the use of the seldom-appearing verb, sunecho, and its middle and passive form, sunechomai. The etymology is not much help here: a combination of the preposition “sun” – “with, or together”, and the very common verb “echo” – “to have, or to hold”. Likewise, its translations, in most standard works, are many and varied.
It appears in the New Testament only 13 times, only three of which (those referring to illness) are uniformly treated. Active forms of the verb refer to a city under siege (Lk.19:43), a crowd jostling together (Lk.8:45), Paul being overworked (Ac.18:5), Stephen’s accusers “stopping up” their ears (Ac.7:57), the guards “holding” Jesus after his arrest (Lk.22:63), and (the only positive use) I Cor.5:14, where Paul explains that it is the love of Christ that “constrains” (requires?) his people to replicate his attitudes and behavior. These are the only uses of the active form of the verb.
Passive voice usage refers three times to illness (Mt.4:24 and its parallel Lk.4:38 referring to Peter’s mother in law, and Ac.28:8 to Publius’ father), once (Phil. 1:23) of a difficult decision, once of great fear (Lk.8:37), and the reference with which we began, Lk.12:50, which doesn’t really match any of the others.

Classical writers were no more consistent in their usage. L/S lists for active forms: “to hold or secure, enclose or compass, to close one’s ears or mouth, to prevent a group from dispersing, to preserve or maintain, to keep on (as a storm or flood)”; and passive forms “the conduct of government, to keep together in friendship, to engage in close combat, to keep a state from falling apart, to detain or sequester”, and at least that many more!

There is another term, stenochoreomai, (middle voice), even less frequently used in the New Testament, which, along with its noun and active verb forms, appears only seven times, and is usually translated in a manner indicating extreme distress or anguish, most often connected with persecution. These are found in Rom.2:9 and 8:35; I Cor. 4:8, 6:12 (twice), and 12:10. Notice that no use of this term occurs in the gospel accounts. It is mentioned here only to illustrate that had such an implication been intended, these different and unambiguous words would surely have been chosen.

No, if Jesus is frustrated, it is not the frustration of a helpless victim. He clearly knows what is coming, and is committed to its fulfillment. It’s the “in between” that causes stress – as is so often the case for us.

We are not told whether all of the discourses in Luke 12 are part of a single encounter, or if, as Luke suggests in his introductory passage (1:1-4), they have been simply compiled as a collection of memories gleaned from the reports of disciples who were there. This might be likely, as the individual accounts do not seem to be very connected.
The reference in 12:50 is unique among all the other New Testament references to baptism. Since Jesus had already submitted to baptism at the hands of his cousin John, it has usually been assumed that in this instance, he was referring to his imminent death (and consequent defeat of death). This is a plausible, although not proven, assumption. The immediately following discussion of the divisions caused by commitment to him would seem to point in that direction, although its connection to the end of the chapter is somewhat obscure.

So where does this leave us?

Is the inclusion of this statement intended to reassure us that, as the writer to the Hebrews put it (4:15), “he (Jesus) was tested in every way just as we are”, even to the point of frustration when things weren’t moving along as they “should” – or as he wished they would?
Is it a challenge to his listeners to “get off the fence” and make a firm commitment to the Kingdom and its Sovereign, fully aware of its divisive consequences?

Or do you see something else in this encounter?
Your insight (as long as it is derived from the New Testament), is most welcome!

Word Study #202 — Your/Our Master

August 4, 2016

“Master” is a word which, in English, carries a great variety of freight, both positive and negative.
One may said to have “mastered” a task, or a field of study, and even be granted a “master’s degree.”
A “master carpenter”, plumber, or other tradesman, is admired and rewarded for his expertise.
British English uses the word “master” as a synonym for “teacher”.
The owner of an animal pet is called its “master”, and is responsible for its welfare, and its behavior!
A “master” may be the captain of a ship, the supervisor of a task, or, in a less admirable situation, the owner of slaves or the director of their labor.

It is the height of irresponsibility, therefore, for a translator not to distinguish among these ideas!
Small wonder, therefore, that confusion arises when references to Jesus as “Master”, as he was frequently addressed or described, are interpreted as either dire threats or glowing promises, depending upon the theological perspective of the speaker, preacher, or other expositor, without regard to the actual reference of the word!

English translators have compounded this confusion by using this single, ambiguous word to represent no less than six very different Greek words!
Although some of these have appeared in earlier studies, kurios, usually rendered “Lord”, in #4, and “rabbi”, the Hebrew term which John translated as didaskalos, “teacher”, in his gospel narrative (1:38), in #46, we will revisit them briefly to make clear the contrast in their usage. All six represent quite sharp distinctions which should have been differentiated by responsible translators.

I think it will be most helpful to look at these terms in two groups: those concerned with authority and power over others: despotes, epistrates, and kurios, and those more concerned with teaching: didaskalos, kathegetes, and rabbi.
It is interesting to note that Jesus himself never used either despotes or epistrates. But then, he never was one to throw his weight around.

Although despotes was also used classically of the master of a household, both classical and New Testament writers used it primarily to refer to political rulers, and there, it implies absolute ownership and uncontrolled power (L/S) over persons or property. It appears only 10x in the New Testament, and was arbitrarily translated “master” 5x : I Tim.6:1,2; II Tim.2:21; Titus 2:9, and I Pet.2:18, all in the context of slavery except the II Tim. passage, which refers to the master of a household.
The same word was translated “Lord” 5x: Lk.2:29, Ac.4:24, II Pet.2:1, Jude 4, Rv.6:10, usually in the submissive address of a prayer, although Jude and Peter use it to level charges against deviants who “deny” Jesus, their rightful sovereign.

Epistates, appearing only in Luke’s gospel (5:5, 8:24, 45; 9:33, 9:41, 17:13), is uniformly addressed directly to Jesus, although it appears classically (L/S) referring to a military chief or commander, a magistrate, emperor, or governor. It is clearly a title of deep respect.

The inclusion in this group of the most common word, kurios, which appears more than 700 times in the New Testament, is highly significant. Trench’s work on Greek synonyms distinguishes only between despotes, which he characterizes as the required submission of slaves, and kurios, as denoting the protection and care of a family (this, despite its use as the required oath of allegiance to Caesar!). He sees no room for tyrannical oversight in the term kurios.
Paul, in Eph.6:5-9 and Col.3:22-4:1, uses kurios exclusively, although he chooses despotes in I Tim.6:1,2 and II Tim 2:21, and Titus 2:9. Bear in mind, however, that slavery per se would soon cease to exist if the instructions in those passages were followed!!!
Classically, kurios referred to any person exercising authority over others. The reference is to legitimate authority: that of a guardian of a household or the trustee of an estate: there is no reference to anything coercive.
Elsewhere, the word was simply a form of polite address: in both masculine and feminine forms, it was used when speaking to any person of social standing, from their mid-teens, as speakers of English would use “sir” or “madam”. Only by the context can one determine whether reverence or simple politeness is intended. Perhaps even the speaker was not always sure!

The other group of words, in which didaskalos predominates (57x), most often occurs as direct address to Jesus. I was surprised to find that only once (!) does the combination didaskalos kai kurios – literally translated “teacher and lord”, but more often quoted as “Lord and Master” – appear! I suspect that the phrasing “Lord and master” is due to the British understanding of “master” as “teacher”. The word evokes the image of Socrates, Plato, and their cohorts from the 5th and 6th centuries BC, walking or sitting around with their “disciples”, disputing all sorts of philosophical ideas. This was not rare in the first century, either. The didaskalos was a learned man, the proprietor of a school, a teacher or trainer of “disciples” (students). In most contexts, the polite address of “teacher” would be the best translation. Do not forget, however, Jesus’ admonition (Mt.10:24-25) that the goal of a genuine disciple is to become “like his teacher” (didaskalos) and a servant (slave?) to become “like his Lord (kurios)! The use of these terms together has significance that serious “disciples” should explore together!

Kathetes, a guide, teacher, or professor (L/S), was frequently used of Aristotle. It only appears in Mt.23:8,10, which has similarities, if not strict parallels, to Mt.20:24-28, Mk.10:41-45, and Lk.22:24-27, all of which flatly forbid positions or titles of honor to all faithful disciples. These also forbid the honorific title “Rabbi”, although it is used in direct reference to Jesus, 9x rendered as “master” and 8x as “teacher”. Please refer to study #46 for more detail on teaching in the New Testament church.

So where does this leave us?

In the former group, the predominance of the most benign term, kurios, would seem to reflect Jesus’ rejection of the despotic aspects of “mastery” (note that the English word “despot” is a direct transliteration of the political term), although the fact of the occasional inclusion of those terms probably bears testimony to his rightful position of authority.
Kurios was also the most frequent choice for address to God in the LXX, being used to translate adonai, El, eloh, elohim, jah, jehovah, and shaddai – whether used singly or in combinations.
Despotes , on the other hand, occurs only 12x in the LXX, out of which 3 refer to human masters, 8 are paired with kurios, and one stands alone in Jeremiah’s prayer.

Of the latter group, neither kathetes nor rabbi appears at all in the LXX, and didaskalos only once, although there are admonitions to “teach” (the verb form). Some historians suggest that the office of “rabbi” was an artifact of the exile, when there was limited or no access to other priestly hierarchy. Much more significantly, in the New Testament, Jesus’ own teaching and that of faithful disciples is integral to the dissemination of his Kingdom!

But this is NOT the province of a hierarchical structure! Jesus flatly forbade the assumption of titles such as “teacher”, “Rabbi”, “leader”, “father”, (see Mt.23 cited above), even though in his final instructions (Mt.28:20), teaching is central! The difference is, his people, as brother Paul points out (Col.3:16 and elsewhere) are now charged to teach each other. Teachers are among the Master Teacher’s gracious gifts to his Body (Eph.4:11-12), but remember always, “You have (only) one Master/Teacher, and you are all brethren!”

Thanks be to God!

A “Christian Nation?”

May 6, 2016

Recently, I heard the question raised, “Doesn’t living in a ‘Christian nation’ change the context of the various New Testament statements about behavior and attitudes, especially with respect to ‘enemies’?”
Although that might be a quite valid concern in a context that assumes, contrary to the previous study of the concept of “institutional church”, that such a situation is even possible, it is troubling for people committed to a New Testament understanding of faithfulness. From a perspective of total commitment to the Kingdom of Jesus, one’s life can no longer be compartmentalized!

Although I am quite certain that it is not what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended in “Oklahoma”, they have described a distinct parallel between Jesus and (of all unlikely people!) Will Parker, when he sings, “With me, it’s all or nothin’! Is it all or nothin’ with you? It cain’t be in-between – it cain’t be now-and-then! No half-and-half romance will do!”
In a drastically different context, that is exactly the choice faced – not only in the first century under threat of execution, but in every age – by those contemplating citizenship in the Kingdom.

Although “This is a Christian nation!” has become a popular battle-cry for encoding some people’s version of “morality” into legal requirements or prohibitions, the fact is that from the very beginning, there has never been such a thing as a “Christian nation”. No such entity exists today – or has ever existed (even in areas that boast of “state” churches) – or ever will exist – until the final consummation of the King’s arrival.
There is only one way to be “Christian”: and that is by making – and living by – a personal commitment of loyalty to Jesus Christ. Those who have done so are gradually and deliberately incorporated into a Body – but that Body is made up of people who have deliberately chosen his sovereignty.

No political structure on earth is so composed. Like it or not, virtually every “nation” on earth is composed of people of varied – or no – faith commitments, some of whom lead exemplary lives.

People may join an earthly nation by their personal choice. But most are merely “citizens” wherever they were born. “State churches”, being institutional, have tried to enforce a similar pattern, but as we saw in the essay about the “institutional church”, the result is a far cry from the interactive, voluntary New Testament brotherhood described in Scripture. Please refer to the first chapter of Citizens of the Kingdom.

No one who has deliberately ceded absolute loyalty to Jesus and his Kingdom can thereafter offer that total loyalty to a mere human institution, whether political or ecclesiastical.
And no one who has not so ceded his loyalty can – or should – be expected to be capable of Kingdom behavior! This is not to say that there are not many good people who have no such commitment. There are. However, making laws for other people, and legislating what we have failed to teach, is not part of our job description.

Please refer to word study #62 for the New Testament treatment of the word “nations”. It is clear that the concept of “nation” as defined in the 21st century did not exist in the first. The Roman Empire had dominated many “nations”, allowing most of them a considerable degree of autonomy, as long as both the puppet leaders and the common citizenry overtly acknowledged that “Caesar is Lord”. (See Word Study #4.) “Nation” defined ethnicity, more than political allegiance.

Notice that in Paul’s testimony in the trials recorded in Acts 24 and 26, and in his interview with the Jewish leaders in Rome, he speaks of “my nation”, obviously referring to Israel, although he also on occasion referred to his Roman citizenship. Citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom does not expect one to renounce nor to reject his earthly allegiances and responsibilities. It simply subjects them to his ultimate, primary loyalty to the Kingdom.

Unfortunately, this is seldom acceptable to the people in power – in any institution, political or ecclesiastical – and consequently may incur the wrath of one or the other – or both.

Peter is the only one of the New Testament writers to refer to the committed as a “nation” (I Pet.2:9). We are not only a “nation” (of common birth and cause), but a “holy nation” – one set-apart for God’s deliberate purposes. The rest of his description makes abundantly clear that this is a very different sort of a “nation” – one designed to demonstrate, by its faithful living in the face of extreme persecution by the “official” nations with which it co-exists, the excellence of the Lord who has called its people “out of darkness into his amazing light”!

Notice, please, that Peter does not call for his readers to oppose the structures under which they suffer, but “by doing good” to counteract the wrong that surrounds (and even abuses) them. It is an exercise in futility to expect the uncommitted to exhibit behavior that is enabled only by the Lord we serve.
Obeying when we can, and refusing only when we must in order to remain faithful to our prior commitment, bears testimony to the true justice of our King.

Notice also, please, that IN NO INSTANCE are the faithful called upon to force their own principles upon any other individual or group – legally or by any other form of coercion. It is not only impossible, but not even permissible, to expect Kingdom behavior of the uncommitted. We are not called to reform the society around us, but to DEMONSTRATE AN ALTERNATIVE to the futility, the oppression, even the evil that prevails there – whether or not such a demonstration project is acceptable to that society.
To what extent it is ever appropriate for Kingdom citizens to participate in any sort of prescriptive action beyond their own brotherhood, is a question best settled on a situational basis by a consensus of folks personally and corporately committed to their acknowledged King and to Kingdom principles.

For the most part, our energy would be far more productively spent in working together to become the Body – the brotherhood – the “holy nation” – in which onlookers can see “the excellence of the one who called you /us”. That is the only truly “Christian nation”.

Making Everything New

April 24, 2016

This was prepared for our local fellowship in April 2016.
Everyone was asked to  prepare by looking for everything they could find in the New Testament that was characterized as “new”. The response was excellent.  This was an attempt to pull several streams together.

Making Everything New

Jesus’ triumphant statement, “Behold, I am making everything new!”, has been variously interpreted ever since the first time it was recorded, as have so many of the things he talked about.

It is certainly true that commitment to the Lord, especially for someone like me, who at that time had only recently been introduced to the life that Jesus advocated and enabled, often results in what some have called a “honeymoon phase”, where the whole world takes on a surreal sort of beauty. But all too soon, it is time to get down to the business of learning a new way of life.
There are still people and groups who insist on proclaiming a hyped-up “victory” over all problems and situations, which they attribute to their narrow definition of “faith” (auto suggestion?).
There are others who get around the difficulty of when the “magic” doesn’t work, (as well as ignoring any personal responsibility) by postponing all evidence of the “victory” until the Lord comes.
And there are all sorts of variations in between.
One major deviation of the Anabaptist movement from the “mainstream” was its determined effort to bridge the gap between the “already” and the “not yet” in their efforts at Kingdom living. This is especially true of attitudes regarding the contemporary phase of the Kingdom. They made an earnest effort to contradict the little ditty “To live above with the saints in love, Oh that will be glory!
But to live below, with the saints we know,Well, that’s a different story!”
It is precisely among the “saints below”, with all our oddities, stumblings, bruises and warts, where the “newness” of life in Christ most needs to be seen!

The writer to the Hebrews (8:13) observes, “In saying “new”, he has made the first “old”. And what is old and has been superseded, is near to disappearing!”
Even so, to examine the new situation, we have to start somewhere, and the logical place is at the “new creation” that happens whenever a person commits his life to the Lord.
I Cor.5:17 “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation! (or, “creation is new!”) Old things are gone, and something new has happened!”
In other places (notably the first paragraph of Romans 6), Paul uses the figure of baptism to represent death, burial and resurrection, to emphasize the same point, and in Ephesians 2:15, he expands it to include the bringing together of Jew and Gentile – formerly bitter enemies – into what he calls “one new person” – the Body of Christ!
In that Body, LIFE IS EXPECTED TO BE DIFFERENT!!! There has been a New Creation!

For many – perhaps most – of us, this doesn’t happen instantaneously. One is neither “born” nor “re-born” as a fully mature adult! We don’t expect adult behavior of our two-year-olds. That’s the perfectly reasonable impetus for all the admonitions to “grow up” into the image of Christ that appear like a refrain in so many of the New Testament letters. We’re not there yet. The direction has been set, but it will take the rest of our lives to learn to conform them to the “image of Christ”!

Unfortunately, in many groups that represent themselves as “Christian”, no change, radical or not, is expected. If a group represents itself as “welcoming” (the new codeword for “liberal”), people’s “lifestyle choices” – of whatever variety – are considered their own business, and are not to be questioned, let alone challenged or critiqued. “I won’ t mess with your choices, and you better not mess with mine”!
If, on the other hand, a group congratulates itself on its careful “faithfulness” (read, “conservative”), a simple but rigid list of rules is imposed, with very specific (and non-negotiable) requirements and prohibitions regarding both thought and behavior.

Neither of these bears the remotest resemblance to a New Creation!
Jesus’ creation of a Body, growing together into his image, stands in equally sharp contrast to both of these positions.

He spoke very deliberately of a people brought together under a New Covenant.
Probably this is picked up in the most careful detail in the letter to the Hebrews because the concept of “covenant” was such an integral part of their history and culture. But notice how this idea is treated, especially in chapter 8:6-13. Repeatedly, they are reminded that this New Covenant is “NOT LIKE the old one”, which is characterized as a total failure!

To make sense out of this concept, we first need to clarify our understanding of the idea of “covenant”. Most significantly, we need to recognize the error of the assumption that a “covenant” is or was somehow an unconditionally permanent thing! A covenant was and is a legal contract – seriously binding, after ratification, but (as is clear even in many Old Testament accounts) a breach by either party renders a contract or covenant of no effect! Subject to litigation, perhaps, but no longer binding!
There is nothing mysterious about a covenant. Employers have them. Neighborhood associations have them. Real estate or other financial deals require them. They impose responsibilities upon both parties.
A covenant is cast, historically, legally, theologically, and linguistically, in a series of “if x…then y” statements, which, grammatically, are classified as “conditional” constructions. A covenant is neither a threat nor a promise. It is a legal contract – no more and no less.

The writer of Hebrews then goes on to explain the actual historical meaning of the word translated “covenant”. In the larger society, it referred to one’s legal will, and seldom to contracts or covenants at all. (I have devoted two word studies on the web site to this subject, if you are interested). The “doctrinally” over-emphasized, ancient pagan requirement of “blood sacrifice” to seal a covenant is corrected by the simple statement that a will only takes effect after the death of the testator is certified! That topic deserves an entire study of its own, for which we don’t have time this morning. Chapters 8-10 of Hebrews elaborate on the connections between the concepts of covenant, inheritance, and the Body of Christ, which could be very helpful to our understanding. Remember that the letter to the Hebrews is pointing out differences from the old system, not ideas to be copied!

Additionally, as Paul points out in II Cor.3:6, we, the people of God, are the administrators – the executors – of that will! Executors are responsible to see that a will is carried out according to the wishes of the one who wrote it! They don’t make their own rules. They simply follow instructions. And that is our job, people! We have been appointed the executors of our Lord’s will! That is a huge – and perhaps somewhat intimidating – assignment, also calling for deeper study.

Finally, just as the Old Covenant was based upon instructions (“commandments”) relayed to the people for whom it was instituted, so is the New Covenant/ inheritance predicated upon Jesus’ New Commandment.
It would have been so much easier if he had just given us a check-list! Although that obviously had not worked under the old system.
But Jesus must have really meant what he said, since he repeated it so many times (Jn.13:34, 35; 15:12, 17). Love of – and among – the brethren is our passport – our Kingdom ID.
“If you love me, you will follow my instructions!” (Jn.14:15,21) is not a demand, but a simple statement of “cause and effect.”

Interestingly, it is right after this repeated statement that we find the inclusion of his analogy of the Vine (15:1-8). A branch MUST be connected to the vine in order to fulfill its intended purpose – bearing fruit. However, the most elementary observation reveals that branches are connected to a vine only by other branches!!! Connectedness is essential!
Actually, this is the beginning of the formation of Jesus’ people into the Body of Christ! That Body is integral to the New Creation!
Only together can such a disparate collection of people become the “demonstration project” in which the world can see Jesus’ Kingdom. A recent example of this is Shirley’s report of her neighbors’ reaction to the roofing job. Kingdom behavior was demonstrated.

Details of the composition and function of that Body are most specifically outlined in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12-14, and supplemented in Ephesians and Colossians. The lists are not identical. They address different needs, different situations. We could – and should – spend a good chunk of time exploring this aspect of Kingdom life. The common thread, which is absolutely essential, is that each membereveryone! – has a very necessary contribution to make for the formation, growth, and fruitfulness of the Body, and to enable the recognition “by all people” that we are our King’s citizens.

This is a totally new way of operating. It had never been tried before! and therefore extreme caution is required. Creation is new, but not everything represented as “new” is necessarily better. Discernment, one of the Spirit’s essential gifts to the Body through its members, is desperately needed, to distinguish between the actual leading of God and the half-baked theories of “new” ideas (Colossians 2:4-10 is an example) where some were suggesting that Jesus alone was not sufficient, and needed to be understood as just one element of an elaborate, mythological hierarchy invented by some pagan Eastern cultures; or the revisionists referenced in Galatians 1:8-9 whose legalistic, abusive and oppressive teaching threatened the faithful message of freedom in Christ. Both of these are parallel to some contemporary threats as well. Only careful discernment by a faithful Body committed to a reliable standard can evaluate whether what is represented as “new wine” that needs “new wineskins” is really from the Lord. Maybe it is – or maybe not.

This has to be why, after a long discussion of the futility and failures of the old system, the writer to the Hebrews urges (10:24-25) “Let’s concentrate on prodding each other, with love, and good deeds! Let’s don’t neglect getting together, as some have made a habit, but keep on coaching each other more and more, as you all see the Day getting nearer!”

Functioning as his New Creation – under the New Covenant – obedient to the King’s New Commandment – may we learn together to keep coaching each other into greater faithfulness!

April 24, 2016, GMF