Friday, February 6, 2015

Sabbath, or Sunday?

I was recently contacted by a friend who is a pastor asking me about Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) as compared to Sunday observance and gathering. He was doing his work as a shepherd in relation to people who had questions on this topic. I was delighted to respond to him, and am reproducing a slightly edited copy of my email below.

To the question regarding doing Sabbath “right” - it is very clear that reverting to a Fri sundown to Sat sundown pattern would deviate from what the early church itself did. 

Some material:
  • In our devotional/sermon prep this morning, Rosemarie and I were reading Acts 15, the account of the Jerusalem Council. No, Sabbath itself isn’t mentioned in the account in terms of Christian observance (Acts 15:21 does refer to synagogue practice), but that is significant in itself. The two primary accusations against Christ had to do with his claim to be God, and his violation of the Sabbath. If that had been an ongoing issue for the early church I believe that a stipulation of Sabbath-keeping would have have been part of the requirement for the Gentiles in Acts 15.
  • Christ makes it clear in his rebuttals to his critics that Sabbath is to serve man in respect to God, rather than be an obstacle. (cf. Mark 1:27 and many other passages). That in itself is not an argument against keeping the Sabbath: when we visited Israel it was impressive to see the extent to which even non-religious Jews considered Sabbath a gift, a time to invest in family. However, it is also clear that in contrast to the legalists/restrictionists, Jesus views Sabbath as opportunity and blessing rather than as a way of marking personal holiness and rejecting others.
  • Specific prohibition against demanding a return to Sabbath observance can be found in Col 2:16 (express mention and use of “Sabbath") and Rom 14:6 and Gal 4:10 (clear reference to sacred or special days, and read the context as well). This is in clear violation of a direct command in the NT, and I cannot find any NT passage that suggests that believers should observe the Sabbath. Ah, but what about passages where the apostles go to the Temple or a synagogue on the Sabbath? (cf. Acts 13:14, 44; esp. 17:2 and 18:4 etc.) Read carefully: Paul and the others were going where the mission field was: that was the day and place of gathering where they could invite others in to relationship with the Messiah.
  • So when should believers gather? The NT does not demand one day or another, but there is strong indication in the NT that the practice of the earliest church was to worship on Sunday. Here’s the basis for this:
    • Jesus appears to his followers twice on the first day of the week, the day of Resurrection, as they are gathered together (John 20:1 is the resurrection itself; Jn 20:19 is the first such appearance to the assembled believers; Jn 20:26, a week later, is the appearance to Thomas, and again the disciples are specifically gathering and Jesus appears). It is of interest to me that these accounts do not seem to indicate that Christ commanded them to gather - they are doing so, and then Jesus shows up.
    • While the above accounts could show the beginning of a pattern, they don’t have to do so: it could just be coincidence. However, my next bullet points will indicate that there is a pattern. How is this established as a regular observance? Ultimately we do not know: Scripture doesn’t record a direct statement by Christ to choose Sunday over Saturday. However, 
      • keeping in mind the primacy and inviolability of Sabbath observance for the Jews, and 
      • given that we have no debate in the early church on the topic at the Jerusalem Council (although the fact that in other passages Paul addresses the issue and prohibits making it a test of relationship indicates that there were some who disagreed), 
      • I would argue that the early church made Sunday their day as a result of Jesus’ teaching in the 40 days between resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3). 
      • In other words, a few people made an issue of it, but for the bulk of the church it was a non-issue, and I personally believe that this is because Christ instructed them in this. We certainly see them carrying this out in the following explicit statements.
    • Acts 20:7 says of  the early church: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” This was not just a ritual meal - this was an extended day of sermons which in this case went to midnight and beyond (the Eutychus incident). Cf. Acts 20:7-12.
    • 1 Cor 16:2 has offerings being gathered on the first day of the week. The discussion on tithes and offerings is another thorny issue for some, but there can be no doubt that this fits the context of a church gathering. 2 Cor 9:12 uses a word in connection with this act of offering which relates to our English word “liturgy”.
    • Rev 1:10 makes reference to the Lord’s Day. There is some debate among scholars as to what this means, but most of us agree that this refers to the day of Resurrection, Sunday, the first day of the week. If this was the only support for Sunday gatherings I wouldn’t have a strong case to make, but with the other material as well, I think the pattern is an established and solid one.
  • While it is not as compelling for us as is the text of the New Testament, early Christian writers confirm Sunday observance. We see this from Ignatius in his Epistle to the Magnesians (ca. AD 110-117), as well as Justin Martyr (ca. AD 150), who gives us the earliest full description of a Christian worship service in Apology 65-67. It is interesting to me that these writings are simply reporting normal behavior in the flow of the story: they were not written to argue for Sunday vs. the Sabbath. There seems to be no debate on the topic. While their writings do not have the force of Scripture, they do tell us what the early church did, and (contra Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code) this is a pattern established long before Constantine and the church councils of the Fourth Century.
In the end, I would be violating Scripture to demand that all Christians worship on Sunday, but it is a very direct disobedience (if there are grades of disobedience) to demand Sabbath (Fri-Sat) observance.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Bell's Hell, and the Question of the Cross

Like many others, I don't like the idea of an eternal Hell and am puzzled at a loving and gracious God who would allow this. At the same time, we are in the Easter season; the idea of God himself dying (and the Father allowing the Son to die) on the cross for us is also grotesque.

These two incredible and horrible truths resolve each other when one realizes that the cross means that no one needs to go to Hell. Without the provision of the cross, Hell is the worst, most malicious and evil thing ever perpetrated on man by a supposedly loving Creator-God. Without Hell the cross is unnecessary, and a God who would allow his Son to die for no reason becomes the most despicable being one could imagine. The cross and Hell are problems which essentially resolve each other.

In Love Wins, Rob Bell argues that the idea of Hell as eternal punishment is simply the adoption of Greek terminology by Paul and others to describe the fate of those who reject God. They contend that there will be punishment, but it is not eternal and ongoing. That idea of unending separation and punishment came because some in the early church assumed that when the New Testament adopted Greek language (Hades, Tartarus) it was also adopting the Greek descriptions of that place and state. In fact, Bell and others would say that Paul and others did not intend to agree that these non-Christian concepts described reality: they were simply using the language of their day to talk about a state of punishment - which Bell and others believe and hope will not be eternal. Eventually love will win and all will be saved.

Allow me to point out a couple of flaws in this understanding. First of all, in 2 Thess. 1:5-10 Paul affirms God's justice and "everlasting destruction" and exclusion from the presence of God (v. 8) for those "who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus" (v. 7, NIV). Paul does not use the Greek terms for this place of everlasting destruction in this passage, but he most certainly affirms what it is like. This argues that it was not a failure of the early church to read Paul correctly that resulted in understanding Hell as eternal, but rather that Paul explicitly understood it that way himself.

Others, who identify themselves as annihilationist, say that the wicked dead will rise but ultimately are destroyed and will not suffer eternally. The effect of the punishment is eternal, not the punishment itself. A variation on this is something called “conditional immortality.” Its proponents argue that the punishment is eternal in the sense that those who die having rejected God will simply cease to exist. Only people who accept salvation will have life beyond the grave. This is completely out of sync with all the judgment passages of Scripture, including 2 Thess 1:5-10.

Daniel 12:2 makes it clear that both universalism ("all will eventually be saved") and annihilationism ("the punishment is not eternal, only its effect") are wrong. Daniel 12:2 states that, "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt." Once again we see the state and condition of the lost described without use of ancient place names like Sheol or Hades. This argues that the description itself is a correct one, not simply adopted by assuming that the pagan term described reality. The passage is also from the Old Testament, and the state described is therefore not a result of incorrect Greek understandings from the world of the New Testament. Further, the idea of "shame and everlasting contempt" has no meaning whatsoever if the duration of the punishment is finite, resolved either by everyone ultimately repenting or being destroyed. A non-existent entity cannot feel shame and contempt, nor do those who are redeemed.

Will love win? Actually, it already has won. On the cross love broke the power of death and Satan (Heb 2:14-15; 1 Cor 15:54-57). Love Won on the cross, which offers a provision for eternal reconciliation with God. It will not do so by a misreading of the Bible so as to limit Hell.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Bullied Child and the Other Cheek

Does “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) apply to a child under eleven year old who is being bullied? My response to this real-life question from friends is “No”, “Yes”, and “No.” Here’s why:
First, on a societal/cultural level, the US is a nation that glorifies response to oppression. (Disclaimer: I’m a Canadian. We are famous for apologizing when we are bumped or our toes are stepped on.) The theme of the underdog who ultimately triumphs dominates in the media. Americans value and teach standing up for your rights and stopping bullying in its tracks. The law of Moses makes it clear that while the response to injury must be restrained (“eye for eye” does not mean one must take an eye, but rather that one cannot escalate to “eye plus tooth for eye”) the expectation is that one will defend oneself against the attacker or the invader, especially in time of war. Resistance to one’s government, just or unjust, remains a disputed issue within the Christian community, with some arguing that it is never permitted, and others stating that the believer is obligated to stand for righteousness and against injustice, whatever the source. With that cultural and biblical background, it must be wrong to say to a child, “Sure: let yourself be bullied!” The answer to our question should surely be a “No!”
But what if this child has accepted Christ and understands that this journey with him involves being counter-cultural? An eleven year old can comprehend what it means to turn the other cheek. As a theologian who has been a children’s pastor, as the father of four children, and as an observer of many more, I know that children can understand such concepts, grapple with them, and attempt to live them out in real life. We are told to “bless those who persecute you” (Rom 12:14), which is at odds with what our culture values. Evil CAN be overcome by good (Rom 12:21), even if that isn’t done by Hollywood. So then, the answer for a child who has chosen to follow Christ must be a “Yes, do turn the other cheek,” right?
The age of a child is significant. In Jewish understanding, children become responsible for their own actions at age twelve and this is celebrated with a bar/bat mitzvah. Before that time responsibility for their actions rested with their parents. In one way, the bar or bat mitzvah was a party for the parents even if the kids got the gifts!
So where does the responsibility for the bullying lie? Jesus warns strongly against mistreatment of children, especially when an adult is mistreating a child (Matt 18:1-10; 19:14).
What if this is one child mistreating another child of similar age? Some of the Old Testament rules regarding treatment and responsibility for livestock are useful. An ox that gores and kills a human is to be killed itself, and the owner punished by not benefitting from its meat. However, if the owner knew that the ox had a “habit of goring” and did not prevent its doing so, both the ox and the owner were to be killed (Exod 21:28-29). The rules for livestock are not all negative, punitive, and restrictive: the ox treading out the grain was not to be muzzled, in order that it could enjoy some of that grain (Deut 25:4).  As Paul observes, these regulations were not given only for the livestock but also or even more so for us (1 Cor 9:9-10). Beyond that, instructions target the owner of the ox since the ox can’t read.
How does this apply to the case of the bullied eleven year old? Societal authorities (teachers, parents, care-givers, etc.) bear the responsibility of curbing bullying, both in stopping the individual incidents and in being aware of situations where there is a “habit of goring. We live in a broken world and bullying is one of the results.
The child could choose to respond in a Christ-like way, turning the other cheek. This would indeed to a marvelous testimony of good conquering evil, of the cross breaking the grip of sin. An argument can also be made that responding and fighting back is justifiable and ultimately it is the conscience of the child that must dictate the correct response (Rom 14).
The adults in the situation have a much greater and more serious responsibility. Those who have the power and obligation to stop the bully must do so.
Your comments?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

So, what did happen to Judas?

A question was asked in one of classes recently about the apparent disparity between two of the accounts of the death of Judas. Mt 27:5 indicates that he hanged himself, while Acts 1:18 says that he fell headlong, his body burst open, and his intestines spilled out.

The New American Commentary states:

The picture is that of a fall so severe as to open his body cavity and cause his inner organs (splanchna) to spill out. In consequence of this gory death the field became known by Jerusalem locals as Akeldama. For his non-Semitic readers, Luke translated the Aramaic word—“that is, Field of Blood.” Matthew gave a fuller account of Judas’s death. Despite significant differences in detail, the main emphases are the same in the two accounts—the purchase of a field with Judas’s blood money, the grisly death of the betrayer, the naming of the field “Field of Blood.

The Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament says:

The enigmatic πρηνὴς γενόμενος (literally “having become prone”; AV, ASV, and RSV “falling headlong,” NEB “fell forward on the ground”) is interpreted variously in the early versions.
(1) The Latin versions attempt to harmonize the account in Acts with the statement in Matthew that Judas “went out and hanged himself” (Mt 27:5). The Old Latin version current in North Africa, according to a quotation by Augustine in his contra Felicem, i.4, seems to have read collum sibi alligavit et deiectus in faciem diruptus est medius, et effusa sunt omnia viscera eius (“he bound himself around the neck and, having fallen on his face, burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out”). On the basis of this sole patristic witness Blass introduced καὶ κατέδησεν αὐτοῦ τὸν τράχηλον into his edition of the Roman form of the Acts, and Clark inserted the line καὶ τὸν τράχηλον κατέδησεν αὐτοῦ into his stichometric edition of Acts. Jerome, who may have known this rendering, reads in the Vulgate suspensus crepuit medius et diffusa sunt omnia viscera eius (“being hanged, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out”).
(2) A different tradition is represented in the Armenian version and the Old Gregorian version; these describe Judas’s end thus: “Being swollen up he burst asunder and all his bowels gushed out.” What the Greek may have been from which this rendering was made is problematical. Papias, who according to tradition was a disciple of the apostle John, described Judas’s death with the word πρησθείς (from Epic πρήθεινto swell out by blowing).

The Bible Knowledge Commentary says the following: 

The account of Judas’ violent end in Acts 1:18 seems to contradict Matthew 27:5, which starkly says he “hanged himself.” One explanation is that Judas’ intestines quickly became swollen and distended after he hanged himself, so he burst open. Another explanation, more probable, is that Judas hanged himself over a cliff and the rope or branch of the tree he was using broke. When he fell to the rocks below, he “burst open.”

While these are plausible and possible understandings, an article published yesterday (view it at, if you're interested) highlights a similar disparity of language in the OT, where some translations have Haman hanged and others have him impaled. The term which is translated as "hanged" in English probably does not actually relate to our western "hanging by the neck until dead". After all, Jesus is spoken of as "hanging ... on a tree" (Acts 5:30), and it's clear that this was not done using a noose.

In the case of Judas, we simply don't know. Clearly, even if "hanging" is used for Christ's crucifixion, Judas could not have crucified himself (or at least, I haven't figured out how he could have done that). It is also unlikely that he impaled himself, although we'd have a much better idea if we knew what the property he bought (and where he died) looked like. If he threw himself off a cliff and was impaled on a tree below, that would account for both descriptions. Alternately, he may indeed have hanged himself with a noose, and remained hanging until natural processes caused his body to burst (or some rather quicker supernaturally caused intervention - cf Acts 12:23).

Maybe not a completely satisfactory answer, but there are a few useful clues, I think...

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Work of a Theologian

I had the enormous fun today of discussing Missional Theology in a workshop with Dr. Mel Ming at the Annual Conference of the Northwest Ministry Network. It is a topic I really love.

I first met Mel as a teacher when I was a student at Northwest College. He was famous for his organizational skills even then and was a terrific teacher.

Almost a decade later, after about five years in pastoral ministry, I decided to finish my Masters degree. Near the end of studies as I was doubting my sanity at "leaving the ministry" and a paid position, Mel called to ask me to consider teaching Church History and being the computer department at Northwest .

Thank you, Mel, for taking that risk and hiring me! Today, several decades later, I've gotten to know Mel not only as a teacher but also as an excellent friend. I find myself most emphatically in ministry, doing the work of a theologian: thinking and talking about God.

Here's a link to a discussion on the tasks and tools of the theologian from a class I taught at Cedar Park Church this Spring. I hope you find it useful: I'd appreciate your reactions and comments.

Blessings, and thank you for your interest!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Wonder and Uniqueness of the Wheel

There's a fascinating article on the invention of the wheel, which you can read at

The section that caught my eye is this: that the invention of the wheel-and-axle was "a task so challenging archaeologists say it probably happened only once, in one place".

Hmmm - it seems to me that the complexity of life itself, leave alone that of our human bodies and minds, exceeds the wheel-and-axle by a fair bit. What are the odds, then, of multiple "lower beings" evolving into "higher beings" in close enough physical proximity that they could procreate and reproduce? It's not enough just to have a single lower being evolve: you need to have a Mr and Mrs evolving-lower-being who can meet up and make new higher-being babies...

Wonderful Music for Easter

In our last class session I mentioned music (again!) and we talked about its power in worship and indeed in most aspects of life.

I mentioned two pieces that I particularly love in this season: "God So Loved the World" from Stainer's Crucifixion, and "I Cannot Tell", sung to the tune of Londonderry Air. Here are some YouTube links, if you'd like to check these out for yourself.

King's College choir (Cambridge) with "God So Loved the World" (brings back memories of hearing it in that physically cold but marvelous space in Cambridge) -

Songs of Praise (a regular BBC production) at St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast with "I Cannot Tell" (I still find it difficult to just read the words without tears of gratitude and amazement) -

and to add to the above, my wife reminded me afterwards of a song which we've loved since we heard it: "Beautiful Scandalous Night" -

I hope these bring you joy and a renewed appreciation for God achieved for us. May the reality of Christ's resurrection invigorate your life!

ps - Another great version of "God So Loved the World", with St. Paul's Cathedral choir, can be enjoyed at - I prefer the King's College version because of personal connection - you might like this one yourself...