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Friday, April 02, 2010

texas church offers big prizes for easter

Bay Area Fellowship of Corpus Christi, Texas is planning an unconventional Easter service:

YOU are the next winner of The Ultimate Giveaway! That's right...With nearly $1 MILLION in prizes and giveaways, this Easter, everyone will win something at Bay Area Fellowship! And, wait...that's not all. Each service we're giving awayFREE FLATSCREENS, LAPTOPS...and CARS!!! Be here beginning April 1 (, this is no April Fool's joke). This is the real deal! No tricks, strings or fine print! Show up and let Bay Area Fellowship bless YOU this Easter!

Because on this holiest weekend of the year, it's important for Christians to come together for fellowship and a chance to win big prizes. The resurrection is nice, but free laptops are what the gospel is all about.

Honestly, this is cheap grace at its worst.

Pastor Bill Cornelius justifies the giveaway:

“We’re going to give some stuff away and say, ‘Imagine how great heaven is going to be if you feel that excited about a car,’ ” lead Pastor Bil Cornelius said. “It’s completely free — all you have to do is receive him.”

That is simply not the gospel of Jesus, who taught that following him could cost us everything (see Luke 14:25-35), who told one would-be follower to sell everything first (see Matthew 19:16-30), who said that we must deny ourselves if we truly want to follow him (see Luke 9:18-25), and who assured his first followers that they would be hated and persecuted (see Luke 21:12-17).

The claim that "all you have to do is receive him" is not the least bit biblical. Jesus never asked anyone to receive him. He told them to follow, to deny themselves, to leave behind their old lives. In return, he promised that they would be disliked by everyone.

That's far less exciting than winning a new flat screen TV. But if we want to claim the name of Christian, we ought to take Jesus' teaching seriously.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

denying the resurrection

Thomas at Everyday Liturgy was saddened to learn that his friend Peter Rollins denies the resurrection.


At one point in the proceedings someone asked if my theoretical position led me to denying the Resurrection of Christ. This question allowed me the opportunity to communicate clearly and concisely my thoughts on the subject, which I repeat here.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ.

But Peter Rollins is not just some liberal scholar whose "theoretical position" has led him to this place:

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

And yet, there's hope:

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

I, too, deny the resurrection all too often.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

why i will not be raptured, part ii

In part i, four months ago, I erroneously said that rapture proponents claim Matthew 24:37-42 as support for the rapture doctrine. That was incorrect. Rapture proponents do not claim that Matthew 24:37-42 supports the rapture. They do, however, claim that Matthew 24:32-34 does. (This is just one of the reasons I can't buy into the whole rapture thing. What kind of theology builds doctrines on isolated snippets forcibly removed from their original context?)

Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

- Matthew 24:32-34

There are two sets of "these things" in Matthes 24:33-34. If you fail to distinguish between them, you will not understand what our Lord said. They are definitely not the same. The first "these things" in verse 33 refers to the tumultuous events begun by verses 7 and 8. The second "these things" refers to the prophetic future, including the Tribulation and the glorious appearing of Christ.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 57

Why does LaHaye believe this?

The key is found in verse 34. Jesus said, "This generation will by no means pass away until all these things [the second "things"] are fulfilled." The crucial issue concerns the meaning of "this generation," for whatever generation He had in mind would not pass away until the Second Coming occurred.

In Greek, the demonstrative pronoun haute (this) always refers to the person or thing mentioned immediately before it. The thing mentioned just before "generation" involves those who see the sign of Israel as she either becomes a recognized nation or when she takes possession of most of Jerusalem.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 58

How does LaHaye get all this from Matthew 24:32-34?

Many prophecy students interpret this passage to mean that when we see the rise of Israel as a nation (as we did in 1948), we will know that the time of the end is "near--at the doors." They reason that when a fig tree is used symbolically in Scripture, it usually refers to the nation Israel. If this is a valid assumption (and we believe it is), then when Israel officially became a nation in 1948, that was the "sign" of Matthew 24:1-8, the beginning "birth pains"--it means that the "end of the age" is "near."

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? pp. 56-57

How does LaHaye extrapolate all this from "fig tree"?

chirp, chirp, chirp

- crickets

A quick Bible search on the phrase "fig tree" turns up a number of different symbolic uses, some of which clearly refer to Israel, and some of which just as clearly do not. But none of them, as far as I can tell, mention the modern secular Israel founded in 1948. So to recap, LaHaye is saying, essentially, that "these things" in Matthew 24:34 refers to a different "these things" than the same words in verse 33, and that the fig tree in verse 32 refers to Israel, but to a different Israel than the one of Jesus' day.

This is the same guy, recall, who has said, "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise."

Common sense would tell me that the phrase "these things" used twice in consecutive sentences refers to the same things both times. Common sense also tells me that the words "fig tree," in a literal sense, refer to a fig tree. But I don't have LaHaye's sophisticated theological training.

So much for Matthew 24. On to the biggies.

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

- 1 Corinthians 15:50-52

Of all the verses we've looked at, this appears to be the most promising yet as support for the rapture doctrine. With its talk of the dead being raised and such, it sounds very much like an end times verse.

And indeed it is. The problem for LaHaye's theology is that this passage cannot refer to a secret rapture.

Recall LaHaye's rationale for splitting Christ's second coming into two events:

The first is the Rapture, when all living and dead Christians will be snatched up to be with Christ in the Father's house. The second is for all the people of the world, who will be judged for rejecting Christ. The first is secret, for a special group; the second is public, for everyone left on the earth. They are entirely distinct events!

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 104

LaHaye insists that the rapture is "secret, for a special group," yet 1 Corinthians 15:52 speaks of a trumpet -- twice. (Presumably in LaHaye's theology these are two distinct trumpets, but that's another issue for another time.) An event heralded by a trumpet blast is not a secret.

What's more, the larger passage clearly indicates (verse 42) that this is the resurrection of the dead -- not a secret snatching away of the faithful. The passage ends with the promise, "Death has been swallowed up in victory." In LaHaye's theology, the rapture marks the beginning of seven years of tribulation -- hardly a time for a victory celebration.

No rapture yet, and we've only got one verse left.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Surely, if the rapture is taught anywhere is scripture, it is taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The very word rapture comes from the Latin translation of harpazo ("caught up") in verse 17.

Unfortunately for Tim LaHaye and other rapture proponents, this passage suffers from the same problems as 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. The phrase, "with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet," hardly sounds like the way to keep a secret. But then there it is: "we... will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever." So the Bible does teach the rapture after all.

Or does it?

If Christ is returning to earth, and believers meet him to "be with the Lord forever," then regardless of what it means to be caught up in the clouds, the believers must be planning to return to the earth with Christ.

There's more. Bible scholar Barbara Rossing puts it this way:

Paul's description of "meeting" the Lord in the air employs a very specific Greek word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times: apantesis, a practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then accompanied him into their city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids who go out to "meet" the bridegroom and then accompany him into the feast, and also in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who go out to "meet" Paul as he arrives in their city.

- Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed p. 176

In both Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15, those who "meet" the arriving person then turn around and escort him to their home. So 1 Thessalonians 4:17 ought to be understood in the sense of believers leaping up into the clouds -- perhaps in ecstasy at his return -- to welcome Christ and accompany him back to earth.

Here's how Orthodox archbishop John Chrysostom put it:

If He is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain within. We are carried upon the chariot of our Father. For He received Him up in the clouds, and “we shall be caught up in the clouds.” (Acts i. 9.) Seest thou how great is the honor? and as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him.

- John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Thessalonians, Homily #8

Chrysostom clearly understood this passage to refer to a king returning to a city to pass judgment. To those "who are in honor," the king's visit is a happy occasion, but to those who are condemned, it is a somber one. There is no need to invent a second return of Christ: The same occasion can seem very different to people who have different perspectives.

John Chrysostom understood the New Testament in a way that Timothy LaHaye -- or you and I -- never could. LaHaye may have studied NT Greek in seminary, but Chrysostom learned it as an infant. As a native speaker of ancient Greek, Chrysostom -- like the other leaders of the early church -- was more in tune with the thought processes of the New Testament writers than we will ever be. And not one of the ancient Greek-speaking Christians ever suggested that there would be a secret rapture of the faithful before Christ's ultimate return. I'll take their word above a modern self-styled prophet any day.

The Left Behind series has proven to be wildly popular fiction. But personally, I'm not going to get caught up in all that hype.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

he is risen

After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb. On the way they said to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back. So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe -- and they were alarmed.

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here -- he has been raised! Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: "He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.' "

So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

- Mark 16:1-8

It is fashionable among theologians and "historical Jesus" scholars to assert that the empty tomb is a late addition to the resurrection stories. The followers of Jesus experienced something powerful, something life-changing, and had trouble finding the words to express it.

Classical historians who look at the gospels -- even if they don't believe in Christ -- tend to reach the opposite conclusion.

But in the end, when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be that the opinions of the orthodox, the liberal sympathizer and the critical agnostic alike -- and even perhaps of the disciples themselves -- are simply interpretations of the one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.

- Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew

Mark, as we have seen, had heard that the three women saw it together. But according to John, the first to see it was Mary Magdalene all by herself. Either of these reports is likely enough to represent the authentic occurrence, since the early Church would never have concocted, on its own account, the statement that this most solemn and fateful of all discoveries was made by women, including a woman with an immoral record at that. Perhaps John's version is the original one, and the other women were added to the story later to make it less shocking.

Who had taken the body? There is no way of knowing. Mary Magdalene thought at first that the cemetery gardener had removed it -- whereas the Jews, not unplausibly, maintained that it had been taken by Jesus' own disciples. At all events it was gone. And because it was gone, and no one knew where it was, this made it easier for people to believe, three days later (a period equated with scriptural predictions,) that they were seeing Jesus alive again and returned to the earth, risen from the dead. The Resurrection is the subject of some of the greatest pictures ever painted, but there is no actual description of it, and nobody claimed to have seen it happen. Yet those who believed that Jesus had appeared to them on the earth after his death have their alleged experiences recorded in a number of passages of the New Testament. Their testimonies cannot prove them to have been right in supposing that Jesus had risen from the dead.

- Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels

Those testimonies are varied, but generally fall into one or more of four categories:

  1. Apperances of the Jesus the disciples knew and recognized

  2. Apperances of a Jesus the disciples did not recognize

  3. Appearances of a Jesus who can appear and disappear at will

  4. Apperances of Jesus in a vision

In the first group is John 21, where the disciples see Jesus at the seashore, and Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?". Also in this group is Matthew 28:16-20, wher e Jesus meets the disciples in Galilee and gives them some final instructions. Jesus' conversation with Thomas in John 20:24-29 also fits into this category.

In the second group is the story of the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-32. The two disciples walk and talk with him but do not know it is him until the very end. In John 20:14-17, Mary Magdalene at first does not recognize Jesus when he appears to her at the tomb.

The walk to Emmaus also fits in the third group, as Jesus vanishes once the disciples recognize him. Also in this category are stories in John 20:19-23 and Luke 24:36-43 telling of Jesus appearing to his disciples inside a locked room. In the Luke account, Jesus then proves he is not a ghost by eating a piece of fish. Jesus' conversation with Thomas mentioned above can also fit in this category, as he had once again appeared inside a locked room.

The most famous example in the fourth category is the appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus, recorded in Acts 9 and repeated with slightly different details in Acts 22 and 26. The most vivid example is the vision given to John of Patmos, now known as the book of Revelation.

It is impossible to reconcile every detail of all the apperances. In Matthew 28:10 Jesus tells the disciples to return to Galilee, but in Acts 1:4 he tells them not to leave Jerusalem. In some gospels, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but in others he doesn't. No matter how we put the pieces together, there are elements of the resurrection experiences that must remain a mystery to us.

But for a secular historian like Michael Grant, the only mystery of that first Easter morning is: Who took the body? The great irony is that the empty tomb can be utterly convincing as a historical event, yet utterly unconvincing as evidence of the resurrection. By itself the tomb proves nothing.

That may be at the root of liberal attempts to minimize the importance of the tomb. Because, for the disciples, it was not the disapperance of the corpse that transformed their lives, it was the reappearance of the living Christ. It was the fact that he returned to them, many times and in many ways. And he continues to be present in the lives of Christians even today.

That's where we find the meaning of the resurrection. Christ is alive! He has conquered death, and he will be with us to the very end of the age.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

talking past each other

In a recent blog, John the Methodist said that conservatives and liberals talk past each other when discussing the virgin birth, the resurrection and other doctrines.

It's true: Conservatives and liberals begin with different assumptions, and therefore cannot help but reach different conclusions. Is there a way around the impasse? I think so, but only if both sides are willing to reexamine the way we talk with each other about our faith.

The Bible is an ancient book, yet we read it through a modern (or postmodern) filter. One of the hallmarks of modernism is to pull things apart and analyze them in detail. This is a major reason our science far surpasses anything premodern people ever developed. We also trust in reason to a far greater extent than our ancient or medieval ancestors.

So even though we start with different assumptions, we still share a number of assumptions that would have been utterly foreign to the Bible writers.

A liberal might say that the resurrection is true, even if it is not factual. A conservative might counter that if it's not factual, it can't be true. To some extent I can see both sides. The truth of the resurrection goes far deeper than the bare fact of an empty tomb. At the same time, if the tomb was not found empty, why shouldn't the gospel writers just skip to the Upper Room? What other purpose can the tomb stories serve?

And yet, it seems to me the whole argument misses the point.

I have more to say about this, but I'm going to wait until Easter morning to post it.

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