Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What's in a Name? The Blessing of Jacob at Peniel

Shakespeare may have thought that a rose by any other name was still a rose, but names were of great significance to the people of ancient Israel. A name to them was not just a word; it was an important part of a person’s identity. We clearly see this in many Biblical instances where a person’s name is changed after an encounter with God. These names often highlight important themes in the text, some of which go beyond what is immediately obvious.
For example, many commentators highlight that the name Israel, which is the new name that Jacob receives after his blessing at Peniel means strong with God. They identify this as a reflection on the perseverance of Jacob in his wrestling with God. Since Jacob would not let go until he received a blessing they say he was strong in his encounter with God. While the new name certainly points to this, I think it is a mistake to see the name (or the blessing) as primarily about Jacob’s strength. In fact, if we look carefully at the “name” theme in this narrative we find a deeper perspective on the blessing at Peniel and one that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The incident is recorded in Genesis 32:
“The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.” (Genesis 32:22-31 ESV)
Jacob and the stranger have wrestled throughout the night and the man then demonstrates supernatural power by dislocating Jacob’s hip with a touch. Jacob, now recognizing that this is no mere man, clings to the stranger and demands a blessing. The stranger, however, does not immediately bless Jacob but instead asks him a question. The stranger asks Jacob what his name is. We know that the stranger is God so he was not simply asking for information. There is something deeper behind the question.
You may remember that this is not the first time that Jacob was asked this question. Twenty years earlier his father Isaac had asked him twice who he was and both times Jacob lied and claimed to be his brother Esau in order to steal the blessing his father intended for Esau (Genesis 25:18-27). Notice what happens when Esau finds out that Jacob has stolen his blessing: “As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Genesis 27:34-36 ESV). After this, Esau vows to kill Jacob.
This is ultimately why Jacob is all alone by the bank of the river Jabbok when we meet him in Genesis 32. After Esau threatened to kill him Jacob left home and stayed away for 20 years. Then an angel told him to return home where he would be blessed, the incident in Genesis 32 takes place as he is returning home. Even after all these years Jacob still feared the wrath of his brother Esau (Gen. 32:6-12) and this is why he was alone when the stranger took hold of him.
Earlier, when Esau asks “is he not rightly named Jacob?” he is calling attention to the fact that the word “Jacob” means usurper and is also a play on the Hebrew word for deceitful. Now, years later, this stranger has defeated Jacob physically by dislocating his hip. The picture seems to be that Jacob is not even able to stand under his own power and is clinging to the stranger. Deprived of his power, all he could do is petition the stranger for a blessing realizing that he could not impose his will upon him.
Although the stranger has broken Jacob’s body he is not done with him. The question he asks is part of the struggle, one crippling blow was to the hip and the question about his name is another. This question undoubtedly reminds Jacob of how he lied about his name in his deception of his father in order to receive Esau’s blessing. With this deception brought to mind Jacob must essentially give a confession. He must identify himself as a usurper and a deceiver. In giving his name, Jacob must come to terms for the first time with who he actually is. He, already broken physically, must now also confess that he is a deceiver and thus is not deserving of the blessing that he seeks. Only after Jacob was deprived of every pretense of self-sufficiency and confesses his true nature does he receive the blessing.
The stranger breaks Jacob not only physically but also shatters his pride. It is only once he admits his unworthiness and resigns himself to complete dependence on the grace of the stranger that Jacob receives the blessing and a new name. He is now Israel. The new name is not primarily to call attention to Jacob’s strength but rather to the victory he wins in weakness. It is only when he is broken that he is proclaimed to be strong with God. The recounting of the blessings of Jacob in Genesis 35 indicate that the name “Israel” was as much about the promised blessings as a statement of fact about Jacob.
The blessing of Jacob is an illustration of God’s initiative in blessing His people by grace, through faith. It is picture pointing us to the Gospel. Jacob cannot contribute to the blessing and is helpless to bring it about. It is only when he is utterly defeated in his own power that Jacob is said to win the victory. The God-man blesses Jacob but reserves the revelation of His own name (Jesus) because the appointed time had not come.
The God-man took hold of Jacob, overcame his stubborn resistance, broke his pride and blessed his cry of faith. I pray that He has done the same for you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Is Porn Porneia?

“I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9 ESV)

In Matthew 19, a group of Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by asking Him if it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus rebukes them and clarifies the Law and God’s view of marriage. Jesus explains that God does not permit divorce other than in the case of “sexual immorality”. Through the years as I have taught this passage, many questions have been raised about this exception. One of the most common questions has been if the use of pornography would be included in the definition of “sexual immorality” and thus qualify as Biblical grounds for divorce.

Our culture is immersed in pornography but it is by no means a modern invention. Pornographic images and writing are among the oldest examples of human communication that we have and they were common in the first century, particularly where Greek and Roman cultural influence was strong. Did Jesus therefore include the use of such materials in His definition of “sexual immorality”?

The issue hinges upon the definition of the word that Jesus uses when He grants the exception. The word that is translated in the ESV as sexual immorality is the Greek word porneia (porneia). The word has been translated various ways. The NKJV and HCSB translate it the same as the ESV while the NET & NASB simply translate it as immorality. The NIV, NLT, MSG, and some others translate it variously as either adultery or unfaithfulness. There are numerous other renderings such as fornication (KJV), loss of her virtue (BBE), and unchastity (NRSV). As we can see, the translations vary considerably as to how specific the act in question is. For example, immorality involves a much wider range of behavior than does adultery.

The word comes from the classical Greek word for prostitute pornh (pornēi). It therefore has a common root with our English word pornography, which is derived from a combination of the Greek word for prostitute pornh (pornēi) and the Greek word for writing & drawing grafh (graphēi). A common root, however, does not necessarily mean the concept of pornography is included in the concept of porneia (think of butter and butterfly). We need to understand how the word was used to know what behavior it included.

In Greek and Roman culture, sexual boundaries were more about social standing than about religious ethics. The standard of acceptable behavior was different depending upon a person’s social and political position. The rules regarding adultery and fornication were much more flexible prior to the influence of Christianity. The primary concern was the honor of free women and the reputation of the men who were responsible for their protection. These women were to remain chaste until married and faithful to their husbands. This was not so much a matter of personal morality as of social standing. Violation of the honor of one of these women, whether consensual or not, was considered an assault upon the man she was bound to (father, husband, etc.). Adultery and fornication were not primarily concerns about marriage vows but rather about the honor and reputation of citizens. The scandal associated with such a violation of honor would most closely parallel our feelings about adultery (at least traditionally). The term for this violation of honor, however, is not the word porneia but rather the word μοιχεύω (moicheuō) and this is the Greek word generally translated as adultery. Interestingly moicheuō is not the word Jesus uses.

The culture of Greece and Rome included entire classes of people who were not free and who were not under the same social or moral expectations or protections with regard to sexual choices. Prostitutes and slaves were considered “available” and free men could avail themselves of the services of these women (or boys) without being considered an adulterer or in any way violating their honor or social mores. Such behavior was common and expected. While adultery with “respectable” women was a serious violation, the use of brothels was acceptable and often thought to be beneficial. The word porneia was the term used to describe prostitutes and slaves selling access to their bodies. The word in Greek culture describes the transaction entered into by a prostitute. It was therefore not a term for adultery but was a description associated with a generally acceptable form of extramarital sexual activity.

The Bible’s use of the term, however, is quite a bit different. When the Septuagint scholars translated the Hebrew text into Greek, they used word porneia for Hebrew terms associated with broader concepts of unfaithfulness and sexual immorality. The result is that within the Greek speaking Jewish community the word came to mean illicit sexual activity as understood against the background of the Old Testament Law. The word is used in the LXX for various types of sexual sin condemned by the Law and for the idolatry illustrated by them. The context of Paul’s use of the word in his letters also follows this pattern. The word therefore encompasses immoral sexual misbehavior such as adultery, incest, molestation and others condemned by the Law.

Jesus is certainly drawing upon this Hebraized usage in His comments in Matthew 19 and elsewhere. Jesus and the other N.T. writers use moicheuō when specifically referring to adultery and use porneia when talking about this broad category of sexual sin. Jesus therefore narrows the grounds for divorce from the whim of the husband to a group of unlawful sexual interactions. The use of the word is therefore more broad than our word "adultery" but narrower than our phrase "sexual immorality". It is a category referring to acts of sexual intercourse contrary to the teaching of the Law. The New Testament writers therefore extend the sexual morals of the Law, making them foundational to the formulation of Christian sexual ethics.

This being the case, would the use of pornography be included in porneia and thus qualify as a reason for a biblically sanctioned divorce? The answer would appear to be no. There are many idolatrous sins of the heart not included in the exception. Jesus’ words reflect a category of actions that involve immoral sexual intercourse or contact.  

We must make a distinction between what constitutes sin (all sin is idolatry and a serious offense to God) and those sins which Jesus recognizes as sufficient to break the covenant between two married people. Marriage is not simply a private commitment it is a public institution. While all lustful fantasy proceeds from an adulterous heart (Mt. 5) to prostitute oneself through sexual activity in violation of the marriage covenant is both sinful and destructive to the institution itself. Marriage is a physical illustration of Christ’s relationship with His bride and a married couple becomes “one flesh”. Divorce is allowed when there is a physical illustration of unfaithfulness because such actions destroy the unity of the two as one flesh thus breaking the union and undermining the illustration of the deeper spiritual truth to which the marriage points.

There is certainly no question that the use of pornography is sinful and can be quite damaging. So numerous are the passages of scripture that address the destructive nature of lust and the danger of seeking to serve our fleshly desires that there is no need to recount them here. This alone, however, would not seem to involve the kinds of behavior understood by the word porneia. 

By using this term, Jesus presents a revolutionary view of marriage and sexual ethic that was uncommon in both Jewish and Greek culture of the 1st century. Marriage was not just an economic transaction that could be undone easily. It was to be an abiding and permanent spiritual union drawing upon the Hebrew connection between sexual activity and spiritual commitment. This significantly restricted the types of behaviors that were acceptable for gentile converts because the demands of the moral law were extended to them. It also restricted the ability of Jewish converts to withdraw from the union except under the most serious violation by the other person.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Did Jesus Have Mary's DNA? A Follow Up

In a previous post, I argued that it was necessary for Jesus to have Mary’s DNA. I focused my argument on the promise that the messiah would be descended from a particular family line. If Jesus were not physically related to those particular ancestors then I argued the promises of God would have been false. One reader pointed out that I had neglected other theological arguments for the necessity of Christ having Mary’s DNA, I agreed, and another commenter asked if I could elaborate on those arguments. This post is an attempt to do that.

First, it is important that we understand what it is exactly the argument is. Most of the time we tend to focus on the full divinity of Jesus but we must not forget that the full humanity of Jesus Christ is also a necessary element of orthodox Christian doctrine. So important is the doctrine that Jesus Christ is actually human rather than simply appearing human that the apostle John tells us that anyone who denies it is of the spirit of Antichrist (1 John 4:2-3). Even a quick review of Christ’s ministry reveals the necessity of both His divinity and His humanity. Jesus had to be human in order to…

·         Serve as a mediator between God and humans (1 Tim. 2:5).
·         Suffer & Die (God cannot experience death which is the payment for sin [Heb. 2:9])
·         Offer an acceptable sacrifice making intercession for sinful humans (Heb. 2:17).
·         Judge sin in the “flesh” (Heb. 2:14, Rom. 8:3)
·         Serve as a new substitutionary representative (Rom. 5:18-19).
·         Complete the original plan for man to rule over creation (Heb. 2:5-9)
·         Serve as an example for us (1 John 2:6, Rom. 8:29).
·         Sympathize with us in our weakness (Heb. 4:15).
·         Provide hope to man in resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42-49).
·         To fulfill the promise of God’s redemption from within the created order through the descendant                of the woman (this was my focus in the original DNA post).

These are just a few of the reasons why the humanity of Christ is a theological necessity. The great doctrines of the incarnation, the atonement, and the resurrection are inseparably linked with His identity as the God-Man. If the “Man” portion is removed then Jesus is no longer the uniquely Christian savior.

The people to whom I was responding with the initial post do not openly deny the full humanity of Christ. They claim that God miraculously created Jesus as truly human and implanted Him into Mary’s womb. They wish to affirm that Jesus is fully human but deny that He is physically descended from Mary. Mary becomes simply a surrogate and Jesus is then born out of Mary but not from Mary. As I said before, various groups have made this claim, most notably the Anabaptists, as an attempt to explain Christ’s sinless nature.

The problem with this view is that what they agree with in principal they deny in the details of their theology. To deny that Christ is a physical descendent of Mary is essentially a denial of His total humanity and undermines the very basis of our atonement. In the original post, I tried to point out a theological argument based upon the inerrancy of God’s promises but there are others. Probably the strongest theological argument is that the fraternity of Christ with all other humans is a necessary component of the doctrine of the atonement. The best exegetical support for this argument comes from Hebrews 2:11 which says,

“For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers”

The Greek for “all have one source” is  ex enoV, literally “out of one”. The verse is claiming that Jesus and those whom He sanctifies are all of, or out of “one” and that is why He is not ashamed to call them brothers. Jesus is not from a distinct human line but is truly a brother to all humans. His human nature is of “one source” with the human nature of all those whom he sanctifies. Jesus is therefore related to Adam and Eve through Mary. The theologian A.W. Pink in his discussion of the humanity of Jesus says the following about this verse:

“They who deny Christ’s derivation of real humanity through His mother undermine the atonement. His very fraternity, as our Kinsman-Redeemer, depended on the fact that He obtained His humanity from Mary. Without this He would neither possess the natural nor the legal union with His people, which must lie at the foundation of His representative character as the "last Adam." To be our Goel (Redeemer), His humanity could neither be brought from heaven nor immediately created by God, but must be derived, as ours was, from a human mother. But with this difference: His humanity never existed in Adam’s covenant to entail guilt or taint.”

If we deny that Jesus is the son of Mary then we not only invalidate the promises of God given in the Old Testament but we also create serious theological issues with the most fundamental doctrines of the New Testament, namely the incarnation and the atonement. The scripture presents Mary as not just a vessel but truly as the mother of Jesus Christ who conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (as is affirmed in ancient, Catholic, and Protestant creeds).

Jesus has Mary’s DNA. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Thriller Sermon: Entertaining Ourselves to Death

The purpose of the Church is to glorify God. We (the Church) come together to praise God, to worship Him and to build one another up and encourage each other in the knowledge of Him. The pulpit is set apart for the ministry of the Word. That Word is vital to the Church. It is what nourishes the people of God, strengthens them, and transforms them.

At various times on this site and in conversation with other believers I have expressed concern about the infiltration of our marketing and entertainment culture into the worship and ministry of the Church in America. In large sections of evangelical America, we have lost sight of the holiness of God, of reverence for His Word, and of Him as the central object of our worship.

There are no perfect churches just as there are no perfect people. We all struggle with the infiltration of sin in our lives and in our churches. It is not my place or anyone else’s to sit in judgment over the ministers of the Lord as each one will have to give his own account. Nevertheless, we do have a biblical responsibility to respond when those claiming Christ act in ways that dishonor our Savior and the witness of His Church.

Rather than write another article on the unhealthy and unbiblical influence of worldly culture on the Church today I simply ask that you watch this video, taken at the Potters House Church in Denver. This, my friends, is what I have been talking about. Outrageously, at the end of the performance the pastor even says, “If I wasn't the Pastor of this church; I would become a member, Amen. We done brought Michael Jackson back, Amen.” He says this without any indication that he understands the misguided (and borderline blasphemous) nature of those remarks.

(If you do not see the video you can find it here)

Lord God, please have mercy on us, your children. Forgive our weakness and our irreverence. May your Holy Spirit be poured out upon us so that we may stand in awe of your glory, your holiness, your love. Help to open our eyes that we may see the majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ and be filled. May your light so shine in our lives that, as the song says, the things of the world grow strangely dim.