Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Rock That Is Higher Than I

“How small are the things we choose to fight.

What fights us is so great!

If only we could let ourselves be overcome,

As nature is overcome by a great storm.

Because if we do win, it is a small victory,

And the victory itself makes us small.

Whoever is defeated by an angel,

Always goes away proud and upright, full of strength,

And greater still for having felt his power.

This is how we grow:

By being decisively defeated by ever greater forces.”


[Male initiation rites bring] the necessary recognition that you are not really running the show, and any attempt to run it will ruin it.  The intense self-will of the autonomous ego must eventually be disillusioned with itself.


(page 70) In the same way, classic initiation tried to prepared a young man in small doses for the recognition that he did not need to be in control.  They did it negatively forcing him into the inevitability of the laws of nature, and positively giving him a sense of destiny and vocation.  He had to feel chosen, guided, and used, which of courseis exactly how the entire Judeo-Christian tradition got its initial momentum – though people like Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Isaac, Jacob and Paul.  None of them were perfect men.  Most of them were downright immoral in one or another way, but they allowed themselves to be used (read “chosen”) despite the humiliating evidence against them.  I think that is the likely meaning of Jesus’s enigmatic line “the many are called but very few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)


As St. Therese of Lisieux so brilliantly put it, “If you are willing to serely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself” then you will for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.  She was a master teacher who was never afraid of humiliating evidence about herself, which she called her “little way”.  What gives religion such a bad name is that most religious people are eager to be pleasing to themselves, and they like to be part of a big way.  It is my daily battle.

On Anger


Then talks about Christian anger “Be angry and do not sin”


That actually there are certain times when it is right to be angry.  Often Christians use language to pretend that they are not angry – they say that they are upset, or that they depressed, or that they are worried; but really they are angry.  We cannot just sublimate our anger.


In fact, says Keller, there is no such thing as a bad emotion, just a misdirected emotion.  Sometimes it is right to be angry, because Jesus was angry; like the way that he healed in his anger.


Talks about the way that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath in his anger, and makes the link with the way that Martin Luther King talked about being angry in the correct way.


In fact sometimes it is good to be angry, and it is not good to be not angry.


But we face two dangers, we must not clam up and we must not blow up.  This is what is about bitterness, and rage, and clamour and slander.  The first two are internal conditions, the second two are external.


Has a good illustration about a Christian father blowing up at his kids, because they are preventing him watch Monday night football.  When he initially blows up, he actually then moves to clamming up and neither are good.  He has to identify what is wrong here (his children are fighting and lying and this is going to cause them big problems in later life) and attack the problem; not out of his defence of the wrong thing, but his defence of the right thing and attacking the wrong thing.  This is hard, but the choice is between that and disobedience which is impossible.


Then tells the remarkable story about the Christian faith coming to Korea and the way that the martyrdom of one individual enabled the faith of an entire nation.


Talks about going being simultaneously angry with us and yet never bitter (unlike us, in our anger we wish harm to the other person) God simultaneously all the time is angry with people and yet never wishes them to perish.


Tells the story of a woman who met with RC Sproul who could never feel the forgiveness of God even though she confessed her sin, because she had never confessed her pride – round about 37 mins very good

Spiritual Leadership


‘As a result of his experience, [Hudson Taylor] used to say that there were three phases in most great tasks undertaken for God – impossible, difficult, DONE.


‘To INITIATE is an important function of the office of a leader. Some have more gift for conserving gains than for initiating new ventures; more gift for achieving order than for generating ardour. The true leader must have venturesomeness as well as vision. He must be an initiator rather than a mere conserver. Most of us prefer to play safe, but Paul did not play safe. He constantly took carefully and prayerfully calculated risks.

Robert Louis Stevenson indicted the attitude of safety, security and prudence as “that dismal fungus.” Hudson Taylor did not play safe. The tremendous steps of faith which he took with monotonous regularity were denounced as wildcat schemes. But that did not deter him, and today history is on his side. The greatest achievements in the history of the church and of missions have been the outcome of some leader in touch with God taking courageous, carefully calculated risks.

A great deal more failure is the result of an excess of caution than of bold experimentation with new ideas….”The frontiers of the kingdom of God were never advanced by men and women of caution,” said Mrs H.W.K.Mowll.

A leader cannot afford to ignore the counsel of cautious men around him. They will often save him from unnecessary mistakes. But he must beware of allowing their excess of caution to curb his initiative, if he feels his vision is of God. Nor must he allow them to restrain him from taking daring steps of faith to which God is calling both him and them.’



Francis Schaeffer in Church Before the Watching World:

‘Once Christ is no longer King and Lord in a church, then that church cannot have our loyalty….When a church comes to the place where it can no longer exert discipline, then with tears before the Lord we must consider a second step. If the battle for doctrinal purity is lost…it may be necessary for true Christians to leave the visible organisation with which they have been associated. But note well: If we must leave our church, it should always be with tears – not with drums playing and flags flying.’

An Offer you Can’t Refuse


Ortberg talks about the death of Jesus, and how he trusted himself to the Father, until the moment the father said “Son, Get Up”.  A nice reference to “Yabadabadoo”.


Talks about things that have to go into the casket – our giftedness, our need for control over others (and the way we love less when others are prickly), our money, our bodily appetites.


And then very moving as he puts the casket into the grave in a garden, and talks about what Christ did in the Father.

The Church Gives Meaning To History

From John Howard Yoder (June 13th in Common Prayer)

The work of God is the calling of a people, whether in the Old Covenant or the New.  The church is then not simply the bearer of the message of reconciliation, in the way a newspaper or a telephone company can bear any message with which it is entrusted.  Nor is the church simply the result of a message, as an alumni association is the product of a school or the crowds in a theatre are the product of the reputation of the film.  That men and women are called together to a new social wholeness is itself the work of God, which gives meaning to history.”

Jesus and the Bible


For some, their opposition to same-sex relationships seems to be stem from a visceral reaction to homoeroticism; however the bulk of evangelical consternation in this seems to stem from the place that any celebration of same-sex relationships would give to the Bible.


The evangelical anxiety over any departure from the traditional position on same-sex relationships is that this would reverses the classic prioritisation of scripture, tradition and experience; placing the latter as most important, rather than the first.


So the questions we must address, before asking about the goodness of same-sex relationships, are “How did Jesus read the Bible?”  “How much did he trust it?” “What modes of interpretation did he employ?”


To allow us to frame the answer to this question within the current debate, I want to note four Biblically-sympathetic approaches that have been employed.  There has also been a non-sympathetic approach which might be described as “Rejectionist” –the Bible is antiquated and anachronistic, “as it was with women, as it was with slavery, so it is with same-sex relationships.”


The four sympathetic approaches might be described as:

  1. Completist and Traditionalist
  2. Completist and Revisionist
  3. Essentialist and Revisionist
  4. Essentialist and Traditionalist


Completist Traditionalist

Any Biblical condemnation of same-sex relationships (Leviticus 18:22 or Romans 1:26-27) is sufficient to maintain a traditionalist stance.  No further discussion is necessary.

Completist Revisionist

This approach does not dispute the authority of scripture, but argues that certain passages (Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27) do not apply to loving same-sex relationships.  Neutralising the problem texts legitimises a new ethic.

Essentialist Revisionist

The essentialist here will look to a passage like Matthew 9:9-13 (“the friend of sinners”) or Galatians 3:28 (“no longer male nor female”) and allow these passages to operate as a hermeneutical trump card, to erase all discordant voices (Leviticus does not stand much of  a chance in this, with the exception of course of Leviticus 19:18).  Having claimed one verse as containing the “essence” of scripture, it is not a big move to adopt a revisionist position with respect to same-sex relationships.

Essentialist Traditionalist

The essentialists here normally look to the Genesis ethic for relationships; and detect a vision for sexuality which demands both permanence and difference.  This approach is seen in the writings of Robert Gagnon, Richard Hays, and John Stott.




In this paper I want to argue that away from the question of same-sex relationships (which, contrary to popular myth, Jesus probably did allude to), Jesus was often an “Essentialist Revisionist” but in one area, which comes close to the issue under discussion today is closer to being an “Essentialist Traditionalist”.

Jesus Use Of The Bible

Throughout the gospels, Jesus quotes his Bible (i.e. the Old Testament) on 51 occasions.[1] This ranges from 39 times in Matthew to 4 times in John.


The citation count for Old Testament books is:























1 Kings







The vast majority of the quotations are from the Torah (31).  11 are from the Writings (all from the Psalms) and the remainder from the Prophets[2] (20 in total, 8 from Isaiah).


What is striking about these quotations is that Jesus nearly always takes a meaning which is non-obvious and profound.  Exodus 3:5 (“the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”) points to the resurrection of the dead (quoting Daniel 12:2 might have been easier), Jezebel’s seemingly futile curse made demands on the life of John the Baptist (Mark 9:13 can only be a reference to 1 Kings 19:2).  When arguing against the devil (Matthew 4:4,7,10; Luke 4:4,8,12), the Sabbatarians (Numbers 12:8 quoted in Matthew 12:5) or the manual hygienists (Mark 7:1-23) Jesus is always uncovering some essence, a truth that lies at the heart of the text.


When Jesus mocks his critics with the biting “Have you never read in the scriptures?” (Mark 12:10) he is not gently enquiring if they might have skipped over Psalm 118 in their journey through the Psalter nor is he questioning the coverage of their Bible reading plans  Rather Jesus is demanding that “reading” be about something more than literacy, it must be about profound interpretation.  Psalm 118 is about something more profound than civil engineering.  Someone who truly “reads” the scripture will know this.


On Easter evening, Jesus “opens his disciples’ minds” to understand the scriptures, he not only shows that the Messiah must suffer (Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 were doubtlessly quoted) but that it was also written that the Messiah would rise from the dead on the third day.  Where in the scriptures was this third day taken from?  The only possible candidate is Jonah 1:17 (as alluded to, not in Luke –although 11:29-32 comes close – but in Matthew 12:40).  When we first read of Jonah’s submarine incarceration, who had thought that this was about the gap between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?  Only one it would seem, the one whose reading of the scriptures went as deep as the whale.

Trust Of The Scriptures

Jesus can only let the scriptures bear such profound interpretation if he believes them to be utterly trustworthy.  We only allow the profound to be discovered in the best of texts:  one is more likely to subject the language of Shakespeare to literary critique than the disposable prose of the Daily Record; the intertextual resonances of a Ken Loach film are taken more seriously than those in the latest episode of Emmerdale.  We go deep with the texts we trust.


Jesus’ trust of the scriptures is evidenced in the repeated formulation that certain things must happen in accordance with the scriptures, or that events must happen “as it is written” (e.g. Mark 9:12, 14:49; Luke 18:31, 21:22; 24:27).  Jesus never argues for the authority of scriptures, he simply assumes it; furthermore for Jesus the scriptures not only reveal reality, but they also shape it.  Upon this, he stakes his life.


The Essentials

Despite Jesus’ trust in the authority of all scripture, he remains an essentialist.  Some scriptures seem shape the interpretation of others.  This placed Jesus within the school of thought sketched out by one of Israel’s great rabbi’s, Rabbi Hillel (Hillel lived from 60BCE – 20CE, a contemporary of Jesus for over two decades)


One famous story illustrates Hillel’s essentialism:


The Talmud (Shabbos 31a) records a famous incident involving the Sages Hillel and Shammai. A gentile approached Shammai and made the following request: “Convert me to Judaism on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one leg.” Shammai did not approve of this request and chased the man away. The gentile then approached Hillel with the same request. Hillel responded that he would do so, and encapsulated the Torah into one statement: What is hateful to you do not do to your friend.”

(From Rabbi Jehuda Prero)


What was it that enabled Jesus to allow certain parts of the scripture to shape the interpretation of, and even supersede others.  I want to suggest that this was because Jesus knew what the “difficult bits” were there for.

Jesus Ethics – The Inside And The Outside

The great anthropologist, Fredrik Barth, once divided the laws and customs of an ethnic group (or an ethnie) into two kinds: rules and laws which are used to police the boundary of group belonging; and laws which embody that which the ethnie holds as good.


Laws which police the boundary of the group are those which mark the separation from other groups (tribal markings, circumcision, laws about who can be eaten with and who can be married).  Other laws concern the embodiment of what is good – laws about property, neihbourliness, finance, inheritance and agricultural management.


When Jesus said:

18And he said to them, “Then(A) are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19since it enters not his heart(B) but his stomach, and is expelled?”[a] ((C) Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20And he said, (D) “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft,(E) murder, adultery, 22coveting, wickedness, deceit,(F) sensuality,(G) envy,(H) slander,(I) pride,(J) foolishness. 23(K) All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Mark 7:18-23

What Jesus seems to be doing here is saying that the parts of the law which are about essential goodness still apply.  The ritual laws are somehow superseded and dealt with in Jesus, he, rather than Torah, will mark the boundary of God’s people.


In other words, the ritual parts of the Old Testament mark a boundary that doesn’t need to be policed any more.  Jesus knew what the “difficult bits” were there for.

Not A Jot Nor Tittle

It is possible to view Jesus’ ethics as simply going through the 613 commandments and putting a tick next to the ones which still applied.  This is difficult to square with his assertion that every jot and tittle of the law still stood (Matthew 5:18).


However Jesus also said that this law was to be fulfilled – he knew what it was there for.  This allowed him to sketch out a new vision for life, which functioned differently from the law.  Because the law was fulfilled, something new could be given.


The sermon on the Mount was something more than Leviticus 2.0; the law updated for a new generation; rather it was about being good in from a new starting point.  Being good began with being blessed.  The Sermon on the Mount isn’t so much “Here are the new requirements for God to like you”, rather than “Here is the kind of life lived by those who are blessed.”


Jesus Ethics – Mercy Not Sacrifice

There are two occasions in Matthew when Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 “I desire mercy not sacrifice”.


In the second of these, Jesus seems to be using Hosea to choose between seemingly competing Old Testament instructions.  This is the incident where the disciples (but notably not Jesus himself) have been plucking grain on the Sabbath.  Some passages suggest their condemnation (e.g. the Manna story of Exodus 16) whilst other passages tilt towards leniency (admittedly these are more obscure -the incident of David taking the bread in 1 Samuel 21:1-6; the right of priests to eat bread on the Sabbath – Numbers 28:9-10).  The “Mercy not sacrifice” principle leads to selection of the more lenient passages.


When law competes with law, Jesus asks which law leans towards mercy.  This principle can be seen at work in all of Jesus Sabbath controversies.


The first “mercy not sacrifice” incident is different, however.  This is Jesus’ eating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:9-13).  It is not easy to find Old Testament verses that would get sinners into the company of Jesus; but even without the equivalent of a David-ate-forbidden-bread story (Moses ate with Pharaoh?) Jesus still tends towards mercy.  What is significant though is he still refers to his table-mates as “sinners”, he doesn’t use mercy to redefine sin, he uses it to redefine hospitality.

Jesus And The Beginning

It is often noted that Jesus sided with Rabbi Hillel in every issue, but the one exception was with an issue which comes analogously close to the vexed issue under discussion today.[3]


When Jesus was questioned about divorce, for once he advocated Shammai at the expense of Hillel:  divorce was not to be allowed (with one exception).


Had Jesus made this one-off alliance with the Shammai’s teaching because on this issue he had suddenly become a conservative literalist?  No, Jesus gives his own reasons.  Moses had allowed divorce but “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:18).  Jesus finds another essence that pre-dates the commandments – he looks to Genesis.


In questions of ethics, Jesus defers to the beginning.  Eden trumps Sinai.  Sinai wasn’t the purest vision, it contains compromise; Torah is more than Mitzvoth: it doesn’t begin at Exodus chapter 20.


Here Jesus’ “difficult bit” was the part that allowed divorce (most of us would find the prohibition more problematic).  However, because he knew it an accommodation to hardened hearts (he knew what it was there for), he could espouse the ethics of creation, rather than those of Moses (notice here that Jesus does not say “the scripture allowed this” but “Moses allowed this” – he seems to be allowing some distance between “the scripture” and “the words of the scripture”).


A moment of pragmatism

Having noted Jesus’ uncompromising position with regard to divorce, it is curious to investigate what happened on the one occasion we know of when it is highly likely that Jesus met a divorcee.[4]


When Jesus engages in theological discussion with the Samaritan-well woman (whom I prefer to liken to Pat Butcher, rather than the elfin figurine of the Good News Bible) the divorces and unsolemnised cohabitation are named (if Jesus’ revelation in John 4:18 had been about mere clairvoyance he could have told the woman when her birthday was) but it is not an impediment to call.


If we want to espouse Jesus approach to the scriptures, we must not only interpret the way he interpreted, but also apply in the way that he applied.

Some possible conclusions

  1. Jesus demanded a reading of the scriptures which was deep, and not always obvious
  2. Jesus had great trust in the scriptures
  3. He could deal with the tricky bits because he knew what they were there for.
  4. Jesus occasionally viewed the creation stories as containing the purest ethic, with the Mosaic law being accommodation
  5. Mercy is more important than sacrifice
  6. Jesus’ first demand was commitment, the ethical demands may have followed later.
  7. Jesus was a traditional essentialist.


  1. What would Jesus have said about the Canaanite conquest narratives (which are never alluded to)?
  2. When would Jesus have spoken to the Samaritan woman about her living arrangements?
  3. How did Jesus manage not to lose his dinner guests whilst calling them “sinners”?”
  4. What more do we learn from the other occasions where Jesus alludes to the Old Testament (e.g. the reference to Namaan’s leprosy in Luke 4:27; the refusal to stone the woman caught in adultery John 7:53-8:11; “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life?” John 5:39)


[1] This approach is limited because it doesn’t include the occasions where Jesus is alluding without quoting.

[2] Here I am adopting the Jewish definition of “Prophets” which includes historical writing like 1 Kings.

[3] Gagnon, failing to pull any exegetical punches, claims that incest is the more fitting analogy.

[4] It is possible that the five husbands had all died, but this undermines the crescendo of “and the one you are with now is not your husband.”  Note also the woman does not say “He told me all that has ever happened to me.”(which she would have said if the men had died)  but “He told me all I ever did.” (John 4:39)

God’s Great Desire


The painting is traditionally called The creation of Adam but some scholars say it should be called the The Endowment of Adam. Adam has already been given physical life – his eyes are open, and he is conscious.  What ishapening is thathe is being offered life with God.  “All of man’s potential, physical and spiritual is contained in this one timeless moment” writes one art critic.

Apparently one of the messages that Michelangelo wanted to convey is God’s implacable determination to reach out to and be with the person he has created.  God is as close as he can be,  But having come that close, he allows just a little space, so that Adam can choose.  He waits for Adam to make his move.

God speaks… (from page 14)

He talks through burning bushes and braying donkeys; he sends messages through storms and rainbows and earthquakes and dreams, he whispers in a still small voice.  He speaks (in the words of Garrison Keillor) in “ordinary things like cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids – all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through”

Find a place in your heart… (from page 17)

“Find a place in your heart” said an ancient sage named Theophan the Recluse, “and speak there with the Lord.  It is the Lord’s reception room.”  Some people seem to find this room easily.  Friends of ours have a daughter who said when she was five years old, “I know Jesus lives in my heart, because when I put my hand on it I can feel him walking around in there.”

Not much of a life… (from page 18)

Dallas Willard (who lost his mother as a young child) wirtes of a little boy whose mom had died.  He was escpecially sad and lonely at night.  He would come into his father’s room and ask if he could sleep with him.  Even then he could not rest until he knew not only that he was with his father but that his father face turned toward him.  “Father is your face turned toward me now?”  Yes, his father would say.  You are not alone.  I’m with you.  My face is turned toward you. Wen at last he was assured of this, he could rest.  Dallas goes on: “How lonely life is!  Oh we can get by in life with a God who does not speak.  Many at least think they do so.  But it is not much of a life, and it is certainly not the life God intends for us or the abundance of life Jesus came to make available.

Jacob’s dream (from page 20)

The striking phrase of Jacob is “and I was not aware of it.”  More on meeting God at Bethel.

No event so commonplace (from page 23)

Frederick Beuchner writes “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognise him or not… because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.  Thomas A Kempis “every creature will be to you a mirror of life and book of holy doctrine.”  So close that in the words of Jean Pierre de Caussade “each moment is a revelation from God.”

On Brother Lawrence (page 24)

The good brother found God everywhere, as much while he was repairing shoes as while he was praying with the community.”

In defence of defence

For the avoidance doubt, I instinctively pacifist (or 51% pacifist as George MacLeod put it) but I found Arundhati Roy in the Guardian striking:

“If you’re an adivasi[tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation.”

The importance of biographies


“Brothers, join in imitating me, and fix your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” (Philippians 3:17).

Notice the sequence:

  1. Jesus lives the perfect life for imitation.
  2. Paul imitates Jesus.
  3. Others “walk according to the example they have in us.”
  4. Finally, we fix our eyes on those who follow Paul’s example.

What makes this so remarkable is that Paul says it is spiritually wise to consider not just Jesus’ life, and not just the lives of those who follow him, but also the lives of those who follow those who follow him.

This seems to imply that the line of inspiration and imitation goes on and on.

Indeed it does. And the centuries are laden with the lives of saved sinners whose failures and triumphs of grace are meant to inspire and strengthen and guide the rest of us.

So among all the other things you do to grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ (2 Peter 3:18), follow Paul’s summons to “fix your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”

For starters, here are ten of my favorites: