Lent Series: Peter, the Rock and the Stumbling Block

When I was twelve or thirteen, I thought Jesus’ personality was probably like Mister Rogers. If you don’t remember, he had a popular children’s television show in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.

His manner was always gentle and kind. He never raised his voice. He was always sympathetic and compassionate. If you were feeling sad, angry, hurt, or frustrated, he could offer some constructive ways to cope with it. The way things are going in America now, I think we need someone like that, not just for kids but for adults, too.

I’d like to nominate Jesus for that, but I can’t. He is called compassionate in the Gospels, and most of the time he was. But as I first started studying the Bible seriously, it felt like he could be a little mean sometimes. Like when he said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Did he just call Peter the devil? If Peter needed to be reprimanded, Mister Rogers would have found a more tactful way to do it. I remember the first time I read it, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, how hurt I would be if he said that to me. I didn’t see what happened before and after that. All I could see was Jesus equating his most faithful follower with his worst enemy.

As I’ve grown older, I have gained experience to help make sense of it. And also, I learned to read not only this but everything in the Bible in context. That has taken the sting out of it, and I think I’m beginning to understand where Jesus was coming from.

Who Is He?

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

(Matthew 16:13-15)

This sets the scene. They are at Caesarea Philippi, a city at the base of Mount Hermon in the northernmost part of the traditional kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. Philip the Tetrarch built the city in honor of Caesar (Augustus) and administered it as part of the territory he inherited from Herod the Great. That becomes significant later, but for now let’s just focus on this particular interaction.

Presumably, the crowds following Jesus have been sent away, and he is alone with the twelve disciples. His first question is who do people say he is. Easy enough to answer. They just have to repeat what they have heard. John the Baptist was executed, which means some people thought he had returned. Elijah was supposed to return to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jeremiah or one of the prophets also would have had to return from the dead. It is extraordinary that they would attribute any of these personalities to Jesus. But they had seen him make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and heal all kinds of diseases, and perform miracles that other miracle workers of his day could not duplicate. Is it really impossible? Still, I wonder if any of the disciples laughed dismissively at these conjectures.

Then he asks the difficult question. “Who do you say that I am?” I imagine there was an uncomfortable silence then. They probably had some ideas about who he was but were afraid to speak up. Maybe they thought their ideas sounded as crazy as one of the prophets being reincarnated. When no one else will speak up, there is one you can count on to break the silence, Simon (Peter).

I Tell You, You are the Rock

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

(Matthew 16:16-19)

Can you imagine how Simon, son of Jonah, felt? Today, we call him Peter, and this is why. What better endorsement could Jesus have given him, saying “On this rock (petra in Greek) I will build my church”? There were no churches at the time, which is why many scholars think this saying of Jesus was added later (compare Mark 8:24-30, which does not mention any response to Peter specifically).

Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

Be that as it may, this has been an important part of church tradition. As the church grew, and the hierarchical structure with it, they used this saying to claim Peter as its first pope. I wonder if any of the others thought the same thing and wished they had spoken up. And that makes the contrast in what Jesus says next all the more startling.

Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

(verse 20)

This is a secret Jesus has been keeping. He knew speculation about him was rampant, and he had to be careful who he revealed his true identity to. To stop the disciples from getting caught up in the speculation, he told them but ordered them to keep it a secret. It would be revealed, but it was not yet time.

You Are a Stumbling Block to Me

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

(Matthew 16:21-23)

So this is what tripped me up some decades ago. The elders, chief priests, and scribes had already been plotting against Jesus. Isn’t it natural for Peter to want to protect Jesus from them? He was willing to die for Jesus, and Jesus called him Satan for that? So much for Mister Rogers.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Jesus then. But now, I see the similarity with when the devil tempted him with all the kingdoms of the world. “Away with you, Satan!” he said to that. I’ve said before I believe the devil was tempting Jesus to be the conqueror his followers wanted. This was Peter repeating that same temptation. That was why he could not accept the truth of Jesus’ mission. That was how he went from being the rock to the stumbling block in just two verses.

One common theme of this Lent series is that Jesus’ first followers believed he was (or might be) the Messiah but did not understand what that meant. It happened once again as Jesus tried to explain what following him means.

Are You Sure You Want to Be My Disciples?

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

(Matthew 16:24-28)

Peter expected Jesus to be the righteous king who would defeat all his enemies, and he would be right at his side for his glory. And he was not alone. The other disciples expected that as well. That was why they kept arguing about which of them was the greatest (Matthew 18:1-5; Luke 22:24-30), and who would sit at his right and left hand in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-38). Even when he called that path the path of Satan, they still did not give up on it.

You have to remember for Jesus, there were two sides to being the Messiah, like a coin. Heads was the conquering king, the Son of Man who would come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and … repay everyone for what has been done. Tails was the suffering servant, as Isaiah prophesied (52:13-53:12, et al), the one who said they must follow him by denying themselves and taking up their cross.

They thought he would defeat Rome, the Imperial Beast, and execute God’s judgment for all the injustice they had inflicted on the Jews. In their minds, God gave Jesus a coin that was heads on both sides, like Two-Face before his transformation. Heads is the only possible result, they thought. Jesus kept telling them this flip would be tails, but they did not get it. At least, not until after his resurrection.

Both sides of a two-tailed coin

That was why, when Peter had the chance to make good on his promise to die for him, he chickened out (Luke 22:54-62). He was willing to die for the glorious king, but not the suffering servant. We pick on Peter for this, but all the others did the same. After the authorities took him, they abandoned him, too. They thought the world was theirs because they were his disciples. Jesus told them instead, What will it profit … if you gain the whole world but lose your soul? [The word “life” in Greek is psyche, which can mean life, soul, or mind. I think in context, soul is the best translation.]

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Eventually, the disciples understood the Messiah came to save lives, not destroy them. They would never become rich or powerful. They would never conquer the world. They would see him take his throne—in heaven—but not on earth. They would all die as martyrs, just as their master did, losing their lives but gaining their souls. They would find eternal life by participating in God’s plan to redeem the world, not conquer it.

Is it weakness to embrace love and peace over force and vengeance? There is someone who probably knows the answer to that better than any of us, one who accepted the devil’s temptation to conquest and empire. Here is what he said.

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.”

-Napoleon Bonaparte

He may not have been Mister Rogers. But he understood what it meant to take up his cross, to sacrifice for others. He built a kingdom by becoming a servant to everyone, even his enemies. And that kingdom still stands today. The disciples understood that (eventually). Napoleon understood it. And for anyone who says, like Peter, that they would die for him, does that mean you will be a rock or a stumbling block?


Thanks for reading. I hope you will come back for the next post. Until then, remember these words from Matthew 7, verse 12.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.

Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear

Lent Series: Temptation in the Wilderness

Let’s talk about the Temptations.

The Temptations publicity photo. Clockwise from top: David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and Paul Williams.
The Temptations 1964 publicity photo by Kriegsmann

No, not these guys. Well, maybe another time. I’m talking about the temptations Jesus experienced just before beginning his ministry. He has just been baptized by John, and he went off “into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” It says he fasted forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-2).

I would not have passed that test. The longest I ever fasted was three days. But Jesus was tougher than I am in a lot of ways. It says the Spirit led him into the wilderness to be tempted, but it does not tell of any specific temptations until after forty days and nights. I wonder if he was tempted during that time, or if the fasting was to prepare for the temptations.

If you know your Bible history, forty days in the wilderness recalls Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years. It is also one of many parallels with Moses, who also fasted forty days and forty nights as he received the Torah from God (Exodus 34:28). Many commentators believe the Gospel writers wanted to present Jesus as “the prophet like Moses” who was promised in the Torah.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like [Moses] from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

(Deuteronomy 18:15).

You could literally write a book on all the connections the Gospels make between Jesus and Moses. But for now we will just look at how the devil tempted Jesus.

Three scenes with the devil tempting Jesus, devil leaves, angels appear
Temptations of Christ (mosaic), Saint Mark’s basilca, Venice

Turning stones to bread

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:3-4).

The first temptation is obvious for someone who has been fasting for forty days. Turn these stones to bread. What harm could it have been? He was starving. Why not make a little bread so he could eat?

I’ve written before about how I believe one of the purposes of the Incarnation was so God could experience what it is like to be human. If he went around magically making loaves of bread every time he was hungry, he would not know what it was like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread.

To counter that temptation, he quotes from Deuteronomy. He only quoted part of the verse, but I think it would help us to see all of it.

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

(Deuteronomy 8:3).

In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are about to enter the promised land. Moses is recalling for them the entire forty years’ experience of being delivered from Egypt and wandering in the wilderness. In this verse, he reminds them how they had no food, and God fed them with manna. But first, God let them go hungry.

Why would God let them go hungry? Two reasons are given. First, to humble them, God let them go hungry before feeding them. This would teach them not to panic when they look around and see no food but to trust God to provide for them. Second, this experience should have taught them that they do not live by bread alone but by the word of the Lord.

But come on, Jesus. You’re close to starving. Anyone would have understood if you made a loaf of bread.

Yes, and even under those circumstances, he did not give in to the temptation for the quick fix. As Jesus would tell his followers a few chapters later,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?… But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

(Matthew 6:25, 33).

Easy for you to say, Jesus. You’re the beloved Son of God. You don’t know what it’s like to starve. You never came close to starving to death.

Oh, wait. He does, and he did. If he had given in to that temptation, he could not have spoken this with authority. Like I said, I would not have passed that test. That’s why I’m glad Jesus did.

Throw yourself down. God won’t let you get hurt.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

(Matthew 4:5-7).

The first temptation was about whether he would trust God, even when he was starving. This one is almost the exact opposite. It’s like the Devil is saying, “Okay, I get it. You trust God to take care of your needs. So I’ll give you another opportunity to trust God. Throw yourself down from this pinnacle. You’re God’s beloved Son. Surely, God will protect you. He even promised it in the Bible.”

This was probably the most insidious of the devil’s temptations, because he quoted scripture. I will probably say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting the Bible does not mean they are speaking the word of God. The devil quoted scripture. Do you need any more obvious sign than that?

The devil comes at him like, “It’s right there in the Bible. ‘He will command his angels concerning you. On their hands they will bear you up, so you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ You could throw yourself off this pinnacle, and you won’t get hurt. After all, you are the Son of God. If the angels will protect anyone, it’s you.

“What’s this? I see you hesitating. Are you telling me you don’t believe the Bible? This is the inerrant, infallible word of God. God promised you in the scriptures you won’t get hurt. This is the word of God, who cannot lie. Go ahead. Jump.”

Jesus quotes again from Deuteronomy, which says,

Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

(Deuteronomy 6:16).

Massah is one of many instances when the Israelites tested God (Exodus 17:7). Moses warns them not to do that anymore. Jesus sees the connection there. Jumping off the pinnacle to prove he is the Son of God would be putting God to the test. If his forty days in the wilderness symbolically recreate Israel’s forty years, he passed this test where Israel failed.

If you are the Son of God…

Notice that the devil prefaced each of these temptations by saying, “If you are the Son of God…”. It seems he is trying to get Jesus to use his divine privilege to get out of difficult situations. As the Son of God, he could turn stones to bread. He could ask God to command the angels to protect him from harm, even if he does something stupid. Oh, what? Throwing yourself off a pinnacle to rocks below wouldn’t be stupid?

What do you think would have happened if he had thrown himself off the pinnacle? Would the angels have caught him? Maybe, maybe not. We can only speculate. But either way, that would have been the end of his mission. If the angels didn’t catch him, he would have died. If they did, it would only be because he claimed something as the Son of God that is not available to us. Both times he refuses to claim any privilege he could as the Son of God. He will live fully as a human, vulnerable in the same ways we are. Because he had a clear understanding of his mission, he did not fall for any trap that would sabotage it.

All the kingdoms of the world I give to you

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

(Matthew 4:8-10).

The devil could not appeal to him as the Son of God here. “If you are the Son of God, bow down and worship me.” That would make no sense. But he makes an offer that many people would have given in to. He offers all the kingdoms of the world, and all their wealth and splendor.

All of Jesus’ scripture quotes come from Deuteronomy, so he uses this verse to answer him.

The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.

(Deuteronomy 6:13).

To fall down and worship the devil could mean literally bowing to him and declaring, “All hail, Satan, ruler of this age.” But I think this temptation was more subtle than that. Jesus would never have worshipped the devil in such a blatant fashion, and he knew that. So what did he mean?

Remember, at his baptism, God already announced Jesus was the king God had chosen. What kind of a king would he be? That is what the devil is challenging him about. He could take over the world if he wanted, just like Alexander or Julius Caesar. They built their kingdoms through conquest, violence, and bloodshed. That was how all kings of the world took and maintained power. Still is. Was he going to be a king like them? Or would he be different?

Then the devil left him…

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:11).

To review, the devil has tempted him to take advantage of various privileges he could claim as the Son of God, for legitimate needs and for just showing off. He tempted him with power and glory, the likes of which would have made him the envy of the greatest conquerors in history. He even tried to bribe him into worshipping other gods (himself), a temptation the nation of Israel gave into over and over again.

The devil has finished tempting him. For now. But these same temptations would continue to dog him through the most well-meaning people, his followers and even the twelve apostles. They had been watching and waiting for centuries, eagerly awaiting the promised Messiah, the son of David, who would free them from Roman occupation and restore the glory of a united and free Israel. And if he went on from there to conquer the entire Roman empire and enslave it to Israel, and Rome had done to them, so much the better.

Going through these temptations, in private, mano a mano with the tempter himself (literally or figuratively), helped prepare him for when the crowds pressured him to be the Messiah they wanted. We should look at some of the ways his followers tried to tempt him. Who knows? We might be making the same mistakes today.


Thank you for reading. I hope this Lenten journey is meaningful to you. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.

Note: Bible quotes are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.

John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.

Lent Series: The Baptism of Jesus

Instead of the tradition of “giving something up for Lent,” I’m reflecting on passages in the Bible that best portray its meaning. First on the list is when Jesus was baptized. Each of the Gospels portrays it slightly different. For simplicity, I’ve chosen Matthew. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

(Matthew 3:16-17 NRSV)
John the Baptist dressed in red baptizes Jesus, dressed in a white loin cloth. Two other people watch, one to the right and one to the left. The Holy Spirit is represented by a dove above Jesus.
Andrea Mantegna, Baptism of Christ, ca. 1505

A voice from heaven. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s God. There is a lot packed into what God says. Three scriptures are echoed here that together paint a fascinating portrait of Jesus and his mission.

“This is my Son…”

Son is not capitalized in all translations. Like most Christians, I think it is appropriate in this case. In a sense, I could call myself a son of God, but not Son (with a capital S) of God. We reserve that title for Jesus alone.

This echoes a line from a coronation psalm.

“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

(Psalm 2:7b)

This psalm was recited, or likely sung, at the coronation of a new king. In ancient Israel, the king could be called a son of God, but not Son (capital S) of God. It extols the king for his power and assures him he has God’s blessing. Even other kings and rulers better beware of him. God is ready to punish anyone who crosses him or defies his authority. That is exactly the attitude we expect God to have toward God’s anointed, right? “Touch not mine anointed.”

But does that truly reflect the kind of king he would be?

“…the beloved…”

This recalls God’s word to Abraham.

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”

(Genesis 22:2a)

Just as Abraham had one son (of his wife, Sarah), God has one Son, whom God loves. So far, it sounds like Jesus has it made in the shade. He is a king, God’s only Son, beloved of God, probably more than any other person on earth. Just as Abraham loved Isaac.

“…and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

(Genesis 22:2b)

So if God is referring back to the Abraham and Isaac, that means at the same time God affirms him as the “beloved Son,” God also says he must be sacrificed.

“…with whom I am well pleased.”

This comes from a passage in Isaiah about a figure called “the suffering servant.”

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

With whom I am well pleased recalls In whom my soul delights. God also says, I have put my spirit upon him. The Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. Again, it sounds like things are going good for Jesus. Who wouldn’t like to hear God say God is well pleased with them? But in context, it means he will be the chosen servant who suffers for the redemption of others. That becomes clearer in another passage from Isaiah.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

(Isaiah 53:10a)

Some translations say, “Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him….” I think the NRSV is more accurate. It’s not like God is a sadist who gets pleasure from seeing people tortured. But in this case, it was God’s will for him to suffer as he eventually did. But by using pleased instead of will, it is easy to see the connection with God’s pronouncement. Let’s continue.

When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 53:10b-12)

He will be crushed as an offering for sin. He will live as a servant, and in the end, he will suffer in ways most of us cannot begin to comprehend. None of us knows what it is to be crucified, but it was a torture designed to totally humiliate and inflict as much pain as possible. The word excruciating derives from crucifixion. No one would go through it voluntarily. But that is exactly what God would call him to do, to suffer not for his own sin but for the sins of others. In doing so, he would make many righteous.

We know how his story goes. He will be crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day, he will rise from the dead.  He will descend into darkness, but then he shall see light. But as I read it, I try to put myself in the shoes of people there who witnessed the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, who heard what God said about him. Did they really understand it?

Could he be the Messiah?

The text does not say who heard the voice. I think it’s safe to assume Jesus heard it. I’m approaching it as if John the Baptist and the others who were there heard it as well. They would not have to recognize all those scripture references I gave to know this guy must be special. But if they did recognize those echoes of prophecy, they would be thinking, “Could he be the Messiah?”

That question dogged Jesus throughout his ministry. You might think he would be happy to say, “Yes, I am.” But the title Messiah was fraught with political and religious tension. He had to be careful who he revealed it to. When King Herod found out he was destined to be “king of the Jews,” he tried to have him killed. The Romans knew the legend of a coming Messiah, a son of David, who would throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and re-establish the Davidic kingdom.

The Jews lived for the hope that they would see that happen. They believed Elijah would return just before the Messiah.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

(Malachi 3:1)

Those who were with John believed he was the messenger, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. If the forerunner was here, surely the Messiah could not be far behind. And then they hear God call this man “my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” The hairs on their necks must have stood up.

What did they hear in that message? He was a king, probably from the Davidic line. The Spirit of God rested upon him. God called him his beloved Son. God is well-pleased with him. I’m sure more than one of them thought, he must be the one. If they thought of the song in Isaiah 42:1-4, they would have thought of the last line,

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

(Isaiah 42:1)

Justice for them began with defeating Rome and making Israel a great nation once again. If he was God’s anointed, no power on earth could stop him. And the vast majority who followed him, including the twelve, wanted to be at his side when it happened. When they thought of the Messiah, they thought of glory, power, dominion, and freedom. They thought of the victories of Moses, Joshua, and David over God’s enemies that built the nation. They thought it was about to happen again. They would have had a lot of questions for him. They wanted to be sure they understood what they had just witnessed. But before they could ask any questions, he left immediately to wander in the wilderness for forty days (Mat 4:1-11). I guess he was not eager to answer those questions just yet. He knew how hard they were to teach.

One recurring theme in the Gospels is how people keep wanting to call him the Messiah, but they don’t understand everything that comes with it. The glorious king was just one side of the coin. The flip side was the suffering servant. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would not overthrow their enemies. He would submit to death at their hands. All those people who followed him as the “Son of David,” how many of them continued to follow him to the cross?

A stiff-necked and stubborn people

When I see what passes for religious programming now, I can’t help but wonder, are we any different? They talk about victory, health and wealth, divine protection from enemies and pandemics, dominion over the earth, and personal freedom. “Don’t mess with me! I’m one of the King’s kids!”

You don’t hear about God’s power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). You don’t hear that having the mind of Christ means a willingness to serve and sacrifice for others (Phil 2:5-8). You don’t hear that you share in his glory by sharing in his suffering (Rom 8:17). Their message is resurrection without crucifixion.

What does it mean to follow a Messiah who came as king, Son of God, servant, and sacrifice, all at the same time? If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.

Next, what happened to Jesus when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil? (Mat 4:1-11).

-Grace and peace to you.

Crown of thorns highlighted on purple background

Lent and God Becoming Human

It might surprise you to know that not all parts of the Bible are theologically correct. For example, most people consider God omniscient, meaning God knows everything. I’ve even heard an atheist say, “If God existed, then he would know everything.” Omniscience, along with omnipotence and omnipresence, are three of the main attributes that make God God—at least in most traditions. So why would God say something like this?

I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.

(Gen 18:21)

What do you mean you will know? Aren’t you God?

In this scene, God is speaking to Abraham to discuss plans for Sodom and Gomorrah. God has heard people cry against the rampant injustice and violence there but apparently needed to come down to visit there and see if it was as bad as God heard. How can God talk as if God doesn’t already know? It might not make sense logically, but I think there could be a reason for this.

First, let’s start with what it means to know something. The word for “know” in Hebrew is yada`. It has many different nuances, like “know” in English.

  1. Intellectually. You know it as a fact, like 2+2=4.
  2. How to. It’s possible to know 2+2=4 simply as a fact you memorize and store in your brain. But if you know how to add, you understand it at a deeper level.
  3. Experience. Maybe you have several duplexes that are each rented by two couples. You can observe that four people live in each of those houses. From that experience, you know 2+2=4.

God knows there is injustice in Sodom and Gomorrah, but that knowledge seems to be intellectual at this point. But before executing an extreme judgement, maybe God wants to know through experience if it is as bad as God has heard. As Abraham said to God a few verses later,

“Far be it from you … to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”

(Gen 18:26)

So God suspends judgement until God knows in the truest sense that they deserve it. That speaks to God’s justice. If God does not rush to judgement before gathering the facts, then neither should we. Just a thought.

But doesn’t God already know the facts? Yes, but as I already pointed out, there is a difference between knowing things intellectually and through experience. We see here God’s desire to know our pain through experience, which in a way foreshadows Jesus.

Crown of thorns highlighted on purple background
Heavy is the head that wears the crown

God’s Experience as a Human

I think one of the most important purposes of the Incarnation was for God to experience what it is like to be human, in all of our frailty, suffering, and limitations. God may have known intellectually the pain and struggles of being human. But through Jesus, God experienced it.

This could be why Jesus did not give in to the Devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread or throw himself off of a pinnacle and trust that the angels would catch him. If he went around magically turning stones into bread whenever he was hungry, he would not experience what it is like for someone who had to work all day for that loaf of bread. If he invoked supernatural protection from harm, he would not experience the limitations and fears that come with mortality. When it came time for him to die, he did so in the most torturous way possible, scourging followed by crucifixion. As a result, he knows what pain and suffering are, not just in some abstract sense. He knows because he experienced it. Therefore, the author of Hebrews was able to say in Jesus,

… we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

(Heb 4:15)

A Different High Priest

The role of high priest was important in the Old Testament. The high priest lived in the Temple complex and never left it. He was shielded to a great degree from human weakness, especially death and anything that symbolized death. Even looking at a corpse could disqualify him from performing his duties, so the other priests and the people had to assist in keeping him pure. This was necessary, so he could perform the sacrifices that would atone for the sins of the people. However, there was a lot there was a lot about being human, i.e., death, loss, and brokenness, that he just could not sympathize with because he could never get close enough to see the pain and suffering ordinary people had to endure.

After the Temple was destroyed, the high priest could no longer atone for people’s sins. Some Jews at the time believed there was no point in praying. Without the Temple and the sacrifices, they thought they had no more access to God. Imagine what it would have meant to them if they heard and believed, along with Christians, that Jesus has been given the mantle of high priest.

The Temple on earth is gone, but the Temple in heaven endures forever. Jesus serves there forever as high priest, and he is our access to God. And unlike the high priests of old, he was tested in every respect as we are. He did not hide from any of the pain of being human and mortal but experienced it himself. Therefore, he is able to sympathize with us in a way none of the prior high priests could. Furthermore, he is able to stand before God on our behalf, because he did it all without sin. His purity before God does not depend on us or anyone shielding him from death. He experienced death and conquered it through his resurrection.

A Parable

Here is a story I heard in church that I think really drives this point home, a sort of parable. One day, people of earth got angry with God and decided to put God on trial. They felt God had made life too harsh, and the reason God was not doing more to make things better was God lived up in heaven in his ivory tower with streets of gold, where there was no pain, hunger, greed, or suffering. What did God know about life on this earth?

It was time God experienced what it was like to live as humans in this world God created. Let him be born into a poor working family without the privilege of being God. Let the legitimacy of his birth be questioned. Let him experience hunger, thirst, cold, pain, exhaustion, fear, and suffering. Let him know what it is to mourn close friends and family. Let him be tempted with wealth and power as a mortal and see if he can refuse it. Let him come under the scrutiny of powers greater than him. Let him live under threat to life and limb. Let them capture him, torture him, and kill him in the most excruciating way possible for crimes he did not commit. And when that moment comes, let him die alone and forsaken, with crowds mocking and humiliating him, and abandoned by even his family and closest friends.

Then Jesus entered the courtroom and stood before his accusers. He showed them the scars on his hands and feet, the stripes on his back where he had been scourged, and the scars on his forehead from the crown of thorns he had received. One by one, from the oldest to the youngest, they left the courtroom.

“Where are your accusers?” the judge asked.

“They have left.”

“Case dismissed.”

Confession and Lent

Ash Wednesday is here, which means we are in the season of Lent. This particular season has become more meaningful over the years, especially Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I know we end with Easter, which is the most important holiday for Christians. But this Lent I suggest you not skip over the hard stuff Lent calls us to remember: our vulnerability, our sinfulness, and our mortality. What does it mean that Jesus knows what you’re going through in life right now? Again, I don’t mean he knows because he’s God. He knows because he experienced it: hunger, thirst, cold, loneliness, despair, pain, and suffering. And he is present now to walk through it with you.

Thanks for reading. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.

Heart-shaped cloud in blue sky

The Five Most Important Bible Verses about God’s Love

I used to have a pretty long list of things I thought I knew about God. I’d say now, I’m reduced to one certainty: God is love. What does that mean? Here’s what I think.

Heart-shaped cloud in blue sky
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

1.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. (1 Jn 4:8)

If you go to church, hopefully you heard there that God is love. If you didn’t hear it there, then maybe you need to find another church. Even if you don’t subscribe to organized religion, you’ve probably heard it before. Have you ever really thought about the implications of that?

It doesn’t just say God loves us or God is loving. God is love. That means even if there were no people for God to love or to love each other, even if there were no living creatures capable of love in even its most primitive form, love would still exist because God is love.

The first part of this verse is just as important. Knowing God means knowing God is love. Knowing God is love should result in us loving one another. If we don’t love one another, then we don’t love God (cf. 1 Jn 4:7, 20).

2.  We love because [God] first loved us. (1 Jn 4:19)

This tells me all human love is possible because God first loved us. If you want proof of God’s existence, consider our capacity to love. Years ago, I went to the funeral of a Muslim friend’s father. The imam told a parable of a doctor who was going home from a thirty-six hour shift. On the way, he saw a man unconscious in a ditch. Even though he was exhausted, she pulled over, revived him, his wounds, and drove him home. And because the man was poor, he refused to take any payment for it.

How do you feel hearing a story like that? I’m guessing whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or whatever, you admire that doctor. The Imam said, “Anyone, even someone who doesn’t believe in God, would look at that and say the doctor did a beautiful thing. Why? Because God placed an appreciation of love and beauty in the human heart.”

To this day, I consider that the best argument for God’s existence I have ever heard. We love because God first loved us. How do we know God loved us? That brings me to the next verse.

3.  But God proves [God’s] love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)

Tell me if you can relate to this. There were times in my life when I thought God hated me, abandoned me, gave up on me, or just did not care enough to be bothered with me. Sometimes I blamed God for it, but more often I blamed myself.

When Martin Luther was a monk, he tried harder than anyone to please God. One day, another monk asked if he loved God. “Love God? Sometimes I hate him!” Why did he hate God (sometimes)? Because he kept trying and trying to please God, and no matter how much he prayed, or how diligent he was in confessing and repenting of his sins, it was never enough. Let’s just say I can relate.

If you have ever felt that way, look at that verse again.

But I already know Christ died for me.

No, look at the whole verse. How does it start? God has already proved God’s love for us. You don’t have to prove how much you love God, because the point of what Christ did at the cross was to prove how much God loves us. What speaks to me most powerfully is that has already happened. That means you can never change it. God’s love and acceptance of you is not based on what you do or don’t do. It’s based on what Christ already did.

4. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-39)

It’s easy to believe God loves us when things are going well. Life is good, and so is God. But what about when life isn’t so good?

The Prosperity Gospel taught me a life of faith would protect me from peril, poverty, death, things present, things to come, hardship, persecution, or sickness. If you want health, wealth, a perfect marriage, obedient children, and success in all your endeavors, you just have to believe God for it, and it will be so. If it doesn’t happen immediately, keep believing, keep being faithful to God, and it will happen. But what if it still doesn’t happen? Either you sinned or you didn’t have enough faith, whatever that means.

Read these verses again. Actually, let’s start a few verses before that.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Rom 8:35-39)

There is a lot in there that the Prosperity Gospel says will not happen if you are faithful to God and believe the Bible. But this passage does not say a life of faith will protect you from hardship, distress, hunger, poverty, peril, rulers, things present, things to come, or anything in all creation we don’t want in our lives. It only says none of that ever has or ever will separate us from the love of God in Christ.

Paul did not just preach this. He lived it. Everywhere he went to teach the Gospel, it seems they would throw him in prison, beat him, scourge him, stone him, or accuse him of all kinds of mischief he never did. Throw on top of that shipwrecks, illness, robbers, possible vision problems, people who opposed him in his own congregations, charlatans fleecing his people, and a mysterious “thorn in the flesh” that he could not pray away, according to the Prosperity Gospel, God just never favored him at all. Yet I cannot find anywhere in his letters or the book of Acts where Paul ever questioned God’s love for him.

You can’t separate yourself from the love of God in Christ. Other people can’t separate you from the love of God in Christ. Pain, distress, famine, prison, persecution, gossip, fire, flood … No! Nothing that ever has happened, is happening, or could happen to us can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even you can make God stop loving you, because God is love.

5.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Of course I had to include this one. If you grew up in the church, this was probably the first Bible verse you memorized. John’s attitude toward the world is usually negative. It is full of sin and corruption that only God can save us from. But even John had to acknowledge God loved the world in spite of that. God gave his only Son for us, to prove God’s love and offer us the gift of eternal life.

You might think that means going to heaven when we die. But in the truest sense, eternal life is life in relationship with God, who is love. When our lives reflect God’s love, that is eternal life. When a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, it turned out he already knew the answer: Love God and love your neighbor (Luk 10:26-29). Do this, Jesus said, and you will have eternal life, here and now, and whatever awaits us after death.


So those are my top five verses about God’s love. Which verses speak God’s love most powerfully to you? Do you think I missed any? Let me know in the comments. To sum things up, I will leave you with a few more words from John’s Epistle.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.

(1 Jn 4:7)

Grace and peace to you.

{All scripture quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted.}

earth with starry background and hands sheltering over and under

New Medium Blog Post: Created God the Heaven(s) and the Earth

I finished my translation of Genesis 1:1. Follow the link to see.

Created God the Heaven(s) and the Earth.

Or here is the conclusion.


Now for the moment of truth. How would I translate this verse if I were on some committee of translators? Here it is.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Incidentally, this is the same as the English Standard Version (ESV). You might be thinking, “Well, that was much ado about nothing.”

I know it might look that way. I ended up translating it almost the same as the King James, which has been around for over 400 years. The only change I made was to make heaven plural. Maybe you think Bible translation is like making sausage. Don’t show me the process. Just give me the end result. The thing is, we still need some people who know how to make sausage.

At an early age, I learned that there are some things in our English Bibles that were lost in translation, and I wanted to investigate them. In just this one verse, I found some things that could not be translated into English or even the ancient Septuagint.

  1. Created comes before God to show something God did for us before revealing God’s name.
  2. An untranslated word et reinforces important ideas: that the heavens and the earth are not deities but created by God, and that God created not only the heavens and the earth but everything in between and everything that exists in them.
  3. The heavens is preferable to heaven or the heaven, because it includes every possible meaning of the Hebrew word ha-shamayim.

And even though I ultimately did not agree with the Masoretic Text (Hebrew) which said, “When God began to create heaven and earth,” that reading needed to be considered, and the reasons for changing it needed to be compelling. When the scribes and Rabbis who copied, preserved, and taught these scriptures in their original language for thousands of years tell you what they think it means, you need to at least listen, even if you disagree.

Also, the idea behind that reading is that creation did not happen all at once. It was a process of bringing order to chaos. That idea is important not only for the Bible but for life. God ordered everything about this world—light, darkness, water, land, sky, plants, and animals—just by commanding their patterns of organization, and I can’t even bring order to my office. But if God is so good at ordering chaos, maybe somehow God can impart just a little of that to me.

In the end, though, I think what is most important about this verse is it declares boldly that God not only created the heavens and the earth, but everything in between and everything that exists in them. The entire universe and all that is in it. That is why—with all due respect to Rashi and the Masoretes—I have to part ways with them here. But they took me on a fascinating journey, and I hope to have many more opportunities to explore with them on this wild, wild world of Hebrew scriptures.

Map of earth painted on two hands with blue sky and white clouds in background

Two New Posts on Medium: How to Translate the First Word of the Bible

This may sound weird, but one of my favorite hobbies is Bible translation. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to translate Hebrew to English, you can check out these posts on my Medium blog. I just did the first word, bereishit, and it took two posts. All that just for the first word? Yep. If you have a modern study Bible, you might see the verse read, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” But there might be a footnote saying, “Hebrew reads, ‘When God began to create the heaven and the earth'”.

In the Beginning … Or Not? This post will be enough for you to understand why this controversy exists.

In the Beginning, Part 2, and Justice for the Aleph. I get into some of the more technical aspects of translating bereishit. Then you can get some insight into the Rabbis who preserved and taught these scriptures over the millennia through a story of why they say creation begins with the second letter of the alphabet and not the first.

If you are following my blog on Medium, let me know in the comments if you like having a blog dedicated to religious topics. I will start posting some of my ideas on writing soon. After all, this is supposed to be an author’s blog.

Thanks for reading. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (NRSV).

Photo two faces obscured, eyes closed, text reads "Love your neighbor as Yourself"

Why Won’t God Speak to Me?

In my last post, I talked about why I believe there are no more apostles and prophets in the church. That was actually to lay the groundwork of a much bigger issue for me. Why won’t God speak to me? The answer appears to be the same as why God doesn’t call apostles and prophets anymore. God has already spoken, and the apostles and prophets of old wrote down God’s word in the Bible. Great. So they got to hear God speak to them directly, and we get a book that’s full of contradictions.

What? How can I say the Bible is full of contradictions?

Because of passages like this.

Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.

Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.

(Prov 26:4-5).

See, one verse says don’t answer fools according to their folly, and the very next verse says answer fools according to their folly. Which is it? This is one of many examples where it says one thing and then later the opposite. When people say, “Just follow the Bible,” I feel like saying, “Which parts?” Why can’t God just tell me what God wants from me?

I wanted to hear from God directly, and some televangelists convinced me I not only could but should hear God. Once I was saved, I had the Holy Spirit dwelling in me. Oh wait, I have to be filled with the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues. So I had someone pray over me and started speaking the way they told me. After a few weeks practice I got pretty comfortable with it. So I should have been able to hear God speak to me directly, a rhema word they called it. Almost ironic. If I pray in tongues, I will hear God in my own language. That was how it was supposed to work.

Regarding the rhema word, they made a distinction between the Greek words logos and rhema. I was taught that the logos is the written word, i.e., the Bible, and a rhema word is a word from God that speaks to your specific situation. For example, where does God want me to go to seminary? I can’t look that up in the Bible and see, “David, listen to your mother and go to Duke Divinity School.” That’s the kind of situation where I needed a rhema word. From what they told me, I should have heard it clearly. But it was like trying to tune in to a radio station at the edge of reception, where you only get static with a few words breaking through here and there. And just when you think you’ve got enough to go on, a few minutes later you hear the opposite.

The Word of Faith vs. the Word of God

The Word of Faith really raised that expectation in me. Some preachers would describe conversations with God like, “I said… and God said… and I said… and God said…” just like God was standing right in the room with them. Why can they hear God, but I can’t? When they say, “God told me this,” or “God said that,” how do they know it’s God and not their own imagination?

They gave a few guidelines that were somewhat helpful. For one, they said a rhema word would never contradict the logos, i.e., the Bible. I’ve already mentioned how that can be confusing. Even so, they made some pronouncements so unbiblical, even at my most confused I knew they could not be from God. And even when they are proven wrong, they do not repent. They keep on speaking for God. That seems to be happening more and more in recent years. Some of them openly say a rhema word has more authority than the Bible. So if they say “Thus says the Lord,” or anything along those lines, you have to believe it, even if it contradicts the written word of God.

Despite my claims that the Bible confused me for some time, in one area it could not have been clearer: Identifying false prophets and the false words they speak. The Bible is helpful if you remember this. The Bible never says if they claim God is speaking through them, you must believe everything they say without question. Quite the opposite, it says do not believe every spirit but test the spirits to see if they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world (1 Jn 4:1). The Bible gives two specific tests for this.

  1. If what they say in the name of the Lord does not come true, the Lord did not speak it (Deu 18:20-22).
  2. If what they say comes true, but they tell us to follow gods that neither we nor our ancestors have known, again, the Lord did not speak it (Deu 13:1-4).

That is how I knew what they were saying was not from God. Their prophecies did not come true, and they had God saying things that the God of my ancestors would never have said.

A God I and My Ancestors Have Never Known

The God I and my ancestors have known is infinite and indefinable, which is why I believe the Bible contradicts itself sometimes. There was not one author but many different authors, each trying to understand God the best they could. But at the end of the day, they were finite creatures trying to understand an infinite God. In a collection of writings like that, some apparent contradictions are inevitable.

That being said, when I think of the God of my ancestors, I have found the Apostle’s Creed to be helpful as a starting point. There is God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. There is Jesus Christ, his only son—only son—our Lord. There is the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit speaks and acts, it will glorify Jesus Christ, not another (Jn 16:14). If you are not a Christian, what I’m saying may or may not mean anything to you. But if you are a Christian, whenever someone claims to speak in the name of God, God not only expects us to test them before we believe. God commanded it. With that in mind, should we believe something like this?

“Nothing is going to stop me from putting my Son, Donald Trump, back in that White House … says your God!”

Say what???? My God would never say that. I don’t care what you think of Trump. Love him, hate him, indifferent to him, whatever. This fails both tests. It did not come true. Donald Trump is not in the white house. And it has God saying something our God and the God of our ancestors would never say. Again, if you are not a Christian, you can take this or leave it. But if you are a Christian, there is only one person we are allowed to call the Son of God, and it ain’t Trump. She can say, “Says your God” all day. I’m going to keep saying, “No. He. DON’T!”

Prophecy as Wish Fulfillment

In a way, I get it. We want God to speak to us, not just from a book but in an actual voice. When God spoke to people in the Bible, they seemed to have no problem knowing it was God. I don’t know how, but somehow they knew. We think if God spoke directly to people back then, God would continue to do it now. We might even start imagining we hear God speak. Maybe the philosophy of cessationism I explained in the last post applies here as well. If God does not speak in such direct fashion anymore, it must be because the Bible is already written. We are not supposed to write the Bible. God has already told us what God wants us to do in the Bible.

But you already said the Bible is full of contradictions. How can it tell us what to do?

A lot of the confusion I had earlier is clearing up for me. In that example I gave of answering or not answering a fool, it takes wisdom to know which to apply in any given situation.

You mean God doesn’t want us to just read the Bible and do what it says without thinking? We might have to use wisdom in applying it? Yes. If you are looking for a book that will just spoon-feed all the answers to you, the Bible is not it.

The Bible is God’s word, but we need wisdom in applying it, and we need context. That is why I will probably say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture, or they say “Thus says the Lord,” does not mean they are speaking the word of God. The Bible is only the word of God when it is rightly interpreted, rightly read, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all of that begins with three things: context, context, and context. And as for that “prophecy” I mentioned about Donald Trump, when you read the Bible in context, there is no way you can call anyone other than Jesus the Son of God.

What Has God Already Told Us?

If you are wondering what God wants you to do with your life, here are a couple of verses that have become anchors to my soul.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

(Mic 6:8)

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Is that enough for you to do? How about this.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

(Mat 22:37-40)

In Matthew’s Gospel, when they talk about the law and the prophets, they mean all of scripture. Remember, at the time the New Testament had not been written, so their Bible was the law and the prophets. Jesus said all of scripture comes down to two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. So that is another way to know whether what they say agrees with the word of God. Does it encourage loving your neighbor, or discourage it?

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

(Mar 10:42-45)

In the world, people like Alexander and Caesar were called great because they conquered and lorded over many people. In God’s kingdom, greatness comes from serving others.

Do you want to know what God requires of you? God has already told you. Love God, and love your neighbor. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Be the servant of everyone, just as Christ came not to be served but to serve. That was the foundation for the Christian community, and it still is. That does not answer questions like, “Where should I go to seminary?” But it does tell you where to focus your attention once you get there. So maybe you’re not hearing God because God is leaving that choice up to you.

How I Stopped Worrying about Missing God

But you say, “I want something more specific? Doesn’t God have a plan for my life? What if I miss it because I can’t find it in the Bible, and I can’t hear God’s rhema word for me?”

I know what you mean. I was anxious for many years because I thought God had a plan for my life, and I was missing it because I couldn’t hear God. I’ve decided to stop listening for rhema words, because more often than not, they led me astray. That tells me it was my imagination, not God. I haven’t prayed in tongues in years, and I haven’t missed it. That makes me think maybe what I spoke wasn’t tongues but gibberish. That’s what most of it amounts to when you look into it. And I feel much more within God’s plan now than I ever have, even though I don’t quite understand it.

I’m not saying you can’t pray for God to direct your paths. But the answers probably won’t come in a voice like you expect. And they definitely won’t come from false prophets and wolves in sheep’s clothing. I believe the best way to find your calling is first commit to what God has already shown you: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God, love God and love your neighbor. Then pray for opportunities to use whatever gifts God has given you to serve others. Do that and see where it leads. Don’t worry that God is going to tell you something, and you’re going to miss it. You will never miss God by loving your neighbor.


Unless otherwise noted, Biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Rich Anderson on Visualhunt.com
Heavy construction equipment digging a foundation

No More Apostles and Prophets

When I hear someone call themselves or someone else an apostle or prophet, I’m skeptical. I think we all should be. I accept that apostles and prophets were once part of the church. However, I don’t think God calls people to those roles anymore. God may call people to other roles—pastors, evangelists, teachers, deacons, or bishops, to name a few—but there are no more apostles and prophets today. I think this is best illustrated by comparing two passages from Ephesians.

 Some Apostles, Some Prophets?

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,

(Eph 4:11)

Five church offices are listed here, prophets and apostles being among them. I remember a demonstration from one of my former pastors. He used the fingers of his left hand to demonstrate. The thumb is like the apostles. They can touch each of the other fingers. The index finger is like the prophets. They point where to go. The middle finger (please do not make any jokes) is like the evangelists. They reach out farther than any other finger. The ring finger is like pastors. They are married to the church. And the pinky is like the teachers. They get in your ear. (Imagine putting your pinky finger in your ear to clear it out).

This would have been a good demonstration for the church at Ephesus in the first century. The problem I have is I can’t find any credible references to apostles and prophets in the church after the first century. Earlier in the same letter, we have this.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.

(Eph 2:19-20)

There are plenty of references to evangelists, pastors, and teachers throughout church history. They have been with us all along and are still with us today. Not so with apostles and prophets. And yet, the author of Ephesians says they are the foundation of the Christian community. Why then are there no references to apostles and prophets after the first century? How could the church have continued without its foundation?

I think I’ve found an answer for it. It was not the answer I wanted, but it’s the only one that makes sense to me. In Ephesians 4:11, the author is clearly referring to apostles and prophets as officers of the church. But 2:20 says the Christian community is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Maybe in 2:20, apostles and prophets do not refer to offices in the church.

Think about it. If God is still calling apostles and prophets and speaking to them, that means the Bible is still being written. We need to add what they are saying on behalf of God to the Bible. So far, we have the Old Testament and the New Testament. If God is adding to the Bible, what testament would that be? The Post-New Testament? The Bible is finished. The Old Testament tells about the promise of a Messiah. The New Testament tells about its fulfillment in Christ Jesus. That is why he is the cornerstone that joins the two together. The Bible, with Christ Jesus as our Messiah, is the foundation of the Christian community.

Heavy construction equipment digging a foundation
A solid foundation ensures the building will endure.
Photo credit: timn.eu on Visualhunt.com

The Church’s One Foundation

Here is another possibility to consider. Who gave us the Old Testament? The prophets. Who gave us the New Testament? The apostles. Our foundation is the Old and New Testaments, and Christ Jesus is the cornerstone that joins them together. Of the offices listed, they were the only ones directly involved in writing the Bible. Once the Bible was written, the apostles and prophets had served their purpose.

In the same way, the temple once served the purpose of atoning for sins and giving access to God. But after Christ, the temple was no longer necessary. The office of priests in the temple was no longer necessary. I believe the same thing happened with the offices of apostle and prophet. They served their purpose in writing the Bible. They received the word of God directly from the Holy Spirit. We receive it now in what they wrote.

I admit that answer does not satisfy me completely. It sounds so complicated. I mean, why can’t apostles and prophets just mean apostles and prophets, as in the people God calls to serve in those offices? But again, I have never seen any credible references to apostles and prophets after the first century. If this theory is correct, we still have our foundation, even if God is not calling apostles and prophets anymore. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is the way it had to be, because the canon is closed.

Who Is Writing the Bible?

Think about it. If God is still calling apostles and prophets and speaking to them, that means the Bible is still being written. We need to add what they are saying on behalf of God to the Bible. So far, we have the Old Testament and the New Testament. If God is adding to the Bible, what testament would that be? The Post-New Testament? The Bible is finished. The Old Testament tells about the promise of a Messiah. The New Testament tells about its fulfillment in Christ Jesus. That is why he is the cornerstone that joins the two together. The Bible, with Christ Jesus as our Messiah, is the foundation of the Christian community.

Sometime around the end of the first century, God determined that the foundation was finished. After you finish a foundation, do you keep building it? No, you build your structure on top of the foundation. How many times do you lay a foundation? Once. When a foundation is finished, it is finished. Time to start building your structure. The author of Ephesians says the Christian community is that structure. Everything we have built since then has been on that foundation. If we remember Jesus’ commands to love one another, that foundation will be “Solid” as a rock.

Cessationism vs. Continuationism

This is a prime example of a debate between two philosophies, cessationism and continuationism. Cessationism is the belief that some things we read about in the Bible were for that time only. They have ceased, hence the term cessationism. Continuationism believes that everything in the Bible is or should have continued from the beginnings of the church on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) to the still-awaited return of Christ. This has mainly to do with supernatural gifts and activities mentioned in the Bible, e.g., miracles, healings, prophecies, speaking in tongues and such. The argument extends also to whether or not we should expect God to call people to be apostles and prophets anymore. You can probably guess I am on the cessationist side. However, that is a recent development.

The Word of Faith folks are among the continuationists. When I was in that movement, I was definitely a continuationist. Even after I left, I still expected to be able to perform at least some of the miracles I read about in the Bible. I expected God to speak to me directly, even if I wasn’t a prophet or apostle. I expected some people would flow in the gift of prophecy. I thought every believer was supposed to speak in tongues to give evidence that the Holy Spirit dwelt in them. After decades of disappointment, I finally had to admit that cessationism made a whole lot more sense.

Continuationists or Restorationists?

Even continuationists admit the church went without apostles and prophets after the first century. They claim those offices are being restored in this generation, because we are in the last days. If you ask them when the restoration began, they might point to the Azusa Street revivals of 1906, or maybe one the Great Awakenings in America. But that still begs the question, why is there such a big gap in our history with no apostles or prophets? I never heard them give a satisfactory answer to that.

So they actually admit the offices of apostle and prophet were discontinued. If they believe apostles and prophets are being restored now, that means they ceased at some point. Instead of continuationists, they should call themselves restorationists. But putting that inaccuracy aside, I suppose it is possible. If God wants to restore living apostles and prophets to the church, who am I to tell God, “You can’t do that”? But by the same token, if God has decided the apostles and prophets have fulfilled their purpose and are no longer needed, you can’t tell God to bring them back.

In the Bible, you will find when God called apostles and prophets, God did not expect people to believe them just because they said so. God gave signs to prove what they spoke really was the word of God. The prophets prophesied in the name of the Lord, and their prophecies came true. The apostles performed miracles and healings that only God could do. Do we see that from so-called apostles and prophets today? All I’ve seen are prophecies that don’t come true, false signs, lying wonders, healings that are nothing more than the placebo effect, and parlor tricks they claim are miracles, but even they have to know they are not. Has any one of them healed one case of Covid-19? Of course not. That should tell you everything you need to know.

Their whole shtick is getting back to the Bible. “Forget about your dead traditions. Forget about history. Just read the Bible and do it. You don’t have your proof, because you don’t believe the Bible.”

Well, the Bible says real prophets and apostles showed proof they were sent from God. The Bible says,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

(1 Jn 4:1)

It does not tell us, “If they say, ‘Thus says the Lord,’ believe every word they say and don’t ask for any proof.” Test the spirits to see whether they are from God. Why do we need to test them? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world. Even when there were legitimate prophets, there were also many false prophets. How much more do we need to test them today? If they claim to speak for God, you are not being unfaithful by asking for proof. You are just doing what the Bible says.

Dollar at the end of long Pinocchio nose with people running to it, reaching, and falling off a cliff

It Only Works if You Believe in It. And That Is the Problem.

The Prosperity Gospel makes big promises of health, wealth, great relationships, and success in all your endeavors. The promises often don’t come true. When they don’t come true, the most common answer to why is you didn’t have enough faith. But the good news is you can exercise your faith and make it stronger. How do you build your faith? Romans 10:17 says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (KJV). What you hear over and over again, you will eventually believe. They combine this with a belief that what you believe and speak will come to pass (Mar 11:23-24). So don’t give up. Keep listening to positive, faith building messages. Stay away from negative, “It will never happen” messages. Keep believing you received your blessings, keep speaking as if they have already come, and they will come. So if I keep listening to and believing the promises of prosperity in the Bible, I will become prosperous. I will get that book deal. I will write that bestseller. In the meantime, I will have a day job that pays the bills, leaves enough leftover the give to my church and the poor, and includes full benefits. All of that can be mine if I believe and do not doubt.

After several years of believing and (not) receiving, I realized the problem with this is it only works if you believe in it. No matter how many messages I listened to that God promised to both meet all my needs according to God’s riches in glory, and give me all the desires of my heart, when month after month, year after year, it came time to pay the bills, and I had nothing leftover, how was I supposed to keep believing? I tried. I kept meditating on the scriptures that promised health, wealth, and success. I kept listening to them on tapes, CDs, and TV. I kept confessing prosperity, not poverty. But it was like this guy I heard of who showed up to work one day with his hand in a cast.

“I was in my karate class and about to break bricks for the first time. I meditated to get my ki going. I knew I could break those bricks. I raised my hand up. I knew I could break those bricks. I brought my hand down with all my might. I knew I could break those bricks. My hand was about to make contact. I wasn’t sure I could break those bricks.”

That is what “believing and receiving” all those promises of health, wealth, and success year after year did to me. Much as I wanted to, I could not force myself to believe I had money that I didn’t have. The only way this could ever work for me was if I could found some promise in the Bible that did not depend on my belief, and my doubt could not stop. It could not be like a placebo, where it only works if you believe in it. It had to be like gravity, where it works whether you believe in it or not.

Just Obey. No Belief Required.

Well, I found it. There is a scripture on tithing that appears to promise prosperity whether you believe in it or not.

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts.

(Mal 3:10-11 KJV)

God is saying, prove me. See if I will not open the windows of heaven for you. See if I will not pour you out a blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it. See if I will not rebuke the devourer for your sake. None of that “first believe, then you’ll see” nonsense. God told the nation of Israel here, just obey, and you will see. So if I give at least 10% of my income, no matter how small, to a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church,” I should see more money roll in for me than I have room to receive.

So here is a promise in the Bible that does not require you to believe, only obey.

Now in case you’re thinking this verse did not promise money, it promised “a blessing,” there are many ways God can bless you, money is only one way, and the blessing might come in a different form, that is not the way the Prosperity Gospel reads it. The Prosperity Gospel says this promises wealth to those who tithe. For the Israelites, wealth was in land and crops. God promised to make their land produce crops in abundance if they tithe their harvests. Wealth for us today is in money. Therefore, God will bless you with an abundance of money if you tithe 10% to a “Bible preaching, Bible believing church or ministry.” By that, they mean it has to be a church or ministry that preaches the Prosperity Gospel.

It makes perfect sense. It serves God’s interests as well as yours. You give God 10% of your income, and God will grow your income so that the 90% you keep is greater than the 100% you would have made without God’s blessing. 10% of more means your tithes will get bigger as your income gets bigger. As your tithes get bigger, God will bless you with more money. 10% of more means your tithes will get even bigger. And that cycle will just keep repeating until you don’t have to be concerned about money anymore.

How will the money come? It’s not going to just fall out of the sky or magically appear in your bank account. It might come through raises or promotions at work, that big contract that seemed out of reach before, the book you write that becomes a bestseller, or people might just give money to you. Why? Because God told them to. Prosperity preachers say that last one happens to them all the time. I wonder why people do that? Maybe because they tell people by giving to them, you are giving to God, so God will give to them in return. After all, their books become bestsellers by telling you how to get rich by giving to them. Isn’t that wonderful? God is so good.

Smiley face emoji with dollar signs in eyes
God will bless you if you give me your money.

My Tithe Check Bounced

There’s the punchline of the joke of the Prosperity Gospel. My tithe check bounced. I don’t mean when I was just starting out, and there had not been time for money to reach me. I had been diligently setting aside 10% of any income I made, no matter how small. Even if it was $10, I would set aside $1 for the tithe. Thirty years I had been tithing faithfully, and finally there was not enough money to cover it.

And it wasn’t a faith check. You know what a faith check is? That’s when you write a check and believe God for the money to cover it before it gets cashed, because you don’t have the money in your account at the moment. Very bad idea, and even Prosperity preachers will discourage it. I never did that, or at least I thought I didn’t. When I wrote that check, I honestly thought I had the money in my account to cover it. But this was one of those instances where I had missed my payment the month before, so I put two month’s tithe on that one check. You know how much it was? $200. After thirty years of tithing, I did not have enough money to cover a $200 check. How much was I making? 10% = $100. Do the math, and you’ll see I was not even close to “a blessing for which you do not have room to receive.” And again, the Prosperity Gospel is clear. The blessing in this verse is supposed to be money. It’s been thirty years. Where is my money?

It didn’t work for you because you don’t have enough faith.

Oh no! You don’t get off the hook with that excuse this time. This verse says it will work whether you believe in it or not. “Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” God said, “Prove me now,” not “It only works if you believe in it.” The only thing required was obedience, not belief. I gave God thirty years to prove himself. What happened?

Context, Context, Context

If you read my last post, you know what happened. The Prosperity Gospel takes that verse completely out of context. I listened to people who told me that God promised me things that God never promised me—or you. In that post, I give a detailed explanation of why this Malachi scripture has nothing to do with making us rich. I won’t rehash the whole thing here, but here are the main points.

  1. The promise was made to the nation of Israel, not to the church, not to any other nation, and not to you and me as individual believers.
  2. The tithes in Israel were taxes, not the voluntary offerings we give to the church.
  3. The tithes were food, not income. The purpose was to ensure there was food for everyone, even the poor and those who had no land.
  4. God was telling people who were already rich to pay their tithes, i.e., taxes, not telling people who were poor how to get rich.
  5. God did not tell the rich they will be richer if they tithe. The metaphors of opening the windows of heaven, and a blessing that they will not have room to receive only meant that they would have more than enough for themselves and their families. It was not an investment with guaranteed positive ROI (Return on Investment).

So if you are tithing because you think God will give you back more than you give, just remember God never promised that. That was the trap I fell into, believing God promised me things that God never promised me. And how did I fall into that trap? By listening to people who profited by reading the Bible out of context. Think about it. If your preacher says, “Look how rich I am. It’s because God blessed me. God blessed me because I tithe. And God will bless you if you tithe,” who receives those tithes you pay? Who receives those tithes everyone pays?

They might say, “It doesn’t go to me. It goes to the church.” But who controls the purse-strings of that church? Do they tell you how they spend all that money they receive? My church shows the budget to all the members, and we vote to approve it. So we know how much our pastor makes. If he showed up to church driving a Mercedes or a Lambo, you’d better believe we would ask him where he got the money for it.

Where Do We Go from Here?

It may sound funny to say this, but I am grateful for that bounced check (with apologies for whatever inconvenience it caused my church). Because any time my prayers for healing, income, a job, protection, or building a career as a writer were not answered, prosperity preachers could it was my fault for doubting too much or not having enough faith. But when it came to this scripture, they could not say that. The deal here is, if I obey this one commandment, God will bless me financially. There is no other requirement. I obeyed. How can it possibly be my fault? What should I conclude from that?

One thing I love about Jesus is when his enemies would try to trap him by presenting him with two options, both of which were bad, he would catch them in their own trap. For example, should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If he says yes, he will be discredited to those who believe he is the Messiah. If he says no, he will be in trouble with Rome. Which is it, A or B? In situations like this, he would choose C. He held up a coin and said, “Whose image is on this?”

“Caesar’s.”

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mat 22:21 NRS).

They gave him two choices, thinking “Heads we win, tails he loses,” and he chose a third option they had never even considered.

So back to the question of why God wasn’t filling his end of the bargain when I tithed, it seems we only have two choices here. A., the Bible is wrong. Or B., God wants to bless me financially, but somehow I keep screwing it up. It can’t be A, so it must be B, right? That’s why I fell into the trap of always trying to get more faith. But I never seemed to have “enough faith” to make it happen. But this promise specifically says it does not depend on my faith. God was practically daring Israel to tithe and see if they receive more wealth as a result. Could it be that there is a C that I had never considered?

C. They are reading the Bible out of context.

You think what they say has to be true because it comes from the Bible. I will say this a thousand times if the Lord lets me live long enough. Just because they are quoting scripture does not mean they are speaking the Word of God. The Bible is only the Word of God when it is rightly read, rightly interpreted, and rightly applied. And rightly doing all of that begins with three things: Context, context, and context.

By now, I think I have shown that in context, this is not a promise of positive ROI if you give 10% of your income to your church. It is not a way for the poor to get rich, and the rich to get richer. It was a message to the rich that if they paid the tithes God commanded, they would still have plenty for themselves and their families. Not more than before, but more than enough. If you still don’t see that, again I will refer you to my previous article where I explain in depth the tithe Malachi was referring to. The tithes were meant to help the poor, not bring more hardship to them.

And in the New Testament, there is no minimum amount we are required to give to the church. Not 10%, not even 0.1%. We give not under compulsion, not under the threat of a curse if we don’t, or expecting a return as if we are investing in stocks or cryptocurrency. If you have a heart to give to your church, then by all means give. The church needs money to operate, just like any other organization. Give as you are able, and give with a willing heart, because God loves a cheerful giver. And remember, money is not the only thing you have to offer. You can give of your time by volunteering, serving on a committee, visiting sick church members, teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, or ask your pastor where they need help. And never let them bully you into giving more than you can afford.

The lesson I learned was much bigger than the purpose of tithing or even the right way to give to the church. It taught me something about the true nature of faith. Faith is not something to manipulate God into giving you what you want. It is a relationship with God based on trust. You can ask God for what you want, and whether God gives it to you or not, you trust that God always loves you and will work whatever happens for good. When understood like that, faith is not something you use as a means to an end. It is an end in itself.


Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a question or comment below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

(NRSV)

Grace and peace to you.