March 2012


The Flight to Egypt

After the wise men departed to return to the East, God intervened in the life of the holy family to preserve it in the face of the Herod’s rage. The murderous wrath of the king in the face of the perceived threat to his throne came as no surprise to God, who knows not only the hearts of men, but knows the evil that overflows those hearts.

Matthew does something in this passage that he does repeatedly in his Gospel. He refers to the Old Testament, and asserts that it foretold the events that he portrays. In this instance, he cites Hosea 11:1, which says:

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called me son.

Modern biblical criticism has argued at great length about whether New Testament citations of Old Testament passages is in accordance with sound scholarship, whether such citations have any significance, or whether they should just be treated as window dressing. I believe all of those arguments miss the point.

What Matthew is doing is not proof-texting as we think of and disdain it. Rather, he is making a twin theological point. First,  he is tying the story of Jesus inextricably to that of the work of God throughout the whole history of His people. Jesus is not disconnected from Israel, or a savior only for the Gentiles. He is a son of Israel, the savior of Israel, and a gift of Israel to the entire world.

Second, he is making clear that the mission of the Messiah is not an afterthought, or a response to something that God had not foreseen. The incarnation, life, teaching, miracles, healing, betrayal, sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Son of God were God’s plan all along. Because God is ultimately sovereign over human history, He is able to carry out His plans regardless of the opposition of the world (a point that is made even more prominently in the next passage).

Matthew’s quotation of Hosea may or may not follow the canons of modern scholarship, but his theology of God and God’s people is impeccable.

The Visit of the Wise Men

About a year after Jesus was born, the holy family was still in Bethlehem, but had found better quarters. Possibly they were renting a house, maybe they were staying with relatives. In any event, the manger was but a memory when the family was visited by strangers “from the East,” usually thought to be Persia.

We don’t know how many of them there were, much less their names, but we do know that Matthew refers to them as “wise men.” There are several different understandings of the term that designates them–magi may refer to astrologers, Zoroastrian priests, experts in various occult arts, and so on. What we know for sure is this: they connected their observations of a star with the coming of the King of the Jews, and came west to Israel to “worship him.”

That word “worship” is in some ways the key to this passage. It’s used twice, once when they tell King Herod why they had come, and when they came to the house and met Him live and in person. Herod responded in bloodthirsty fashion to the wise men referring to Him as a king, and assumed Jesus’s birth was all about politics. But the wise men weren’t interested in paying obeisance to a new-born politician. They wanted to meet One who was worthy of worship.

The really interesting thing about the worship they offered to Jesus is there is no response from Mary. She was a Jew, not a Gentile magi (who, if not Zoroastrians, might well have been polytheists), and we might expect her to object. God alone is to be worshiped, she might have said, and as important as my son is, he is not God. It would not have been a doctrinal problem for the early church for Matthew to have noted such a response, since it would be assumed that she simply didn’t yet understand who Jesus really was–certainly there are many indications that His disciples didn’t really get Him until after the resurrection. But Mary apparently makes no move to stop the wise men from offering to her son–God’s Son–the adoration that He deserved.

The modern tendency, particularly among those seeking to reconcile themselves to modernity, has been to downplay if not repudiate the incarnation. Jesus becomes a wise man Himself, an especially insightful rabbi, a wandering mystic, a political liberationist, and so on. But the wise men, and Mary, stand as witnesses to the truth that the Child of Bethlehem, while fully human, was not merely an ordinary, or even extraordinary, human being, but rather God in the flesh, forever worthy of our worship.

The Birth of Jesus Christ

I love the way Matthew’s version of the Nativity begins: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” Let me tell you a story. This is how it happened. Here’s what I was told.

That doesn’t mean this is a Jack Webb, “just the facts, ma’am” approach. Matthew is not a dispassionate historian; he’s a zealous disciple, seeking to make others into disciples of Christ. But the way he approaches the Nativity says that this is not mythology, but an accurate portrayal of events to which he was not a party, but which have been conveyed to him truthfully.

While Luke concentrates on Mary, Jesus’ mother, and her encounter with God’s plans for her, Matthew focuses on Joseph, the sometimes forgotten figure in the Nativity. We aren’t told much about Joseph, save that he was a “just man,” and a merciful one, who was determined that his betrothed not be held up to public ridicule or scorn for being pregnant before marriage. But as he was contemplating how to end his relationship with the young woman, he was the recipient of a great gift.

The God of Israel sent an angel, a messenger, to him, that he might be clued into what was going on. It turns out that Mary had not been unfaithful, but that the Child within her was the result of the direct action of God. There was no need for divorce (ending an engagement was the equivalent of divorce in those days), but instead Joseph should go ahead and marry Mary, and rejoice that the baby would Himself be a gift of God, not only to the two parents, but to all of humanity.

The Child who would be Joseph’s son as well as God’s is referred to by two names. One, Y’shua, means “God is salvation,” and points to the mission of the Child as the Savior of God’s people. The other, Immanu-el, means “God with us,” and points to the person of the Child as the incarnation of God on Earth. Joseph would not, I suspect, have had a clear idea about just how profound a truth he was being told about the latter (even if he was familiar with Isaiah 7:14, I think it very unlikely that he would have associated “God with us” with the idea of God’s enfleshment, which was not part of the messianic expectations of the day). Regarding the former, however, I think he would have had an immediate intuition that this Child was the One whom Israel had been waiting for for so many centuries.

All of this came to him in a dream. We have a tendency to brush off our dreams as inconsequential, at most expressions of the flotsam and jetsam of our unconscious minds. But in the first century, there was little doubt that God could and did speak to His people through the medium of dreams. So Joseph, being a faithful man, did as he was instructed, took Mary for his wife, Jesus (the Greek version of Y’shua) for his son, and the two of them for his family.

And that’s how it happened.

The Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)

For most readers of the New Testament, this is not where it starts. Rather, this is a passage to be skipped–lots of odd names that don’t mean anything, no story, boooooring! So they move directly to verse 18, and Matthew’s version of the Nativity.

I think that’s a mistake, because the genealogy of Jesus does two things that are of the utmost importance.

First, it makes an indisputable connection to the Old Testament, and therefore to the God of the Old Testament. Once the lineage of Jesus is established, it is impossible to create some kind of opposition between the Testaments. One cannot say, as did Marcion in putting together his Gnostic version of the Christian Scriptures, that the God of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus is of their blood, and their people, and therefore their God.

While God is not specifically mentioned in these verses, He stands in back of the story. Without Him, Abraham, Ruth, David, and the others in the genealogy have no significance. That’s part of the reason why Marcion excised the Gospel of Matthew from his bible. He had no use for the God of the Old Testament, whom he viewed as evil, a Demiurge of law and righteousness who had created the world and enslaved free spirits in a material hell. The Christ, then, could only be a creature of the God of love and spirit, who was in constant struggle with the Demiurge for supremacy. That being the case, all connection between Jesus and His past had to be severed.

So we ignore the genealogy at our peril. The Marcionite urge to sever that connection between Old and New, between righteousness and love, between justice and mercy, is ever-present, and can certainly be seen in much of the theological and ethical writing being done today, as well as in much of the preaching of churches desperate for new converts. The problem is, if we convert people to Marcionism, they haven’t been brought into the Kingdom of God, but into a forgery, and a poor one at that.

The second reason why the genealogy of Jesus is important is that it makes utterly clear that He was born of the house of Israel. The modern impulse is to make Jesus an abstraction, a kind of universal human being who could be from anywhere and spring from any people. A few years ago, a new translation of Scripture came out called the Common English Bible, put together by committee backed by the large mainline denominations, and it referred to Jesus not as the Son of Man, but as “The Human One.” That’s not only a chalk-on-a-blackboard sounding phrase, but it is contrary to the whole history of God’s dealings with humanity, which were done through the human agency of the people of Israel.

What is sometimes called the “scandal of particularity” is not just a theological quirk, nor is it a matter of ethnocentric Jewish pride. Israel knew that that there was no greatness in it that would have caused God to choose to use it rather than the powerful nations of the world to accomplish His purposes. In fact, Israel was chosen specifically because it had no greatness of its own, and thus was totally dependent upon God for everything. That the Savior of the world sprang from Israel was no credit to the chosen people. Rather, it was to the credit of God who would use the lowly of the world to save His people of all nations. Jesus as Jew is no historical accident. It is of the very essence of God’s work in the world.

It is also no accident that the New Testament opens, not with the proclamation of the Kingdom of God (Mark) or the divinity of the Second Person of the Trinity (John). It opens with a bit of history, with a continuation of the narrative of God’s work in the world, and in a people called Israel.

A personal note: I must admit that I have a particular fondness for this passage that stems from my own conversion process. My girlfriend, later wife, challenged me back in college to read the Bible for myself, rather than just sniping at others who took it seriously. After reading the Old Testament, I started on the New, expecting to find therein the source of Christian anti-Semitism. Imagine my surprise when, upon reading these first seventeen verses, I discovered that Jesus was Jewish! The Christian Savior, a member of the lox-and-bagel set? Incredible! With this enormous surprise behind me, I couldn’t help but continue my reading, only to discover that most of the early disciples were also Jewish. It was when I came to Paul’s proclamation in Romans 11 that, even as a follower of Jesus, he was still a member of the household of Israel, that I realized that faith in Christ was something open even to me. The rest, as they say, is history, but it began with the genealogy of Israel’s Messiah.

I am approaching a bit of a milestone. Sometime within the next week, I will be making my 2000th post to this blog. That seems like a good time for a change.

Starting on Monday, the focus of The Reformed Pastor will change significantly. That’s in part because I’m going to be taking the analysis of current events and denominational happenings to a new location. Monday, I join the stable of writers at a revamped Stand Firm, which will now be subtitled “Faith Among the Ruins.” I will be joining a team of talented writers whose hope is to become a sort of First Things on the Web for Anglicans and Protestants, a lofty goal indeed that I believe the others, if not me, are fully capable of achieving.

Here, meanwhile, I will heading off in a very different direction. I will, in effect, be writing an idiosyncratic commentary on the New Testament. No Greek, no critical apparatus, nothing fancy. What I’m going to do instead is take the passage divisions in the English Standard Bible, and do a daily (more or less) commentary on them in order. So, on Monday, I’ll begin with the Gospel of Matthew, and discuss the passage headed, “The Genealogy of Jesus Christ.” And so on through the New Testament, though I may vary the order in which I do the books. In any case, I’ll be doing something that can be a spiritual discipline for both me and my readers, if they choose to stick with me, and perhaps for others looking for something more spiritually edifying than what I’ve done in the past.

If you’d like more information about the changes at Stand Firm, and where I might fit in, check out Greg Griffith’s post here. And if you want to see The Reformed Pastor transformed, continue to check in here.

The FBI famously has a “Ten Most Wanted List.” Ten is apparently not god enough for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD), which has launched something called the “Commentator Accountability Project,” aimed at indoctrinating educating journalists about the “extreme rhetoric” supposedly used by those on its “36 Most Wanted List.” According to the press release:

The GLAAD Commentator Accountability Project (CAP) aims to put critical information about frequent anti-gay interviewees into the hands of newsrooms, editors, hosts and reporters. Journalists or producers who are on deadline often don’t have the time to dig into the histories of a commentator. Audiences need to be aware that when they’re not talking to the mainstream media, these voices are comparing LGBT people to Nazi Germany, predicting that equal treatment of LGBT people will lead to the total collapse of society, and even making accusations of satanic influence.

The Commentator Accountability Project is bringing all of these statements to light, while calling attention to the sentiments behind them. We will show that the commentators who are most often asked to opine on issues like marriage equality or non-discrimination protections do not accurately represent the “other side” of those issues. They represent nothing but extreme animus towards the entire LGBT community.

Says you. I find it interesting that GLAAD thinks it gets to decide who “accurately represents” those who oppose their agenda. Presumably it would be those whose opposition is, shall we say, nuanced (i.e., more apparent than real, e.g., someone like Tony Campolo, Richard Cizik, or Jim Wallis from the religious left).

That’s not to say there hasn’t been inflammatory, outrageous, and unChristian language on the part of some opponents of various aspects of the gay rights agenda. When that language is heard, it should immediately be denounced, and not by GLAAD, but by Christians. It is vitally important that, if we’re to make the case for biblical morality, we stick to language that is clear, rational, well-reasoned, backed by evidence, and untainted by personal animus. We must also remember that we are speaking in the public square, and that part of our task is to convince a public that no longer holds biblical morality as normative, meaning that simply quoting Scripture or the like is not going to get it done.

Anyway, there is a definite suggestion here that GLAAD is seeking to shut down some of the movement’s most persistent and effective critics. Rich Ferraro, communications director for GLAAD, told the Politico:

These anti-LGBT voices are being booked in local and national news as “experts” on the lives of LGBT people, however many reporters, bookers and producers do not realize that these aren’t experts, but people who have dedicated their careers to making life more difficult for LGBT people. Being anti-LGBT should not be a qualification for speaking about LGBT people and issues.

Translated, what he sounds like he’s saying is that unless one is gay, one cannot presume to address public policy issues that have an impact on gay people, issues like same-sex marriage, gay adoption, etc. I come to that conclusion when I take a look at their list, which includes people such as Robert George of Princeton, Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary, Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, Alan Chambers of Exodus International, and various people associated with the National Organization for Marriage, including Maggie Gallagher and Brian Brown, the Family Research Council, and Focus on the Family. These are not no-name pastors or talk radio hosts.

GLAAD’s technique for discrediting these individuals is to cherry-picks quotes, Tweets, and activities, take them out of context, portray them in the worst light possible, and then allow the journalists they present the misinformation to to draw them own conclusions. For example, here’s what they have to say about Robert George, one of the intellectual leaders of the opposition to the gay policy agenda:

-Described being gay as “beneath the dignity of human beings as free and rational creatures.”

This is from an interreview at National Review Online, and is actually about the effects of the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s.

Argued that gay relationships have “no intelligible basis in them for the norms of monogamy, exclusivity, and the pledge of permanence.”

This is from the same interview, and is actually in reference to domestic partnerships: “Rather, it takes away the legal recognition of marriage — a comprehensive union of persons ordered to having and rearing a family (on procreation’s intrinsic link to marriage, see here and here) — and offers in its place legal recognition of a form of domestic partnership for romantic-sexual partners (in pairs for now, but that will not hold), be they same-sex or opposite-sex. Because these domestic partnerships are not actually marriages, despite the appropriation of the label; there is no intelligible basis in them for the norms of monogamy, exclusivity, and the pledge of permanence that structure and help to define marriage as historically understood in our law and culture.”

Suggested that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shouldn’t be considered a Catholic because by signing marriage equality into law, “he has made it clear that he simply does not believe what Catholicism teaches about sexual morality and marriage.”

Again from the same interview, and this is about Gov. Cuomo’s personal life and commitment to Catholic teaching. George says nothing about the marriage bill in this passage.

Said marriage equality is “about sex,” not about love, commitment, and responsibility.

This is from an interview with The Witherspoon Society’s Public Discourse, and only the full quote will do:

PD: What is the struggle over the legal recognition of same-sex unions a struggle about? Is it about legal benefits? Or is it about something else?

George: It’s about sex. Those seeking to redefine marriage began by insisting that what they were fundamentally interested in was gaining needed benefits for same-sex domestic partners. Legal recognition of same-sex partnerships was necessary, they said, so that partners could visit each other in hospitals, extend employer-provided health insurance and other benefits to each other, and so forth. Some people who said this were, I’m sure, being sincere. Most, however, were not telling the truth. Their goal was to win official approbation for sodomy and other forms of sexual conduct that historically have been condemned as immoral and discouraged or even banned as a matter of law and public policy. The clear evidence for this is the refusal of most same-sex “marriage” activists to accept civil unions and domestic partnership programs under which the benefits of marriage are extended, but which do not use the label “marriage” or (and this is very important) predicate these benefits on the existence or presumption of a sexual relationship between the partners. So, it is not really about benefits. It is about sex. The idea that is antithetical to those who are seeking to redefine marriage is that there is something uniquely good and morally upright about the chaste sexual union of husband and wife—something that is absent in sodomitical acts and in other forms sexual behavior that have been traditionally—and in my view correctly—regarded as intrinsically non-marital and, as such, immoral.

You be the judge about whether he is right or wrong.

Sits on the Board of an organization that supports and funds anti-Islam extremists.

This is irrelevant, as well being left-wing nonsense. George sits on the board of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has given grants to the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, and David Pipes’s Middle East Forum, all of which have been accused of being “anti-Islamic extremists” by people who are incapable of answering their arguments and evidence with regard to the threat Islamic extremism poses to the West both from without and within. What this has to do with George’s work on behalf of traditional marriage is anybody’s guess.

Drafted the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto signed by Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical leaders that “promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage.”

Readers of this blog know that I think the Manhattan Declaration is brilliant in its defense of Christian morality. It is also erudite, well-reasoned, and a powerful demonstration of just the kind of “expertise” that GLAAD supposedly wants to see out of the other side.

You get the point. GLAAD is going to smear these individuals to the press, in the hopes of getting the press to stop speaking to them or citing them as spokespersons for conservative values. And why not? In the gay rights movement, the right to society’s approval of your sexual behavior trumps even the right of others to engage in civil discourse about the issues of the day, much less their good reputations.

I love abortion. I don’t accept it. I don’t view it as a necessary evil. I embrace it. I donate to abortion funds. I write about how important it is to make sure that every woman has access to safe, legal abortion services. I have bumper stickers and buttons and t-shirts proclaiming my support for reproductive freedom. I love abortion. [Emphasis in original, though it was in italics, not bold.]

–Abortion activist Jessica DelBalzo, writing at RH Reality Check, under consideration as the Press Secretary for the Culture of Death Party

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