Sin – a bouquet of words

wildflowers

Sin is a word without much meaning in our culture.  It seems very old fashioned.  Does anyone understand what it means to “live in sin.”  Do we agree that we “sin in word and deed”?

Here in Wisconsin we have lots of words for winter weather – we could just say cold, but we can also say sleet, snow, heavy snow, blizzard, thunder snow (yes that exists), frost, frozen rain, powder, slush, wet, dry, and so on.  Why so many ways to talk about it? because we have it from mid November to Spring. (Basically from the end of the World’s Series to Spring Training.)

The Biblical words for sin are multiple.  Sin can be transgression, corruption, stain, debt, missing the mark, willful, secret, high handed, wicked.

Psalm 32 has a glossary of sorts:  Psalm 32:1-2

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

The Lord’s Prayer is rendered two ways in Matthew and Luke

Matthew 6:12

and forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Luke 11:4

and forgive us our sins,
    for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.

The Bible is the Word of God and it was written by people who were very concerned with a life with God and under his blessing. Hence words that relate to God are common. “theo-logical” – means god (theo) words (logoi).

So while we don’t have “sin” in our cultural vocabulary, we have other words:

unfair, guilty, biased, racist, sexist, specieist, hateful, greedy, crooked, liar, sneaky, selfish, stingy, mean, law breakers, elitist, crude, violent, aggressive, abusive, addicted, willfully ignorant, and verbose to name a few.

So we do believe in sin, but we see it human centered, or centered specifically against ourselves.  We do not see it so much as against God.

Yet, he is not far from us.  We let him sneak back in whenever we talk about justice or fairness.

 

 

 

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Who are “the least of these” in Matthew 25

Least

I am aware of two interpretations of the expression, “the least of these my brethren.”  It is used in the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46.

One view emphasizes “brethren” and indicates that we will be evaluated by how we receive the servants of Christ. This interpretation notes that receiving the messengers of Jesus brought a blessing when the 12 were sent out in mission to the towns of Judea (Matthew 10:1-16).

Another passage on that theme is Matthew 18, where there is a blessing to those who humble themselves like a child to receive the kingdom. (Mt. 18:1-4)

Both of those passages indicate that a faith response is what makes someone one of Jesus “brethren.”

The other view puts the emphasis on “the least of these.”  This passage has been seen as a central motivator in missions of compassion to the poor.  Some go so far as to say that since God has a preference for the poor, they are already his brethren, and so this is very inclusive. There is no need for the recipient of acts of mercy to have a faith response because they are already God’s children.

This interpretation stands behind a lot of Christian ministries of compassion and justice.

Now, how can we answer this from Matthew?

First, we have to include both parts of “the least of these” and “my brethren.”  So Jesus is indicating something about social insignificance and about a faith response.  I say that because of verses like “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”  a recognition of need is a prerequisite to entrance into the Kingdom.(Mt 5:3)

Secondly,  we notice in Chapter 25, there is a division between those who receive grace and are included and those who do not.  In the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, 5 are prepared and enter and 5 are left out.  In the parable of the Talents, the third servant is cast outside for his lack of faith in his master.  In the Sheep and the Goats, the nations are divided between those who are Sheep (who enter the Kingdom) and the Goats (those sent to eternal punishment.)  So Matthew 25 does not support the idea of total inclusion of all people into the Kingdom of God.  Some are outside, and can hardly be considered to be brethren of Christ.

Third, there is an equivalency between those who follow Jesus and becoming the least.  The Sermon on he Mount as a manual for discipleship is opposed to self-sufficiency.  The call to discipleship is the call to leave everything, (Mt:16:24)
The mission of the 12 involved self-denial and dependency on reception by those who hear the message. (Mt 10:8ff).

Finally, there is a connection between receiving Jesus messengers and receiving Jesus.  Matthew 10:40-42 reads as follows.

40 “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. 41 The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.42 And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Notice the strong connection between giving water to “little ones” with their being a “disciple”.

I believe we do have a strong calling to generalized compassion ministries.  We can find that all through the scriptures from the Law, the Prophets, the Wisdom literature, the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles.  But that does not seem to be the meaning of this text.

This text does call us to compassion.  Let us help the needy and seed justice for the poor.

But we can not separate sharing the compassion of Jesus from receiving the message about Jesus.

Date Setting and Matthew 24

fig tree

I remember how this was preached in the 70s by some popular end times preachers.  They said that the fig tree symbolizes Israel (always) and so when the fig tree blossoms, we will have one generation before the Return of the Lord – or more specifically the Rapture.

Date setting looked like this. Israel was re-established in 1948 by the United Nations and a generation was taken to be 40 years.  1948 plus 40 is 1988.  Thus they assured us, the end could very well (some equivocation inserted here just to be safe) come before 1988.

I recall a book called, “88 Reasons Jesus will return by 1988″.  One of the reasons was that the swine which rushed into the sea after Jesus exorcised the Gerasene Demoniac were “almost 2000”, Hence Jesus will return before the year 2000. They did not use the calendar system we do today, but that did not matter. At any rate when 1989 rolled around the book could be purchased from the 90% off bin.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.                                         Matthew 24:32-25

The fig tree is not about Israel but about how quickly fruit follows leaf.  (When we see cherry blossoms, we expect cherries in short order.) When the fig shows its leaves, the figs will soon follow.

What will be soon?  “all these things” are the subject (v. 33, 34).  What Jesus has been talking about are signs that are not of the end (v. 1-14), the sign of the destruction of the temple (v. 15-21) and then a discussion about the return of the Son of Man (v. 22-31).  The only sign of the end of the age is the sign of the Return of the Son of Man (v. 30).  That answers the question about signs in verse 3.  So “all these things” are all the other listed items.

Within the lifetime of the Apostles, all the things Jesus talked about would happen: persecution, earthquakes, false messiahs, and the destruction of the Temple (70 AD).

Sorry kids, no dates here!

In case you had hopes of a date, consider what comes next…

36 But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;     (Mt 24:36-38)

Again, I heard a speaker say that we can not get the day or the hour, but we should be able to pick out the year or month. Well, have fun with that.

The point is that the return of the Lord in Glory is unknowable. Period.

This is NOT the End – Matthew 24

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This is the sermon series I am working on for the summer at Bethany EFC .

How often have you heard about wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters being signs that we are at the end of days. One has to notice some things – we can capture more of these events than in past decades because of the advance of technology.  Are there more earthquakes? Are there more by you or in the world at large?

Then when I read Matthew 24, there is a list of “signs” that do not indicate the end of days.  I have compared my listed and compared it to R. T. France and Craig Blomberg and here they are

NOT SIGNS OF THE END – Matthew 24

  1. False Messiahs v. 5
  2. Wars and Rumors of wars v.6
  3. International Hostility v. 7a
  4. Famines and Earthquakes v. 7b
  5. Persecution and martyrdom v. 9
  6. Apostasy and betrayal v. 10
  7. False Prophets v. 11
  8. Cold spiritual life v. 12
  9. The Extension of the Gospel v. 14

Note in verse 6. “but the end is not yet” and v. 8 “these are the beginning of the birth pains.”  Verse 13 talks of persevering through these signs to the end and v. 14 speaks of the end coming after all of these, but not how soon after.

Several have noted that by 70 AD all of these things had occurred. That year was marked by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  So it would seem to be that these are signs of normalcy in the age between Christ and his return.  It would seem that these signs do not tell us how close the end us, but to remind us that there is an end.  As I like to quote Bob Dylan, “there’s a slow train coming.”

DIS(my con)CORD(ance)!

Sheep

Dis(my con)Cord(ance)?

A concordance is helpful for finding how a word is used in the Bible.  One has to take care to check that the English is an accurate reflection of the original Hebrew or Greek and so a scholarly (i.e. fat) concordance will give you that ability.

Even so, there is some discord with my concordance.  What this kind of study is in the danger of missing is the literary context of each use of the word.  Verses do not float free from the Bible, but are each attached to a context.  The meaning of words is narrowed by it’s use in context and in literary form.

I am thinking about the “little ones” in Matthew 18.  In the chapter there are two words for child (“paidion” v. 2, 5 and “pais” v. 3). One is child the other is little child.  There is another word for offspring (“tekna”) and a word for little ones (“mikron”) are all used.  Then if we wonder how these relate to the “least” (“elaxistos” Matthew 25:40,45) we see a cluster or words around the idea of small, children or insignificant.

We notice that the child in Mt 18:2 is used by Jesus as a metaphor for a quality of faith – “unless you then and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

He had said previously, “I thank you, Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children…” (Mt 12:25 “nepios”)

Now then does the child become a disciple after that?  Are the “little ones” in verse 6 to be understood as literal children or converts to Jesus?  Is the one lost sheep a “little one” in the sense of a child or in the sense of a disciple?

We wander now to the Olivet Discourse in the passage in Matthew 25 where Jesus states that when the disciples would do acts of charity to “the least (“elaxiston”) of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v. 40,45). Is that saying that we should do acts of random kindness to anyone? or is it saying that we should to acts of kindness to those humble and poor followers of Jesus (Matthew 5:3-10)

We now have gathered four words for children and two words suggesting smallness and associated all of those with ideas such as poor in spirit, the meek and the persecuted.

What we must have is the idea that true following of Jesus is not about becoming rich and powerful, but admitting, if not becoming, poor, meek and small. And that following Jesus is not accomplished by serving the powerful and the popular but by serving those who are poor, meek and small in this world, but who are also members of the Kingdom.

What is more we should not cause stumbling for any weak and frail follower of Jesus, nor should we write off any wandering lost ones from the flock.  Rather the reliable 99 can be put into safe hands while we go searching for the lost and lonely 1.

Yes, that sounds like Jesus talking.

The End could be the End of Me!

chart

I grew up with these sorts of prophecy charts. I think that they are good in that they give some clarity to various theories of how the End Times will occur.  I think they are misleading on two fronts.

First, the primary point of prophecy is not to give us a time table.  In fact, the thing that is the least clear about prophecy, in the sense of prediction, is the timing of things.  I point out that Jesus cited a passage from Isaiah 61 when he gave his message at the Synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16ff), he ended the reading at a comma in Isaiah 61, what follows the comma still awaits the future Last Judgment, which is now 2,000 years in waiting.  A comma can be two millennia. Other scriptures got the other way and events that seem far apart are brought together.  We call this sort of thing telescoping. The time frame telescopes freely in prophetic and apocalyptic literature.

Second, the charts do not indicate that even those who are in the same “camp” – eg Premillennial – do not agree on the sequence of events.

So with a certain amount of fear and trepidation, this preacher will speak on “The End” from the two chapter long “Olivet Discourse” in Matthew 24 and 25 this summer.  Fear and trepidation is not a bad thing in a preacher, as this quote from Isaiah 66:2 makes clear:

These are the ones I look on with favor:
    those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
    and who tremble at my word.

So I will try to chart the future without charts in this series.  The first fun thing we discover is that the signs people speak about, wars and earthquakes, are not signs of the end…   Matthew 24:6-8

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains….”