I have a new book available, although it's rather different than my previous ones and is geared mostly toward local interest. It's a history of my church, the Second Baptist Church of Calais, Maine. If you're interested, you can follow this link to find it on Amazon.com, where it's available for purchase. Also, I'm taking this week off from blogging. I'm in the final phase of my thesis research in my coursework (much of the thesis material ties in with the research I did for the church history book). I have two big papers due this Friday, so I need to wait until next week to spend time on the blog. Posts will resume on Monday, October 30.
Lord, you have become our refuge from generation to
generation. In the first and second generations, you were our refuge. You were
our refuge so that we might be born who before were not. You were our refuge so
that we might be born anew who were evil. You were a refuge to feed those that
did forsake you. You are a refuge to raise up and direct your children. You are
our refuge. We will not turn back from you, for you have delivered us from all
our evils and filled us with your own good things. You give good things now;
you deal softly with us so that we will not be wearied in the way. You correct
and chastise and strike and direct us so that we may not wander from the way.
Therefore, whether you deal softly with us so that we will not be wearied in
the way, or chastise us so that we do not wander from the way, you are our
refuge, O Lord.
We've just started our "Glimpses of Grace" series, looking at foreshadowings of Christ and the New Creation in the Old Testament. Last week we examined the hints pointing toward Christian Trinitarian theology that lie in plain sight in Genesis 1. But before we leave the first chapter of Genesis, I thought I would re-post an article I wrote earlier this year. While it starts from a New Testament passage rather than an Old Testament one, it fits well into this series because it relates one of the most important moments of the Gospels to a set of veiled foreshadowings in Genesis 1.
(Originally posted on Jan. 12, 2017)
Every now and then I’ll choose to follow the Revised Common Lectionary’s cycle of texts for my evening services (though, truth be told, using the lectionary “now and then,” rather than all the time, is rather like enrolling in an academic course and then dropping in on a class only when the mood suits you). I appreciate the way the lectionary strives to hold together threads of continuity that bind together the Psalms and the Gospels, the Old Testament and the New. This past week, as part of an ongoing reflection on the holiday of Epiphany, the account of Jesus’ baptism was paired with the Genesis 1 account of creation, with particular focus on the Trinitarian presence in the first few verses of that chapter, with the Father creating, the Spirit “hovering over the waters,” and the Son, “the Word,” being the agent by which creation is brought into existence. The more I reflected on this union of passages, though, I began to see more and more linkages between the two, to the point where it began to suggest a rather inspiring answer to a biblical question that I’ve never really seen answered to my full satisfaction. That annoying little question is, “Why did Jesus get baptized?” In my evangelical tradition, I’ve heard a number of answers thrown out—“He was using it as a sign of radical, full-hearted commitment to God the Father,” or “He was using it as a way to mark the beginning of his ministry,” or “He wanted to be a model of baptism for the generations of Christians to come.” There is, likely, some truth to all of these propositions, but it still doesn’t really break through the dissonance of this act, which John the Baptist sees as glaringly obvious: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:14) The inherent problem in this situation is that John was clearly preaching and practicing a baptism of repentance—that is, the act of baptism signified a turning away from one’s sins and toward God, and the symbolism of the water was to denote the way in which God would honor such repentance by washing us clean of our sins. Jesus, according to orthodox Christian theology, had no sins from which to repent, so it was exceedingly odd that he would choose John’s baptism as the marker for the beginning of his ministry. And it doesn’t just seem odd to us; it clearly seemed odd to John the Baptist as well. Jesus’ answer, which appears rather vague, doesn’t offer much explanatory power at first glance: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” What could this mean? Was Jesus saying that he was in need or righteousness, or that the act of his baptism would somehow bring righteousness to something else?
One thing that’s worth pointing out at the very beginning is that Matthew (who gives us our most extensive account of Jesus’ baptism, being the only Gospel that mentions this dialogue between Jesus and John) often chooses to depict the acts of Jesus as enacted fulfillments of Old Testament stories, in order to show that the whole plan of God, from the beginning of the world until that moment, was being summed up entirely in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus, for instance, Matthew shows Jesus fleeing to Egypt and then returning, just as the ancient Israelites did between Jacob’s time and Moses’; and he portrays Jesus as “the new lawgiver,” surpassing Moses in his Sermon on the Mount. So when Matthew records Jesus saying “it is proper for us to fulfill…”, it’s worth noting that Matthew only ever uses the word “fulfill” when he is specifically noting an aspect of the Old Testament that is being fulfilled in Christ. (“Fulfill” is a word he uses a fifteen times—a fairly high count for a single verb in a single book of the Bible; the only other time English translations of Matthew might use “fulfill” in reference to something other than the OT is Matt. 5:33, but in that case it’s an entirely different Greek verb that is used). So, since Matthew appears to be viewing the baptism as a fulfillment of something from the Old Testament, the next question is, What? The answer to this is probably twofold. One aspect of fulfillment can be seen merely in the structure of Matthew’s narrative. The immediately previous story about Jesus (Matt. 3:19-23) showed him going down and sojourning in Egypt, and the immediately following story (Matt. 4:1-11) shows Jesus spending forty days in the desert. So, what story in the Old Testament fits between the sojourn in Egypt and the wanderings in the desert? The answer is: the Israelites crossing through the Red Sea. It is likely that when Matthew presents the story of Jesus’ baptism, he sees it (at least in part) as a recapitulation and fulfillment of Israel’s experience of God’s salvation in the waters of the Red Sea.
But that’s not all. I’m actually going to suggest that that story, though probably in Matthew’s mind, isn’t the primary one being referred to here. To press on, we need to understand the meaning of Jesus’ quote: “it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” We’ve seen that “fulfill” likely signifies a nod to an Old Testament reference, but what is meant by “all righteousness”? We tend to think of “righteousness” in terms of individual moral purity, and thus Jesus’ quote becomes even stranger, because then his reference to “righteousness” would have to be referring to his own condition; but we know that Jesus was not in need of any further righteousness than he already had. The problem is that we’re not quite reading that word, “righteousness,” correctly. In Greek, as in Hebrew, it has a broader and deeper scope than its English parallel. The Greek term is the same as the one used for “justice,” and includes the idea not just of individual moral righteousness, but of all-encompassing “right-ness” in oneself, or in a whole society, or in the totality of creation. When used in Scripture, “righteousness” may not have in view just the individual believer’s moral status, but rather the work of God in “making things right” in a whole society or in the whole world. The clue in the Matt. 3:15 text is probably that Jesus says “all righteousness.” That is to say, Jesus might just be referring to “making things right” not just in himself or in that one spot, but everywhere and for all things. “All righteousness” might be a reference to God’s plan to restore everything in the created order, to make right what had gone wrong in creation. If that’s the case, then the Old Testament text which is fulfilled in Jesus’ baptism would have to be the very act of creation itself, from Genesis 1.
Let’s see if this holds up. We can note a number of similarities right off the bat. First, it should be clear that both the creation and baptism accounts are theophanies of the whole Trinity working in concert. Second, the way the Father and the Holy Spirit are shown working is similar in both cases. In Genesis, God the Father is not portrayed spatially (that is, in reference to a place), but the story seems to assume that when he is speaking creation into existence, he is in that place-beyond-all-places where he resides, and which the New Testament usually refers to by the non-spatial sense of the term “heaven.” Likewise, God the Father is portrayed as speaking from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. The earth below is represented in both accounts by the symbol of water (in Gen. 1:2, “the deep,” or “the waters,” and in Matt. 3:16, the water of the Jordan River). In both accounts, we have the presence of the Holy Spirit, described in some manner of flying-motion above the waters (in Genesis, the Spirit of God hovers over the waters; in Matthew, the Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove when he comes up from the water).
But the parallels don’t just stop there, or else one might be tempted to call it a coincidence. No, in the Matthew account God is quoted as speaking forth the two parts of the divine post-creation assessment which are repeatedly portrayed in Genesis 1: identification and affirmation. In most cases, after God had created some element of the physical world, he would identify it (i.e., “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night’) and then there would be an affirmation (“and God saw that it was good”). Similarly, these are the two things that God the Father does at Jesus’ baptism: first he identifies (“This is my beloved son”), and then he affirms (“with him I am well pleased”).
The other clue that Matthew has the moment of creation in mind when he describes Jesus’ baptism is that he has Jesus instruct John to baptize him by using a fairly gentle form of command: “Let it be so.” The Greek here is an imperative form of a word that can mean many things, but here probably means “permit.” Jesus says to John, “Permit it,” a word-choice that invites consent and participation. Conceivably, Jesus could have used a stronger word, since John clearly recognizes Jesus’ greater authority; he could have simply said to John, “Do it now.” The fact that he uses a word that invites John’s consent and participation calls to mind the way that God speaks in the act of creation: instead of shouting out into the nothingness like a divine dictator, “Be!”, he chooses a way of commanding creation that carries more of a gentle quality, an invitation for creation itself to respond to him in its moment of becoming: “Let there be…”
With all these pieces lined up, then, it appears that Matthew might indeed have had the creation account in mind when he showed us Jesus’ baptism (in addition to the parallel of Israel crossing the Red Sea). If so, then the baptism of Jesus is a re-enactment of the moment of creation. It is the divine announcement of the New Creation, begun in Christ. The new creation, God’s great work of setting all things right through Christ, begins with the re-creation of a new humanity in Christ, and through his death and resurrection we too can join this new humanity, this new creation of God, which ultimately will encompass and renew the entire created order when Christ comes again. Seen in this light, Christ’s baptism may not be the head-scratching puzzle that John the Baptist took it to be; it might very well be the public proclamation that God was beginning his great work of calling into being the new creation in the person of Jesus Christ.
(Note: This article was originally published as a devotional column in my local newspaper)
The marvelous message of Christianity is, quite simply, that
God cares about us. We ought to stop for a moment and consider that there’s no
inherent reason demanding that God must care about us, any more than we must
care about the millions of bacterial life-forms that live in and around us. God
is eternal, all-knowing, and sovereign over the entire universe. We are finite,
mortal, tiny specks on one vanishingly small planet among his trillions of
worlds. One can easily imagine that a God who created a universe like this
would have a good many bigger things to care about than us.
But, astonishingly, he does care about us, and we know this
for a fact because of the way that he has consistently revealed it to us. Rev.
A. J. Padelford, the longest-serving minister of Second Baptist Church
(1877-1909), put it this way: “How inspiring the thought: God thinks of me,
even me! He yearns over me. He would save me. All this we find emphasized in
In every part of God’s outreaching activity towards
humanity, we see his tender care displayed. In his work of creation, he gave us
ourselves, as well as all the magnificent beauty that surrounds us. In the laws
and commandments he laid down for his ancient people Israel, he gave us the
knowledge of how to live well, how to avoid the pitfalls of ruination of that
would otherwise follow from our undirected acts of selfish living. And above
all else, he gave us his own Son, Jesus Christ, who existed before all worlds
in a union of eternal bliss with the Father and the Holy Spirit. God, in his
own person, joined himself to us—took on human nature, lived our life, suffered
for us on the cross, died for us, and then conquered death definitively—all for
God cares about you. It doesn’t matter how far you may have
drifted away from God, how many wrong things you’ve done, or how small or
insignificant you may feel. God cares about you, enough to give everything up
so that he could be close to you. And he not only wants to draw near to us, but
to raise us up, empower us, and give us a mission and an identity that will
shatter the narrow boundaries of our everyday lives by endowing us with the
grandeur of his great mission in the world. If we are friends of God through
Christ Jesus, then we have the unspeakable honor of becoming actors in the
great story that he’s writing.
Once again, here’s how Rev. Padelford put it more than a
century ago: “What an honor it is to be workers together with God, doing that
which has given us to do, and rejoicing in the thought: We are fellow-helpers
of the truth!”
"Though you were to live three thousand years, or three million, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives... The longest and the shortest thus come to the same... For the present is the only thing a man can lose... Bear in mind also that every man lives only in the present, which is an individual point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or uncertain. Short then is the time which any man lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this is handed on by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less one who died long ago."
O God, early in the
morning I cry to you. Help me to pray and to concentrate my
thoughts on you: I cannot do this
alone. In me there is
darkness, but with you there is
light; I am lonely, but you
do not leave me; I am feeble in heart,
but with you there is help; I am restless, but
with you there is peace. In me there is
bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand
your ways, but you know the way
for me... Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to
live now that I may answer
before you and before me. Lord, whatever this
day may bring, Your name be praised.
In Genesis 1, we have the first main account of God's work in creating the world. We also have a chapter that is lavished with rich symbolism that is only fully illuminated in the light of Christ, the New Creation, and the foundational doctrines of Christian theology.
Genesis 1:1-3 - 1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
From the perspective of Christian theology (especially when contrasted with traditional Jewish monotheism), it's remarkable how clearly the first chapter of Genesis underscores our belief in the Trinity: the plurality-in-unity of the Godhead--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Right here in the first three verses, we can see these three persons of the Godhead at work in creation. God, that is, the Father, is the one who plans and oversees the work of creation. The Holy Spirit is hovering over the waters. The Hebrew verb for "hovering" can refer to the gentle fluttering of a bird's wings, or it can also be translated as "blowing softly," either of which is a beautiful image of the Spirit's gentle guidance of the process of creation.
But where, you might ask, is the Son? Remember that in the New Testament, Jesus is described as the "Word" of God, and that he is listed as the active agent of creation, "through whom all things were made" (John 1:1-3). And, indeed, we see that principle at work here. Although the person of the Son is not directly mentioned in Genesis 1, it is notable that God chooses to create through the means of speaking; that is, by his Word. Genesis could easily have portrayed God as simply imagining the world into existence, or using some other means, so it is important that a specific mode of creation is listed, and that that mode is by God speaking. The Word is God's active agent of creation. So here, in the opening verses of the Bible, we have God the Father, his Word, and his Spirit: the Christian Trinity.
Genesis 1:26 26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
This verse underscores the Trinitarian interpretation that we've already seen at the beginning of the chapter. God speaks about creating humanity, but he doesn't appear to be speaking to himself. In previous verses, his commands of "Let there be..." were directed toward the created universe itself, calling forth being from nothingness. But in verse 26, he changes the form, when presumably he could have simply kept to the pattern and said, "Let there be mankind upon the earth." Instead, he says, "Let us make mankind in our image." Who is he talking to? The Bible doesn't ordinarily use the language of the "royal we" in relating God's speech (that is, God does not customarily speak about himself in the first person plural, as a king might do, even though being only a singular person).
So he must be talking to someone. But who? Some scholars have speculated that this is an example of "henotheism," of God representing the greatest figure in a divine council of gods or godlike beings (angels or "sons of God" or "the heavenly hosts," as appear in other parts of Genesis), and so they say that here he is speaking to these other semi-divine or angelic beings. But that interpretation requires us to read extraneous characters into the text of Genesis 1. Angels or other supernatural beings are never mentioned in this passage. Rather, it makes more sense to assume that God is speaking to the other characters who have already been mentioned: his Spirit and (as we have argued) his Word. Another reason why he could not be speaking to angels is that he assumes that his interlocutors share his own nature. He cannot say to angels or to lesser divine beings, "Let us make man in our image," because God and the angels do not share a single "image," they are ontologically different. They are created beings; he is the Creator. Their entire being is contingent upon him, while he is the one and only "necessary being" (to use a philosophy term) in the whole scope of all that is. So, whomever he is speaking to in this verse is someone who shares his own nature, who is equally "God" as he is God. Another clue to this truth is that the following verse, 1:27, simply refers to man's creation "in his [God's] own image," not "their own image,"--a singular reference, following a plural reference, but both referring to the same exact thing. These verses indicate that God's nature is somehow, at the same time, both plural and singular.
Once again, the very first chapter of the Bible supports the foundational doctrine of the Christian Trinity: that God exists not simply as one monolithic whole, but that he exists as three persons eternally united in a communion of love, and sharing the full unity of an undivided divine nature: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This union is not simply a bonding of different items into a group, but a true ontological unity: since there is only one single divine nature, the members of the Trinity truly are "one God," as the Scripture teaches. And each member of the Trinitarian Godhead is "fully God," just as Gen. 1:26 suggests.
So even though the Old Testament never explicitly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity in clear, outspoken terms, it nonetheless is the only possible solution for what is going on in Gen. 1:26--a God who somehow exists as a unity-in-plurality, in which each member of his undivided being share in the full equality of an unbroken divine nature.
If you haven't heard the news yet, you'd better buckle up. In turns out that, as a form of silent, nonviolent protest against social injustices that affect racial minorities, a group of athletes have chosen to kneel during the national anthem. That's right. Kneeling. It's bad enough that Catholics and Episcopalians show blatant disrespect for God by kneeling during public worship, or that future husbands have regularly offended their future wives by kneeling at the moment of proposing. But now black NFL players are kneeling, too. In case you haven't picked up on it yet, I'm poking fun at the sanctimonious horror exhibited by those who believe that the only appropriate posture in which to hear the national anthem is the same posture of protest adopted by the biblical characters of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (that is, by standing, for which offense those three reprobates were thrown into a fiery furnace). I'm not poking fun at it because I think that intentional acts of disrespect against the nation's most treasured symbols are a light matter, but rather because those who have taken most offense at it have obviously and thoroughly misinterpreted what is going on. The truth is, I'm actually not a big fan of the protests; I think they're a poorly-chosen symbol for the statement that the players wanted to make. But my criticism of the protests is simply that they are not nearly as effective as another means might be, not that the protests should necessarily be taken as offensive.
In fact, as I'll explain at the end of the post, I'm closer to being offended at their kneeling for an entirely different reason: not because it disrespects the flag, but because they've chosen a posture that shows a bit too much respect for the flag. I'm offended that the great and reverential act of kneeling has been so debased in our culture that apparently no one knows what it means anymore. If we did, we would know that kneeling during the anthem is inappropriate, because it showstoo much respect. Seriously. Read on, unless your jingoistic rage compels you to pen a fiercely patriotic treatise in the comments section first. Now that I've hooked you into thinking that I'm possibly a lunatic traitor, let's get into the matter at hand. Why should the protests not be interpreted as offensive acts of blatant disrespect? Well, for a number of reasons, not least the fact that all of the people performing the protests have said that that's not what they're about. First, let's consider the task of a person like me, a conservative white male football fan, who sees this kind of protest going on. My first job is to find out what it means. Not to jump to the first weird idea that pops into my head as to what it might possibly mean, but to actually do the work of learning what the players are intending to say by using this symbol. Unfortunately, those who have taken offense at the protests have failed at this very first point. They're attacking a position that no one has actually taken (in philosophical terms, the "straw man fallacy"), and have really only proved that their patriotism is so intense that it seems to have overwhelmed their powers of reason.
Let me give an example of what I mean. When I was serving as a missionary in North Africa, in the midst of a Muslim population, I observed that the women on our mission team would don headscarves before going out for the day. This is a symbolic act, laden with cultural meanings. Now, I could have jumped to a conclusion and started railing against it in an entirely thoughtless manner, saying, "How could you wear that thing? Don't you know it's a symbol of Muslim society's repression and devaluation of women?!" But I would have been dead wrong, and everybody watching would have known immediately that I was an intemperate idiot. So what I did was, I learned what the headscarf meant to the women in my mission team. It was their act of acceptance of a cultural norm which valued modesty for women, and in that culture, the covering of one's hair is one of the leading expressions of feminine modesty, in the same way that covering one's bust is in our culture. Not only so, but it's a manner of expressing feminine modesty that is spoken of favorably in the Bible. So my fellow missionaries had very good reasons for choosing the symbolic act of using headscarves. Now back to the NFL. What are these NFL players trying to convey with their symbolic actions? If you were to listen to the offended fans and pundits, you would come away with the impression that these players are intending to spurn the flag, to dishonor the sacrifices of our veterans, and to enjoy the limelight of pretending to be aggrieved victims of our society when in fact they're high-rolling millionaires. But if you actually thought that, you'd be wrong--just as wrong as I would have been had I prejudged my colleagues' decision to wear headscarves. When you listen to the players themselves, it becomes fairly clear what they're trying to say. Although they themselves have certainly benefited from our society's gluttonous fixation on sports, they nevertheless remain connected to, and representatives of, their home neighborhoods and the people who live there. They have brothers and cousins and friends who experience the harsh side of America's racial turmoil on a regular basis. So they chose to kneel during the anthem (following the lead of the first to do so, quarterback Colin Kaepernick) as a means of drawing attention to the way our society has often turned a blind eye to the scale of violence and bias against racial minorities. None of the players mention a primary agenda of disrespecting the flag, the anthem, or veterans (though they certainly are aggrieved at certain aspects of the society that the flag and anthem represent). But the bottom line is this: if you think that their primary intent is to exhibit direct disrespect against our nation's symbols, then you're simply wrong. There is verifiable evidence to prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that that is not their intent. They have said, time and time again, that they are trying to draw attention to the corrupt nature of certain aspects of our society that lead to real suffering every day. But, you may say, even if that's not their intent, that's still the way it comes across. Can't a symbolic action be offensive simply because someone takes offense at it, whether the person doing it intended the offense or not? Yes, absolutely. In fact, I made that same exact argument when I said that people should stop using the Confederate flag. And that's why I think that this protest was poorly-chosen. There are more effective ways that NFL players could have used their fame to draw attention to the social problems of racism and violence in America. But they chose to use a symbolic act that was almost guaranteed to be misinterpreted. Basic communications theory stipulates that if you're choosing a symbol to convey a message, the best plan is to avoid the symbols that will likely be misinterpreted. Unfortunately, our political culture in the United States has given birth to a civic religion in which the flag is venerated in a sort of mystical fetishism, to the degree that any protest involving a US flag in any way is bound to be misinterpreted in the worst possible manner.
So, the NFL players bungled the efficacy of their protest. But scoring low points on efficiency doesn't merit the blowback they've received. The response of those most offended by these protests has been indicative of a very low degree of thoughtfulness. Even if a symbolic action might give offense, we are still beholden to consider the intent of those performing the action. We run into this dynamic in church life all the time. Some older portions of a congregation might find it offensive, at least at first, when young people show up to church in ratty jeans and t-shirts. But you know what we do? Although offended, brothers and sisters in Christ know that the way to resolve such things is to speak the gentleness of the truth in God's love, and more important still, to listen to one another. Once the older people learn that young people are dressing like that because they regard God as their loving Father, and that their dress is an expression of being comfortable in his house and of coming to him exactly as they are, without any false pretensions, then the offense usually goes away. And when young people begin to understand that older folks aren't simply stuffy legalists, but that they dress up as a way of giving honor, respect, and worship to God, then the resentment on their side goes away too. Older people will still prefer to dress up, and younger people to dress casually, but their offense will have been softened by the grace of understanding.
So when we look at what the NFL players are actually doing, we see that they are not intending any grave disrespect toward the flag, the anthem, or veterans. And, as I playfully indicated in my opening paragraph, the mode of protest they've chosen is just about the most innocent one they could have possibly gone for. Kneeling is universally regarded as a symbol of giving great respect. It has never been a sign of protest. Rather, it is a sign of reverence, deference, and submission. The only other situations in which football players kneel are to pray together or to listen to their coach's directions in the locker room, and in neither context are they taking a knee to protest God or their coach. Culturally speaking, standing has far more often been used as a form of protest than kneeling has. The fact that the players chose to kneel during the anthem shows that their intent is not to protest the flag or the anthem, but to direct attention to an issue connected to those things (the race-based sufferings in our society), while showing proper deference to the symbols themselves. Had they chosen to turn their backs on the flag, or thumb their noses at it, or raise their middle fingers at it, then perhaps some of the horrified shock at their disrespect would have been in order. But they chose to kneel, which is usually considered an act of greater deference than of standing (though certainly less common in some situations). If you were to kneel in the presence of a president or senator, you would probably be asked to stand, not because kneeling is an offensive protest, but because it actually represents an inappropriate level of self-abasement toward someone who is simply another citizen. It is showing too much respect for that situation; it suggests worship when simple deference is in order. Standing would be more appropriate, because it shows respect while still retaining the unshakable dignity of the individual citizen under the law.
Since kneeling is universally regarded as an act of reverence, and often of worship, let's do a little thought experiment. If we didn't have any access to what the players were actually saying about their symbolic act of kneeling, how would we interpret it? What would be the most reasonable cause for offense at their actions? Here's my answer: I would actually want the players to stop kneeling, because kneeling shows an inappropriate level of self-abasement to the flag, rather than the proud dignity of a true-hearted citizen. Committing a traditional act of worship towards the flag by kneeling during the anthem seems a bit much, as if our patriotism has tipped over the edge towards idolatry. So if I were to follow the lead of the much-offended and choose to ignore what the NFL players are saying about their actions, I would object to their kneeling because it shows too much reverence during the national anthem. It looks too much like worship, and we shouldn't be worshiping the flag. Now, clearly, that's not what the NFL players are doing when kneeling, so my offense at the desacralization of kneeling would be misplaced. But, by the same exact token, everyone else's offense at the players "disrespecting" the flag is also misplaced. If you're willing to ignore the players' stated intentions in order to believe that they are disrespecting the flag, then you would also have to allow for my (far more reasonable) contention that they may actually be showing too much respect for the flag. So if you're not willing to allow me my misrepresentation, then you have to give up yours too. So, NFL players: choose a better means of getting your message out. It's a good message, and one we need to hear, but most of the national audience is hearing something else when you kneel during the anthem. It's not working, so choose something else. And everybody else: practice the grace of thinking before you speak, and of giving our fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt. That's just common decency. (Images - Photograph, top: "Brandon Marshall Kneeling in Protest," by Jeffrey Beall, September 18, 2016, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license; Painting, upper inset left: "Saint Francis in Meditation," by Francisco de Zurbaran, c.1635, public domain; Photograph, upper inset right: "Woman from Israel with a Headscarf," by Peter van der Sluijs, October 12, 2012, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license; Photograph, lower inset left: "Parishioners of the Belmont Congregational Church," c.1910, public domain; Painting, lower inset right: "Abbot Christiaan de Hondt, by the Master of 1499, Antwerp, c.1500, public domain)
Grant, we ask you, almighty God, that the splendor of your brightness may shine on us and the light of your Light confirm with the illumination of the Holy Spirit the hearts of those who have been born again through your grace: for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Painting: "The Burning Bush," by Sebastien Bourdon, 17th cent.)
Starting next week, I'll be launching a new series in the "Friday Feature" slot. It will be a Bible study that makes its way through the books of the Old Testament, seeking to find hints and foreshadowings of Christ, the New Covenant, and the Church in those ancient, sacred pages. This course of study was presented to my church's Wednesday night Bible study last year, and was received with excitement and joy.
But it requires some explanation at the outset. Why? Well, because it's not the way that most of us were taught to read the Old Testament. Sure, we might mention a Messianic prophecy here or there (say, when we run into the "Suffering Servant" passage in Isaiah 53), but on the whole we don't set out with the primary goal of finding Jesus in the Old Testament. We evangelicals have been trained in a good and admirable school of hermeneutics: we interpret our Bibles by trying to understand their passages in the context of their own times, with reference to the actual historical events that were happening in the stories themselves. We seldom go looking for hidden threads, and for very good reason: the people who do go looking for hidden threads, most often in search of allegorical spiritualizations, clues to end-times prophecy, or numerological significance, tend to end up very far off track. Such approaches show a penchant for reading whatever they want into the text of the Old Testament.
By contrast, evangelical Protestants have traditionally had such a high regard for Scripture that we have made it our goal to understand what it is actually saying, rather than merely imagining into the text what we might wish it were saying. The great early English Bible translator Miles Coverdale put it this way: "Study [the Bible] carefully. Pay attention to more than the words. Ask who the original subjects and readers were. Consider the circumstances surrounding the passage. Read it in context, noting what comes before and after." This philosophy of biblical interpretation, set out five hundred years ago, is essentially the same method practiced today. It was the method I was taught to follow in seminary: interpreting Scripture in terms of what it would have meant to its original audience. I would affirm that method, and say that it must necessarily be one of the primary lenses through which we read the Old Testament.
But it is not the only primary lens. Certainly, the Old Testament Scriptures were intended to be understood and applied by their original audiences, and we need to understand that message if we are to have any hope of applying the Scriptures to our lives today. But to say that the only thing that the Holy Spirit was inspiring the biblical authors to write to those audiences was a message limited to their own particular time is to give the lie to the whole scope of Christian biblical theology. We believe, and have always believed, that Jesus Christ is the full and final Word of God, the ultimate and unsurpassable revelation of God to man. The Scriptures, as essential as they are, do not have the same revelatory status as Jesus himself does. Rather, they stand as authoritative witnesses to God's great plan, of which Jesus is the summit. As such, Christians have always read the Old Testament through New Testament eyes, and properly so. We recognize that the Old Testament is not a self-contained story, but is the exposition that leads naturally and directly to the narrative climax of the Son of God dying on a cross outside Jerusalem. As such, we can only understand the early exposition with a view to the story as a whole. The Old Testament can only truly be understood in light of Jesus Christ.
But let's push the matter even further. If we believe that the Old and New Testaments constitute one great story, of which Jesus and his New Covenant Kingdom are the climax, then wouldn't we expect hints and foreshadowings of that story to be woven into the very fabric of the story's early structure? Particularly when we consider that Christians have always believed in the Holy Spirit's role of inspiring, guiding, and shaping the holy texts into fit and useful instruments of God's purpose and plan, then it becomes a matter of simple reason that we should expect to find significant markers pointing towards the ultimate direction of the grand narrative, strewn here and there along the way. All that to say, if we believe that God is the author of the story that Scripture narrates, then we must believe that he, as a good author, will have told the story in a way that prepares every one of Scripture's audiences for the ultimate meaning of that story. We should expect to find Jesus everywhere in the pages of the Old Testament.
Interestingly, this was, in fact, the primary lens through which the early church read the Old Testament. Though they would have certainly agreed with our modern evangelical emphasis on a historically-grounded, original-audience reading of the texts, they would not have made the Jesus-centric model of the Old Testament subservient to it. Even within the New Testament itself, it becomes very evident that the earliest Christians were blessed, amazed, and delighted at finding clues to Jesus popping up throughout their ancient texts. For hundreds of years, this was the standard way to read the Old Testament. It was a book of preparation, clearly pointing the way to Christ and the church. (The early Christians' favorite version of the Old Testament was the Septuagint, or LXX, a pre-Christian Greek translation that remarkably preserved an ancient Hebrew tradition of the Old Testament that pointed to Christ in some rather remarkable ways, ways which unfortunately do not always come through quite as clearly in the later Hebraic texts that are now usually used in OT translation.) As such, the scholars of the early church discovered many intriguing signposts that pointed in Christ's direction, signposts that we evangelicals have largely forgotten or overlooked.
For those of us who love the Bible, who have treasured its stories for decades, it can be a joy-giving, wondrous thing to see those stories with new eyes, to find out the delicious secret that lay within them from the very beginning: that all of these wonderful old Sunday School tales, from Adam to Noah to David to Daniel, were stories that told, in whispers of sacred wonder, of the great desire of all longing hearts: our Savior and Friend, Jesus the Christ.
Just a note to inform readers that the current series that has been running in the "Friday Feature" slot--my Theological Bestiary essays on "Ornitheology"--will be brought to a close for the time being. I've covered ten groups of birds in that series so far, so it seems like a good stopping-place. I have up to eighteen more essays to add to the series at some point in the future, so I will plan on coming back to it, either in another set of sequential posts or as fill-ins here and there between other material. In place of my Theological Bestiary, I'm launching a new series in the Friday Feature this week: a set of Bible studies that follow an early-church perspective on how to read the Scriptures.
(Note: This post was originally written as a devotional column for my local newspaper)
As part of my research into the
history of the Second Baptist Church, I’ve been reading some of the books
written by former members and pastors. One of them, Rev. Walter Cook (who went
on to serve as a professor at Bangor Theological Seminary for many years),
wrote a book of devotions for young people, in which he challenged them to live
lives that are wholeheartedly committed to God.
Too often we respond to God’s grace
with half-hearted measures, wavering back and forth in our commitment to follow
his ways. Now, while it’s true that our salvation rests on God’s grace alone,
and not on how perfectly we are able to walk the path of Christian
discipleship, it’s also true that we do ourselves a grave disservice by not
pursuing a wholehearted, all-out commitment to the ways of love and truth
revealed in the Scriptures.
Rev. Cook put it this way: “Many of
us try to keep God himself at a distance. We would prefer not to know too much
about his will for our lives, because he might command us to do things for him
and our acquaintances that we are unwilling to do. God does not want us to be
‘reasonably’ generous with others, ‘moderately’ kind, ‘relatively’ thoughtful,
‘mildly’ considerate. He calls us to be more than half decent, requiring us to
love him and our neighbors with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.”
We tend to avoid God’s call to
all-out commitment because it seems hard. We think that we’ll have to lay aside
some of our old comforts in order to live the kind of life he’s calling us to
live. But what we ignore when we choose to follow him in half-measures is that
the life he’s offering us is more than simply difficult: it is wonderful. In
the words of the apostle James, it is “the perfect law that gives freedom”
(James 1:25). Rather than restricting our freedom, God’s way actually opens us
up to a whole new world of living that we never could have known before. To
live all-out for God is to live life to its absolute fullest. When we are
loving God and loving others with every fiber of our being, only then do we
begin to taste the beautiful, unhindered life of deep-running joy that he
offers to each one of us. All we have to do is yes to him, and begin the
journey of living like a true believer.
“My own soul’s conviction is that prayer is the
grandest power in the universe, that it has a more omnipotent force than
electricity, attraction, gravitation, or any other of those secret forces which
men have called by name, but which they do not understand.” - Charles Haddon Spurgeon, 19th-century Baptist minister in London, called "the Prince of Preachers"