Why Faithful Kingdom Citizens can’t “Go to Church”

May 22, 2017

(Prepared for our small congregation May 21, 2017)

I will begin to address this topic with our favorite teacher’s favorite question: “Well, what did you find?” I hope some of you did your “homework” and have some ideas to contribute.
(This was followed with responses by people who had looked up a few references as requested ahead of time, most of which were properly focused on the word “church” in Scripture).

This is not at all what I “grew up with”. My family usually “went to church” – a weekly visit to a large, gray stone building where you had to dress up (heels and stockings, hat, and gloves!) and be quiet. Children did not go to “big church”, but to “Sunday School” where you heard stories, sang songs, memorized a few psalms and other “verses”, and dressed up in bathrobes and long nightgowns (with cardboard crowns and tinsel halos) for a yearly “Christmas program”. In early teens, you “joined the church”, after which you were expected to sit quietly and listen to the skilled, hired choir, organist and preacher. I did not meet Jesus there.

I only encountered people who were serious about following Jesus after I went to college. I found the way they studied the New Testament, interacted, looked out for each other, and included me, fascinating and attractive. From these fellow-students, I learned that our most genuine need was to focus on trying to become the kind of disciples that the New Testament described. It was several years and (thankfully) in another context before I was subjected to the rhetoric about “wrath” and “being lost.” By that time, I was already immersed in the study of the New Testament and its original language, first just to learn more, and then to prepare for translating it for people who lacked that privilege. This had two very helpful results: it both led me to the practice of trying to figure out just what was meant by many of the words that most folks used almost automatically, and protected me from the unBiblical threats of some who called themselves “evangelists”. The New Testament itself became my standard and my goal.

The word translated “church”, “ekklesia”, which etymologically means simply “called out”, was not at all uncommon in classical usage – but not in the way I had ever heard it used. As early as Homer, in the 6th century BC, it was used of any assembly officially summoned for a particular purpose: legal, civil, or even military. It is used that way in the account of the riot in Ephesus, described in Acts 19, referring to both the angry mob and the legal jurisdiction to which the town clerk referred them. The classical dictionary notes that the NT uses it to refer to a “body of Christians”, and notes that the word was not applied to a building or to a cadre of officials, until sometime in the 4th to the 6th centuries, well after the Roman emperor Constantine had restructured the “church” into a civic institution.

But we are concerned today with the faithful New Testament pattern. The word occurs only three times in the Gospels: once in Matthew’s account of Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity (16:18), and twice in Jesus’ instructions for reconciliation among brethren (Mt.18:17). Very likely, the lack of gospel references is due to the more common use of sunago and its related words (English “synagogue”) as a gathering, or the gathering place, of the Jewish faithful. If this is the case, then Jesus’ deliberate choice of a different word takes on sharp significance. When he says “I will build my church”, he clearly intends to do a new thing. Please note that Jesus says HE intends to do the building! In recent years it has been in vogue for individuals or groups – mere people – to set out to “build” churches. With all due respect to their sincerity, THAT IS NOT OUR JOB!!!!! Peter casts it properly in the passive voice, (I Pet.2:5) that we are to BE BUILT into Jesus’ household! We are the building materials – called “living stones” – not the builders. We need to make ourselves available as building materials – but leave the building to the Master Builder! HE knows what he wants done and how he wants to operate. He, after all, is the architect, the head contractor, and the construction superintendent!!

There’s plenty of work that IS assigned to us. This is found in the epistles, which are addressed to the growing churches – NOT, please notice, to officials in charge of them! Check out to whom the vast majority of the NT letters are addressed: “to all the saints” (faithful) at a particular place.
It is “through the church” – not a place, but a people – that “rulers and authorities”, whether in heaven or on earth, are expected to see a demonstration of the “many-faceted wisdom of God”! as was read in Ephesians this morning.

For this purpose, Jesus has been provided to us as “head over everything with respect to the church, which is his Body” (Eph.1:22, Col.1:18). Paul has furnished us with an “instruction manual” (I Cor.12) for learning to function as members of that Body – with each person actively contributing to the interdependent unit.
The closest we come to a “recipe” in the New Testament for a gathering of the church is found in I Cor.14 –
especially verses 24-31, where everyone was expected to come with something to share. I have never seen a group try that, have you? It would be a truly wonderful meeting! Admittedly, it would probably be upsetting to anyone who has a need to be in control, or who feels he “needs” to be under the control of some sort of “superior”. But please note that when anyone speaks, the rest are expected to evaluate what is said. It’s not a situation of an “anything goes” free-for-all. Nothing is to be automatically accepted without that evaluation. The description of their other activity in Ac.2:42-47 is similarly attractive, and just as rare.

Being composed of very human people, of course,
even the early church was not all glorious sweetness and light. Jesus himself (Mt.18:17) had given instructions for dealing with conflict, with the help of the church. An excellent practical example is described in the conference at Jerusalem (Ac.15), dealing with conflict concerning the inclusion of Gentiles – an outstanding example of mediated reconciliation. Notice that this was a meeting of the whole group, not just the “apostles and elders”. Paul emphasizes in I Cor. 5 and 6 that the church, and not civil courts, should be called upon when mediation is needed, and gives explicit instructions for dealing with someone who needs to be corrected.

So, what is “the work of the church”?
The church at Antioch, after consensus about the Holy Spirit’s leading at a simple prayer meeting, sent out Paul, Barnabas, and Silas (and possibly others) to carry the message into unreached areas. Paul, however, is careful to remind folks that he has earned his own support and did not beg it of others (Ac.20:34). On occasion, congregations also volunteered to help support their work: the letter to the Philippians is basically a thank-you note. See (Phil.4:15, II Cor.11:8, 12-13), and a sizable group cooperated to send relief to needy brethren (II Cor.8) when they heard of a famine among distant brethren.

The church” was also charged with the care of widows who had no family – which would have been a serious concern in groups under persecution. Paul gave very explicit instructions for this responsibility to Timothy in his first letter. The description at the end of Ac. 2 and Ac.4 lists some of their other activities, as does the extensive reference to the relief offering in II Cor.

Most of the church groups seem to have met in people’s homes. Ac.2:46 speaks of “breaking bread from house to house”, and Paul mentions groups meeting in the homes of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor.16 and Rom.16), and Titus Justus (Ac.18:7) in Corinth; Nympha (Col.4:15) and Philemon (Phm.2) in Colossae; Lydia (Ac.16) in Philippi; John Mark’s mother in Jerusalem (Ac.12:12); and probably Gaius (Rom.16) wherever Romans was written from. Occasionally, as in Ephesus (Ac.19:9) at the beginning, a rented hall was used – perhaps to accommodate a larger group, or before a host was available. It was natural, then, for Paul to refer to the church (I Tim.3:15) as “the household of God.” About half of the references are plural, which probably indicates more than one congregation in a location. In any event, real estate does not seem to have been a concern.

There is no reference to the church as “a place to go on Sunday” to sit and listen to a learned lecture (or less-learned diatribe) and professionally performed music or other entertainment. There is no prescribed agenda or “liturgy,” except for Paul’s advice referenced in I Cor.14 and mentioned earlier.

It is important to note that, except for his instructions to Timothy and Titus, who seem to have been serving as his “deputies”, Paul addresses his letters to “
all God’s people [the “saints”] at ….” [a location], and not to officials of any kind. In Phil.1:1, leaders are included in the address, but are not primary. This makes one wonder about the addressing of the “mail” in Rev.2 and 3 to “the messenger” (aggelos)– traditionally rendered “angel” (there is a word study on this usage), and the “you” words are singular, which is uncommon. Might this person have been some sort of corresponding secretary? But even in this case, everyone is called upon to heed “what the Spirit says to the churches.”

So what is this New Creation called “the church”?
I like the suggestion of a student years ago in a word study class, “a combination of a colony of the Kingdom and a support group!”
These are people gathered, as in Ac.2:42-47, to celebrate and share the resurrection life of their King.
As in Ac.11:26, to learn his ways, in order to represent him faithfully to those outside,
As in Ac.12:15, for mutual support and prayer in the face of persecution.
They deliberately avoid (Heb.10:25) neglecting to get together, since they need to keep coaching and encouraging one another
to faithfulness,
(I Cor.14:12) each seeking to excel in what will edify the church, as they
(Heb.10:24) concentrate on prodding each other with love and good deeds.
They serve as a “demonstration project” of the wisdom and glory of God (Eph.3:10)
being “built together into a permanent dwelling place for God, in the Spirit.”(Eph.2:22).

No, the citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus do not and can not “go to church.” If they are faithful, they never LEAVE!!! “Church” is not a place to go. It is WHO YOU ARE!!! Not a place, but a people. Remember, that “you” is plural. Jesus’ statement that he is present whenever two or three of his people are deliberately “gathered in his name” (another subject that needs serious study, along with the rest of Mt.18), has far-reaching implications. The identity of the “church” and those who compose it is a personal, but not a private, affair. One’s decision to commit his life to faithfulness to Jesus should be the last wholly individual decision of his life. Only together can we be truly faithful to the gracious calling that we share.

May we learn to do so faithfully!

A Message to all the site visitors

February 6, 2017

Dear brothers and sisters:

Yesterday, one of you pushed the total of views of this blog site over the 100,000 mark.  You represent 186 countries, and over 3000 of you have downloaded the Pioneers” New Testament.  I just want you all to know what an enormous gift that has been to an aging, but still eager, fellow-follower of the Lord Jesus.

This month marks 8 years since my son Dan began putting my studies on the web.  This year will also mark 60 years since the Lord confirmed to me that I was supposed to spend my life at the task of working to provide for people a tool — or a set of tools — for more accurately understanding the text of the New Testament, which is our best record of the life and purpose of our Lord.  Although I tried diligently to prepare for this assignment with academic training in both the Greek language and the principles and practice of linguistics, the privilege to work at it in any sort of “official” fashion was denied me.  I had no “sponsor” among the hierarchies of several “church” institutions, and I was not willing (because of  very clear New Testament precedent) to go around begging strangers to pay my way.  Additionally, as you surely can imagine from reading many of the studies, my work rattled a few too many cages, kicked too many “sacred cows”, to be attractive to officials who treasure their pet “doctrines” more highly than linguistic accuracy.

However, with the immeasurably precious support of  an equally committed husband, and occasional encouragement by fellow-seekers,  the work continued.  For a bit over ten years (most of the 1980’s), we taught informal classes to enable folks to do serious study on their own.  These dear people kept asking for more organized work.  Finally, in the early 1990’s, our dear daughter-in-law, Colleen, patiently introduced me to the alien computer world of “Word Perfect”, in order to prepare for a trial print version.  Our students were enthusiastic — but with no “sponsor”, distribution was minimal.  Later, our eldest son Dan created a CD version, with similar results.  So it was that after several more revisions, Dan undertook to put it on the web, where most of you have found it.  And this outlet enables me to continue to insist that it NEVER BE SOLD, but be freely available to all.  I believe firmly that if anything is truly from the Lord, its only price-tag is obedience.

No one can stop it now!  I thank the Lord for the privilege to share this work with each of you.  I would still love to hear from more of you.  The work would be much better with interactive efforts.  None of us is “smart” enough to fully understand, alone.  That’s why the Lord planned for a Body.
May we all represent him faithfully!

My love to you all —  Ruth


Word Study #205 — Restore, Restoration

January 5, 2017

A recent reference at church to the concept of “restoring what was lost”, quoting a number of Old Testament prophetic messages (but ignoring the accompanying conditionsthe requirement that God’s people deliberately return to following his instructions) sent me on a quest to discover exactly what the New Testament had to say about “restoration.” This subject has been a source of curiosity ever since a college friend – whom I still consider a faithful brother – announced his decision to identify with “Restoration Theology”, which he described as a return to the principles and practice of the early church. This is a goal with which I readily identify – but his description of the group he had chosen bore little resemblance to anything I could find in the New Testament.

This was not an easy quest, since a careful search yielded only eleven uses of either the noun or verb, most of which simply referenced physical healing or the payment of what was owed.

We are dealing here with three quite different words in the original text, each of which is rendered with a wide assortment of English translations.

Apodidomi, the most versatile of these words, usually referred to a payment of some kind. Lk.19:8 quotes Zacchaeus’ intention to “restore” (give back) his ill-gotten gains from his tax business – the only time that traditional translators rendered it “restore”. Other uses include the payment of wages (Mt.20:8), a debt (Mt.18:25-34), or a bill (Lk.10:25.); giving an account of behavior (Ac.19:40, Mt.12:26, Lk.16:2); paying rent (Mt.21:41), the sale of people or goods (Ac.5:8, 7:9); the yield of a harvest (Heb.16:11, Rv.22:2), or some sort of reward (Mt.6:4,6,18; 16:21; II Tim 4:14).
All of these and more are included in the L/S treatment of the term: “to render what is due: debts, penalties, or honor; the yield of land; to concede or allow; to bring to a conclusion; to give an account, explanation, or interpretation;” and even “to accept a bribe”!

Apokathistemi, in contrast, is rendered “restore” in all 8 occurrences. Classically, this word is more specific also: L/S lists “to reestablish, restore, reinstate; to pay what is due, to hand over or deliver; to settle affairs; and (of planets) to return to their place.”

Four of the eight references simply describe healing: Mt.12:13 and parallels in Mk.3:5 and Lk.3:10, and Mk.9:25. One (Heb.13:19) simply requests prayer that the writer be “restored” to the recipients of the letter – presumably referring to a hoped-for visit.

The other three are the only ones that could possibly have any connection to any of the prophetic messages. There are two references to Jesus’ explanatory statement to his startled disciples on the occasion of his transfiguration (Mt.17:11 and Mk.9:12), where he relates the ministry of John the Baptist to Elijah’s “restoring all things” or “setting all things right.” Jesus makes the point that John did indeed come to “prepare the way”, as he had said. But both Gospel writers record John’s own description (Mt.3:3, Mk.1:3) of his task as “hetoimazo” (“prepare or make ready”) – a different word entirely. Jesus goes on to describe John’s fate as foreshadowing his own. No blaze of glory here!

The only other appearance of this word is the disciples’ query, just before Jesus’ ascension, “Is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom (sovereignty) to Israel?” (Ac.1:6). Jesus’ response here is most significant. It might well be paraphrased, “You guys are asking the wrong question! Get busy at your real assignment: you are supposed to BE the kingdom, not just speculate about it! And it’s not just about Israel any more: it’s ‘to the ends of the earth’!”

Finally, katartizo , usually translated with some form of “perfect” (see study #13) or “complete” – L/S “adjust, put in order, mend, restore, furnish, equip, prepare, or make ready” – is only once rendered “restore” in the New Testament (Gal.6:1) where it refers to the reinstatement of a brother who had fallen away from his commitment.

So – where does this leave us?
“Restoration” is indeed truly integral to the message of the Gospel, whether it refers to physical healing, honest payment of debts, wages, or other obligations; the reinstatement and welcome of those who have stumbled, or the reward of the faithful.

In no case, however, does it imply, advocate, or justify any form of nationalism – anywhere.

The single reference to the political ascendancy of Israel was explicitly rejected by the Lord Jesus himself, who instructed his followers to become, and to spread, HIS Kingdom “to the ends of the earth!” Restoration is a work assignment – not a trophy!

May we all be faithfully occupied in that effort!

A Christmas Story for “Ordinary Folks”

December 19, 2016

This little illustration was first published in a church magazine in 1984, when I was already sympathizing with fellow-disciples who were also being denigrated for doing their level best to be faithful. I think it is even more needed now, so I am offering it to you as an alternative narrative that just might bear consideration.
I called it “A Word in Defense of the Much-maligned Innkeeper”.

The Christmas season is upon us again, and with it the usual deluge of abuse, printed and preached, for the defenseless “villain” of the story, the innkeeper who sent Mary and Joseph to the stable, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” That is all that Luke says: yet from those few words, for some perverse reason, people have conjured-up the image of a heartless, unfeeling man, who had no sympathy at all for the lowly folks on his doorstep.

I wish I could have invited you to our home years ago, on Christmas Eve. You just might leave with a different view of the innkeeper. In fact, I am heretical enough to suggest that the innkeeper might have done for the expectant parents the very kindest thing in his power.

When we lived in the country, we enjoyed the delight of having a few animals. They included, at various times, sheep, goats, and a cow, as well as the ubiquitous dogs and cats. On our first Christmas there, one of the kids got the idea, “Why don’t we have our Christmas worship down in the barn with the animals?” Sort of the “authentic real thing?” We invited a few friends, and all were so impressed that this became an annual tradition.

All of our animals were pets, to the great amusement of the neighbors who were “real” farmers. Very likely, our relationship with our animals was more like what you would have seen in the rural Middle East of the first century, where people lived very close to their creatures, (even sometimes in the same house!) – than to the situation of those neighbors, for whom their animals had only commercial value. Our barn was sheltered, and surprisingly warm, in spite of being cheaply built of salvaged materials. The straw and hay was clean-smelling and cozy. The sheep, especially, were friendly and curious. One would often come and lie down with her head in my lap, sharing the warmth of her beautiful thick wool.

There would be a lot of worse places to have a baby! Starting with a smelly, crowded, vermin-infested inn! Remember, it was not a Holiday Inn that turned away the wandering couple. Inns of that day consisted of one large common room, shared by all, with no privacy and negligible sanitation. Give me a clean, quiet barn any day! I would much prefer friendly sheep as birth attendants, to a horde of stinking, swearing mule-drivers snarling their displeasure at being forced to register for yet another oppressive Roman tax!

The only people who think of a barn as a dirty, uninviting place are those who have never been around people who cared for their animals. Surely, for rural people accustomed to living with their flocks, the stable would have been the most comforting place imaginable, if they were denied the privilege of staying in their own home!

As we read the Christmas story, and the earlier prophecies, and gave thanks for the Lord who did not scorn to identify with humble folk, a very different scenario suggested itself:

A simple couple arriving at the door of an inn, tired from their journey, and somewhat frightened at the impending birth, is greeted by a kindly old grandpa-type and his wife. Hardened by the harshness of many of their customers, the sight of the soon-to-be-parents awakens a compassion that they had almost forgotten. “The inn is crowded – see for yourselves! This is no place to have a baby! You need quiet and rest. We ourselves have only a corner off the kitchen. But if you wish, out back here, there is a quiet spot…”

Throwing down some clean straw, and shooing the occupants out of one stall, they lead the young parents out of the noise and shoving, and into peace…..

Thanks be to God!

Word Study #204 — Strangers, foreigners, refugees

October 4, 2016

When I first received the suggestion to work on this subject, I was not sure how fruitful that could be. After all, in the early, often persecuted church, one was much more likely to be a refugee, than to be in a position to assist them! However, like so many initial impressions, that one turned out to be seriously mistaken. Not only is the subject amply addressed in the New Testament, but the treatment of strangers is held up as evidence of one’s standing in the Kingdom of Jesus! As such, it is well worth our attention. Please also refer to word study #145, “Neighbors and Enemies,” in this regard.

Paroikeo (verb), paroikos (noun), and the similar parepidemos, refer simply to anyone living in a foreign context, for whatever reason. L/S offers “a resident in a foreign city, a sojourner in a strange place”, and Bauer adds “a visitor or resident alien.” This is the word used of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt (Ac.7:29 and 13:17), the traveling disciples’ query of the resurrected Jesus (Lk.24:18), and both Peter’s (I Pet.2:11) and Paul’s (Eph.2:19) characterization of the faithful with respect to the rest of the world, for which Peter and the writer to the Hebrews also use parepidemos (I Pet..1:1 and Heb.11:13). As an eloquent song from the ’80’s put it, “We are foreigners who don’t belong.” Notice, however, that these terms do not carry any assumption of overt hostility; only strangeness.

Allotrios, allotrioo, on the other hand, originally included overtones of hostility or estrangement (L/S), and were used of enemy groups as well as those who were simply foreign; whose loyalty was definitely elsewhere. These terms appear in Jesus’ observation that sheep will not follow a “stranger” (Jn.10:5), and that governments impose taxes (tribute) on “others”, and not their own people (Mt.17:25-26) as well as situations of overt hostility (Heb.11:34) or alienation (Eph.2:12 4:18; Col.1:21). The idea of “belonging to someone else” appears in Lk.16:12, Rom.14:4, 15:20; II Cor.10:15-16, I Tim.5:22, and Heb.9:25.

More common than any of these is the much less specific xenos, xenizo, xenodokeo. This latter iteration appears only once (I Tim. 5:10), where having “welcomed / hosted strangers” is among the qualifications of a faithful woman, along with “having relieved those who were suffering.”

The verb form is used primarily of simple hospitality, and is applied to both guests and hosts (Heb.13:12, Ac.10:6, 18, 23, 32; Ac.21:16 and 28:7). Most of these involve fellow-believers, but the latter describes the hospitality of Publius, the Roman governor, to Paul and his shipwrecked companions.

Xenos , which may be used as either a noun or an adjective, is much more flexible. It may refer to anyone or anything that seems “strange” to the speaker (Ac.17:18,21; Heb.13:9, I Pet.4:12), or to any people outside one’s own circle (Mt.27:7), and is also used in a manner similar to parepidemos, of those who are deemed “outsiders” for any reason (Eph.2:!2, 19; Heb.11:13, III Jn 5).

L/S also gives xenos quite wide latitude: “a guest or friend; a stranger, wanderer, or refugee; a giver or receiver of hospitality”, or, as an adjective, “strange, foreign, or unusual; to be surprised, astonished, or puzzled.” As you may have noticed, virtually all these references are simply descriptive, except for the admonition mentioned in I Tim.5.

There is one account, however, which not only reaches far beyond that pattern, but carries much greater weight with respect to our understanding of faithfulness. That is to be found in Jesus’ exposition regarding “judgment” in Matthew 25, where a careful analysis of both the vocabulary and the grammar reveals seldom-noticed aspects of that scene. Please do not attempt either to accept or to reject this as any sort of “theological” treatise. These are simply observations of usually-overlooked features of the text.

1. The “cast of characters”. The interview is between the glorified “Son of Man”, finally enthroned, and a gathering of panta ta ethne – literally, “all the nations”. Please see Word study #62 for an exposition of “ethnos”, and remember that this term was usually used in Jewish settings of “Gentiles” and among Greeks of lesser-valued “foreigners” or “barbarians.”
The King (presumably Jesus) represents himself as personified in the person/people in any kind of need. (Do we all perhaps need some sort of “cataract surgery” in order to see him clearly?)

2. Both the commendations and the accusations are uniformly addressed in the plural. They are NOT targeted toward individuals. Please review study #142 on the use of the plural “you”, whose individual, collective, and selective aspects are combined so carelessly in English translations. Might this imply that a group could/should have clearer vision than an individual?

3. The criteria of judgment. “How did you-all (your group) respond to folks in need?” Note that neither group had correctly recognized that the King was represented by those needy. Both responded “when did we see you –?” The difference in this case was not one of discernment, but of caring response.

4. The “destiny” aspect. The kingdom which the faithful are invited to “inherit” was “prepared for you all from the foundation of the world!” Remember, these folks being addressed are ethnoi – outsiders!
In contrast, the “fire” to which the uncaring are consigned was NOT prepared for people, but “for the devil and his messengers”! (v.41) Might a bit of common rhetoric need to be adjusted in that regard?

Now, read the whole account again, very slowly and carefully. Do you find, even in the most carefully edited versions, any query about what anyone said they “believed”? Or, for that matter, any individual analysis at all? Please note, I am not denying individual responsibility, but suggesting that it is definitely not the entire story. This stance is supported by another very interesting word, not usually associated with either the “in-group” or the “out-group” – one to which we would all do well to take heed.

Most commonly translated “to gather, to come together, to assemble”, sunago appears in this passage four times: once of the “gathering” of the nations before the King, and three times of the inclusion of the stranger (xenos). The noun form of this word is quite familiar as “synagogue” – the gathering place of post-exile Judaism. Only in James (2:2) did traditional translators use “assembly”, and chose “congregation” (from a Latin equivalent) for Ac.13:43. Perhaps the “inclusion” of strangers is an assignment for the Body as a whole, rather than instruction for individual charity? This observation should precipitate very serious discussion among groups of the Lord’s people. Together, we could make a much bigger dent in the plethora of folks in need of the Master’s care, than could even the best and most skillful of us in our independent efforts.
As “strangers” ourselves in the world, we (should) know how it feels, and move to mitigate alienation wherever we find it. That effort will – and should – take many different forms, as varied needs are perceived and addressed.

Perhaps what we really need to study is the implication of “inclusion” — how, and to what extent “strangers” are/should be helped to become a functioning part of a faithful group? How does one “welcome” those who may not share the group’s objectives and commitment?

This study makes no effort at a coherent conclusion. It is offered rather as a “jumping-off place” for careful consideration and discussion by many “colonies of the Kingdom”, as we seek to be faithful to our King.

Adoption and Inheritance

September 18, 2016

Much of this information is available under the word studies of similar titles.  I am posting it here to give you an idea of how messages can be prepared from the topics treated in particular studies.  This one was prepared for our small fellowship on September 18, 2016.

“Adoption and Inheritance”

It is interesting that with all the noise in self-styled “evangelical” contexts about the concept of being “born”, or “born again” (which latter term appears only three times in the entire New Testament!), another rarely-appearing idea, the related topic of “adoption”, to which Ben referred in his message some weeks ago, in spite of its appearing more times – but still only 5 – seems to have escaped the fertile imaginations of the commentators, who so delight in establishing and defending long lists of regulations for including or excluding their fellows and narrowing their definitions of the Kingdom of Jesus.

Very interesting light is cast on this subject when one researches first century cultural patterns. Since inheritance is legally connected, and central in all of these cultures, it seems appropriate to examine together the two ideas, “adoption”, and “inheritance.” One could also include the references to one’s “birth family” and a “resurrection life” (more commonly mentioned than either “birth” or “adoption” in the New Testament) symbolized in baptism, and I have included those in other word studies, but in order not to become too ponderous, we will look primarily today at the much-misunderstood concepts of “adoption” and “inheritance”.

It is also interesting, that although the English translation “adoption” historically represented eleven different classical Greek words, related to at least three different roots, only a single form, huiothesia, appears in the New Testament writings, and it is unique to Paul’s epistles. It does not appear at all in the LXX. Accurate understanding of the cultural implications of huiothesia – etymologically a combination of huios (son) and a noun iteration of the verb tithemi (to put or to place) – is complicated by the fact that in the first century middle east, one is confronted with three major cultural streams: Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. These are augmented with a smattering of other customs introduced by traders who frequented the area from farther afield. Roman law prevailed, of course, since the legions of Rome had subjugated the whole area. I found the old classic, Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most helpful in this research. As pointed out in the Jewish Encyclopedia (online), the subject was not really addressed in the Hebrew context, because their system of requiring the brother (or another “near kinsman”) of a deceased man to provide for the decedent’s wife and children filled the need for both the responsibility and the privilege of inheritance. In the other cultures, however, “adoption”, or, rather, huiothesia, the word which has been translated that way, was an integral part of the legal technicalities of inheritance. It had little or nothing to do with our modern concept of providing for the care of young children. Now please understand, I am in no way intending to disparage the modern procedure of “adoption” to fill this need. It is a commendable institution: but it is NOT what the New Testament is talking about.

In all three cultures, an heir acquired not only the property, but also the debts and obligations of the deceased, as well as responsibility for the care and protection of the rest of his family. Under Roman law, there was even a provision for a debt-ridden father to arrange for his son/heir to be formally adopted by someone else, in order that the overwhelming debt might “die” with the father.

Although Greek customs in their various city-states were often more lenient and less highly defined than Roman law in many respects, it was important to both that a male heir be established to comply with legal requirements. Hence the advent of formal, legal adoption – especially when royal succession was involved. (The emperor Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, had been adopted by the family of Julius Caesar for that very reason.)

This version of adoption necessarily involved an older child, not a baby, as both the survivability and the competence of the adoptee were a serious issue, since the administration of an estate was involved.

Adoption was also a common way of cementing an alliance between families, in a way similar to the function of marriage in medieval Europe, and the son in question often maintained ties to both families.

The long-term welfare of a family without male progeny required the adoption of a son to whom responsibility for their care could be passed on. This could be the son of a friend or relative who had more sons than he needed, or even a trusted servant or slave. A formal court procedure sealed the agreement, and the adopted son assumed the name of the adoptive father.

Interestingly, under Roman law, a formally adopted son could not be disowned, as could a natural son.
Adopted sons shared all the rights and responsibilities of natural children.

Daughters were not adopted, for a very simple economic reason: a father would be expected to provide a substantial dowry for a daughter; whereas a son would be expected to add to the family’s wealth by marriage.

But there was another aspect of these cultural expectations that sheds important light upon the New Testament translations of the word huiothesia.
In the case of any family, but especially one with multiple sons, another legal provision came into play. When the designated heir attained majority – the age of legal responsibility – the father was required to make a formal legal and binding statement to that effect. This was necessary whether the son in question was naturally born or adopted. This too was described as huiothesia – the same word. It has been suggested that this requirement may have been culturally connected to the “voice from heaven” mentioned at Jesus’ baptism and again at the time of his Transfiguration. Although the word does not appear there, the statement “This is my Son” would have been readily recognized as the format of the standard legal acknowledgment. This is the reason for my choice of “acknowledgment” rather than “adoption” as a more accurate translation of the word.

On a purely civil level, responsibility would normally pass to the eldest son – the “firstborn” (prototokos)– which term, 8 of the 9 times it appears in the New Testament, uniformly applies to Jesus. Only in Heb.11:28, when the reference is to the death of firstborn sons in Egypt, is mention made of anyone other than Jesus. Twice the designation “firstborn” is in relation to Mary’s first child (Mt.1:25 and Lk.2:7), and it appears three times in Paul’s letters, twice in Hebrews, and once in the Revelation. Two of these reference Jesus’ resurrection: “the firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:18 and Rv1:5), his ultimate triumph. In Romans 8:29 he is called “the firstborn of many brethren”, in Col.1:15 “the firstborn of every creature” (or “of all creation”), in Heb.1:6 of the Father “bringing his firstborn into the world”, and Heb.12:23 speaks of “the church of the firstborn.” In assuming this title, Jesus has accepted responsibility for the welfare of ALL the other children! This realization also may help to shed light on the response of the eldest son in the parable read last week, of a younger son squandering his share of the father’s property: Now the eldest would need to provide his profligate brother’s total support! No wonder he was annoyed!

Huiothesia is the word used in all five New Testament occurrences of the English word “adoption” – Romans 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4, Gal.4:5, and Eph:1:5. All but the Rom. 9 passage refer to all the faithful. In Rom.9:4, Paul laments that the Hebrew nation, for whom the assignment was intended, refused the responsibility. Remember – huiothesia is a designation not only of privilege, but of responsibility faithfully to administer the assets and to care for the people and the property of the father! They were only interested in the privilege part! And unfortunately, privilege is the orientation of most of the modern rhetoric about “inheritance.”

That is why a correct understanding of the word huiothesia is so critical to the interpretation of the Galatians passage read this morning! Begin with 3:26:

“For you are all God’s sons, in Christ Jesus, through faithfulness. For whoever was baptized into Christ, has been clothed with Christ. There isn’t any Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise.” …. then follows an explanation that inheritance does not take effect until maturity, and then (4:5-7) “God sent out his son … in order that we might receive acknowledgment as his sons! …So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son also an heir, through God!”

Now before anyone starts getting bent-out-of-shape over all these references to “sons”, please consider the implication of this usage of the word “sons” in the cultural context we have just examined! Embedded in Paul’s explanation is the very clear, unambiguous statement that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are all one in Christ! The key is in the last clause: “if a son, also an heir!” We are ALL considered “sons”, because legally, only sons can be heirs! That statement is NOT exclusive, but gloriously INCLUSIVE!!! Like nothing the world had ever seen before – or since! Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are, by the decree of God and the life given by the Lord Jesus, equally gifted and equally responsible for the administration of the gift of his inheritance! He has made us ALL his sons” – his specifically designated heirs – in order that we ALL may become faithful executors of his will!

The idea of inheritance deserves its own study – and maybe that can happen at another time. But there are a few points that it is necessary to address here:

1. An inheritance does NOT take effect after you die! There is no “pie in the sky bye and bye” in this equation. The distribution of an inheritance requires the certification of the death of the testator – the one who wrote the will – the one from whom the inheritance is received! But the heir, who receives both the inheritance and the responsibility for its administration, is very much alive! There is a careful explanation of this process in Hebrews 8 and 9. The references to “inheritance” in Eph.1:11, Rom.8:17, and Gal.4:7 are present tense – not future. You/we ARE heirs. NOW. The Hebrews passage carefully explains that such certification is/was a major reason for the death of Jesus! Where have you ever heard that celebrated in song or sermon?

2. “Will” and “covenant” are used in most English versions as translations of the same word. And as explained in Hebrews, the new one instituted by Jesus is “not like the old,” which it labels a failure. A will has no connection with any sort of “sacrifice”, ceremony, or shedding of blood. It is a legal document. Period. No more and no less. A “covenant”, likewise, is a legal, business agreement, with carefully stated requirements assigned to both parties, and includes the stipulation that a breach by either party renders the agreement of no effect.

3. Nevertheless, the inheritance we presently are called upon to administer faithfully as executors of the Lord’s will, is not “all there is.” We have received a down-payment on our inheritance, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph.1:14), whose job is to enable the proper administration of the will – but there is much more to come – Heb.1:14 and Rv. 21:7 – participation in which is dependent upon the faithful handling of what has already been received. Jesus’ future tense statement, “The victor will inherit these things, and I will be God for him, and he will be a son for me,” again, the formal statement of a father concerning his designated heir, immediately precedes the arrival of the Bride of the Lamb, and the joyful final consummation of history.

Perhaps this historical overview will shed some light on the confusion of folks who wonder, “Why the interest in adoption, when we have already been born into the Lord’s family?”
Life does indeed begin with birth, the result of the expression of love.
But the acknowledgment / adoption of sons is an expression of earned trust – and that is for grown-ups!
Inheritance is the exercise of responsibility, not the popular but shallower concept of a personal, private “reward”.

Might it be, then, that Paul’s frequent admonitions to “grow up” into the life to which we have been called, have in view the faithful administration of our inheritance?

May we faithfully “grow up” together into the Kingdom of our Lord.

Word Study #203 — “Constrained” – “Straitened” – stressed-out?

August 25, 2016

Here’s another one that started at church, folks.
(Incidentally, I give thanks for – and wish for all of you – the delight and challenge of an interactive group of the Lord’s people! It’s priceless!)

Our brother Jim was recently brave enough to suggest that, contrary to the stereotypical image of Jesus floating through life on some sort of ethereal cloud, untroubled by the vicissitudes to which we mere mortals are subject, the encounter described toward the end of Luke 12 reveals very real stress – perhaps even frustration – when the people he was training to carry on his ministry just plain didn’t “get it”.
Maybe there’s still hope for the rest of us after all? He didn’t give up on them!

The image in question springs from the use of the seldom-appearing verb, sunecho, and its middle and passive form, sunechomai. The etymology is not much help here: a combination of the preposition “sun” – “with, or together”, and the very common verb “echo” – “to have, or to hold”. Likewise, its translations, in most standard works, are many and varied.
It appears in the New Testament only 13 times, only three of which (those referring to illness) are uniformly treated. Active forms of the verb refer to a city under siege (Lk.19:43), a crowd jostling together (Lk.8:45), Paul being overworked (Ac.18:5), Stephen’s accusers “stopping up” their ears (Ac.7:57), the guards “holding” Jesus after his arrest (Lk.22:63), and (the only positive use) I Cor.5:14, where Paul explains that it is the love of Christ that “constrains” (requires?) his people to replicate his attitudes and behavior. These are the only uses of the active form of the verb.
Passive voice usage refers three times to illness (Mt.4:24 and its parallel Lk.4:38 referring to Peter’s mother in law, and Ac.28:8 to Publius’ father), once (Phil. 1:23) of a difficult decision, once of great fear (Lk.8:37), and the reference with which we began, Lk.12:50, which doesn’t really match any of the others.

Classical writers were no more consistent in their usage. L/S lists for active forms: “to hold or secure, enclose or compass, to close one’s ears or mouth, to prevent a group from dispersing, to preserve or maintain, to keep on (as a storm or flood)”; and passive forms “the conduct of government, to keep together in friendship, to engage in close combat, to keep a state from falling apart, to detain or sequester”, and at least that many more!

There is another term, stenochoreomai, (middle voice), even less frequently used in the New Testament, which, along with its noun and active verb forms, appears only seven times, and is usually translated in a manner indicating extreme distress or anguish, most often connected with persecution. These are found in Rom.2:9 and 8:35; I Cor. 4:8, 6:12 (twice), and 12:10. Notice that no use of this term occurs in the gospel accounts. It is mentioned here only to illustrate that had such an implication been intended, these different and unambiguous words would surely have been chosen.

No, if Jesus is frustrated, it is not the frustration of a helpless victim. He clearly knows what is coming, and is committed to its fulfillment. It’s the “in between” that causes stress – as is so often the case for us.

We are not told whether all of the discourses in Luke 12 are part of a single encounter, or if, as Luke suggests in his introductory passage (1:1-4), they have been simply compiled as a collection of memories gleaned from the reports of disciples who were there. This might be likely, as the individual accounts do not seem to be very connected.
The reference in 12:50 is unique among all the other New Testament references to baptism. Since Jesus had already submitted to baptism at the hands of his cousin John, it has usually been assumed that in this instance, he was referring to his imminent death (and consequent defeat of death). This is a plausible, although not proven, assumption. The immediately following discussion of the divisions caused by commitment to him would seem to point in that direction, although its connection to the end of the chapter is somewhat obscure.

So where does this leave us?

Is the inclusion of this statement intended to reassure us that, as the writer to the Hebrews put it (4:15), “he (Jesus) was tested in every way just as we are”, even to the point of frustration when things weren’t moving along as they “should” – or as he wished they would?
Is it a challenge to his listeners to “get off the fence” and make a firm commitment to the Kingdom and its Sovereign, fully aware of its divisive consequences?

Or do you see something else in this encounter?
Your insight (as long as it is derived from the New Testament), is most welcome!