Thinking Out Loud

April 9, 2018

Book Review: The Jesus I Never Knew

It is, without doubt, my favorite book by my favorite author.

When it was published, in 1995, I was sitting behind the counter of a Christian bookstore when a man came in and asked if we could order him five copies. A few days later someone else asked if they could order six. A few weeks later the first man came back for ten more.

I knew I had to read this book. I was familiar with Philip Yancey because of his connection to Campus Life magazine and The NIV Student Bible. He was the guy with the hair. Trained in journalism, he is an example of a Christian author rising to prominence not having formally studied theology or having pastored a church.

Yancey had written many books before The Jesus I Never Knew was published. Three were with leprosy doctor Paul Brand, as well as Where is God When it Hurts and Disappoint With God.

But in a way, The Jesus I Never Knew would kick off a run of prime titles for Yancey which include: What’s So Amazing About Grace, Reaching for the Invisible God, The Bible Jesus Read, Rumors of Another World, Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference, What Good is God and Vanishing Grace.

When he writes, he stands in for all of us, with all our questions, misgivings, disappointments, doubts, and hopes when it comes to Biblical texts. He’s not afraid to wrestle with the scriptures and if, as with Jacob, that takes all night, then so be it. He’s never written a formal autobiography — unless you count Soul Survivor — but you come to know him as you read his writing.

This was my third time reading The Jesus I Never Knew.

My first reaction, on completion of the last page, is to want to turn to chapter one and begin all over. Jesus simply leaps off the page. Yancey has looked at the life of Christ and assembled a myriad of data and then rearranged that information to give us a picture of Jesus as he would have presented himself to the disciples and gospel writers.

An alternative title might be, The Jesus You Thought You Knew, or perhaps The Jesus You May Have Missed. If the gospel accounts might be considered an outline drawing of Christ’s life, with this book Philip Yancey fills in the colors, the shading, the textures of the big picture. Over the years, readers have found the section on Christ’s temptation and the Sermon on the Mount to be especially helpful. There’s also the drama of the encounters Jesus has with everyone from the Pharisees to the lepers. He offers much in the way of context then along with personal application for us now.

So…today’s review is not a new book, but if it’s new to you, I hope you’ll track down a copy.

Zondervan, paperback, 9780310219231

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April 2, 2018

Thoughts After Watching Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC

It had been a long, long time since I’d listen to the album I purchased as a kid, and I’d never seen the movie or the stage show, so last night my wife and watched NBC-TV’s live (on the East coast at least) broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar.

I have to admit that part of my interest was in the fact this was a live broadcast, and other than some sound problems at the beginning, the production did not disappoint. Working the various handheld cameras around the action required some detailed blocking on the part of the actors and choreographers and I was impressed with what I saw, as well as the times they cut away to actors reacting to things happening front and center.

My wife rarely watches broadcast television, so for her the number of commercials — always playing at a louder volume despite an FCC restriction that stations are now ignoring — were supremely annoying. Better for the network to charge more for fewer spots, in my opinion. The only good thing here was that in four of the commercial breaks there was a split-screen  allowing you to see the backstage action as cast and crew prepared for the next scene. But this was offset by the sheer number of “blipverts” in those packages; I’ll swear there nearly 20 corporations represented in each break, or so it seemed.

Unlike Godspell which purports to cover the entire life of Christ, Superstar is focused on the final week of Christ’s life; in other words, the ‘Hosanna’ procession into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the betrayal and arrest, etc.  (For my thoughts on Godspell see this article.) The entire production is sung, i.e. there is no spoken diaglog. This was, after all, one of the original rock operas.

The script puts a heavier focus on the relationship between Jesus and Judas, and Jesus and Mary Magdalene than we find in scripture and has to invent screenplay to do so. Otherwise, the basics of the story are intact, but there is no resurrection, and the only reference to Jesus being laid in the tomb is an instrumental on the album simply titled “John 19:41” (Text: At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.)

It’s at this point the script becomes problematic. Conservative Evangelicals were not happy with the Andrew Lloyd Webber – Tim Rice musical when it released in 1970; the show’s very title causing sermons to be preached against it. The romantic interest in Jesus by Mary M. didn’t help. There are no parables or teaching. Only one reference to the people who came seeking healing from disease.

Today, 48 years later, there is far less Biblical literacy. There were no graphics showing who was speaking and when I wasn’t 100% sure about one, twenty minutes in (and also due to the aforementioned audio issues) I found it simpler to pull up the full lyrics on my smartphone, and consult those when I felt I was missing a line here and there. For someone unfamiliar with the Bible account, the show might have been more bewildering.

The problem with productions like this are the same as what I said about watching the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ earlier this week. (See review here.) A generation not Biblically literate would have difficulty knowing what is canon and what is not.

Overall, the production, focusing on that last week of Christ’s life as it does and minus a resurrection, is rather dark. I felt like I was watching 1,500 people watch a stage show in a science fiction movie, the cavernous Marcy Armory adding to that impression. The costumes for the Pharisees looked more out of Star Wars than 1st Century Palestine. John Legend was credible as Jesus, and no mention of Alice Cooper playing Herod (see photo) would be complete without noting his costume, which some say appeared to be on fire.

I also followed the people live Tweeting at #JesusChristSuperstar during the production. Although the following should have a language warning, it was the only one I actually liked, as it summed up my feelings about the show: “Hope no religious folks are offended by this. Think about it this way, you have a shit ton of us non-theists watching a show about Jesus on Easter. I call that a win.”

September 28, 2015

Resolving the Four Different Versions of the Sign on The Cross

sign on Jesus' cross

A few weeks ago here I reviewed the new book by J. Warner Wallace God’s Crime Scene and back in 2013 we looked at his first book Cold Case Christianity. Of all the various possible approaches to Christian apologetics, the methodology used by this cold case detective is really resonating with reviewers and readers as the internet is abuzz with positive responses from the denominational spectrum.

Still there are times when I look back at my reviews — especially after a book really takes off — and wonder if I could have done more to whet my readers’ appetite for the author. So when I saw this excerpt sitting unattended in an unlit corner of the blogosphere, I figured, ‘Hey, Wallace is all about crime, let’s do some stealing.’ I think you’ll agree what follows is worth reading, and since my own detective work reveals you guys don’t always click through, the excerpt is here in full. (Click the title below to read at source.)


Why Are There Four Versions of the Sign on Jesus’ Cross?

It’s not uncommon for skeptics of Christianity to point to differences between the New Testament Gospel accounts as evidence of corruption or unreliability. I’ve discussed many of these alleged contradictions in my talks around the country, and I’ve written about many of them here at ColdCaseChristianity.com. One example sometimes offered by critics is the sign posted above the cross of Jesus. The simple, brief message of this sign is recorded by all four Gospel authors, yet none of them record precisely the same words. How could these four men fail to record the same sign, given the importance of the moment and the brevity of the message? Look at the variations offered by the Gospel authors:

“This is Jesus the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37)
“The King of the Jews” (Mark 15:26)
“This is the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38)
“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)

In evaluating alleged “contradictions” of this nature, I think it’s important to remember a few overarching principles related to eyewitness testimony (I describe many of these principles in my first book, Cold-Case Christianity). Even though I accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, inerrancy is not required of reliable eyewitnesses. In fact, I’ve never had a completely inerrant eyewitness in all my years as a homicide detective. In addition, I’ve never had a case where two witnesses have ever agreed completely on the details of the crime. Eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection, but is instead established on the basis of a four part template I’ve described repeatedly in my book and on my website. But beyond these generalities, much can be said specifically about the variations between descriptions of the sign over Jesus’ cross. I take the following approach when evaluating multiple eyewitness accounts, and the same methodology can be used to evaluate these signs:

• Identify the Common Details
When interviewing multiple eyewitnesses, I listen carefully for common features in their testimony. In every witness observation, some details are more important than others; some aspects of the event stick out in the mind of the observers more than others. In this case, one expression is repeated by all four authors: “the King of the Jews”. Why does this one aspect of the sign appear repeatedly without variation? These words describe the crime for which Jesus was executed. Jesus was crucified because He proclaimed Himself a King; He was executed for His alleged rebellion against Caesar. This is consistent with the trial accounts we have in the Gospels and also accurately reflects the actions taken by the Roman government against other popular rebels. While we, as Christians, now understand God’s plan related to the death and resurrection of Jesus, the authors of the Gospels are simply recording the one most prominent feature of the sign: the description of Jesus’ crime.

Cold Case Christianity• Recognize the Perspective of Each Eyewitness
Every witness offers a view of the event from his or her unique perspective. I’m not just talking about geographic or locational perspectives here, but I am also talking about the personal worldview, history and experience every witness brings to the crime. All witness testimony is colored by the personal interests, biases, aspirations, concerns and idiosyncrasies of the eyewitnesses. In this particular case, an important clue was recorded by John to help us understand why there might be variation between the accounts. John said, “Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.” The sign was written in a variety of languages and we simply don’t know how much variation occurred between these translations. The perspective and life experience of each author now comes into play. Which translation was the author referencing? Even more importantly, what were the concerns of the author related to the event? Some witnesses are more likely to repeat a victim’s name than others (if, for example, they knew the victim personally). Others will focus on something about which the witness had firsthand knowledge. I’ve seen an incredible amount of variation between reliable accounts on the basis of nothing more than personal perspective.

• Consider the Conditions of the “Interview”
In working cold cases over the years, I’ve read my fair share of investigative supplemental reports containing eyewitness accounts. I’ve come to recognize the role interviewers have on the accounts given by eyewitnesses. Years later, when re-interviewing these same eyewitnesses, I’ve uncovered additional information simply because I asked questions neglected by the first interviewer. When evaluating an account from the past, it’s important to recognize the location, form and purpose of the interview. This will have a direct impact on the resulting account. Something similar must be considered when evaluating the description of the sign on Jesus’ cross. We simply don’t know precisely the purpose of each author or the conditions under which each author wrote his Gospel. Why, for example, is Mark’s version of the sign so brief? Why, for that matter, is Mark’s entire Gospel so brief? Was there something about Mark’s personality accounting for his brevity (there does seem to be some evidence of this given the short, emotionally charged nature of his account), or was something even simpler involved (like a shortage of papyrus)? We’ll never know for sure, but we simply cannot assume each author was writing under the exact same conditions. No two witnesses are interviewed in precisely the same way.

• Differentiate Between Complimentary and Conflicting Accounts
When comparing two eyewitness accounts, I am more concerned about unresolvable contradictions than complimentary details. In fact, I have come to expect some degree of resolvable variation in true, reliable eyewitness accounts. While there are clearly variations between the sign descriptions in the Gospels, these dissimilarities don’t amount to a true contradiction. Consider the following reasonable message on the sign:

“This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”

If this was the message of the sign, all four Gospel accounts have captured a complimentary, reliable summation of the sign, even though there is some expected variation between accounts. None of these accounts contain an unresolvable, troublesome claim like:

“This is Judas Iscariot, the King of the Jews”

If one of the accounts contained this information, we would truly have a conflict worthy of our attention. There’s a difference between complimentary variation and conflicting description.

• Assess the Opportunity for Collusion
Whenever I am called to a crime scene as a detective, the first request I make of the dispatcher is to separate the eyewitnesses before I get there. I request this so the witnesses won’t have the opportunity to talk to one another about what they’ve seen. Witnesses will sometimes try to resolve any variations before I get there. I don’t want them to do this; that’s my job, not theirs. Instead, I want the messy, sometimes confusing, apparently contradictory accounts offered by every group of witnesses in such a situation. There have been times, however, when witnesses have the opportunity to consult with one another for several hours before I arrive on scene. When this is the case, and their individual accounts still vary from one another, I usually have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to change the descriptions to make sure they matched, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions.

If the four authors of the Gospels had written precisely the same words throughout their Gospel accounts, skeptics would be no more confident in their content. In fact, I suspect, critics of the New Testament would be even more vocal in their opposition. The Gospels are appropriately varied and nuanced, just like all multiple eyewitness accounts. The variations between the sign descriptions is further evidence of this expected variation. This level of dissimilarity should give us confidence in the accounts, rather than pause. Why are there four versions of the sign on Jesus’ cross? Because the accounts are written on the basis of eyewitness observations. They demonstrate the characteristics we would expect if they are reliable descriptions of a true event in history.

~J. Warner Wallace

Both Cold Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene are available from David C. Cook Publishing where you buy quality Christian products.

July 16, 2015

Book Review: The First Time We Saw Him

The First Time We Saw Him - Matt MikalatosI know I’m going to lose some of you in the next paragraph, but…

This is one of those books where the writer takes key stories from the New Testament and retells them as though they happened today.

There. I said it. Yes, I know… been there, done that.

Updating the narrative is the stuff of every youth group meeting you’ve ever been to, right? But this one was different. I got ambushed. It totally brought the stories to life for me and cause them to see them in a fresh way. Christ’s birth. The parables. The encounters. The miracles. The crucifixion. The post-resurrection appearances.

For me, The First Time We Saw Him: Awakening to the Wonder of Jesus (Bethany House, 2014) shows that Matt Mikalatos is an author who can truly pull this off.

And yes, the above paragraph says 2014. The book was sitting unread in a stack of review copies that I obviously received a year ago. Something drew me to it. That’s probably what bothers me most; that great books like this just get lost in the shuffle because they don’t nicely fit into a specific (prayer, marriage, parenting, devotions) category.

At this point, the review is about to get subjective. If anything, reading The First Time We Saw Him awakened me to the idea that you just can’t wreck this story we call The Bible. No critic can detract from it. Science can’t undermine it. Poor translations can’t spoil it. Skepticism can’t keep you from being drawn back to it.

You can’t make this stuff up. It reminds me of a quotation Philip Yancey attributed to Walter Wink: “If Jesus had never lived, we never would have been able to invent him.”

It’s times like this I wish this blog, as popular as it is, had exponentially greater influence, because I’d like to start a movement that would get people passionate about books like The First Time Saw Him, and take this book in particular, and make it the sleeper hit of the year; rock it to the top of the charts. It’s definitely worthy of greater exposure.

I think later tonight, I’ll start back at chapter one.


…Since some might feel in my excitement in this review I wandered off course, so here’s the publisher blurb:

Scripture tells us that the words of Jesus made people uncomfortable, confused, angry, repentant, worshipful, and riotous. Today, we read the words of Christ in a steady, even tone and find ourselves wondering if maybe we’re missing something. Could it be that we’ve lost the emotional power of Jesus’s words simply because we’re too familiar with them?

With incredible insight into the surprising and unsettling aspects of Jesus’s parables and life, Matt Mikalatos reimagines familiar stories and parables in a modern-day setting, bringing alive for the contemporary reader all the controversy and conflict inherent in the originals. These emotional, sometimes humorous, and jaw-dropping retellings include the stories of the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the lost coin, the feeding of the 5,000, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and more, asking provocative questions like What would be the modern equivalent of Jesus letting a “sinful woman” wash his feet? Who would be the hero of “The Good Samaritan”? How would Jesus tell the parable of the lost sheep in a city like Portland?

192 pages, paperback

October 31, 2014

Parables Weren’t That Far Fetched

Filed under: bible, character — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:25 am

One thing about Jesus’ parables you can say for sure: The Good Samaritans and The Prodigal’s Parent represented the exception, not the rule. These stories would arrest the hearers in their tracks. But were they that big a stretch? We looked at that a few days ago at C201

Acts 1 8

You’ve heard of the story of The Good Samaritan. As with most parables, we believe Jesus invented the story on the spot. It begins in most translations “A certain man.” Only once — with Lazarus and the rich man — is the character in a parable even given a name.

The surprise ending of course is:

NIV Luke 10:33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

It’s easy to say at this point that Jesus made the hero of the story a Samaritan for shock value. The story could stand — albeit not as forcefully — with one of his own people bandaging his wounds and offering to pay for his care at the inn. But were there good Samaritans?

Of course there are. There are good and bad in any sect you wish to define by drawing lines. There are good and bad Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics and Mormons. There are good Muslims and bad Muslims. It’s wrong to stereotype. But Jesus’ statement picture of a good Samaritan is revealed just a few chapters later, in Luke 17 in the story of the healing of the ten lepers:

NKJV Luke 17:15 And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, 16 and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan.

That was a real life situation, not a parable. (I hesitate to say, this was a situation over which Jesus had no control; but theologically and practically that is incorrect. He could have easily placed it in the heart of the one man to return and give thanks; but it defeats the purpose of Luke’s inclusion of the detail if you’re going to dismiss it by saying Jesus supernaturally manipulated the post-healing moment.)

The point is that Samaritans, like any other group both then and now, should not be subject to stereotyping or profiling.

A study of Samaritans in scripture also reveals some paradoxical moments:

In Matthew 10, we see Jesus sending out the disciples with these words:

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.

But as Jesus enters a later phase of his ministry he does just the opposite:

NIV Luke 9:51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem.

But the Samaritans don’t receive him. This is the only place in scripture where they are cast negatively. If you’ve read the encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman at the well, you might think the key to verse 33 is Jerusalem itself. After all she says,

NIV John 4:19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

But the IVP NT Commentary suggests a broader theme:

The explanation is that Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem. In other words, rejection is his fate. Even though that rejection will occur in the capital of Israel, the Samaritan reaction mirrors that coming reality. The world is not responsive to Jesus; rejection is widespread.

The commentary on the verses that follow 53 is also interesting:

James and John ask for the ancient equivalent of nuking the enemy: “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” The disciples understand the great power they have access to, but the question is whether vindictive use of this power is proper. Is their hostile reaction justified? The request for “fire from above” recalls the ministry of Elijah (2 Kings 1). In their view, surely rejection means instant judgment.

Jesus corrects them. The text does not tell us what he said. In a story that is a little unusual in form, it simply notes that Jesus rebukes them and they move on to the next village. Many Gospel accounts end with a climactic saying of Jesus, a pronouncement that is key to the event in question. Here Jesus’ action speaks for itself. There is no saying; rather, the disciples’ saying becomes a view to be rejected emphatically

The disciples reaction is amazing considering that this passage almost assuredly follows chronologically the parable and the healing. Biases and prejudices do not disappear easily.

So who are the Samaritans in your life? In mine?

We’ve shared before about this verse:

Acts 1:8 NLT But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

and with this we’ll end today.

…Driving home, my wife pointed out that a most-literal reading of the passage would be difficult since Samaria no longer exists and the “end of the earth” (ESV and NKJV) or the even more archaic “ends of the earth” (HCSB and strangely, NLT, above) no longer applies to an earth we know is round and has no ends. (I like the NASB here, “the remotest parts of the earth.” Good translation and very missional.)

Most of us think of the verse in terms of ever expanding distances from our home city, but the disciples would have heard something entirely different with the mention of Samaria

Most of us think of the verse in terms of ever expanding distances from our home city, but the disciples would have heard something entirely different with the mention of Samaria

I’m not sure I agreed with the pastor’s take on Samaria, however. He chose Toronto, a city about an hour west of where we live, as our “modern Samaria” because of its cosmopolitan nature; because it’s a gateway to so many cultures impacting the rest of the world. Truly when Jesus met the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4, it was a clash of cultures in several ways at once.

But Samaria would not be seen that way by those receiving the great commission. In Judea they will like me and receive but in Samaria we have a mutual distrust and dislike for each other. Samaria is the place you don’t want to go to. Your Samaria may be geographically intertwined in your Jerusalem or your Judea. Your Samaria may be at the remotest part the earth and it’s your Samaria because it’s at the ends of the earth.

Your Samaria may be the guy in the next cubicle that you just don’t want to talk to about your faith, but feel a strong conviction both that you need to and he needs you to. Your Samaria may be the next door neighbor whose dogs run all over your lawn doing things that dogs do. Your Samaria may be the family that runs the convenience store where you rent DVDs who are of a faith background that you associate with hatred and violence. Your Samaria may be atheists, abortionists, gays, or just simply people who are on the opposite side of the fence politically. Your Samaritan might just be someone who was sitting across the aisle in Church this weekend.


Christianity 201 | C201 | 365 Daily Devotionals since April, 2010

April 16, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Pet Blessing Service

I’m writing this assuming everyone survived the prophetic implications of the blood moon, but maybe the April 15 income tax deadline is a form of judgment. 

As we do each Wednesday, clicking anything below will take you to PARSE where the links are live.

Paul Wilkinson writes the rest of the week at Thinking Out Loud, and edits the daily devotional Christianity 201 page.

Lettuce Pray from _ChristianHumor Twitter

March 16, 2014

When Did Jesus Experience Grace?

coffee time

A conversation joined in progress…

“…she never brings anything to a potluck dinner, they just show up. He never comes to a church work day. They don’t attend Bible studies or prayer meetings.”

“But what’s that to you?”

“I think we’d all like to know if they’re all in.”

“Why do you need to know that?”

“Because it would be nice to have a conversation with them that wasn’t superficial; that wasn’t just all about the weather and the school their kids go to. It would be nice to know where they stand.”

“Why don’t you just ask them? Say, ‘So what’s God been doing in your life lately?’ Or, ‘What’s God been teaching you lately?”

“You can’t just start a conversation cold like that.”

“Maybe not at the grocery store, or with a relative stranger, but this is church, you sit in the row behind them every single week.”

“It would be awkward.”

“So here’s a question for you: Was Jesus ever the recipient of grace?”

“Wait. What?”

“Was Jesus ever the recipient of grace?”

“That’s just wrong.”

“Did Jesus ever experience grace?”

“Grace is for sinners. Jesus was without sin.”

“Are you a sinner?”

“I was a sinner; but now I’ve passed from death into life.”

“Have you ever sinned since? Maybe even this week?”

“Yes. Absolutely. So have you.”

“Does the grace of God meet you in that place?”

“Yes. But that’s different; second Corinthians 5:21 says, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ He had no sin, or some translations say he knew no sin.”

“You just happen to know that verse?”

“It was on a Christian radio on Friday while I was driving to work.”

“And you memorized the reference?”

“My sister’s birthday is 5/21 so that helped. So when did Jesus experience the grace of God?”

“What is grace?”

“Grace is unmerited favor with God.”

“So the answer is, ‘At his baptism.’ A voice from heaven, the voice of God, says, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'”1

“And…”

“He experienced the favor of God even though he hadn’t done anything yet. This was the outset2 of his public ministry. He hadn’t taught anything, he hadn’t called disciples, he hadn’t healed anyone. It was unmerited in the sense that he hadn’t commenced his spiritual work.”

“But he had been alive for 30 years at that point. He always had the favor of God. Luke 2:52 says, ‘Jesus grew…in favor with God and man,’ so this was something he had earned over time.”

“But the people at the Jordan River didn’t know all that. To them, he was simply one of many being baptized for the forgiveness of sin and then God says he is ‘well pleased’ with him. We tend to think of that as more of an end-of-life pronouncement from God, as in ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ 3 In other words, he has already been made a recipient of the favor of God.”

“But that has nothing to do with works, he was well-pleasing to God because of who he was, not according to anything he did. It’s the same with us, like that verse that says, ‘Not by works of righteousness that we have done…but because of his mercy.’4 There’s nothing that we do that ultimately earns us the grace of God. It’s who we are not what we do.”

“Exactly. So maybe it wasn’t grace in the sense of being freed from punishment because Jesus was, as you said, without sin. But it was a favor with God that preceded everything he was about to do over the next three years.”

“Okay. You could think of that way I suppose, but how did we get on this topic again?”

“The family that sits the row in front of you at church…”

“…Oh…yeah…”

“Could it be the grace of God is working and operative in their lives in ways you just don’t realize?”

“…Hmm…Maybe we need to get to know them a little better…”


1 Matthew 3:17

2Harmonization of the Life of Jesus

3Matthew 25:23

4 Titus 3:5

July 22, 2013

Fresh Insights into Jesus’ Encounters

Encounters With JesusThrough the Willow Creek “Midweek Experience” teaching videos, I’ve gotten to hear a number of messages by Wheaton College professor Gary M. Burge. So I was due to read one of his books, especially when I stumbled over a sale-priced copy of Encounters with Jesus: Uncover the Ancient Culture, Discover Hidden Meanings; published in 2010 by Zondervan. Clocking in at only 128 pages — and filled with pictures — finishing this book on Sunday afternoon was no major feat.

Before I continue, two observations. First, I’ve noticed a pattern developing lately in the people I’ve been watching/listening-to/reading online and all I can say is that if I were a high school student considering a Christian college, Wheaton College would be at the top of my list. Be sure to check into this school, okay?  (Oh, to be young again, and know what I know now about the direction my life is headed.) Second, I’ve noticed a pattern where despite my access to the latest review books, some of the best finds lately have been among the backlist titles picked up from a variety of odd sources, including scratch-and-dent titles, remainders and items on sale.

With Gary Burge’s voice audibly sounding in my head as I read the book — an advantage to having watched him teach on video — I thoroughly enjoyed his take on five specific encounters Jesus has with:

  1. The woman who was hemorrhaging
  2. Zacchaeus the tax collector
  3. The centurion with a slave who is ill
  4. The thirsty woman at the Samaritan well
  5. The Gentile woman with a sick daughter

…though I have to say that since the historian in me and the anthropologist in me are both entirely non-existent, I did not look at a single one of the color photographs. I was too engrossed in the text.

In the case of Zacchaeus, I once again found myself in the position of having to potentially un-learn something I had been taught from infancy in Sunday School. Surely anyone who has an encounter is immediately changed, right? Maybe not so much in this case. If the interpretation here is to be considered, then Zacchaeus doesn’t have so much of a before-and-after transformation; rather, Jesus is affirming the person who Zacchaeus has always been, and the “salvation” that has come to “this house” refers more to the saving of Zacchaeus’ reputation in the wider community.

I always thought that Zacchaeus’ speech is a pledge or promise of something he is about to do to make things right, however…

…This is not what Zacchaeus says. His comment to Jesus is in the present tense. “Look! I give half of my possessions, Lord to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone, I repay them fourfold.” Greek has what we call the “future use” of the present tense and interpreters sometimes apply it here. But this is not demanded. Generally these uses imply some immediacy or certainty…

…But many scholars refuse to use it here in Luke 19. We have no suggestion that Zacchaeus needs to repent, nor does the story imply any conversion on his part. He even refers to Jesus as “Lord,” a mark of high honor and discipleship in Luke. As Joel Green remarks, “On this reading Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money.”

This would be a great revelation to the electrified audience standing on the street in Jericho. Zacchaeus is not what everyone has assumed. He has been honest; he is collecting what is demanded without corruption and abuse, and he is generously giving away large portions of his wealth. The law required that if there was financial fraud, the original amount had to be returned plus 20 percent. (Lev. 6:5)  Here Zacchaeus practices fourfold reimbursement…

When word of this emerges outside, the crowd that thought it had seen one shocking scene for the day now witnesses another. Their notorious tax farmer, who has colluded with Romans, is a man of principle. Rumors of his corruption are evaporating like a mist… (pp. 67-68)

This approach is entirely new to me. And the above excerpt is just a small portion of the insights into this story.

Got you wanting more?


Other books in this series include: The Bible and the Land, Finding the Lost Images of the Desert, Jesus and the Jewish Festivals, Jesus the Middle Eastern Storyteller, and Finding the Lost Images of God. If anyone at Zondervan is reading this, you have my address, right?

June 3, 2013

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Jesus

Jesus A TheographyThere are two things that are immediately striking about the book Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola (Thomas Nelson, 2012). The first is the sheer scope of the work. While some books clearly are the product of a two week writing break, others earn to be called a “labor of love,” or earn the phrase, “represents the culmination of a lifetime of ministry.” This book fits into the latter camp and is the product of two authors who have spent untold hours in deep study of God’s word.

As a reviewer who prizes “rich text;” this is one of the richest books I have ever read, and any critical remarks I might make should be seen in the light of what is generally my highest recommendation. Truth be told, I have read about two thirds of this book out loud with my oldest son. While it slowed the reading time, it allowed me to process the material more fully, at the rate of half-a-chapter per night.  It also enhanced my appreciation of the final chapters which I read normally.  Jesus is definitely a book that delivers your money’s worth. You can’t read this book and not have a clearer picture of the Bible’s grand narrative.

The second thing that is immediately striking is the word theography in the title. The idea is that in trying to present the over-arching story of the Bible, most things printed are biography moving, as the authors say, “from womb to tomb.” The idea here is to look at Christ before and after the incarnation. This is an ambitious goal, and the two chapters most representative of this ambition were the only ones that disappointed, though I am continually interested in accessing books which deal with Christ before the manger — the pre-incarnate Christ — and deal with what the second person of the Trinity was doing before that Bethlehem morning. Ditto Christ’s present activity seated at the right hand of God.

This is a small matter however in a book where each page is full of illuminations, and in particular comparison passages where one aspect of what the writers call The First Testament is unmistakably linked to another in The Second Testament. Sometimes the insights simply involve a different way of expressing a familiar dichotomy; thus Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial is referenced as “Judas’ kiss and Peter’s kiss-off.”

There is also a trade off between the benefit of having two people craft the book who are already established and respected authors, and the tendency of the book to repeat itself in many places. Perhaps readers like me simply need to have some truths drilled in a little deeper.

The sixteen chapters of Jesus: A Theography break down the Christ story into chronological sections emphasizing the spiritual significance of every aspect of His life and ministry. This is truly a book like no other. I’ve seen some dissent online concerning the use of selective Bible translations to make a certain point fit, but we followed up in various texts from the various footnotes — there are 1,835 of them — and don’t feel that any verses were overly stretched to make a point. The authors have also gone out of their way to make dogmatic statements on any theological point which is contentious, making this a book for all Christian readers.

…To someone who mostly reads Christian fiction, I suspect that all doctrinal books look alike, but Jesus: A Theography is a volume like no other. This definitely fits in my top ten list of books I would want to be stranded on an island with. While not every reader will agree with every point this is definitely a book worth owning, underlining and filling with bookmarks. 

An excerpt from the book appears here at Christianity 201.


Jesus: A Theography is a book I truly wanted to read. When no review copy was forthcoming by the publisher after several requests, I purchased this copy with real money. TNI, you owe me one!

March 8, 2013

One Solitary Life

When I went to post the following to C201 yesterday, I discovered that the text of the popular “One Solitary Life” had never appeared there or here. To some of you, perhaps it amounts to greeting card theology, yet I’d hate to think a new generation has never heard it. So…

Wednesday night I was reading a new book by an author completely unknown to me, so I went hunting around the back pages for some kind of “about the author” section, whereupon I learned that he was best known for founding an organization and an annual conference.

Maybe it was because it was quite late, but my mind went to a piece of prose (sometimes rendered as poetry) known as One Solitary Life. It turns up on tracts, on Christmas cards, and even email forwards.

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family or owned a home. He never set foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness.

While He was still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends deserted him. He was turned over to his enemies, and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had – his coat.

When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure for much of the human race. All the armies that ever marched, and all the navies that ever sailed, and all the parliaments that ever sat, and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of people on this earth as powerfully as this “One Solitary Life.”

Most sources online credit this to Dr. James Allan Francis.

In light of what I was reading, I just wanted to add “he never founded a charitable organization, never established an annual conference.” To which you could add, “He wasn’t on Twitter, He didn’t have a website or a blog or a podcast.”

That reminded me of a section — see below — of a quotation from Philip Yancey that has already appeared here (at Thinking Out Loud) twice which says, “…when He did something truly miraculous he tended to hush it up;” so I did a search of the phrase “not to tell anyone.”

The healing of a blind man:

Mark 7:35-37

35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

The revelation of His identity:

Mark 8:29-31

29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Immediately following the transfiguration:

Luke 9:35-37

8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.

The raising of Jarius’ daughter:

Luke 8:55-56

55 Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. 56 Her parents were astonished, but he ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened.

All of which points us to Phil. 2:6

6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. (CEB)

6 who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage. (HCSB)

I would add, ‘Did not consider equality with God something to be leveraged.’

Despite this frequent reticence, this penchant for leaving to us to connect the dots, no one who has ever lived as ever affected the history of mankind so richly, so deeply, so powerfully as this One Solitary Life.

“The more I studied Jesus, the more difficult it became to pigeonhole him. He said little about the Roman occupation, the main topic of conversation among his countrymen; and yet he took up a whip to drive petty profiteers from the Jewish temple. He urged obedience to the Mosaic law while acquiring the reputation of a lawbreaker. He could be stabbed by sympathy for a stranger, yet turn on his best friend with the flinty rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan!” He had compromising views on rich men and loose women, yet both types enjoyed his company. “One day miracles seem to flow out of Jesus the next day his power was blocked by people’s lack of faith. One day he talked in detail of the Second Coming; another, he knew neither the day nor hour. He fled from arrest at one point and marched inexorably toward it at another. He spoke eloquently about peacemaking, then told his disciples to procure swords. His extravagant claims about himself kept him at the center of controversy, but when he he did something truly miraculous he tended to hush it up. As Walter Wink has said, if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.” ~~ Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan 1995) p.23 I

Quotations today are from the New International Version (NIV) except where noted

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