Archives for posts with tag: John

In my most recent post on Genesis 27 (a couple weeks ago) I discussed how Jacob, the “founding father” of Israel, is presented negatively in the Bible. In posts prior to that, I mentioned how his father, Isaac, is presented in Genesis as the ideal because Isaac was the one born of God’s promise and not out of human desire. The story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah (Genesis 28-30), further illustrates this point. It also shows how God’s “chosen people” often behave as bad, or even worse, than those outside their community. I will highlight a couple of important points from the Jacob and Rachel/Leah story and then speak of the significance.

(1) Unlike Isaac, who remained in the promised land his entire life, Jacob leaves that land to find a wife. And again, in contradistinction to Isaac, who did not labor for his wife, Jacob ultimately ends up laboring 14 years for his desired bride, Rachel. The significance of this passage cannot be overstated. The idea of laboring for one’s own desires (like Jacob) versus resting in God’s promises (like Isaac) is a biblical theme throughout the Bible, including the New Testament. For example, in the famous story of the Samaritan woman (John 4), this distinction is central. The woman of Samaria came from the city of Sychar. The root of Sychar in Hebrew implies one earns a living by work as a servant/slave. The fact there is little to no evidence such a city ever actually existed by this name indicates John is using the word as a play on laboring as a slave. John then contrasts Sychar with the Greek word kopio, which is the term Paul uses to speak of laboring for the Gospel. The difference between “Sychar” and “kopio“, of course, is that the laboring for one’s desires brings about discord whereas the laboring for the peaceful message of the Gospel brings salvation and healing to broken people. In other words, the laboring for the Gospel leads to rest. I went on this sidetrack to help show how the Gospel of Jesus is rooted in the Old Testament. Even in the story of Isaac/Jacob we see the distinction between laboring for our desires and resting in God’s promise.

(2) In English we have the saying, “What goes around comes around.” Jacob learns this lesson the hard way. Remember from the previous chapters Jacob dealing deceitfully with his father and brother to steal his brother’s blessing. Now, Jacob is tricked by his father-in-law Laban, who substitutes Leah for Rachel as Jacob’s bride after Jacob labored for Laban seven years. In order to obtain Rachel also, Jacob agrees to work yet another 7 years for Laban. “What goes around comes around!”

(3) Although technically the Mosaic Law had not yet been given, the astute biblical reader will no doubt realize Jacob is violating God’s law when he marries Rachel and Leah, who are sisters. In Leviticus 18:18, God commands: “[You shall not] take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.” Yet, this is exactly what Jacob did–he took Rachel as a rival to her sister. Beginning at the end of Genesis 29 through Genesis 30, we hear the pathetic story of this rivalry, with Rachel and Leah competing for Jacob’s love and attention, and bearing children in competition with one another. Once again, this story illustrates a serious problem with Jacob.

As I mentioned in the previous post, these stories of Jacob, the founding father after whom Israel is named, are intended to teach us humility. Being the chosen people of God does not mean we are better than others. Furthermore, if we hear the story of Jacob and his wives as intended, we are taught the importance of laboring not for our own desires, but instead putting our trust in God’s promises, which alone brings rest, reconciliation, and peace.

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The first half of the 17th chapter of Genesis deals with the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.  The sign of this covenant is the circumcision of Abraham, his household, and his progeny.  Below I have highlighted three important aspects of this covenant.

Age

In verse 12, God commands the male children to be circumcised on the 8th day.  Obviously, this is at a time when the child is not able to choose for himself whether to be circumcised.  We learn from this a vital lesson that Jesus later taught His own disciples: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16).  Accordingly, in both the Jewish and traditional Christian tradition, a child is circumcised (Jewish) or baptized (Christian) as an infant.  They are put in covenant with God first, and then as they grow older are taught God’s commandments.  This is where the Jews get the name “bar mitzvah,” which means “son of the commandment.” 

So for neither Jews nor traditional Christians is circumcision or baptism seen as the end, but rather as a new life, “…that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).  You can now see from the full quote of Jesus in John 15:16 the consistency between Genesis 17 and Jesus’ teaching.  We are chosen by God, before we even have a choice in the matter, but only so we may go forth and bear fruit through following God’s commandments.

Sign

Another significant facet to circumcision is the obvious mark circumcision leaves on the one who was circumcised.  This mark is important because in the ancient world slaves were known by their mark.  In the Bible, it became common to refer to a believer in God as a “slave of God” (often weakly translated into English as “servant of God”).  This terminology became the common phrase used by Paul to refer to himself in the introduction of his epistles.  Obviously, the physical mark and the terminology used indicates we are “owned” by God and are, thus, accountable to Him.  It is our responsibility to live by the rules of His house, and we are to have no other master.

Biology

Circumcision, as I understand it, was fairly unique to the Jews.  Certain other societies practiced it, but even today only an estimated 30% of males are circumcised, and the vast majority (if not all) of those have been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  From a biological standpoint, what I find interesting about circumcision is God commanding the people to do something contrary to their biology.  In other words, God is asking males to do something that biologically changes them from the way they were born. 

The reason I find this fascinating is because the Bible—and most especially the teachings of Jesus—teaches us to behave contrary to our biological impulses.  For example, we have a biological impulse promoting selfishness, or an ability to survive.  In Scripture, however, you are taught not to be selfish, to give freely and generously to others in need.  Another example: biologically speaking, we intuitively know to stay away from people who are unkind towards us—it is a survival mechanism.  Yet, Jesus taught us to love those who hate us.  Many more examples could be given, but I think you see the point.  Most of what Jesus taught us to do is overcome our biological impulses, which is essentially what Paul means when he speaks about living according to the will of the Spirit rather than according to the desires of the flesh.

These three facets of circumcision are certainly not the only significant aspects of the covenant in Genesis 17, but to me they stand out as important principles that play a role throughout the Bible.

I have just returned from vacation with my wife.  We had a great time.  I will again be leaving town for the Parish Life Conference in Houston, but I hope to keep the blog updated regularly this week.

Yesterday in the Orthodox Church we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit.  For those of you who heard my sermon yesterday, I apologize for repeating myself to you.  For those who did not hear it, I hope you find these comments helpful.  By the way, if you want to listen to the sermon in its entirety–or any sermon offered at St Mary, whether by me or our bishop or deacon or a guest homilist–check out our website at http://www.stmarywichita.org/sermons.html.  It is usually updated from the weekend by Monday or Tuesday.

In my sermon I tried to make the function of the Holy Spirit clear to my parishioners.  They have a great advantage over everyone else because they live in Kansas.  Why, might you ask?  Because in Kansas we understand what it is like to have a mighty wind.  In the Greek and Hebrew, the word translated as “spirit” (in reference to God’s Spirit) means “spirit,” “wind,” or “mighty wind.”  They are all one and the same word.  In relation to the Holy Spirit, this takes on great significance in two areas especially.

First, the wind cannot be controlled by human beings, or essentially anything else for that matter.  It blows where it wishes.  You cannot grasp the wind or stop it.  This is quite relevant to the function of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit is uncontrollable.  He does what He wishes, when He wishes (of course, it is assumed He only acts in accordance with the will of the Father), irrespective of human thought or custom.  For example, in Genesis, God consistently chooses the younger rather than the older for the continuation of God’s promise and covenant.  This goes strongly against human convention at the time.  Another example: God decides to take His message to the Ninevites, a people despised by the Jews as we learn from the story of Jonah.  In the New Testament, God sends His Spirit upon the Gentiles equally to the Jews–the Jews cannot stop God from choosing the Gentiles just as He chose the Jews.  In yesterday’s reading, we also heard from the Pharisees that a prophet had never arisen from Nazareth.  Well, if God’s Spirit wants to blow on one from Nazareth and make him a prophet He will do so.  The consistent theme is this: the Spirit, just like the mighty wind of the Kansas tornadoes is unpredictable and unstoppable by us humans.  Therefore, we must always be ready for Him to blow where He wishes; we never know when He will raise a sinner to be a saint or bring in people who previously had been lost.  Consequently, we at all times must be prepared to welcome the sinner, the foreigner, and the stranger.

Second, as with the mighty wind, the Spirit can bring destruction.  The Holy Spirit blows a “gentle breeze” on those who follow God’s teaching, but on those who stubbornly refuse He wreaks havoc.  This is what St John the Baptist said would happen when Jesus “baptized with the Holy Spirit”: the threshing floor would be cleared with the wheat separated from the chaff.  If a tornado comes through Kansas, like it did so memorably this Pascha, we flee to our basement for shelter.  To be saved from the mighty tempest of God’s Spirit we have one protection: to walk in the commandments of God as taught to us most clearly by Jesus Christ.  In Ezekiel’s prophecy (which we read at Great Vespers of Pentecost), Ezekiel mentions that God will send His Spirit so we may walk in His commandments and keep His statutes (Ezekiel 36:27).  Jesus Himself mentions how the Spirit will remind us of all the things Jesus taught, so that we might walk in that way (John 14:26).

I know there is much more that could be said about the Holy Spirit, but for the time being I am limiting myself to these two key areas because I believe they are often overlooked.  Further, I think it is important to see that names are never chosen randomly or haphazardly in the Bible.  The Holy Spirit of God is thus called for specific reasons.  Namely, the Spirit functions as a mighty wind, with both the capability to bring about a gentle breeze or complete destruction.

Genesis 14 includes three verses (18-20) about the most enigmatic figure in the Bible, Melchizedek.  Throughout the centuries, biblical readers have argued about the correct translation of the Melchizedek passage and its significance.  Besides these three verses in Genesis 14, Melchizedek is mentioned in Psalm 110 and briefly in Hebrews 5 and 6, and more extensively in Hebrews 7.

What I wish to present here is the traditional Christian understanding of Melchizedek, based largely on the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Melchizedek means “my king is the king of righteousness,” or simply “king of righteousness.”  Melchizedek is introduced in Genesis 14 as the “king ofSalem.”  The word Salem in Hebrew means “peace,” so this “king of righteousness” is the “king of peace.” 

There are three main reasons Melchizedek is important in Christian understanding.  First, Abram (later re-named Abraham) offers Melchizedek a tithe.  This offering would indicate Abram viewed Melchizedek as greater than himself.  Second, Melchizedek is the “king of peace” and a priest of God Most High.  These titles are taken to refer to Melchizedek as associated with whatSt Paulwould call “the heavenly Jerusalem” (for certainly the earthly Jerusalem has not been known as a peaceful place!).  Third, Melchizedek offers Abram bread and wine, two extremely important images in Christianity.

From all this we can understand the importance of Melchizedek in Christian thought.  Christianity moved away from the earthly, Levitical priesthood and theTemplesystem in favor of the idea of Jesus’ eternal priesthood and once-for-all sacrifice.  Furthermore, and quite related, Christianity left behind the Temple sacrifices and the notion of worshipping in one specific geographical location (i.e. the earthly city of Jerusalem) in favor of worshipping God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24) wherever one is located.  Christians stress the pre-eminence of the “heavenly Jerusalem,” which will be a peaceful city, over any earthly city.  Finally, instead of offering a new sacrifice, Christian worship revolves around the remembrance of Jesus’ death, with the bread and wine being offered as antitypes of His Body and Blood sacrificed on the Cross.

Although Melchizedek appears for such a short time in the Bible, his importance is considered significant, serving as a reminder to us that we should read each and every verse of the Bible carefully.  If we gloss over the story of Melchizedek, we miss an essential aspect of the Bible.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church was John 4:5-42, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  The story is, of course, packed with meaning, but I would like to point out one interesting aspect that is frequently overlooked.

John 4 says Jesus came to a city of Samaria called Sychar.  To my knowledge, there is no historical evidence such a village existed.  This led some Church Fathers and scholars to conclude there is some sort of scribal error involved with Sychar.  However, I am inclined to think it is no error at all. 

The root of Sychar in Hebrew means to earn your living by working as a servant/slave.  It is this same word used in Genesis to describe the 14 years of Jacob’s labor to acquire Rachel.  In addition to this Sychar, several times throughout John 4 the Greek word “kopio” is used.  In verse 6 it is translated as “wearied” and in verse 38 several times as “labor.”  The word “kopio” is also used by St Paul in his epistles to speak of laboring for the Gospel.

One more thing to keep in mind is the play on the five husbands in the story.  The number five in Scripture is often a reference to the Torah, the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–the Mosaic Law).  Since the Samaritans only accepted the five books of Moses (and not the rest of the Old Testament), Jesus’ discussion here about the five husbands is likely referring to the woman being under bondage to the five books of Moses.  Remember, a woman during these times was legally subject to her husband, under his authority.

Based on this info, you can see how there is a play going on between Sychar and kopio.  The Sychar, the laboring to keep every aspect of the Mosaic Law, leads to bondage.  Drinking of that water leaves one thirsty, always needing to do more and more, work harder and harder.  On the other hand, the kopio, the laboring for the Gospel of grace, leads to freedom.  Those who drink of the Gospel’s waters will never be thirsty again.  They will reap that for which they had not labored (vs. 38) and, following this path of grace, will continue to kopio/labor for those who will come after them and reap of their work.

As Christians, this should be our worldview: freely you received, freely give (Matthew 10:8).  We have freely received God’s grace, so we must in turn labor to make this grace known to others–not only in our preaching, but through our works of love and mercy.