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“It changed everything for a few minutes”

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“You don’t believe in Jesus?” she said. 

I said, “I don’t know,” which was kind of true. When people said Jesus it still always sounded to me like it had to mean something special. Different from other words. I knew I didn’t believe what Christians believed, about how if you said the name you would be saved. Saved from what? But still, when anybody said it, when you heard it out loud, something always seems to happen. A shift in the light. Something about perspective. No matter how quiet they said it or whether they kept talking, it changed everything for a few minutes. 

Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle, page 201




What Does It Mean to “Remain” In Jesus?

Deily asked me to participate in their “Ask an Expert” column. They asked me to reply to a reader who wondered exactly how to “remain” in Jesus, as Jesus expected us to in John 15. Here’s my answer.

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Reflecting on Jesus’ call for his followers to “remain” in him in John 15, a reader asked how one successfully does that.

It is no small concept in John 15. The word “remain,” or “abide,” shows up 11 times in the first 11 verses. A grape branch exists and accomplishes its purpose only as it stays attached to the vine. Likewise, Jesus insisted that remaining in him would result in the fulfilling life we truly want.

If we understand what that looks like we’ll better understand how to accomplish it. To abide in Jesus is to be satisfied in Jesus. Many hope to find self-worth and personal security in our careers or our possessions or our families or in the good things people will say of us at our funeral. For many, even religious involvement is in hopes that we can get and keep the things we really want. It’s an implicit deal with God: We’ll do what God expects of us and in return he’ll do what we expect of him.

Jesus did not intend to be a means to an end. As worthy as it is to have, say, a family or a good job or financial security, none of that is a sufficient basis for our self-worth and happiness. Jesus called us to find our value and purpose in him. Jesus said we are grape branches that must continually draw life-giving nourishment from himself, the “true vine,” or we will wither and die.

If this is the best way to understand what “abiding” means, how is it accomplished? The earliest Christians remained in Jesus as they “continued steadfastly” in 4 practical things: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42). It’s still a good agenda. First, regularly reflect on the apostles’ teaching, which of course is collected in what we call the New Testament. Second, fellowship with other believers for encouragement and accountability. Third, engage in corporate worship. (The phrase, “the breaking of bread,” is likely a reference to the Lord’s Supper, a central element of corporate worship.) Fourth, pray in all its forms: praise and lament and confession and gratitude and petition.

By “continuing steadfastly” in these practices, we’ll be more likely to continue steadfastly in Jesus.




“They must wait for tomorrow”

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Easter Saturday by Elizabeth Rooney

A curiously empty day,
As if the world’s life
Had gone underground.
The April sun
Warming dry grass
Makes pale spring promises
But nothing comes to pass.
Anger
Relaxes into despair
As we remember our helplessness,
Remember him hanging there.
We have purchased the spices
But they must wait for tomorrow.
We shall keep today
For emptiness
And sorrow.




Christianity as “Fulfilled Judaism”

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Some might think of Christianity as a breakaway movement that developed out of Judaism. Not the earliest Christians. The earliest Christians—all of Jewish background—saw the events of Jesus as the fulfillment of all that Hebrew scripture had told them to look for. In other words, they saw themselves not as a breakaway religion but as the continuation of the religion handed down for generations. Even the addition of Gentiles was seen as the fulfillment of promises they had waited to see fulfilled.

In fact, if there was any “breakaway” happening in first-century Judaism, Paul saw those who refused to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah as those who had broken away. In Romans 11:17-21 Paul described himself and other Jews who embraced Jesus’ messianic claims as the original olive tree. He went on to describe Gentile believers as wild olive shoots grafted into the original space where unbelieving Israelites had broken away.

Far from being an anti-Jewish concept, NT Wright points out how consistent to Judaism it would have been for Paul to distinguish some of his countrymen as truly Jewish while others had missed what God was up to. In his massive 1700-page work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright draws parallels between Paul’s claims that Jesus was/is the Messiah and the claims of other Jewish movements immediately before and after Paul’s day. “If Paul really did believe that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah,” Wright says, “then it is impossible to imagine him, or any second-Temple Jews in a comparable position, supposing that this Messiah could have his followers while ‘Israel’ could carry on as though nothing had happened” (985).

Wright acknowledges that “there is the strongly would-be ‘pro-Jewish’ post-holocaust reading of Paul” where “anything short of a two-covenant solution, in which God is happy for gentiles to be Christians but would prefer Jews to remain Jews–and in which Paul endorses this point of view–is regarded as suspicious and probably…’supercessionist.’” But “for the first Christians, the point was…about coming to terms with the fact that if Jesus really was Israel’s Messiah, as they believed the resurrection had demonstrated him to be, then in some sense or other the narrative and identity of Israel had not been ‘replaced’ but fulfilled–fulfilled by him in person, and therefore fulfilled in and for all his people. When Akiba hailed bar-Kochba as Messiah, and some of his colleagues objected, would they, or indeed he, have said that Akiba was ‘replacing’ something called ‘Judaism’ with something different? Clearly not” (pages 1129-30).

To be sure, “Debates will no doubt continue over whether Paul was in fact a good or a loyal Jew….Much the same question was raised in the first century, by no means only about Paul: many Jewish groups and teachers asked it of one another, and this came to a height first in the Roman/Jewish war of AD 66-70 and then in the bar-Kochba revolt in the 130s. Was bar-Kochba the Messiah, or was he leading Israel astray? Akiba, the noblest of rabbis, believed that bar-Kochba was the Messiah, and he suffered for it. Paul, apostle to the pagans, believed that the crucified Jesus was the Messiah, and he suffered for it. But of Paul’s intention to be a good, loyal member of Abraham’s family there should be no doubt. What, after all, was a loyal Jew supposed to do if he believed he had discovered (or, better, that God had revealed) the Messiah?” (pages 1261-62)

In his lengthiest treatment of this subject, Wright says:

“Take the movements a century or more either side of Paul. Think of Qumran, where the scrolls bear witness to a sect which saw itself as ‘Israel’ while ‘Israel’ as a whole was apostate. The covenant had been renewed! This was what the prophets had foretold…! All that, uncontroversially, is what the leaders and members of the sect believed. What this ‘replacement theology’? Was it ‘substitution’? Was it even ‘supercession’? One could use words like that, but that was not of course how the sect saw itself….The whole point, for the Damascus Document, 4QMMT and many other scrolls, was that the long narrative of Israel’s strange and often tragic history had reached its appointed goal. Torah and prophets had foretold a coming time of renewal, a righteous remnant….Was it unJewish, or anti-Jewish, to claim that this was now happening? Of course not. It might be wrong. It might be a false hope. Time would tell. But it was not, in any sense we should consider meaningful today, ‘supersessionist.’ How could claiming that Israel’s God had finally kept his promises be anything other than a cause for Jewish celebration?

“Or consider the rise of bar-Kochba, a century after Paul’s day. Once again, the dark forces of paganism closed in. The new emperor forbade Jewish practices and threatened to obliterate the nation and its historic, theologically central capital. What was a loyal Jew to do? Some were calculating that the renewed ‘exile’ following Jerusalem’s destruction (starting with AD 70) had lasted nearly seventy years. Perhaps this, after all, would be the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s well-known prophecy? [Jer. 25.11] Some believed that the emerging young leader, Simeon ben-Kosiba, really was Israel’s Messiah, the son of the star. Others sharply disagreed, either because their calculations were different or because they had already decided, following the earlier disaster, that piety was now superseding politics. What was to be done? Those who, like Akiba himself, seen by many as the greatest rabbi of the time or perhaps ever, believed that ben-Kosiba was the Messiah, had no choice. They had to follow him and try to make the revolution happen—facing down the skeptics and scoffers with the challenge to faith and hope and military revolt. If Israel’s God was at last sending his promised deliverer, it would hardly be ‘supersessionist’ to rally to his cause and to scorn the Hillelite rabbis who now wanted to study Torah rather than work for the kingdom. This was not a matter of ‘replacing’ or ‘displacing’ something called ‘Israel’ and substituting something else. If ben-Kosiba was the Messiah, then his followers constituted the renewed Israel. That was Akiba’s position, and he died for it.

“Paul belongs exactly on this map. He believed that Israel’s God had renewed the covenant through the Messiah, Jesus. He might, of course, had been wrong. He would no doubt have said that the Qumran sectarians had been wrong to suppose that covenant renewal was taking place with them. The post-135 rabbis declared that Akiba and his colleagues had been wrong to back bar-Kochba. They all might have been wrong; but not unJewish, or anti-Jewish.”

“Ah but, say the self-styled anti-supercessionists: Paul’s message was different. He was bringing in uncircumcised gentiles, so by creating a non-Jewish ‘church’ he was doing something no other Jewish groups had done. Neither Qumran, nor Akiba, nor anyone in between, had envisaged a ‘renewed covenant’ which would include non-Jews and thereby displace Jews. Paul…says—and he is careful always to ground this in some of the most fundamental biblical texts—is that Israel’s God always intended and promised that when he fulfilled his promises to Israel then the rest of the world would be renewed as well, and that this is what was now happening through the gentile mission. The extension to non-Jews of renewed-covenant membership was itself, Paul insisted, one part of deep-rooted Jewish eschatology” (pp 1415-17).




The Nûn and the Nones

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The Islamic State sweeping over Iraq has been marking the homes and businesses of Iraqi Christians with a red nûn. The Arabic letter (pronounced “noon”) looks like a “u” with a dot above. It is equivalent to our “N” and stands for “Nazarene,” a pejorative Arabic word for those who follow Jesus of Nazareth.

It easily calls to mind the requirement that Jews display the Star of David in Nazi-controlled Germany. The Jewish identifier was a precursor to persecution in twentieth-century Europe, and it’s no different with the Christian identifier in twenty-first century Iraq.

Yet Iraqi Christians have embraced what was meant as a derogatory mark. And now social media has exploded with believers around the world adopting the Arabic “noon” as they stand in solidarity with their persecuted brothers and sisters. The “noon” has become countless profile photos and the hashtag #WeAreN has spread rapidly.

Reading reports on the “noons” made me think of another label growing in popularity: The Nones.

No, not Catholic nuns. The “Nones” is the label researchers have given to those with no religious affiliation. When asked to identify themselves from a list of religious groups, one of every five now mark the option “None.” Among the under-30 Millennials, one of every three do so. That makes the “Nones” the second largest “religious” group in America.

Most Americans were raised in families that were at least nominally Christian. So why do so many now check “None” on a religious survey? One reason is surely our too-human reluctance to identify with a mocked group. We’re astute observers of the professor’s smirk and the comedian’s snark. And we quickly learn that Christian beliefs and morals create severe social and career liabilities. So, when asked to identify our religious affiliation, it’s become convenient to shrug and say, “None. I’m spiritual but not religious.”

So, in one part of the world people identify with the convenient label “None” while in another part of the world people accept the costly label “Nûn.”

What about you? Will you accept the mocked mark? Though Western Christians “have not yet had to resist to the point of being killed” (Hebrews 12:4 GNT), that doesn’t mean it won’t cost you. But follow the Nazarene who “thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross” (Hebrews 12:3). He’s holding your eternal reward in two nail-scarred hands.




About Tom

ANCHOR COURSE LOGO Tom Goodman is a graduate of Baylor University and Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, and he holds a doctorate from New Orleans Seminary. He has served as pastor in Louisiana, north Texas, and overseas in Grand Cayman before becoming the pastor of Hillcrest Church in Austin, Texas. Diane and Tom have been married since their days at Baylor University, and they have two sons, Michael and Stephen. Tom enjoys scuba diving, watching the latest Netflix DVD with Diane, and chasing mis-hit golf balls.
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