The Dead Sea Scrolls, Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, and Early Christian Interpretation

eta53uf0ste-samantha-schollThe identity of Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah has been central to theological reflection since the earliest days of Christianity. Indeed, Martin Hengel states in Between Jesus and Paul that by the time Paul wrote his letters, the term Christos had already become strongly intertwined with the name of Jesus—and without losing its messianic connotations (2003, pp.74-77). This position is also supported by N.T. Wright in his essay, “Messiahship in Galatians?” (2014, pp.4-7).

For these early Christian communities, the belief that Jesus had lived and died “in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3, NRSV), as Paul phrased it, was no mere secondary issue. In fact, as Richard B. Hays contends in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, the first Christians were actually very concerned to show that, “Jesus’ teachings and actions, as well as his violent death and ultimate vindication, constituted the continuation and climax of the ancient biblical story” (2016, p.5). Among the many Old Testament texts that early believers drew upon to better understand the redemptive meaning of their Messiah’s life, death, and resurrection, the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah 40-55 turned out to be among the most significant passages for them. Continue reading

Approaches to Reading the Parables

fancy-treeIn each of the four canonical Gospels, extended attention is given to the events that led up to and culminated in Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection. It’s for this reason that the gospel accounts have sometimes been described as “passion narratives with extended introductions.” Without taking away from the obvious importance placed by the gospel writers on the cross and resurrection, though, I think it’s also worth pointing out how much space is given (at least in the synoptic Gospels) to Jesus’ parables.

Jesus was known for being a storyteller. In fact, Richard Lischer notes in Reading the Parables that in the synoptic gospels, “the parables constitute approximately 35 percent of everything Jesus is reported to have said” (2014, p.5). Mark even tells his readers that when it came to the surrounding crowds, “He [Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable” (4:34a, NRSV). Of course, the function of the parables in Jesus’ proclamation and enactment of the Kingdom is not without controversy. In some places—especially in Mark—it is uncertain whether the parables were told in order to conceal or reveal. Regardless, it’s clear that the telling of parables formed an important rhythm in Jesus’ ministry. Continue reading

What Does Worship Really Look Like?

forest-cottageWhen it comes to Christian worship, no shortage of images come to mind. Scenes both somber and vibrant. Sounds that can range from choral melodies to enthusiastic folk rhythms, depending on the stream of Christian tradition. All of these can emerge when the Church gathers together for worship—and that’s just in regards to music, much less other worship practices. For me, all of this brings up a larger question: what exactly is worship?

This is a question that has received a variety of responses. Therefore, it isn’t too surprising to find Andrew McGowan explain in Ancient Christian Worship that worship often means different things to different people in many Christian churches today (2014, p.2). For some, it refers to things like “communal prayer and ritual,” while for others it expresses something more like a deeply personal feeling of belief and inward orientation towards life. For still others, worship basically denotes a kind of Christian music (p.2). Continue reading

New Creation in John’s Gospel

st mary's episcopal church

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of the Frescoes in West Jefferson, NC. Author’s photo.

New creation. It’s one of Paul’s more vivid ways of describing what has come about because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection from the grave. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he told them, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (5:17 NRSV). 

In one of N.T. Wright’s books on Pauline theology, he argues that for Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection not only marked the decisive defeat of sin and death, but also accomplished nothing less than the launching of God’s long-awaited renewal of creation (2009, pp.34-38). Now of course, emphasizing new creation in Paul doesn’t necessarily entail minimizing justification or other important Pauline doctrines. Instead, the task is to integrate them. The same man who declared that Christ personally “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20 NRSV) was also able to step back and, considering the accomplishments of Christ on a larger scale, write, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19 NRSV). 

Investigating the myriad of ways in which new creation fits into the larger whole of Pauline theology would be intriguing, but we are going to dwell this time on a slightly different, and maybe more interesting topic: is new creation a New Testament theme or merely a Pauline one? In order to begin developing something of an answer to this question, we are going to spend most of our time in the Gospel of John, a poetic and vivid text that at first blush bears little resemblance to Paul and his letters. Continue reading

Why Growing up in Christ Matters

plants*A version of this essay previously appeared at Theologues.com (RIP)

In much of Christian culture, a lot of attention gets paid to the need for people to reach a moment of decision and place their faith in Jesus, to be “born again.” This isn’t surprising. After all, beginnings matter, and birth is essential. Jesus Himself used birth as a metaphor during his conversation with Nicodemus early on in John’s Gospel. Jesus told him that in order to see the kingdom of God he needed to be “born from above” (NRSV) or “born again” (NIV). Later on in the same chapter, Jesus also (famously) told him that, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16 NRSV).

So yes, repentance and initial belief in Christ are important, and I don’t want to minimize that. However, I also don’t want to end with that part of the story. New birth in Christ is supposed to lead into the long, painful, and beautiful process of growing up. In his 2010 book, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ, Eugene Peterson notes that the twin metaphors of spiritual birth and growth aren’t meant to stand apart; one is supposed to flow into the other (p.3). However it seems that, in some quarters at least, so much emphasis gets put on making sure people get “saved” that the task of walking with them as they grow to maturity in Christ can be treated like something of an afterthought, and that isn’t healthy. Continue reading

Into the Wild: Wilderness in Scripture

carolina mountains*A version of this essay previously appeared at Theologues.com (RIP)

John Muir, a pioneer conservationist whose efforts helped lead to the creation of America’s national park system, spent decades exploring the lands of the western United States, filling up notebooks with his observations. In one of his more reflective passages, he wrote:

Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods… Sleep in forgetfulness of all ill. Of all the upness accessible to mortals, there is no upness comparable to the mountains (Muir, 1979, p. 235).

From its early days, the environmental movement in the United States has placed high value on the preservation of wilderness. However, within some parts of the Christian world, environmental concerns can be hot button issues. Talk about them too much and you can find yourself potentially being labelled a liberal ‘tree hugger.’ Nevertheless, I want to spend a little time exploring how wilderness is viewed in scripture. Is it always portrayed as desolate, full of danger and without use? Is it ever described in ways more like the reverent language used by John Muir? Continue reading