Category Archives: Scripture Notes

Paul’s Thorn and Prayer

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

This piece of Scripture often gets discussed because of the “thorn” Paul mentions.  Bible readers are interested in understanding what exactly this “thorn” was.  There are all sorts of theories, but they’re all speculative.  The truth is we have no idea what exactly it was that God sent to Paul to keep him humble.

More important than the exact identity of the “thorn” is the fact that God sends it.  He sent something to Paul which he perceived as difficult, as an adversity.  God had a purpose behind it, but Paul experienced it as something that he would rather do without.  Believers have no difficulty believing that God sends the things we experience as delightful and good.  The challenge is believing that God also sends hardship.  Yet Scripture teaches that, not just once, but repeatedly:  Isaiah 45:7, Lam. 3:28, Psalm 60:1-4, Psalm 66:10-12, Psalm 71:20, Psalm 102:10 and many more places.

In this case, Paul struggled with why he had to deal with this adversity.  So he prayed.  Interestingly, he says that he prayed “to the Lord” about this.  From what follows in verses 9 and 10, it’s clear that this is a reference to Christ.  Paul prayed to Christ, not just once, but three times about his “thorn.”  There are those who continue to argue that believers may not pray to Jesus.  Instead, they say, we must only pray to God the Father (the first person of the Trinity).  That argument is based on a misunderstanding of the address of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father who is in heaven…”  It misunderstands “Father” there to be a reference to the first person of the Trinity.  Instead, “Father” is used there in the Old Testament manner of speaking as a reference to God.  If Christians are only supposed to pray to the first person of the Trinity, then, to be consistent, one must conclude that Paul sinned here in 2 Corinthians 12.  However, the fact that the Lord Jesus heard him and answered him would indicate that there was nothing inappropriate in Paul’s prayer.  It was acceptable for him to pray to the Lord Jesus — and so it is for believers today as well.

The answer Paul received from Jesus is also worth pondering:  “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Surprisingly, weakness is the way God has often worked.  In the Old Testament, he takes the runt and makes him a leader.  You can think of Gideon or David.  In the New Testament, this principle is exemplified at the cross.  What could be weaker than a naked dying man on a Roman instrument of torture reserved for criminals?  Christ himself exemplified the principle of power made perfect in weakness.  Now he speaks to one united to him and says that he is experiencing the same.  Just as with the cross, there is a goal in the weakness.  There is a purpose in the thorn.  And there is enough divine grace from the Saviour to see it properly and endure it contentedly.

Does it really matter, then, what the “thorn” was?  Obviously it was something difficult.  Yet the Spirit, in his wisdom, hid it from our view.  The situation is comparable to many of the Psalms.  Many of the Psalms are laments — they feature the psalmist singing the blues.  Some of the lament Psalms are tied to concrete historical situations, but many are not.  There too, the Spirit has hid the circumstances from view, reminding us that there is a timeless quality to these words.  The words of Scripture in these cases can and should be easily “universalized.”  As we suffer adversities and hardships, these passages of Scripture can help us with the right perspective.  We too can learn contentment in the midst of difficulty, knowing that God’s strength comes in weakness.


The Mountain of Blessing and Life

For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”  Psalm 133:3b

There’s a question I often ask my catechism students:  where is the temple today?  We all know that the temple and sacrifices of the Old Testament are gone.  That’s all been fulfilled in Christ.  We know that because the temple curtain tore top to bottom while our Saviour hung on the cross (Matt. 27:51).  That was God’s announcement that this Old Testament institution was finished.  But does that mean that the temple idea is altogether gone?

When I ask that question of my students, I expect a certain answer.  Most students jump to the teaching of 1 Cor. 6:19 – our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  While definitely not a wrong answer, it is an incomplete answer.  Because it is incomplete, we can sometimes struggle in making New Testament applications of Old Testament passages like Psalm 133.

Let me briefly fill out the New Testament’s answer to the question of the present-day temple.  It begins with Christ himself.  Referring to his own body, he said in John 2:19, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Christ is the temple – he is God come to dwell among us.  Christ’s body, the church, is also the temple.  In 1 Cor. 3:16, the Holy Spirit says, “Do you [plural] not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [plural]?”  The Spirit says the same thing in 1 Pet. 2:5.  The church of Christ is the temple of God, his dwelling place.  Then, yes, we do also find that individual Christians are also referred to as the temple of the Spirit in 1 Cor. 6:19.  Finally, in Revelation 21, the entire new creation becomes the temple of God as he comes down to make his dwelling place with man.

Going back to Psalm 133, the Holy Spirit was first speaking about the temple as it existed on Mount Zion.  He spoke of the unity of God’s people being like the dew of Hermon which falls on the tops of Mount Zion in Jerusalem — in other words, on the temple.  The temple is where Yahweh “commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”  The temple is where God’s people would go to make the sacrifices for sin which spoke of the promised reconciliation in the Messiah.  As a place of blood and death it pointed to substitutionary atonement, and therefore, eternal life.

But how are believers today to find encouragement from these words?  By asking ourselves, “Where is the temple today?” and then applying the New Testament’s four-fold answer.

First and foremost, God has commanded blessing and life forevermore in the temple of Christ’s body.  He was where our sacrifice for sins was made.  We have blessings because of what happened with the New Testament temple.  We have eternal life because that temple was destroyed and then raised up again in three days – as Christ prophesied in John 2:19.

God has also commanded blessing and life forevermore in Christ’s body, the church.  The church is where the means of grace point us to the gospel.  The preaching of the Scriptures and the administration of the sacraments both tell us of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  The church is also where we’re discipled for life in Christ.  God’s blessings are heaped upon us corporately through this manifestation of the New Testament temple.

What about the individual believer as a temple of the Holy Spirit?  If we’re Christians, the Spirit has regenerated us.  That has brought us the blessing of faith.  That has connected us to Christ and life in him.  The Spirit also constantly works renewal and holiness in our lives.  You see, God has lavished us with blessing and eternal life in these fleshly temples too.

Finally, we need to reflect on the new creation temple in Revelation 21.  There, because of the gospel of Christ’s redemption, we’ll certainly experience God’s blessing and life forevermore.  It will all culminate in this eternal joy in God’s presence.  The blessings of the original Old Testament temple pointed ahead to Christ and the blessings in this temple will point back to Christ and his cross.  Blessings and life forevermore will be based on the worthy Lamb who was slain.

Embedded in the biblical idea of the temple is God’s grace in effecting reconciliation with sinners.  God never owed it to the Israelites to dwell among them, nor did anyone ever deserve to have Christ dwell on this earth to suffer and die for sinners.  However, also embedded in the idea, in both the Old Testament and New Testament, is human responsibility.  Israelite believers were called by God to approach him at the temple with sacrifices.  Today, we’re called by God to approach him through Jesus Christ.  We’re “to enter into the temple” through faith in our Redeemer.  We’re called to be “living stones” in his temple, to be living members of his body, the church.  We’re called to keep ourselves holy as temples of the Holy Spirit.  Now, as we walk in faith, we can look forward to blessings and life forevermore in the ultimate fulfilment of the temple in the age to come.


Tetelestai — It is Finished

Good Friday is coming later this week and I’ll be preaching on Jesus’ “Word of Victory” from the cross:  “It is finished” (John 19:30).  In this connection, I did some research into the meaning of the one Greek word behind the English, tetelestai.  For those interested in things grammatical, that’s the third person singular, perfect tense, of the verb teleo.  Now what stirred me up to research this was something I read a while back in Gregory Koukl’s book The Story of Reality (see my review here).  Koukl writes:

When a debt was owed in the first century, a “certificate” of the debt was made, much like the notice placed about Jesus’ head.  When the obligation was settled, it was officially resolved with a single Greek word placed upon the parchment’s face: tetelestai.  It meant completed, paid, finished, done.  Archaeologists have unearthed ancient receipts that have been “canceled out” in this way using the word tetelestai or its abbreviation. (page 127)

When I first read this, I thought, “I’ve never heard that before.  Hmm…interesting.”  I placed a mark in the book and made a note of it.  I knew I was going to preach on John 19:30 shortly, so I would come back to this and take another look at it.

Koukl has a footnote with this paragraph and it points to a website, Bible.org.  The particular page can be found here.  For our purposes, this is the relevant section:

The word tetelestai was also written on business documents or receipts in New Testament times to show indicating that a bill had been paid in full. The Greek-English lexicon by Moulton and Milligan says this:

“Receipts are often introduced by the phrase [sic] tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner…” (p. 630). The connection between receipts and what Christ accomplished would have been quite clear to John’s Greek-speaking readership; it would be unmistakable that Jesus Christ had died to pay for their sins.

So now the plot thickens!  The anonymous author of this page points us to The Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament Illustrated from the Papyrii and Other Non-Literary Sources, by James Moulton and George Milligan.

The relevant page from Moulton and Milligan can be found online here.   There we find the words quoted by Bible.org, but also some words left out.  Crucially, Moulton and Milligan relate that these papyrii are mostly belonging to the second century A.D. (I’m thinking:  “What do you mean by “mostly”?”)  Moreover, Moulton and Milligan provide their source:  New Classical Fragments and Other Greek and Latin Papyrii, by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt.  Now we’re getting somewhere.

As the saying goes, “Ad fontes!” (to the sources).  The relevant pages from Grenfell and Hunt begin here.  The papyrii in question come from the second and third century A.D. — not exactly “New Testament times.”  Moreover, they come from receipts “for various taxes paid by persons transporting goods on baggage animals from Fayoum to Memphis and vice-versa across the desert road.”  For the geographically challenged (or curious), Fayoum and Memphis are located in Egypt.   I trust you can see the problem.

I can only say, “This myth is busted.”   These paypyrii have to do with the paying of taxes, not of debts.  You might argue that a tax is a kind of debt, but we generally distinguish between the two.  More importantly, these papyrii are from a time and place removed somewhat from the New Testament.  Koukl also said that there was a “single Greek word” on the parchment’s face.  When you look at the text of the papyrii in Grenfell and Hunt, there’s definitely more than a single Greek word to signify the payment of the tax.  It is highly unlikely that Jesus said “tetelestai” (or that John translated his Aramaic to this word) with the idea that there’s a direct reference to the cancellation of a debt.  Certainly when Jesus says, “It is finished,” he does mean that the work of our redemption on the cross has been fully accomplished.  However, any reference to the full payment of our debt is only indirect.

UPDATE:  After posting the link to this blog post on Facebook, I had some discussion with a colleague and did some further research.  There is a papyrus from somewhere between 180 and 168 BC which is a receipt for “payments of an unspecified nature.”  This papyrus uses tetelestaiSee here.  There is also a customs receipt from 49 AD — see here — and a number of others.  However, there are still questions regarding:  1)  How widespread this technical usage was, 2) whether the original Greek readers of John’s gospel were indeed familiar with this technical use of tetelestai, 3) Whether this word in this form was actually used for payments other than taxes, 4) The fact that tetelestai never occurs by itself as a word in isolation.  Furthermore, I surveyed a number of commentaries on John.  I found one that mentioned the “bill paid” interpretation (Richard Phillips in the Reformed Expository Commentary series).  The others (Carson, Hoskyns, Ridderbos, Hendriksen, Michaels, Morris) I surveyed make no mention of this.  Finally, there’s no mention of this in a number of standard references including Dictionary of New Testament Background, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.  Considering also the overwhelming reticence of commentators and scholars on this point, it is best to simply understand tetelestai in John 19:30 as meaning, “It is finished” or “It is accomplished/completed.”

 


Contextualization in Scripture

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Whenever I read a book, I usually make notes afterwards for future reference.  I finished reading Keller’s Center Church a couple of months ago, but I’m only finally getting around to writing my notes on it today.  As I’m doing so, I’ve across something worth sharing about contextualization.  Keller defines contextualization like this:  “…it is giving people the Bible’s answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend, and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them” (page 89).  A little further in that chapter, he gives this helpful sidebar:

Craig Blomberg points out that in Matthew’s parable of the mustard seed, the sower sows his seed in a “field” (agros, Matt. 13:31), while in Luke the sowing is in a “garden” (kepos, Luke 13:19).  Jews never grew mustard plants in gardens, but always out on farms, while Greeks in the Mediterranean basin did the opposite.  It appears that each gospel writer was changing the word that Jesus used in Mark — the word for “earth” or “ground” (ge, Mark 4:31) — for the sake of his hearers.  There is a technical contradiction between the Matthean and Lukan terms, states Blomberg, “but not a material one.  Luke changes the wording precisely so that his audience is not distracted from…the lesson by puzzling over an…improbable practice.”  The result is that Luke’s audience “receives his teaching with the same impact as the original audience.”  (page 95)

I looked into this a little bit and it seems to check out as correct.  Just one small point:  I would prefer “apparent discrepancy” to “technical contradiction” (after all, fields and gardens are not exactly polar opposites).  The main point is that contextualization is evident in Scripture — therefore, we need to take it seriously too.  For myself, as a Canadian living and ministering in Australia, I try to use the right words for my audience.  I try to avoid Canadian idioms and use Aussie ones.  However, I’m quite sure that I still have a long way to go in minimizing linguistic distractions when I preach and teach.


Does the ESV Honour the Holy Spirit?

This past Sunday morning, I preached on John 1:29-34.  As I was working on the text, I noticed a potential problem with the ESV translation of verse 32:

And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.”

Do you see the problem?  If not, compare the ESV with the NIV and NKJV on the same verse:

NIV:  Then John gave this testimony:  “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.”

NKJV:  And John bore witness, saying, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him.”

If you haven’t caught on yet, the problem is with the “it” in the ESV.  The other translations avoid this issue, either through by-passing the use of the pronoun or using the third-person masculine pronoun.  This is what I said about this verse in my sermon:

I need to say one more thing about verse 32.  Look at it with me.  Our Bible translation says that “it remained on him.”  That could give the impression that the Holy Spirit is an “it.”  I want to be charitable.  I think the ESV translators meant to say that the image of the dove remained on Jesus.  “It” then refers to the image, not the Holy Spirit himself.  After all, elsewhere the ESV is careful to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he.”  To be fair, even the old King James Version used “it” here.  The NKJV has “he,” and that is better at removing the danger that we might think and speak wrongly about the Holy Spirit.  What we need to remember is that the Holy Spirit is not an “it.”  We dishonour the third person of the Trinity when we refer to him as “it.”  We always need to speak of he, him, his, when we’re speaking of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force or power – that’s what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach. No, he is a person, which means that he is a someone.  Scripture teaches that he is a someone whom you can grieve (Eph. 4:32), he is someone to whom you can lie (Acts 5:3) and so on.  Brothers and sisters, I urge you to be careful in your speaking about the Holy Spirit.  Be careful, don’t ever say “it.” Why?  Because this is a matter of honouring God.

So, in John 1:32, while I still wish it would be clearer, I’m willing to cut the ESV translators some slack.  I’m less inclined to do that for another problematic text referring to the Holy Spirit, Numbers 11:25.

ESV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.

NKJV:  Then the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders;

NIV (1984):  Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke with him, and he took of the Spirit that was on him and put the Spirit on the seventy elders.

This is a more challenging case, because there is no image or symbol of the Holy Spirit involved.  There is apparently no excuse for the ESV’s approach in Numbers 11:25.  However, there may be an explanation.  I suspect it has to do with the pedigree of the ESV in the RSV and KJV.  Compare:

KJV:  And the LORD came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders:

RSV:  Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy elders;

Notice how both the KJV and RSV translate/interpret the Hebrew word ruach as “spirit” with a lower-case ‘s.’  The Hebrew alphabet doesn’t have capital letters like English does, so it can be difficult sometimes to gauge whether a word like ruach is referring to the spirit of a man or to the Holy Spirit.  The KJV and RSV chose for the former and then used the appropriate pronoun for their choice, “it.”  The problem with the ESV is that it capitalizes “Spirit,” normally meaning a reference to the Holy Spirit, and then — inconsistent with that choice — uses “it.”  That seems to be a carry-over from the earlier translations, a mistake that was somehow overlooked.

One of the good things about the ESV is that it is still being periodically revised and updated.  There is a possibility that future editions of the ESV will include better translations of John 1:32 and Numbers 11:25.  I find it hard to believe that the ESV translators deliberately set out to speak of the Holy Spirit as “it.”  Rather, I reckon this betrays a problem common amongst so many Christians:  we don’t take the Holy Spirit seriously enough as a person of the Trinity.  He often has a background role and, as a result, our thinking and speaking about him can often be less than precise.  Bible translators are no less afflicted with this than the rest of us.  However common it may be, it should not be acceptable.  We should aim for giving full honour to the Spirit and his personhood in our speaking — and we should also insist that a faithful Bible translation do the same.