Monday, August 31, 2020

About that image thing

The nations surrounding Israel felt their idols did not just represent but actually were a localized manifestation of the god or goddess. They believed that the idol gave the worshiper genuine access to the presence of the god or goddess, because the image made the deity’s presence real, actual, and tangible. This does not mean, however, that the idol and the deity were thereby deemed identical or coterminous; rather, the god or goddess was “the reality that was embodied in the image” [Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, 115–16] but at the same time was transcendent beyond the specific embodiment in that discrete idol in such a fashion that the deity could be fully and equally present in other idols.

From the above, we can conclude that what it meant to be in the image/idol of a god in the ancient Near East was not about having a singularly unique capacity, such as reason or a soul that might separate humans from the animals; rather the image served as a holistic manifestation of the divine presence to those who might encounter the deity in and through the image. Yet the deity remained transcendent beyond the image. Not just in the ancient Near Eastern world of the Old Testament but also during the time of Jesus, many pagans living in the Mediterranean region believed that their idols were a nexus of the mundane and the divine, a complex portal where heaven and earth kissed. As Nijay Gupta has recently concluded on the basis of his study of Greco-Roman cult statues, from the pagan vantage point idols (1) were not merely human creations but also divine; (2) were living; (3) were able to see, hear, and speak; (4) could sometimes move; and (5) were capable of “saving” their worshipers from illness, danger, or trouble [Gupta, "They Are Not Gods!," 712–718]. To meet the image was to encounter the god or goddess who was imbued and manifested in the image and who acted through it.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 150

Friday, August 28, 2020

Who decides?

Nearer the time of Jesus, Minucius Felix, a late second- or early third-century Christian apologist, gives an insightful mockery of pagan idol worship that gives a handy compressed description of the process by which an idol came to be considered fully divine in his day and age: “When does the god come into being? The image is cast, hammered, or sculpted; it is not yet a god. It is soldered, put together, and erected; it is still not a god. It is adorned, consecrated, prayed to—and now, finally, it is a god once man has willed it so and dedicated it” (Oct. 22.5).—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 149

Thursday, August 27, 2020

And there was no more sea

John’s vision in Revelation describing an oceanless new heaven and new earth thus anticipates but goes beyond the vision of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God promises in his covenant with Noah that he will never destroy all flesh again by unbounding the reservoir of waters (Gen. 9:11). Moreover, God will one day slay the great writhing dragon of the sea (Isa. 27:1—2). A river flowing from the temple will make the Dead Sea fresh (Ezek. 47:1—12). Yet John’s vision brings this line of thought a step further. At the end of God’s story the sea will not even exist! John’s vision indicates that the danger posed by the untamed waters (and the beasts associated with the waters) in times past and present will no longer even be possible in the the new earth. The perilous sea will not just remain tame but will have been entirely removed. John’s vision of an oceanless new order, then is best read as announcing the utter and absolute removal of all external threats to life for humankind.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 135 (emphasis original)

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

But how much faith is necessary?

It is better to ask what sort of allegiance than how much, because allegiance depends on what Jesus the king commands each of us individually to do and whether he determines now and at the final judgment that you and I have given pistis. If we give pistis to Jesus as Lord by declaring allegiance, determining to enact loyalty, and showing through bodily doing that our determination was not just lip service, then we can rest assured that his death on our behalf is utterly and completely efficacious—all of our sins are forgiven in the Messiah (even our selfish acts of temporary disloyalty). And the Holy Spirit invariably comes alongside us to assist us in faithful living.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 124–25 (emphasis original)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020


I feel better now... sometimes you just have to vent to the air. The psalmists do it all the time, and that's where I've been spending most of my time lately, reading the Psalms over and over. They understand the ups and downs of life and don't sugar-coat reality. They do always end up acknowledging God's overarching direction, and so do I. But sometimes the day-to-day clouds your vision. Screaming into the air, to God, can clear that fog. So that's what I just did.

Wrong-headed question

When I find myself wondering whether my allegiance is enough, I am forced to remind myself that this is to ask the wrong question. Indeed, those who are concerned enough to ask it are probably those who are in the least danger of a lack of allegiance—although they may be drawing nigh to a risky legalism. To seek to quantify or develop a set of hard and fast rules by which one could measure sufficient loyalty is antithetical to the gospel—indeed, it is precisely this rule—based approach that causes Paul so much consternatlon in his polemic against works of law. Enacted loyalty is required as the Holy Spirit empowers us, and this enacted loyalty means a settled intention and truly changed bodily behavior. But a personalized description of how much loyalty is necessary for me or for you is not only impossible; it is wrongheaded.

Allegiance cannot be quantified or enumerated. How would you feel if you were getting married and your spouse wanted a list of rules issued in advance describing how far he or she could go sexually in a relationship with another before it would be considered cheating? Or what, if you were a soldier during wartime, would your general think if you wanted a list defining how much military aid you could give to the opponent before it would be considered treason? The desire for an enumerated list is often indicative of one of two things: either a failure to know and trust the goodness of Jesus the king or a what—can-I-get—away—with orientation.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 124

Monday, August 24, 2020

Works of the law

So the Mosaic law, even though it is God-ordained, nonetheless was subject to the limitations of all such rule-based systems. Law makes the sin problem worse by exciting the flesh. Thus it cannot result in the kind of righteousness that God desires. As Paul puts it elsewhere, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive” (2 Cor. 3:6). That is, the letter of the law associated with the Mosaic covenant kills, but the Holy Spirit supplies life. Why? Because the Spirit sets us free from the performance demands of the Old Covenant (2 Cor. 3:17), allowing us to be transformed into the image of Jesus the Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). The good works that the law was really directed toward all along are indeed fulfilled for those who walk in accordance with the Spirit:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not consummate the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are contrary to the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are contrary to the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, so that you do not do the things you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality. (Gal. 5:16-19)
In other words, allegiance to the Christ entails life in the Spirit (which is precisely what it means to be part of the church) rather than life under the law—and this allegiance is manifest as a concrete way of life that puts to death the flesh’s wicked practices. It also means that the fruit of the Spirit Will be embodied, but not necessarily in a simple cause—and-effect relationship between initial “faith” (as “belief” or “trust”) and subsequent “good deeds.” Rather the Spirit’s actions in the midst of the community that continues to profess “Jesus is Lord” is the cause, and the effect is spiritual gifts that manifest “good deeds” performed as ongoing allegiance (see 1 Cor. 12:1—3).—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 120-21

Friday, August 21, 2020

Wrong focus

Barclay, Paul and the Gift, 569, puts it summarily: “The priority of the gift is everywhere presupposed, but Paul rarely draws out predestinarian conclusions, as in the Hodayot [of the Dead Sea Scrolls] or in the theologies of Augustine and Calvin.” That is, Paul himself is not nearly as interested in perfecting the volitional priority of God’s personal electing grace (God’s choosing specific individuals before their birth for final salvation) as some of Paul’s interpreters have been. While God’s all—encompassing knowledge of the past, present, and future is everywhere presupposed (e. g., Rom. 11:33-36; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 3:9), and Paul frequently speaks of specific events that God has arranged in advance (Rom. 8:28-30; 1 Cor. 15:51-55; Gal. 3:8; Eph. 1:3—14; 2:10; 1 Thess. 4:16; 2 Tim. 1:9), Paul’s emphasis is consistently on God’s choosing of the Christ and the corporate people of God in the Christ, not on individual predestination unto eternal life or damnation.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 106 n. 5

Thursday, August 20, 2020

That's NOT the point!

Although philosophical consistency suggests that it is almost certainly the case that God—who transcends ordinary categories of space and time—knows in advance the eternal destiny of each individual person, this is not Paul’s point here or elsewhere (contra Calvin and others). Even Paul’s example vis-a—vis Pharaoh in Romans 9:16-23 does not speak directly about Pharaoh’s eternal fate, but only shows that God may harden individuals in order to assist others and to bring greater glory to God’s own self. God retains the prerogative to reshape that vessel of wrath into something new even as he uses it as an instrument of his mercy. Misshapen potter’s clay was not generally thrown away or destroyed in antiquity but rather put back on the wheel and crafted afresh (for evidence, see Jer. 18:4-6 as the background to Rom. 9:16-23). Even in this particular case, as the Bible presents the matter, God’s hardening is in full cooperation with Pharaoh’s free will, as the God-ordained consequences of Pharaoh’s own choices move him to a state of ever—greater (but from his vantage point still potentially revocable) hard-heartedness.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 106

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Words matter

Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God’s tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness—or evil—into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child.—Susannah Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, viii

<idle musing>
A timely reminder, as we have a president who gushes lies and hate. What he says matters—not in the way he thinks, but in the world that his words are building. Is that the world you want to live in? I don't! It's not a godly looking world; there is no shalom in it.
</idle musing>

By grace, through faith, yes. But what does that entail?

In short, we cannot say in an unqualified fashion that final salvation is by grace and by faith apart from embodied obedience, for this misunderstands the nature of both charis (“grace”) and pistis (“faith”) in antiquity and in Paul’s Letters. We must recognize the bankruptcy of our current selves, especially our self—centered indulgences and ambitions. Through participation in the Christ’s death and resurrection, we must die to our old selves with the Messiah and become new selves, and in so doing follow the road of obedient service that our Lord commands by enacting allegiance. For Paul “faith” recognizes we are utterly dead and totally undeserving of God’s grace, but the grasping of God’s life-from-the—dead grace demands a trajectory of loyal obedience.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 105

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Prayer and Abraham Joshua Heschel

Over the weekend, we went to a thrift store; it's one of the few outings we've done in the last 4 months. As always, I browsed the books while Debbie looked at clothing. I rarely find anything, but this time I found a real gem: Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, by Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by his daughter, Susannah Heschel. It's a collection of his essays and begins with a biographical introduction by his daughter. Here's a nice little snippet to start us out:
He used to say in his lectures, "Just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing."—Susannah Heschel in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, xxi

Grace and behavior

Contemporary Christian notions of grace also frequently fail to take into account the effective nature of grace. That is, the aim of God’s gift of the Christ is to set us free from our slavery to sin, the law, and evil powers and to transform us so that we become new creatures, righteous in the Messiah (Rom. 5:20-21; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Gal. 1:1-6; 6:15; Titus 2:11-14). In the Christ, we are ruled by grace, “grace reigns through righteousness unto eternal life” (Rom. 5:21; cf. Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:10). It is inappropriate, then, to suggest that God’s gift of the Messiah, if the gift is accepted and subsequently held, would be ineffective in bringing about God’s transformative aims. So we should not set grace at odds with the required behavioral changes (good deeds) associated with allegiant union to Jesus the king.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 104 (emphasis original)

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Thought for the day

3 When the very bottom of things falls out,
     what can a righteous person possibly accomplish?

4 But the Lord is in his holy temple.
     The Lord! His throne is in heaven.
His eyes see—
     his vision examines all of humanity.
5 The Lord examines
     both the righteous and the wicked;
     his very being hates anyone who loves violence.
6 God will rain fiery coals and sulfur on the wicked;
     their cups will be filled
     with nothing but a scorching hot wind
7 because the Lord is righteous!
     He loves righteous deeds.
     Those whose heart is right will see God’s face.— Ps. 10 (CEB)

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

If you confess with your mouth…

[N]otice that in the other portion of the verses under discussion, Romans 10:9—10, Paul states that for a person to be saved, he or she must “confess” with the mouth that “Jesus is Lord.” It is important to recognize that Paul does not say “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus fulfills the Davidic promise” or “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus died for your sins.” With regard to confessing, the focus lands squarely on one specific stage of the gospel—Jesus as Lord. Why? This is not mere happenstance.

Confession of Jesus as Lord is an expression of allegiance to him as the ruling king. Paul is pointing at our need to swear allegiance to Jesus as the Lord, the ruling sovereign, precisely because this lordship stage of Jesus’s career expressly summarizes a key aspect of the gospel, describes Jesus’s current role in earthly and heavenly affairs, and is the essential reality that must be affirmed to become part of God’s family. Public acknowledgement of the acceptance of Jesus’s rule is the premier culminating act of pistis. The verb that Paul selects to describe what is necessary, homologeo, refers in this sort of context to a public declaration, as is made clear by the “with your mouth.” Paul does not envision raising your hand in church or silently praying a prayer in your heart as a sufficient “confession” (nor does Paul say that such an action couldn’t initiate salvation, but he clearly intends something more substantive). Paul is talking about something public and verbal, like what might happen at an ancient baptism.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 97–98 (emphasis original)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

So who reigns?

Other terms that we today traditionally associate with Christianity were also popular as part of imperial propaganda. In the broader Greco-Roman world, the word euangelion, “gospel,” could mean good news of military victory or of the emperor’s birth or reign. The term kyrios, “lord,” along with sōtēr, “savior,” was a favored term used by the emperor. In fact if one had ceased to be a Christian and wanted to prove that to the Roman authorities, then one could offer a sacrifice in the presence of a statue of the emperor while saying “Caesar is Lord,” which was understood in such contexts as incompatible with the sworn confession “Jesus is Lord.” We have a detailed description of this process in the letter of Pliny to the emperor Trajan, written around AD 112. Pliny certainly understood that allegiance to Jesus as a sovereign was more fundamental to Christianity than anything else, even if it is not readily recognized today.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 88

<idle musing>
Indeed! We see all too much evidence of that everyday here in the US, with christianity being equated with nationalism. The early church wouldn't understand any of our culture war mentality. They knew Jesus was Lord and that he reigned. And because of that, they were not manipulated by fear, the weapon of choice today against christians.
</idle musing>

Monday, August 10, 2020

The weekend that was

We had a storm come through on Saturday afternoon, with winds up to 60 MPH. It knocked down both my pole bean trellis and my cucumber one; they were both made from 1x2 and 2x2 lumber. I spent a few hours yesterday rebuilding them and reinforcing them by tying them to the garage, the old clothesline post, and a pair of fenceposts. I don't think they will come falling down again. Miraculously, none of the plants were destroyed.

We also were without electricity for about 10 hours. The electricity had flickered a couple times, and then a blast of lightning hit so close that the boom was almost simultaneous with the flash. Probably the closest I've ever experienced. Later we found out that most of our side of town was without power. We got ours back around 2:00 AM. Others didn't get their power back until Sunday afternoon.

When we went out for a walk after the storm, there were limbs down everywhere. On East Avenue, tree had fallen across the road, blocking it. It had also taken out some power lines. It was an older maple that was hollow inside, so it basically snapped into pieces.

Sunday afternoon, about 20 hours after the storm, I was working the garden (putting the trellises back together) when I heard a loud crash from the front yard. I thought maybe someone was doing some cleanup across the street and kept working. A minute or two later, a neighbor told me to look out front. A limb from our maple, weakened by the storm, had cracked and fallen across the street! Normally, there is a vehicle parked under that limb, but they were gone. Five minutes later, they came home. Needless to say, they were extremely thankful that their vehicle wasn't parked there when the limb fell.

Here are a couple of pictures of it.

Friday, August 07, 2020

So, what is this faith thing?

“Faith is not an alternative achievement nor a refined human spirituality, but a declaration of bankruptcy, a radical and shattering recognition that the only capital in God’s economy is the gift of Christ crucified and risen” ([Barclay, Paul and the Gift] 384—85; cf. 390n5). Perhaps faith, then, is best understood as an allegiance to the Christ predicated on the recognition that nothing apart from this allegiance has saving value.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 83 n. 15

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Why foreground "Christ"?

I would argue that the probability that Paul specifically intends to foreground the allegiance aspect of pistis in passages such as these is moved from possible to highly probable when we consider that, for Paul, Jesus above all is the Christ or the Lord. “Jesus is Lord” is in fact where the gospel above all reaches a climax. When Paul speaks of Jesus Christ—and note that he does speak in this way every time Jesus is mentioned in all of the passages quoted above—Christ is not a last name or a meaningless addition; it is an honorific designation. It means Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the long-anticipated but now-ruling Jewish-style universal king. I cannot overstate the importance of this. In other words, Paul everywhere presupposes that the most basic identity of Jesus is that of the enthroned divine—human king, the actively ruling Son of God. So contextually the most obvious and natural way to speak about the proper relationship between the king and his people is allegiance or loyalty.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 82–83

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

What is the gospel?

The Gospel: An Outline

Jesus the king
1. preexisted with the Father,
2. took on human flesh, fulfilling God’s promises to David,
3. died for sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
4. was buried,
5. was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
6. appeared to many,
7. is seated at the right hand of God as Lord, and
8. will come again as judge.—Matthew Bates in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 74
<idle musing>
Straight out of 1 Cor 15. It's usually called the kerygma, a Greek word meaning announcement. Unfortunately, most people truncate the gospel to items 3 through 5, possibly including 6 as an afterthought. They totally neglect the other ones, which are what frame the gospel and make it Good News.
</idle musing>

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

A logical reaction

Is it any wonder, then, that upon hearing Jesus’s shocking allusion to Psalm 110 and Daniel 7, the high priest tore his garments, exclaiming, “Why do we need any more witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. What is your decision?” And then we find it summarily reported, “They all condemned him as deserving of death” (Mark 14:63—64). Knowing full well that he was going to die, Jesus had claimed that he was nonetheless about to be installed as the king at God’s own right hand, as the ruler over a universal and everlasting kingdom, and that his accusers would soon be condemned by God. Jesus anticipated that his death and resurrection were in the final analysis purposed toward his enthronement as the king of heaven and earth. In other words, in the Gospels Jesus is described as proclaiming the good news that he would be seated at the right hand of God as the cosmic king or universal lord.Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 72

Monday, August 03, 2020

Turning the tables, or things aren't what they seem to be

Two things are particularly noteworthy here [Dan 7:13–14]. First, not only is this “one like a son of man" given glory and an eternal kingdom; the scope of his rule is also universal, “that all people, nations, and languages should serve him.” Second, Jesus has deliberately alluded to this particular vision from Daniel 7 with his provocative words “and you will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.” The images evoked—a trial scene, the coming of the Son of Man, the clouds of heaven, and receipt of heavenly authority to rule—are far too specific to suggest anything otherwise.

So Jesus, before a human tribunal, makes the outrageous statement that he indeed is “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed,” implying that even if he is falsely judged by a human court, he will be vindicated by God, seated at God’s right hand, and given an everlasting kingdom over which he will rule. And in so doing, Jesus once again has subversively turned the tables on his accusers, bringing out the deep irony of the entire trial scene. For if those who are trying Jesus—the Jewish high priest, ruling council, and their lackeys—find him guilty, then Jesus has insinuated that they will in fact be acting not as the Ancient of Days would desire, but rather in collusion with the fourth beast and its arrogant horn by attacking Jesus. And these are the very ones who fancy themselves to be standing in the legitimate place of the God of Israel in giving a verdict, especially the high priest! Jesus’s words have turned the entire trial scene upside down, for Jesus has asserted that this earthly trial is an inversion of the heavenly reality. It is in fact, as Jesus has painted the picture, the high priest and his minions who are really on trial in association with the fourth beast’s hostile activities, and they will be condemned and ultimately destroyed by God! Meanwhile, Jesus is about to be declared innocent and installed as king, sharing in God’s very throne.Salvation by Allegiance Alone, 71–72