Christianity 201

February 22, 2017

Why did the Messiah Die as a Roman Criminal?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:32 pm
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…and Where did the Israelites Come From?

Deut. 29:29
“The secret things belong to the Lord, but the things revealed  belong to us and our children forever.”

1 Cor. 13:12
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

This is our 5th time visiting the writing of author and theologian Peter Enns. His writing style is always lighthearted but the things he discusses can be quite serious. In the two questions before us today, he doesn’t quite solve either of them, but wants us to embrace the idea that we don’t really have a complete understanding of such things. The Bible just doesn’t tell us. Click the title below to read this at source.

Two Issues in the Bible that are Really Really Important and Really Really Not Clear at All

This is no official word from above (unlike most of my blog posts). Just my opinion.

Here are the two issues that I think are very important for how we think about Christian faith and how the Bible fits into that. Many would like absolute clarity on these issues, but that clarity does not exist.

The two issues, one from each Testament, are (cue dramatic music):

Israelite origins and the meaning of the cross (atonement)

Israelite origins

The question is, historically speaking, Where did the historical group of people called “Israelites” come from?

That question is not answered by biblical scholars and historians with, “Just read the Bible.” The biblical story, which begins with one person Abraham and leads through Egypt to the Promised Land and a monarchy, is fraught with many well-known and often insurmountable historical problems.

It seems that the biblical account of Israelite origins is not so much a history as it is a story, with historical echoes of various sorts, but a story nonetheless.

The further back in time we go in Israel’s history, the more complex and mysterious the matter becomes. Certain events in the Old Testament are ones we can, generally speaking, hang our historical hat on. They include (working backwards):

  • the Babylonian exile and return (586-539 BCE),
  • the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians (701),
  • and the fall of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians (722),
  • the division of the monarchy into north and south (around 930),

Similarly, the existence and reigns of David and Solomon (10th century BCE) can (and I think should) be assumed as generally echoing historical events, even if the details of the biblical accounts raise some significant questions for historians.

But if we continue pressing backward in time, before the monarchy, the historical nature of the biblical accounts is either utterly unclear or in direct tension with the general outline of history that has come to light in the past century or so. Historically speaking, we really don’t know where the Israelites came from, and the exodus and conquest stories, which are so central to the biblical account, are particularly problematic.

And, of course, here’s the real problem and why I am singling out this issue above all others: Israelite origins is sort of a big deal in the Old Testament. You know, Abraham, Moses, Mt. Sinai, and all that.

Engaging the historical study of Israelite origins from a position of faith in the God of Israel is a challenge, and not one that I am going to solve in this post, other than to say, “Welcome to the journey; it’s really no that bad once you get used to it.”

The Cross

If Israelite origins is a core Old Testament issue for Christian faith, the meaning of the cross is überimportant.

“Why did Jesus die? What is the significance of Jesus’s death?” Christian theologians have been discussing these questions for as long as there have been Christian theologians, beginning with the New Testament writers themselves, and I suppose we should take some comfort in that.

Yes, Jesus died on the cross, and yes, that changed everything. But exactly what the cross changed and how it changed it can easily begin barroom fights (assuming that biblical scholars and theologians hang out in bars, which most of them do and if not they probably should).

There have been in fact a number of “atonement theories” out there for centuries that try to explain the significance of Jesus’s death on a Roman cross. And the reason why these theories abound isn’t because theologians are looking for attention or have daddy issues they are taking out on God, but the fact that the Bible doesn’t speak with one voice on the matter.

Actually, when reading the New Testament, you get the impression that the writers were actually trying to work it out themselves. “Why did the Messiah die as a Roman criminal?” can’t be answered with a few Old Testament prooftexts—as if, “Oh yeah, duh. Obviously.” The matter of a suffering and executed Messiah was a surprise that posed a deep theological challenge for the early Christians, but one they took up with gusto.

The crucifixion of Jesus is of central importance to the Christian faith, but the nature of its significance is very hard to pin down. What, exactly, did Jesus’s execution do? Did it appease God’s wrath? Was it like a legal transaction to satisfy God’s justice? Was Jesus’s death a ransom of some sort to free captives (see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)? Was it Jesus’s victory over the power of death? Was it a moral exemplar for Christians to follow?

These theories exist because they can be found in (or perhaps inferred from) the New Testament. And so when someone asks you what seems to be that most basic of questions about Christianity, “Why did Jesus die?”, the answer actually isn’t obvious but strikes at the heart of the mystery of faith. And maybe all the atonement theories are right in their own way.

Anyway, this post isn’t about solving Israelite origins or atonement theory. It’s about how untended and even uncooperative the Bible can be if we are looking to it to pave a smooth path for us theologically. The Bible doesn’t work well that way.

But perhaps better, the Bible as is, not as we might like it to be, drives us to work together by faith in thinking through the nature of the Christian story and its implications.


We actually linked to one of Peter’s other articles earlier today at Thinking Out Loud: Why is that in each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems to be saying something quite different?

September 26, 2014

Justice, Equality, Fairness and Jesus

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:38 pm
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NRSV Matthew 20:8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 

In first introducing today’s writer last year, I explained that some blogs consist of pastors’ sermon notes written for churches that use the Lectionary as a guide to preaching. In these churches, the Evangelical concept of a sermon series in completely foreign; instead there are three or four prescribed readings for each Sunday, usually consisting an Old Testament reading, a Psalm , a selection from the gospels, and an excerpt from an Epistle.  (These vary somewhat by tradition and some denominations send out an amended version to their ministers.)  The pastor then chooses one of the texts to form the basis of the weekend sermon.

That’s the case with the blog ForeWords written by Rich Brown.  Click the title below to read at source and discover more Lectionary based sermons.

Live the Gospel

Parable of the LaborersHeritage Day (Community of Christ)
Ordinary Time (Proper 20)
Exodus 16:2–15; Psalm 105:1–6, 37–45; Philippians 1:21–30; Matthew 20:1–16

Those of us who’ve lived our entire lives in countries where justice, equality under the law, and fairness are considered the bedrock of society tend to forget that the kingdom of God preached by Jesus is not a reflection of the world we’ve created. But then, neither are our democratically oriented cultures necessarily an imitation of the heavenly kingdom. And that’s one of the reasons why so many of us may have a tough time with Jesus’ parable at the beginning of Matthew chapter 20.

If we were to hear about a comparable tale here in the 21st century our first response might well be that those vineyard workers sure needed a strong union seeking a comprehensive collective bargaining agreement. It is, after all, patently unfair that those workers toiling all day in the field–no doubt under a hot Judean sun–got the same amount of pay as the ones brought to the fields in late afternoon who had worked only an hour or two. Matthew recounts that this is not just a 21st-century concern:

“Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” –Matt. 20:10-12 NRSV

Parables, it must always be remembered, are not literal storytelling; they are stories told to get across greater, deeper truths. And so this isn’t a story about unfair working conditions. Certainly in our own day–as in Jesus’ time–workers are exploited. We Christians should be in the forefront of those seeking an end to such abuse. This story/parable is about something quite different. It’s about the kingdom of God, which is based on grace not fairness.

The landowner in the parable (presumably a stand-in for God) made it clear that he set the rules and established the relationship with the workers. In kingdom-of-God terms, this is not a contractual arrangement; it is instead a covenant:

“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” –vs. 13-16

Many of us Christians have an unfortunate tendency to think that God loves us more than all the rest of humanity–or at least that God places us at the front of the line for eternal blessings because we’re followers of Jesus. But we must remember that we’re not the first to be “chosen” by God. That belongs to the literal descendants of Abraham and Sarah: the Jews. Yes, that covenant is still in force. Check out what the apostle Paul has to say about that topic in Romans chapter 11.

With that in mind, then, who might those late-afternoon workers in God’s vineyard be: why, that would be us Christians. An uncomfortable thought perhaps for many of us. And it might be even more squirm-inducing if we Christians are actually the mid-day workers who were added. If that’s the case, then God may well be planning to add even more to the divine fold. But, but, but…we might protest. How unfair of God to invite those we casually term “unbelievers” (or heathens or any number of other less complimentary terms) into God’s presence. Once more: it’s not about fairness, it’s all about grace.

God, being the generous Creator God is, was, and always will be, can expand the boundaries of the so-called “chosen” for whatever reason God so desires. Among other things, that puts to shame our “Christian” tendency to point judgmental fingers at others, deciding on our own who’s in and who’s out, who’s saved and who’s damned. In fact, this could just change everything.


I really loved the idea in the 2nd last paragraph that perhaps many of us are the mid-day workers — or even late day workers — in the story. Think for a moment; how might that fit individually or corporately?