Thursday, June 14, 2012

Moses At The Bush

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Bible records for us a fascinating dialog between Jesus and the Sadducees, specifically regarding the resurrection. Please read these accounts in Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, and Luke 20:27-39

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They had what they thought was a rock solid argument in favor of their position, proving in their minds that the notion of a resurrection couldn't possibly be consistent with Scripture. But they had misapplied Scripture as Jesus would show. Their argument went like this:
  1. The law of Moses mandated levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10) to preserve a man's name. 
  2. Suppose there were seven brothers who died without children after being married to the same woman. (This was not an unreasonable or impossible scenario. Uncommon, but not unreasonable.)
  3. Which of the seven brothers would have her as wife in the resurrection?  If the resurrection is true, in their reasoning, it is inconsistent with the law of Moses.They thought there was no answer to this question.
Jesus' answer to this question is simply amazing. First, He deals with their hypothetical question, showing that it is an invalid question to begin with. There are no marriages in the resurrection (Matt. 22:30), so the question of whose wife she will be in the resurrection is nonsense! Second, He very sharply rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection. He tells them that they should have known from reading the passage about Moses at the burning bush that there is a resurrection (Mark 12:26-27).

That last part of this story is what I want to look at closely. In the past I have argued that Jesus based His entire argument on the tense of one verb in one verse when He quoted Exodus 3:6 and said, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."  Did Jesus actually base His entire argument on the tense of that one word?  I would like to suggest that there was much more going on in this application of this burning bush passage than the tense of one verb. I don't believe Jesus was teaching us to build arguments about critical Bible principles based on small details in the text.

If that's not what Jesus was teaching, then what was He teaching? We do learn a hermeneutic lesson from this story. It's just not the hermeneutic lesson that I've been teaching. Jesus' argument for the resurrection did NOT rest solely on the tense of one verb in the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:6. First, Jesus called their attention to Moses at the burning bush, calling to their minds the entire story. That story includes a poignant description of God's name, power, and nature (Ex. 3:14-15). It is the first revelation of God's name (Ex. 6:3) and nature to any man. The tense in this passage is part of the very nature of God, not a small linguistic detail. God is. Period. Second, Jesus expected them to understand that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died by the time this incident happened. He expected them to have some knowledge of the history taught in the books of Moses. Also, Jesus expected them to understand that God is the God of the living. That's interesting because "the God of the living" isn't something being addressed in the immediate context. "The God of the living" is a large theme throughout the Bible (Gen. 9:16; Psalm 56:13; Isaiah 8:19; etc.). There is so much more going on here than just the tense of one word in one verse. Yes, the tense of that word is important, but there is so much more in the context to indicate the tense than just that one word in one verse.

To argue that Jesus main argument rests on the tense of one word in one verse, as I have done repeatedly in the past, is borderline absurd. It's more unreasonable when I consider that in Luke's account (Luke 20:37), He doesn't even quote the verb! Then, when I consider that the verb is present tense in the story, but it's being used to prove a future event (the resurrection), it's clear that the tense of one verb is not the most important thing going on.

So, here are a couple of closing observations on this passage.

  1. Jesus expected the Sadducees to have deduced from the story about Moses at the burning bush that the resurrection of the dead is a fact. They had not read this story correctly. They had not handled the Scripture accurately (2 Tim. 2:15).
  2. Their rejection of the resurrection of the dead was an insult to the power of God, and that power was on display in the story He called to their attention.
So, when we look at the facts, Jesus did NOT base His entire argument on the tense of one word. Far from it. He based His argument on the historical context, the nature and power of God, and the overall teaching of Scripture. That's our hermeneutic lesson from this story. Consider the context, the nature and power of God, and the overall themes of Scripture when interpreting a passage. Jesus did not say, "Exodus 3:6 settles once and for all the question of the resurrection." Don't build a theology using single verses.

I pray that I will learn to properly interpret the Scripture, more like Him.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

An Austere God?

I was reading the parable of the minas just the other day, and a new thought came to me. Before getting started, I recommend that you read the parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27. It seems to me that this parable has a very similar meaning to the more popular parable of the talents told just a few days later in Matthew 25:14-30, with a couple of interesting differences.

If I understand the parable of the minas correctly (and I am wide open for correction on my understanding of this parable), the nobleman is Jesus. The citizens who hate the nobleman are the Jews who oppose Jesus. The servants are disciples of Jesus. The minas represent responsibilities, opportunities, abilities, etc. given to each disciple. The return of the nobleman represents the judgment. The first two servants had done well and were rewarded. The third servant had been lazy and was rebuked and punished. Punishment of this third servant isn't explicitly stated in this parable, but it seems to be implied, especially if I'm right that this return represents the judgment and in light of the similar parable of the talents. None of that was new to me and likely isn't new to you. I've taught those lessons before from this parable. I've even gone on to talk about the statement in verse 26 that the one who has will be given and the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But none of that is what I'm writing about now.

For some reason, I've given this one mina servant very little attention, other than to matter-of-factly point out his wickedness and laziness. But the parable tells us more about him. He was a disciple, but a disciple with a misunderstanding about the nature of Jesus. Notice what he thought of the nobleman in verse 21. "You are an austere (that is rough, severe, harsh) man, you collect what you did not deposit and you reap what you did not sow." If my explanation above is accurate (it may not be), then consider what this means. This one mina disciple thinks that Jesus is a harsh, rough, forbidding God and King. He thinks that Jesus demands the unreasonable. And because of this warped view of Jesus, he does nothing productive. He was given one simple instruction from the nobleman, and his warped view of Jesus prevented him from following that instruction.

What a horrible view of Jesus. Yet, I confess to having been guilty of that. I have approached God as if pleasing Him were beyond my ability. Rather than do business with my mina, I've hidden it away, thinking I was unable to please a harsh Master. I've felt hopeless and that I could never get it all right. Doing nothing seems no worse than doing it wrong, and doing nothing sure is easier. I've even avoided sharing the gospel because I didn't want to share my hopelessness. I am ashamed! I did that to my own destruction (verse 22) and offer no excuses. What a horrible misunderstanding of Jesus! Jesus is not austere. He describes Himself as meek and lowly. God has gone to great lengths to show us how gentle and good He is.

How did I get the impression that God demands more from us than He gives us the ability to do? I think it came from an unbalanced approach to God and His word. I spent too much effort thinking about and teaching about God's judgment and vengeance and did not give enough consideration to His grace and love. I never bothered to understand that even His vengeance grows from His love. I thought that Nadab and Abihu had been slain for a misstep, but had not considered that Ruth was given entrance to the assembly of the Lord against the law (Deut. 23:3) yet was given a place in the lineage of Christ . I imagined God as a strict master who had little or no tolerance. I simply have not properly considered God as revealed in Jesus (Heb. 1:1-3). A view of God that overemphasizes judgment to the point of viewing God as harsh, rough, austere, may cause one to do nothing productive. It is a dangerous view.

Now, to be sure, properly considering God as revealed in Jesus does not ignore the role of God as judge. Verse 27 is one of the most severe statements of Jesus that I know of in the New Testament. Paul reminds us to behold the goodness and severity of God (Rom. 11:22). God's judgment on His enemies is severe. If we ignore it, we do horrible injustice to the parable of the minas. Judgment, and severe judgment, is part of that parable and part of God's love. If we ignore God's judgment we do so to our own peril. God's enemies have no hope, and the only way to be His friend is through a loving, active faith in Jesus.

What I'm striving for, in myself, is balance. It is possible to be unbalanced in either direction. It is possible to overemphasize God's mercy and longsuffering and kindness to our own destruction. The Bible warns against that. It is also possible to overemphasize God's vengeance and severity to our own destruction. I believe this  parable warns against that. If I focus too much on God's vengeance, I will see no hope of salvation. If I focus too much on God's grace, I will see no need for salvation. God help me to understand both His grace and His judgment.