Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Jesus, the god of niceness

One of my students, after reading the Gospels for the very first time, expressed surprise that the Jesus of the Gospels was not the Jesus she expected to find.

I'm not sure what she expected to find, but I fear that many people in American churches tend to view Jesus as an all-tolerant, non-judgmental, teacher of niceness and dispenser of prosperity. Some people seem to have made Jesus into an idol more closely resembling Santa Claus than the Jesus of the Gospels.

While it is certainly true that the Jesus of the Gospels had a lot to say about love and compassion, that’s not all he had to say. The Gospels present a Jesus who condemned malice, deceit, greed, envy, slander, arrogance, lewdness, evil thoughts and sexual immorality—and who went around warning people to repent of their sins or they would perish (Mark 7:20-23; Luke 13:5; Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17; John 3:18-19; 5:28-29).

While the Jesus of the Gospels was certainly compassionate and loving, he was not always “nice.” He told one of his own disciples to “get behind me, Satan.” He called self-righteous religious leaders greedy, self-indulgent fools; hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs and children of hell (Matthew 23:15-17, cf. Luke 11:42-44). He told a crowd they were of their father, the Devil (John 8:44). He even condemned his entire generation as evil, adulterous, sinful, faithless and perverse (Mark 8:8; Lk 11:31-32//Mt 12:42, 41; Mk 9:19; Mt 17:17; Lk 9:41). On numerous occasions he warned people of being cast into an eternal fire where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth 
(Mark 9:43-48; Matthew 5:28-30; 8:12, 13:42; 25:14-30).

In short, his teachings condemn all of us (see, for example, Matthew 5-7), but he claimed to have come to give his life a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Those who sincerely repent of their sin and turn to him as savior and King will be saved from the wrath of God of which Jesus spoke. According to the Gospel of John, those who refuse him are condemned already because they have not believed in Jesus, and because their deeds are evil, loving darkness more than light (John 3:16-20).

Not everyone will like the Jesus of the Gospels and that is their right, but to present a more politically correct Jesus by cherry-picking “nice” parts of the Gospels and ignoring the rest is either ignorance or dishonesty. The Bible would define it as idolatry.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Israel: Whose land?

I just finished reading “Whose Land? Whose Promise? By Gary Burge. Here are some random thoughts:

I agree with Burge that “Israel is a good country. At their very deepest level, Israelis fear annihilation—a fear rooted in centuries of dreadful experiences in the Western world, culminating in the holocaust” (ix).

I agree with Burge that “As a Christian I recognize the ancestral connection between Jews today and Abraham, Moses and David” (xi).

I agree with Burge when he writes that “By comparison with other states in the Middle East, Israel is an exemplar of moderation, civility and freedom” (144).

I agree with Burge when he writes that the son of Hafez Assad (Bashar) “now leads the country and is in the midst of a desperate civil war which by mid-2013 had killed 90,000 people. Israel has not participated in this sort of wholesale massacre” (144).

I agree with Burge that “We want to be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and Pro-Jesus.” But Burge spends 300 pages condemning Israel with only a tiny smattering of commendation. Other than what I’ve quoted above, he says relatively little about the atrocities committed by Israel’s enemies.

One significant area of disagreement I have with Burge is the idea the land promises God made to Israel were conditional based on their faithfulness. This is partially true—God did threaten to remove them from the land for unfaithfulness—and then actually did so. But contrary to Burge, that did not nullify the promises—and it certainly did not give the land to anyone else! The Torah and prophets all said that God would bring the Jews back into the land. Even when Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans or Muslims occupied the land, the land did not belong to them. According to the Torah and Prophets, the land belongs to God who gave it to the Jews as a permanent possession.

My second area of disagreement is the idea that the uniting of believing Jews and Gentiles into one body in Christ, somehow nullifies land promises or transfers those promises to the church. Take, for example, Paul’s Olive Tree illustration in Romans 11 in which believing Gentiles are “grafted in” to the promises given to Abraham through our relationship to Christ. That does not nullify God’s promises. That just explains how believing Gentiles inherit those promises too! To use Paul’s illustration, we (believing Gentiles) are wild olive branches grafted into a Jewish olive tree as joint heirs of the promises.

A third area of disagreement is the idea that all of the Old Testament promises, including the land promises, are somehow spiritually fulfilled in Jesus. Burge approvingly quotes Karl Barth as saying, “all prophecy is now fulfilled in Jesus…” (206). Of course some things are “fulfilled” in Jesus. For example, Jesus is the true Passover lamb and Jesus is the true Temple. But I utterly fail to see how land promises were fulfilled in Jesus. For example, in Genesis 12:7 when God tells Abraham, “To your offspring I will give this land,” how is that “spiritually fulfilled in Christ? The supercessionist argument seems to be that “God promised to give the land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) as a permanent possession, but later says, “I’m not really going to keep that promise after all.  Let’s just say it was “spiritually” fulfilled in Jesus!” What does that even mean?

Fourth, although Burge denies holding to replacement theology, his arguments are the same ones used by those who hold those to replacement theology, i.e. the idea that God is through with Israel and that the church has replaced Israel. But in Romans 11:1-2 Paul writes, “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!...God did not reject his people whom he foreknew.” Supercessionists (replacement theology) argue that God’s people here are the church but the context of the previous verses make abundantly clear that Paul is talking about unbelieving Jews of whom he says, later in the chapter, that “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-30).

Fifth, Burge writes, “While the media presented Arafat as walking away from Barak’s generous offers—offers that were never placed in writing—the PLO negotiators found the Israeli proposals impossible to accept. For example, they planned to divide up the Palestinians into four cantons, each separated by Israeli land (the northern West Bank, the central West Bank, the southern West Bank, and Gaza. The Arabs would not have control over their own water, borders, or air space” (55). 
Of course we’ve seen what happened when Israel did give control over to Gaza. The result was the free election of a terrorist (Hamas) government, the smuggling in of weapons to be used against Israel, and the firing of literally thousands of rockets against Israel! Alan Dershowitz tells another side to this story: “The Israelis and the PLO agreed to meet beginning July 11, 2000, under the auspices of the United States. In the course of these meetings, which lasted until January 2001, [Ehud] Barak startled the world by offering the Palestinians nearly all of the territory they were seeking. By the time the negotiations ended, Barak had accepted Clinton’s even more generous proposal and was offering the Palestinians ‘between 94 and 96 percent of the West Bank’ and all of the Gaza Strip. In exchange for the 4 to 6 percent that Israel would retain for security purposes, it would cede 1 to 3 percent of its land to the Palestinians…Few, if any, Palestinian people would remain under Israeli occupation. In addition, Barak offered the Palestinians a state with Arab Jerusalem as its capital and control over East Jerusalem and the Arab Quarter of the Old City, as well as the entire Temple Mount…Israel would retain control over the Western Wall, which has no significance for Muslims…[Israel would pay] “$30 billion in compensation” [to Arab refugees]…Yasser Arafat rejected the proposal” (Dershowitz, The Case of Israel, 109-110). The reality: “Not only have President’s Clinton and George W. Bush placed all of the blame on Arafat but so have many of Arafat’s closest advisors” (Dershowitz 117). “Virtually everyone who played any role in the Camp David-Taba peace process now places the entire blame for its failure on Arafat’s decision to turn down Barak’s offer. President Clinton, who was furious at Arafat and had called him a liar, had blamed the failure completely on Arafat”… “Even some of Arafat’s most trusted advisors and senior associates are now regretting the decision” (Dershowitz 118).

Sixth, discussing the “Second Intifada” Burge says it was started when Ariel Sharon entered Temple Mount. Burge then gives all the statistics of the number of Muslims dead when Israel attacked. Judging from Burge’s report, you’d think Sharon entered the Dome of the Rock itself (56-57)! No! He just went up to Temple Mount—like thousands of visitors do every year. Muslims responded in rioting and yes, many got killed when Israel put down the riots. Burge doesn’t bother to mention that the riots were orchestrated by the Palestinians! Palestinian media and imams issued calls for action in anticipation of Sharon’s visit. Palestinian schools were even closed and demonstrators were bussed up to Temple Mount! Did Israel overact? Maybe. Riots are not easy to deal with. But to say Burge’s presentation of what happened is biased would be putting it lightly.

Seventh, Burge writes, “I am convinced that if the prophets of the Old Testament were to visit Tel Aviv or Jerusalem today, their words would be harsh and unremitting” (147). I agree completely! Would those prophets, therefore, say that Israel has forfeited the right to the land? Absolutely not! The Jews may be temporarily removed from the land but the land never becomes someone else’s possession. God may even use other nations like Assyria or Babylon to execute his judgment in removing Israel. But God will then judge those nations for doing so! The land never becomes theirs. Christians can, like the prophets, criticize Israel’s policies but we must do so—like the prophets—out of love for God and his people Israel, not from the standpoint of enemies. When we ally ourselves with the likes of Hamas or Hezbollah, we are siding with the enemies of Israel (and God).

Eighth, Burge spends pages 180-192 basically talking about how the land was NOT part of the message of the New Testament. This is an argument from silence and such arguments are often notoriously weak. Second, a partial reason for the silence may have been to avoid unnecessary conflict with Rome since Rome could have interpreted references to Israel’s ownership of the land as fomenting a revolt. Third, and most importantly, the central message of the New Testament focuses on the expansion of God’s promises to all nations! Jewish rights to the land were irrelevant to that message—but that doesn’t mean Israel forfeited those rights. Fourth, nothing in the New Testament denies or annuls the Old Testament promises to give Israel the land. In fact, Jesus even seems to affirm that promise in Acts 1:8 (see below):

Ninth, in Burge’s discussion of the book of Acts, Burge takes Acts 1:8 out of context. In Acts 1:6 the disciples ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” The question is about Old Testament promises to give the land over to the sovereign control of the Messiah in the kingdom. Since Burge made such a big deal with an argument from silence in the New Testament, you’d think he would find it to be significant that Jesus does NOT say, “You guys have missed the whole point! Those promises God made about giving the land to Israel as a permanent possession are no longer valid! They have all been “spiritually” fulfilled in me!”

Unlike Burge, I’m not just arguing from silence. Jesus goes on to say that it is not for them to know “the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, it is as if Jesus was saying, “Yes, the Father will restore the land and kingdom to Israel but it is not for you to know the time frame in which God will do that. You focus on being my witnesses to the ends of the earth!”

Tenth, Burge makes much of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7.  Burge writes that this “described how the land of Israel was not the sacred domain of revelation Judaism thought…Stephen challenges the Jewish assumption that the land is integral to the plan of God” (194). Please, read the speech yourself. It simply does not say what Burge says it says! After summarizing Israel’s history all the way back to Abraham—including repeated Jewish rebellion—Stephen brings his audience up to Solomon’s construction of the Temple but then cites Isaiah 66:1-2 as saying that God is not confined to temples made with hands. Saying that God is not confined to temples made with hands is not nullifying the land promises to Israel! Stephen concludes his sermon saying that his audience is a rebellious, “stiff-necked people” just like their ancestors to whom Stephen referred in his summary. At that point the audience stones him to death—Not because he denied their right to the land; he said absolutely nothing denying their right to the land, but because he forcefully called them rebellious “stiff-necked” people just like their ancestors!

Burge ends the section on Acts by saying, in the second to last paragraph, that “The territorial limits of Israel/Palestine did not exhaust God’s agenda for humanity” (195). Of course not! No one says it does! This is simply a straw man argument. The fact that God’s plan did not exhaust God’s agenda for humanity simply does not negate all the promises God made to give Israel the land!

Finally, number eleven: Imagine a book in which someone writes about the internment of Japanese families in America, and the innocent victims of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The book includes statistics and heart-rending stories of families, including Christian families, affected by these nightmares. The book does this without mentioning that it was imperial Japan that was expanding its empire or that it was Japan that attached Pearl Harbor first. No mention of the gut-wrenching stories of the thousands who died—some burned to death or drowned--or lost loved ones in Pearl Harbor. Nothing about the fact that—as wrong as it was—life in a Japanese internment camps in America was like staying in a Motel 6 compared to the horrendous torture to which Americans were exposed in Japanese prisoner of war camps.

Now imagine that someone takes issue with such a one-sided presentation only to be told that we’re not talking about Japan, we’re talking about America because we hold America to a higher standard! We may indeed hold America to a higher standard but to tell the story like this would make America look like the great Satan while Japan comes off looking like innocent victim of imperialist aggression. But the exact opposite was the case! To tell the story like this would be to use partial truth to communicate a horrendous lie!

But that is precisely what enemies of Israel do when they tell only one side of the story. And although Burge does not count himself as an enemy of Israel, he tells a very one-sided story that is used by the enemies of Israel. Don’t misunderstand. I am not an advocate of “Israel right or wrong.” In fact, I’m not at all opposed to friends of Israel who, like the prophets of the Old Testament, condemn the injustices of Israel—especially injustices done to our Christian brothers and sisters! But when people leave the impression that Israel is the Great Satan surrounded by innocent victims, they should not sound so shocked if others suspect them of anti-Semitism.