Archive for the ‘Exegesis’ Category

“Not another blog post on this question!” I hear you say.

Initially I decided that I would not post anything in response to the current debate in the US about the potential dismissal of a professor from a leading Evangelical college over her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many people have written on this, a large number defending the college’s evangelical commitment. Many have pointed out that trinitarian Christians and unitarian Muslims do not worship the same God, since each of their affirmations and denials about the nature of God are an anathema to the other (eg. Christians affirm the divinity of Jesus, which is blasphemy to a Muslim; Muslims deny that God can have a son, which is heresy to Christians.)

However to date, I have not seen (maybe I have missed it) a writer wrestling with two verses in the New Testament which on the face of it may seem to lend support for the professor’s statement:

‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22)

‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:23)

I have singled these two out because both of them use the word ‘worship’ – implying that both the Samaritans’ and the Athenian’s approach is not merely about conceptual knowledge or confession of beliefs, but also about devotion and piety. They don’t simply have an idea in their heads about God, but practice it in acts of devotion and worship.

Similarly, both make a statement about the worshipper being ignorant in some way, and needing a fuller, correct revelation; this fuller revelation will bring a reformation of their worship.

All this may sound like the professor is onto something. Maybe even the Pope was onto something when he said the Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters.

However, when we take a closer look at these verses, we will see that they do not, in fact, support the idea that there are non-Christians who worship God, albeit in a faulty or deficient way.

The first thing to notice is that the two words translated in our English Bibles as ‘worship’ and ‘know’ are different in each verse. This reflects the two different contexts: in one (John 4:22) Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan, and in the other (Acts 17:23) Paul is speaking to Greek philosophers. Straight away that should indicate to us that we cannot take these two verses out of their context and throw them together as if they are identical in their meaning.

John 4:22

Jesus has been speaking to the Samaritan woman, and she has raised the issue of where true worship of God is supposed to take place – since the Jews had the temple in Jerusalem, and Samaritans had their own alternative temple in Samaria, which they set up after the retuning exiles from Babylon in the 5th century BC rejected their help in rebuilding the Jerusalem temple.

Jesus dismisses this as the key issue, instead saying that true worship of his Father will be in the power of the Spirit, and is not tied to location or architecture. His statement ‘salvation is from the Jews’ is an affirmation that, up to this point, Jerusalem is the correct location for the Temple and therefore worship of God; it is the centre of His presence with His people. However, this is about to change now that the true temple, priest and sacrifice has appeared in his person. The coming of Jesus does away with both right places of worship (such as the Samaritan temple) and the right place of worship (the Jerusalem temple) as people now come to the Father through faith in Jesus.

Jesus however is not invalidating all that the Samaritans did in their worship. They held firmly to the first five books of the Scriptures, and so both their theology (understanding of who God is) and form of worship was orthodox. However their understanding of God’s purposes was deficient since they did not acknowledge the rest of the Old Testament – the Prophets, Psalms and historical books.

When Jesus says, ‘you worship what you do not know,’ the word here for worship refers to the physical act of bowing down or prostrating oneself (and is sometimes used in this literal sense) that forms part of a worshipper’s actions. And the word for ‘know’ means a knowledge that comes from seeing and experiencing – rather than a conceptual knowledge. In other words, the Samaritans go through the motions, but their experience of God is lacking, because they do not come to the true seat of His presence in Jerusalem.

Jesus on several occasions, both in practice and in his teaching, appeared to be affirming the Samaritans in their identity as the ten Northern tribes of Israel, who were one day to be reunited with their Southern Jewish brothers (See Ezekiel 37). This is fulfilled when Samaritans are included in the experience of Pentecost in Acts 8. In that sense, the Samaritans were ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ whom Jesus the Good Shepherd has regathered into the flock through his death and resurrection. The Gospel has dispelled their ignorance, and brought them into the full revelation of the Father and His plan so that they may be one with their Jewish brothers in worshipping Him.

Acts 17:23

Paul’s address in Athens begins with an acknowledgement that the Athenians are ‘very religious’ – and he uses a word that may also be translated, ‘superstitious’. The word he uses for ‘worship’ (twice in 23) is one that means ‘pious’ or ‘devoted’ – which ties in with his description of Athenian religion as superstitious. It’s a word often associated with idolatry.

When he says that they ‘worship’ that which is ‘unknown,’ he uses a word from their own philosophical vocabulary – the word from which we get our English word ‘agnostic’. This is an ignorance that comes either from lack of learning, or from the sheer incomprehensibility  of the thing that is unknown. It’s a statement of conceptual knowledge, rather than experiential knowledge.

The Athenians took pride in the fact that they were able to acknowledge the reality of something of which they had no knowledge. They knew they did not know everything, and so  there was a distinct possibility that there was, out there, an ‘unknown god.’ This was a ‘dark matter’ god – one deduced by human reason, yet not encountered in human experience. Paul devastates their intellectual pride by equating this lofty philosophical learning with superstitious religion.

Paul’s claim is that the message he brings of Jesus and the Resurrection is one that will cut through this superstitious ignorance, replacing it with a clear and present truth that will call for a response of repentance. The God he describes to the Athenians is one that demolishes and replaced both the superstitious god of paganism and the deistic, conceptual god of the philosophers.

Conclusion

Neither John 4:22 nor Acts 17:23 can be used to support the claim that adherents of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The former refers to those who, in a sense, were already ‘in’ the true people of God; the latter refers to those whose worship is false, arrogant and idolatrous.

follyAt home I have on the wall a jigsaw puzzle I received when I was 15 – with 3000 pieces. Because it took me so long to complete, I glued it to a board and hung it on the wall. Each piece of this puzzle, on its own, is not much to look at. You would never be able to tell what the big picture is by looking at just one piece. However all together they form a beautiful picture worthy of hanging on our living room wall.

There is something wrong with this jigsaw puzzle though. In the process of several house moves, one piece on the bottom left hand corner has come off, and has been lost forever. (Bizarrely, it also happens to be the face of an unfortunate man being strangled by a grumpy, Monty Python-esque woman). Most people who see it don’t notice, but because I know it’s missing, and because I spend countless hours building the picture, I always feel slightly disappointed when I look at it, and I always notice the empty spot. Without this piece, the Jigsaw is incomplete.


 

¹²For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. ¹³ For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

Paul is starting a discussion about roles and gifts in the church. He introduces the metaphor of a body, which has many members, but is one body. We might expect him to say, ‘so it is with the church’, but instead he says, ‘so it is with Christ.’

What point is he making?

When we see Jesus referred to as ‘Christ’ (or ‘Christ Jesus’) the emphasis is not so much on the person, as on the office he fulfilled – the Christ, or Messiah. He is speaking here not about my personal relationship with the Father through Jesus, but my participation in the revolutionary change that Jesus has made by coming as the Messiah – the promised king who would be the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, beginning with Abraham, to bring blessing to every nation on earth. We are part of something much bigger than our local church or neighbourhood – this is something with global implications!

In the Old Testament the promise of the Messiah focuses less on personal individual salvation, and more on the restoration and regathering of God’s people from all the corners of the earth. For example, in Daniel:

¹³“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. “ (Daniel 7:13-14)

This, ‘son of man’ is this promised one – both human and divine – who will establish God’s Kingdom. God’s people in exile in Babylon were to look forward in faith to this saving king, but they were also to understand the implications for them:

15 “As for me, Daniel, my spirit within me was anxious, and the visions of my head alarmed me. 16 I approached one of those who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of the things. 17 ‘These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. 18 But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.(Daniel 7:15-18)

What good is a king unless He has citizens in His kingdom over whom He rules? The arrival of the King means peace, security and prosperity for those living under His rule. Jesus came not only to assert God’s rule over the universe, but to restore human beings to the position we were given in creation –  rulers over all that God has made. In the book of Revelation, almost every time Jesus appears in the visions, he stands side-by-side with those whom he has redeemed by his blood.

And so to talk about Jesus as the Christ/Messiah means understanding that He is the king over His people, who are the ‘Messianic Community’.

This is why Paul says here that the unity and diversity in the human body is a picture of ‘Christ’. Jesus has redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and nation, from every strata of society and walk of life. His gathering us together is about much more than creating a community in which we feel comfortable and supported; this is His plan to establish the Kingdom of God in every corner of creation and to bring every creature in heaven and earth to a place where they bow the knee and declare Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.

The way in which the Messiah was promised to restore God’s people to live under God’s rule was to pour out the Holy Spirit, not just upon leaders, but upon every person. The fulfilment of this promise began on the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ death and resurrection was not an end in itself – it was with this aim. By paying for our sin and redeeming us from the judgement of death He has now made us into a suitable dwelling place for His Spirit. He died for you so that He may fill you with His Spirit.

That is why Paul goes on in verse 13 to talk about the work of the ‘One Spirit’. In the first half we are in the Spirit – ‘In one Spirit we were all baptised,’ and in the second half the Spirit is in us – ‘all were made to drink of one Spirit.’ We are a ‘Spirit saturated’ people, and He brings a profound unity that cuts across race and social status – probably the two biggest things that have divided – and continue to divide – human beings throughout our history.

The cross has broken down the dividing walls of hostility that human beings build between ourselves, by destroying the wall of hostility that was there between us and God. This is a radical thing, and is contrary to the way the world sees reconciliation. The root cause of human division is the fact that we are in rebellion against God – we want to take His place; to become God, ourselves. And when two or more people, each of whom wants to be God, meet each other, there is going to be conflict. So the solution to human hostility is not to try to work it out between each other, but for each to be first reconciled to God. Only then will we be able to come in humility, together before the cross, and be unified.

We live in a country – a world – that is always threatening to fall apart through division and hostility, as each person and each group tries to assert their rights over and against others. The work of Christ is the only way in which people who hate one another can be brought to truly love – because they know that God first loved them. And the Church is designed to be a showcase of this blood-bought unity.

As the church we may at times fees small, insignificant and ineffective. We may hear the world tell us that we are out-of-date, irrelevant and obsolete, and that we have nothing to say to them. We may hear them accuse us of being divided and hypocritical. However Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed – a tiny, seemingly insignificant seed which, when planted, grows and exceeds all expectations by becoming a large tree that overshadows the entire garden (the mustard plant is normally a shrub, not a tree!) (Matthew 13:31-32). As we gather each Sunday, and as participate in the life of our church week by week, we are participating in something that has universe-changing implications.

Romans 8:19-21 tells us:

“…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21)

We cannot and should not ever understate the privilege it is to be a part of what God is doing through Jesus the Messiah. If you ever wake up on Sunday morning, or come home from work before your evening home group, feeling discouraged or without motivation, wondering if church is worth the effort, simply remind yourself that you are part of God’s total universe restoration project; the freedom of all creation will be accomplished by God through your freedom in Christ.

This is not just interesting, abstract theology for us to sit and ponder. Paul is unpacking these things in the context of talking about how we live and relate to one another in the church. See verse 27:

‘You (plural) are the body of Christ’ – the big picture.

‘Individually members of it’ – the phrase in Greek means ‘you have a share as members’ – something like shareholders in a company are all joint owners of the company – not a customer, but an owner. Without each shareholder, the company is not complete.

And notice that he does not go on to say, ‘There are now some optional things that you could be involved in, if you want to.’ Rather, he says, ‘God has appointed…’ or ‘set in place’. (28) all the different people with their roles and gifts within the body. He knows how build His church, and He puts each piece in place – in its right place. So our question of ourselves should not be, ‘Am I going to be involved in the life of the church?’ but, ‘How does God want me to be involved? Which piece of the big picture am I – and am I willing to walk in joyful obedience to God and take up that role?’

God says that each of us is just as important as everyone else in completing the big picture of what He is doing in this world through Jesus his Messiah. He is sovereign over all things, and so our failures will not ultimately ruin his plans – however, why would we not want to be a part of this exciting work that He is doing, into which he invites us to be a part – to be shareholders?

Following this passage is the famous chapter on love – 1 Corinthians 13. Most often we may hear it quoted in the context of a wedding, however it is really about us loving and serving one another in the church. And it is is the key to all of this. You may not yet have a clear answer to the question, ‘What role am I to play in the life of the church?’ but you can be sure of one thing: God is calling you to this: to love one another. This is to be our main focus, over and above the specifics of tasks and jobs. If we focus on loving one another as Christ loved us – by laying down His own life for us – then we will find ourselves beginning to fit into the place Jesus has for us in His church.

Doug Wilson is a great pastor and Bible scholar. I deeply respect him, and have appreciated his teaching ever since I subscribed to Credenda Agenda back in 1997.

As a young(er) upstart from backwater of the Evangelical world, I am reluctant to call out prominent Christian leaders when I disagree with them; and it’s extremely unlikely that he will read this anyway. However I want to point out an error that he made recently, not to make myself out to be smarter than him, but because it touched a raw nerve of mine: the need to be consistent when doing exegesis, and to avoid at all costs having our use of Bible texts influenced by our own Creed or Agenda.

Doug’s article Until Someone Unsettles It, posted on Feb 2, is a defence of young earth, 6 day creationism. I’m not going to tackle him on the big issues of this debate, but simply pick up on a text he uses where he argues for universal death (ie. humans and animals) entering the world at the point of Adam’s sin:

First, the Bible teaches from beginning to end that the plan of salvation is intended to restore the entire created order. In Genesis, we were banished from Eden and the tree of life, and at the end of Revelation, the tree of life is there beckoning us, with leaves for the healing of the nations. And in that return to the Edenic state, God includes the creatures, which means that these creatures were included in the bliss we fell from. Why would they be restored with us if they didn’t fall with us?

“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, And the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: And dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord” (Is. 65:25).

Wilson uses Isaiah 65:25 to support the notion that animals will also be renewed in the new creation, with all their predatory and carnivorous instincts removed. So, he is reading this verse literally, using it as evidence that 1. animals will be in the new creation, 2. The way animals behave now in a fallen creation is a result of Adam’s sin that introduced death, and therefore 3. The scenario painted in this verse is what we will actually experience in the new creation.

Here’s where the problem comes in. This verse is plucked from a wider passage (17-24) in which God promises a new heavens and a new earth:

17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.

20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. 21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

23 They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,and their descendants with them.24 Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 65:17-25 ESV)

We see that our verse in question is a part of a bigger portrait of peace, prosperity and joy that God is promising His people as the fruit of the redemption he will be accomplishing through the work of his Servant (Isaiah 53).

The big question is: Are we to take this as a literal, actual description of the new creation – what we as Christians will actually experience, or is it to be taken as an image, described in local, cultural terms, to give us an impression of the nature of God’s saving work that leads to the liberation of all creation?

See, if we are to take verse 25 literally, we need to be consistent and take the whole passage literally. That includes:

  •  Confining the new Creation to the city of Jerusalem, or at most to the Holy Land (if ‘Jerusalem’ represents the nation) (18,19)
  • Old men dying at 100 years (20)
  • Sinners who are cursed for living up to 100 years (20)
  • People still marrying and producing more children (23)
  • Snakes remaining under a curse (25)
  • A specific mountain (probably Zion) being holy in distinction from the rest of creation (25)

All of these things, we know, need to be read in light of the coming of Jesus and the fulfilment of God’s promises in Him, for the Church, who are the continuation of God’s chosen people. We know that in the New Creation there will be no more death, no curse, no sin, and no human marriage (with the implication of no procreation). We also know that all of creation will be renewed, not just a pocket surrounding geographical Jerusalem. In fact, the New Testament presents the ‘New Jerusalem’ not as a geographic or architectural structure, but as the community of God’s family among whom He dwells forever.

What does this mean for our interpretation of Isaiah 65:17-25? I believe it means we must read it in the second sense I described above: as an image, described in local, cultural terms, to give us an impression of the nature of God’s saving work that leads to the liberation of all creation.

I actually agree with Wilson that there will be animals in this new creation, and that they will be peaceable and not to be feared. I just think this is the wrong verse to substantiate this claim, because to do so requires us to then take the whole passage literally on things that the New Testament requires us to take figuratively.  To take it one step further and present it as evidence that there was no non-human death before the fall is digging the hole even deeper.

To be consistent, if we are to take verse 25 as an indication of the result of God’s renewal of creation on animals, then we must also take verse 20 as meaning that this renewal will result in us all living to 100 years and then dying. Which kinda contradicts his thesis (which I agree with wholeheartedly) that there will be no death.

What it comes down to is that Wilson has taken a text out of context to become a prooftext for his pretext; something that he, with his usual passion for biblical truth and integrity, would reject wholeheartedly.

 

Some background:

The dominant themes of John’s Gospel up to this point have been the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah who fulfils all the promises of the Old Testament to bring in the New Era – the outpouring of the Spirit, the cleansing of sin and uncleanness, the renewal and establishment of the Kingdom of God, and the personal renewal that comes to a person who is brought in to be a part of this all. We have seen Him declared to be the Son of God (not figuratively but literally), the Baptiser in the Spirit, the Messiah, the One who replaces the old ritual washing water with the new wine, the one who replaces the Jerusalem Temple with himself, and the One prefigured by Moses in lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. He has just unpacked for a key Jewish leader what it means to be ‘born from above’ by God’s sovereign action in the work of the Holy Spirit, and now he comes to someone at the other end of the theology/holiness/worthiness/acceptability spectrum: a lonely, broken, shamed Samaritan woman.

4:1-9

Jesus broke a number of cultural conventions, doing what in the eyes of many – especially the Pharisees – would disqualify him from being a Rabbi, let alone the Messiah sent from God. Firstly, he travelled through Samaria. Samaria was the region historically occupied by the ten northern tribes of Israel who had been conquered by the Assyrians in 720BC. The Assyrian policy of relocation meant that many Israelites were scattered among the nations, while may foreigners were brought into Samaria, where they intermarried with the remaining Israelites, developing a syncretistic religion. When the exiles who had been taken by the Babylonians from the Southern kingdom of Judah returned, these locals wanted to participate in the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, but were not permitted. So they set up their own Temple in Samaria. This developed eventually into the rivalry, bigotry and hatred that existed between Jews and Samaritans right up to Jesus’ time. Many Jews, if they needed to travel North to Galilee, would cross the Jordan and travel up the East side of the river in order to avoid travelling through Samaria, even though this took them 4 days longer than cutting through Samaria.

Secondly, when the woman came to the well, he spoke to her, asking for a drink. This was controversial on four counts. First, as a Jew (and a Rabbi) he should not have spoken to to a Samaritan (at least in a friendly tone). Second, as a male he should not have spoken to a woman on her own. Third, he should not have been willing to drink from a Samaritan cup, which would have technically made him ’unclean,’ since Samaritans were considered by many to be the same or even worse than Gentiles. Fourth, while it’s not explicitly stated, the fact that this woman was at the well at midday, rather than the normal time of first thing in the morning when everyone else would have been there, may indicate that this woman was an outcast even among her own people, since she came alone at a time when no-one else would be there to ridicule or criticise her.

It is important to notice that John includes this story immediately after chapter three’s account of Nicodemus coming to Jesus. John said in is introduction to the Gospel:

11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:11-12)

In John 3 we see a man, Nicodemus, who would have been seen by everyone as ‘one of God’s own people’, yet who just didn’t understand or receive what Jesus was saying, responding to Jesus’ statements with naive, even ignorant questions. Then in John 4 we see this woman, by all accounts an ‘outsider’, who not only is receptive towards Jesus, but as we will see, engaging in robust theological discussion with him – showing up Israel’s esteemed teacher!

It’s also important to note that he initial reason Jesus stopped at this well was that he was tired and thirsty. Presumably when the disciples went into the town to get food, they had taken al the equipment with them, and so Jesus didn’t even have a cup to drink from. The Gospels to not present a ‘superman’ Jesus who floats six feed above the struggles and realities of life in this world. Jesus, the Son of God, is truly one of us, sharing in all that we experience, including tiredness and thirst.

4:10-14

The term ‘living water’ on its face value simply meant ‘spring’ or ‘running’ water – fresh water found in a flowing creek or river, as opposed to potentially muddy or stagnant water found in a well. Both Jews and Samaritans looked forward to the day when the creation was renewed by God’s blessing, and the entire region was watered by flowing rivers (eg. Zechariah 14:8, 44:3), but also that this physical renewal would be a symbol of a spiritual renewal when the Holy Spirit would ‘flow’ into and through God’s people.

Initially this woman takes his statement on the purely physical sense. Not only does Jesus not have the equipment to draw water from the well, but he is claiming to be better than than the one who dug the well – Jacob – by claiming to produce this fresh running water as opposed to stale well water.

Jesus, in his usual fashion, explains that he has come to replace the Old with something New. In the Old Testament Jeremiah says:

‘…“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ (Jeremiah 2:13)

Jesus’ claim in 13&14 is that he has come to reverse this scenario. The well by which they are standing is a picture of the people turning to find satisfaction in things that are only momentary; and in doing so are rebelling against God, who is the only source of true satisfaction. In Jesus, the door has been opened for people to turn from these broken wells back to the eternal spring of living water.

4:15-19

At this point the woman still wants to engage on a purely physical level, but Jesus pulls the rug out from under her feet. He ultimate need is not her physical predicament of having to come here day after day to get water; it is not the fact that she runs out of water in her house. Rather, her need is spiritual – the broken well is in her, not in her house, as evidenced by the life she is living. She is a ‘serial monogamist’. Five broken marriages, resulting in her being a broken person who no longer has the energy or motivation to even try to live by the standards of her community or God.

Jesus’ comment, and his intimate knowledge of her history is a ‘sign’ to her that he is not just a regular Jewish man, but is in fact a prophet. Her use of this word is significant. The Samaritans only had as their Bible the first five books of the Old Testament, whereas the Jews had all the historical, poetic and prophetic books. In Deuteronomy 18:15-22 God promises to raise up ‘another prophet’ like Moses who will teach the people perfectly from the Law. This idea is developed in the later books of the Old Testament into the idea of the Messiah who is not only a prophet, but also a King and a Priest. But because the Samaritans did not have or recognise these books, they spoke of their future hope in terms of a ‘Prophet’. Many Samaritans however acknowledged the Jewish expectation of the Messiah and that it was to be one and the same Person.

4:20-26

The woman no only discerns that Jesus is a prophet, and maybe The Prophet, but she also recognises the real issue that is at the heart of everything, even behind her current situation of living in an immoral relationship: the issue of worship. It’s no trivial thing that the first four of the Ten Commandments are about worship. The One whom we worship will determine the kind of life we live, as our life is a direct reflection of our worship. Both the Jew and the Samaritan knew that if the issue of worship was sorted (the first 4 commandments – Loving God) then the issue of right living will follow (the last 6 – loving one’s neighbour).

The sore point between Jews and Samaritans was not so much the method of worship as the place of worship, which is what she picks up on. Rather than picking a fight, I believe this is a genuine question from someone who has just come face to face with the Truth of God embodied in the person of Jesus – she is simply framing it in terms of the context that she understands.

Jesus’ answer is not only immensely liberating, but also would have blown any last shred of credibility he may have had with the Jewish leaders by saying something that in their eyes would have undermined the whole Temple system in Jerusalem (just in case he hadn’t done this already when he cleared the Temple in 2:13-22!). And he in essence gives the same answer to her that he gave to Nicodemus: It must be a work of the Spirit. Just as Nicodemus hd no hope of seeing or entering the Kingdom of God apart from the Holy Spirit’s work in his life, so too this woman has no hope of truly worshiping God apart from the Spirit enabling her. We cannot come to God by going to a holy place or entering a holy building in which we do holy rituals. In fact, we cannot come to God at all. True worship happens as God Himself comes to us. It is as the Holy Spirit comes to us and opens our blind eyes to see Jesus, unblocks our deaf ears to hear Him speak the truth, and applies the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection to us. When he says, ‘…they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.’ We see that the Father also comes to us before we come to Him – the word implies a active, yearning, seeking, not just a desire. It does not mean that people first get their act together with worship and then God will go and find them; rather God the Father is out and about in His world seeking broken, sinful people and turning them into those who truly worship and know Him. The way he dos this is through Jesus. Here we see the God the Son, who has taken on humanity in order to walk among us and, ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10), and this mission has taken him to a lonely well where he has found a lonely, broken, outcast Samaritan woman.

In chapter 1 (41, 45) we see people saying, ‘We have found the Messiah;’ ‘We have found the one Mose wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets also wrote.’ Here we see this One finding this woman, declaring to her ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.’ (26)

If you are interested in any way in seeking God, know that it can only be because He is first seeking you; and if you know God through Jesus it is only because He has sought you and found you through his Son and by the work of His Spirit, and brought you into the truth of who He is.

This last week at Flinders Uni was Islam Awareness Week. I thought it would be appropriate to be aware of Islam (more that I am normally) by seeking to reflect on what is being communicated by our Muslim friends, and to give some responses and some questions from a Christian perspective. This is the second of a few posts I will be making over the next few days.

Disclaimer: I do not claim to be an accomplished Quran scholar, and to be honest, I always find most English translations of the Quran grammatically awkward and difficult to read. So I am willing to recognise that my interpretation of this Sura may not be entirely sound. However, I have been trained – and have taught for many years – the principles of Biblical interpretation, which can mostly be applied to any piece of literature.


Sura 8:11-18, with a depiction of the Battle of Badr

Sura 8:11-18, with a depiction of the Battle of Badr

Sura 8 (suras are the equivalent of books in the Bible) contains a verse often quoted by Islamic ‘extremists’ to justify their terrorist actions:

‘I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.’ (8:12, Yusuf Ali – the version quoted throughout this post)

On the face of it, it seems a pretty clear command for Muslims to terrorise, behead and disfigure non-Muslims. However, it is also claimed by many Muslims that this verse needs to be seen in its textual and historical context.

Fair enough. I say the same thing often to those who quote Bible verses out of context, and it is an important principle in Biblical exegesis – and if fact in understanding any piece of literature. ‘A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext’ (D.A. Carson). So, let’s look at the context.

Firstly, we need to see that what is quoted above is only part of the verse. The full verse reads:

‘Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): “I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instil terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers…”

The word ‘remember’ should highlight to us that Muhammed is being reminded of something – an experience he has had in the past. If we look earlier in the Sura, we read:

Behold! Allah promised you one of the two (enemy) parties, that it should be yours: Ye wished that the one unarmed should be yours, but Allah willed to justify the Truth according to His words and to cut off the roots of the Unbelievers; (verse 7)

This is a reference to an event that happened early on in Muhammed’s time in Medina. The prophet, having been rejected in Mecca, had gone to Medina, where he had managed to gather a band of followers – at this point it was 313 men, called ‘Muslims’ because they had submitted to Muhammed and his religion. The future of Islam seemed tenuous – many surrounding people opposed them, including the leaders of Mecca, the Quraysh. One day in 624, after a year of conflicts with the Quraysh, news came that a caravan of gold belonging to the Quraysh would be passing by, guarded by 40 unarmed men. News also came that a Quraysh army was on the way from Mecca to defend this caravan, as the Muslims had a history of raiding caravans. Muhammed faced a choice of two options: Raid the caravan and get the 50000 pieces of gold it carried, or ride out against the Quraysh at great risk to his and his men’s lives, trusting that Allah would give victory. He chose the second option, and was successful in this battle, which took place at Badr. This was the key turning point in his battle to conquer Mecca, and it confirmed in the eyes of many that Muhammed was indeed the rightful leader and prophet of Islam.

This puts this verse into context. Muhammed is being reminded of Allah’s promise to him as he rode, outnumbered 3 to 1, to attack his enemies – those who had rejected his religion and so were ‘unbelievers’. It comes after another promise in verse 9:

“I will assist you with a thousand of the angels, ranks on ranks.”

…which Muslims believe actually happened, and was the reason for these first Muslims’ victory.

So, to be fair, it seems I should use the same principles that I myself use when I read about battles in the Old Testament and God’s commands to destroy all the people in a city (eg. Joshua 6:17) I say, ‘This command was given for that battle, in that time and place, and applied to the Israelites as they were conquering the promised land; it is not to be taken as a command for me today as a Christian, nor for any nation today that claims to be Christian.’ This is the approach taken by many Muslim scholars in understanding Sura 8:12

However, there are a few problems that I see with treating this verse in the same way as I do similar Old Testament passages.

Firstly, unlike the Bible, the Quran does not actually provide the historical context of this verse, or in fact the whole of Sura 8. The Quran does not contain lengthy sections of narrative equivalent to the Old Testament narratives; it’s as if the book assumes knowledge of the stories of both the Bible and of the events of Muhammed’s life. So, while the commands to Joshua about Jericho are firmly grounded in the story of the Israelites entering the land, these commands to Muhammed are not set against a backdrop of a Quranic account of the battle; all that extra information has to be gleaned from extra-Quranic sources.

Secondly, the Quran, unlike the Bible, does not have a two-testament structure of promise and fulfilment. The Old Testament dealt with national, ethnic Israel, as the people out of whom would flow His blessing to all nations. With the arrival of the Messiah Jesus, the season for national Israel was ended, as all the promises, types and shadows found their fulfilment in the reality of the Messiah. God now deals with people from every tribe, tongue and nation who relate to Him by faith in Jesus; the commands and principles that applied to national Israel either no longer apply, or are understood in the light of these spiritual realities. (For example, see 1 Peter 2, where Peter applies promises relating to the Temple and to the choosing of Israel directly to Christians who worship and testify to Jesus.)

The Quran does not have this structure, but instead has a uniformity of application across all Suras to all Muslims; one cannot draw an ‘old vs. new’ distinction.

This has meant that many Muslims have taken the sura to contain commands and principles that apply at all times to all Muslims:

‘This surah enunciates general principles of war (one aspect of Jihad) and peace while reviewing the Battle of Badr and uses them for the moral training of the Muslims.’ (Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi – Tafhim al-Qur’an – (The Meaning of the Qur’an) http://englishtafsir.com/Quran/8/index.html accessed Oct 11, 2014)

This interpretation seems, to me, to be supported by the verses that follow:

13 This because they contended against Allah and His Messenger: If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment.

14 Thus (will it be said): “Taste ye then of the (punishment): for those who resist Allah, is the penalty of the Fire.”

15 O ye who believe! when ye meet the Unbelievers in hostile array, never turn your backs to them.

16 If any do turn his back to them on such a day – unless it be in a stratagem of war, or to retreat to a troop (of his own)- he draws on himself the wrath of Allah, and his abode is Hell,- an evil refuge (indeed)!

17 It is not ye who slew them; it was Allah: when thou threwest (a handful of dust), it was not thy act, but Allah’s: in order that He might test the Believers by a gracious trial from Himself: for Allah is He Who heareth and knoweth (all things).

Verse 13 is a warning to anyone (not just the Quraysh) of the severity of Allah’s punishment for resisting Islam.

Verse 14 seems to use this incident as a precedent for future conflicts with unbelievers: their defeat in battle against the Muslims is a foretaste of the punishment of Hell that is to follow; Allah is using them to punish the unbelievers.

And verse 15-17 appears to be addressing not Muhammed at the battle of Badr, but those whom Muhammed is addressing and teaching in the principles of war: he tells them to never give up when fighting against unbelievers; if they do they themselves will end up in Hell with the unbelievers; and that their slaying of their enemies is ultimately Allah’s actions.

So, if my interpretation of Sura 8 is correct, this leads me to ask some sober, sincere and respectful questions of my Muslim friends; (and in asking I trust that we will be able to remain friends).

  1. Am I mistaken in any way in my interpretation of these verses? Or, am I right in saying that verses 15-17 are to be applied to all Muslim everywhere at all times?
  2. If the Quran truly is the pure, final message of Allah to humanity through Muhammed, why can this Sura only really be understood by accessing extra-Quranic documents? Does that not make this book insufficient and difficult to understand, and obscure to the common reader who has no access to this extra scholarship?
  3. Do the modern Jidadists who take verse 8 as a literal, binding command upon them today, actually have an interpretive case for doing so? And while you may differ in how you interpret this verse, can you at least acknowledge that they are simply seeking to be true to the revelation from Allah they have received through the words of his prophet, and so cannot be called ‘non-Islamic’?
  4. How, in light of this Sura, can we still strive to live alongside one another with peace, respect and friendship between Muslims and non-Muslims? Is this Sura a hindrance, or a help in achieving this goal?

Trembling, bewildered and afraid at the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection?

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you. ’” 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8 NIV)

Just as Mark gives a concise description of Jesus’ death, so he give a concise description of the resurrection. He is not concerned so much with the how, but the simple fact. None of the Gospels give us a statement on the meaning or reason for the resurrection; the writers seem to assume that this is obvious: Jesus is the Son of God, of whom the Father says, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased’; God’s chosen and anointed King who does nothing but what pleases the Father, to his dying breath.

The wages of sin is death (and all have sinned, therefore all die), but also God promises to vindicate the righteous and reward them with life. The Psalmist, quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost says, ‘You will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your holy one see corruption.’ (Psalm 16:10) Because Jesus’ sacrifice was the culmination of all Jesus did in his God-pleasing life, the Father’s response to this action is to declare Him to be the Son of God and King by raising him from the dead.

Mark began his gospel, stating clearly that Jesus is ‘the Son of God’ (1:1), and his account of the resurrection is like him saying, ‘See, I told you!’

Marks original Gospel, I believe, ends with verse eight. 1

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

To us this may not seem like a very satisfying conclusion, especially as we are used to Hollywood movies that end with a moving speech, a song, and the hero riding off into the sunset. However Mark, in his succinct way, is simply stating the facts, and the way he does has a ring of authenticity about it. If someone were inventing the story of the resurrection, and making it the lynchpin of their whole religion (ie. without the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus, the whole of Christianity is pointless), we would expect them to embellish the story to make it believable. Instead Mark records the authentic response of the women.

How would you respond after a traumatic weekend of seeing Jesus tortured and killed, expecting to find his body in the tomb, but instead encountering an angel who tells you he is alive? Would you immediately believe, or would it take a while for the reality of it to sink in? This was not just one miracle – the last in a long list of 3 years worth of miracles. Jesus’ resurrection means not merely that the man Jesus is alive again against all odds. It marks the start of a cataclysmic, history making, destiny forming, earth shattering reality of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. It meant the resurrection not just of one man but of the entirety of humanity. This will in turn mean a total renewal and liberation of the entire universe. The enormity of this had gripped them, and according to the NIV their response was, ‘trembling’, ‘bewilderment’ and ‘fear’ – three words which have almost wholly negative connotations for us. Yet they do not need to.

The word translated ‘bewildered’ is ‘ekstasis’ – ‘ecstasy’. ‘Fear’ is not terror, but extreme awe. And so their ‘trembling’ (‘tromos’) was not a disturbed trembling, but one of joyful anticipation, like a child may tremble as she stands before the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, or a contestant on X-Factor shakes with overwhelming disbelief as the panel of judges stand to applaud them.

‘They said nothing…’ obviously doesn’t mean, ‘ever,’ otherwise we would not have this account. Rather, it simply means they did not speak to anyone as they fled, as they had been commanded to report to the disciples. They were simply being obedient.

Marl ended his Gospel at this point possibly because of the purpose for which he wrote: it is thought that Mark was especially an ‘Evangelistic’ Gospel – ie. written not primarily for Christians but for non-Christians, who had heard the Gospel proclamation of the crucified, risen, reigning Jesus and wanted more background to the story. He leaves the ending somewhat open – as if to say, ‘What do you now make of all these events? What is your conclusion about Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of Man and the Son of God; who healed the sick, proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and willingly laid down his life to be a ransom for sinners; who predicted both his death and his resurrection?

One writer has suggested that Jesus, his miracles and the resurrection simply give us useful symbols to help reflect on the paradox of life and death. However Mark presents his account of Jesus as historical fact, with geographical and biographical references to confirm this. If the claim of Mark and the rest of the New Testament that Jesus literally rose form the dead is true, as well as the implications it gives for the hope of our own resurrection and the renewal of the entire universe, we ignore Jesus at our peril.

So what is our response to the news of Jesus’ resurrection? It may be rattled off as one in a list of core Christian beliefs, and we may talk about it so often that we end up taking it for granted, and it no longer grips us with awe, ecstasy and trembling like it did the women. However we view verses 9-20, it is an indication that this reality of the resurrection captured the hearts and lives of the disciples, and that they were unable to contain the wonder of all God’s promises being fulfilled – being ‘Yes’ – in Jesus; what resulted was a revolutionary, world and history changing explosion of the Gospel going out to all nations. This is what we are a part of, and God calls us to continue to be part of this explosion.


  1. Verses 9-20 do not appear in the earliest, most reliable copies of Mark that we have, which is why many modern translations have it as a separated section. It probably indicates that it was not part of the original Gospel. The court is still out on this, and Christians have different views on whether it should be considered as 1. Truly Mark’s ending, 2. Not Mark’s ending, but still fully scripture, 3. Not Mark’s ending, and not fully authoritative (yet indicative of the early church’s teaching). My view is in line with no. 3, which makes verse eight Mark’s final words to this account of Jesus. 

redletter

‘Red Letter Christians’ approach the Bible with the premise that the foundation and starting point for understanding the Gospel should be the direct words of Jesus, as quoted in the Gospels. This is a corrective, they claim, to the traditional approach of evangelicals in which the Pauline epistles are the lens through which the rest of the Bible is interpreted. It sounds all good and pious to say that the actual words of Jesus himself should be our starting point, and the rest of the Scriptures be interpreted through them. There are however a couple of problems with this approach:

  1. Not all the words of Jesus have a direct application to us in the same way they did to those to whom he spoke. As with all biblical passages, we need where possible to understand the situational context in which they are spoken, and to understand what they meant to them then, before we ask what they mean to us today. A classic example of this is Jesus’ exchange with the rich young man (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus commands this man to ‘sell all you have, give to the poor… and come follow me.’ Why then do Christians own things? If these are Jesus’ direct words, shouldn’t we all obey them literally and refuse to own any property? No, we understand that these words were given to this man at that time because it addressed both the deepest need and biggest problem he had – loving his riches more than God. This does not mean we cannot learn from this story, nor take action to remove those things in our lives that have become idols; however this example shows us that simply ‘obeying the words of Jesus’ is not always as simple as it sounds.
  2. Sometimes, especially in the Gospel of John, it is hard to be clear on exactly where the words of Jesus end and those of the Gospel writer begin. For example, is the world’s best known verse, John 3:16, (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.) the words of Jesus or John? My Red Letter bible has them in red, and continues the quotation right through to the end of verse 21. However some commentators would suggest that the quotation ends with verse 15 – and 16-21 are John’s commentary on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, directed to the reader. So, we have a problem if we are going to give a priority to the quoted words of Jesus, in that we cannot say precisely what they are!
  3. It’s really a false distinction anyway, to suggest that the direct quotations of Jesus are somehow more authoritative or inspired than the words of the New Testament writers. As Jesus commissioned his apostles, he commanded them to ‘[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you.’ (Matthew 28:19) Along with this, he had already given them the promise that the Holy Spirit would, ‘teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ (John 14:26) What this means for us is that the words we have in the New Testament – be they direct quotations of Jesus or the testimony of his apostles – are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all an accurate communication of all that Jesus commanded.

We need to have an implicit confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit to faithfully communicate the will and mind of God to us in all of the Scriptures, and to avoid making false ‘red letter’ distinctions.