The Lion and His Table

The Lion and His Table
Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Announcing Global Christian News: Getting a Christian slant on the news--and Christian news

The news is really a story, created by narrators (reporters and anchormen) and editors whose reporting produces a symbolic universe paralleling but not to be equated with reality in which we choose to dwell or struggle not to do so.

Anyone interested in the Church and its mission is constantly frustrated with the story told day after day in the newspapers, magazines, or on television.  Televised news is largely entertainment.  Objective reporting is almost impossible to come by, as is world news or news relevant to the Church.  In a word, we need a different perspective to balance those telling the world's story from a single or secular perspective, or from a predominantly western or American perspective.  Such reporting is helpful, but insufficient, myopic, and distortive without additional input from alternative sources.

Christians need a news service that tells their story on the world stage.  They need to hear the story of the Church that mentions people and countries never even making the regular news.  They need to hear about the powerless and persecuted, Christians and churches around the world, and religion and public life as it affects their lives.  They need to hear from people in other parts of the world, not just people from the west reporting on those other places.  They need, in a word, a Christian news service.
This is what Global Christian News now offers.  It is a recently developed news service that picks up relevant stories from other sources as well as reporting and analysing news on its own.  I would like to recommend it to everyone interested in the Christian, global story.


Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Parable of the Plague

[continuing modern parables relevant to the Anglican Church in the west and others facing similar issues]

‘We are going to Ross-on-Wye today,’ announced the master to his disciples.  It was market day in the Welsh town, and this plan did not seem all that surprising to the disciples.  When they arrived, however, the master led them to St. Mary’s churchyard.  There, in front of the Plague Cross, the master began to teach.  A small crowd began to gather, thinking that they might overhear a tour guide explain some things about the old church and the town’s history.

‘A plague of death has descended upon this land,’ began the master.  ‘It has taken the lives of thousands.  Within a few days of contracting this awful disease, people die.  They are sealed up in their houses, abandoned by fearful relatives; their deaths are painful and lonely.  Bodies are hastily dumped into a pit each night.  Lime is thrown on top, then some dirt, and the process is repeated the following day.  The plague is spread from person to person, but people do not know how.  They say that they are clean, but they are not.  The towns and villages are laid waste.’

The crowd continued to gather, enjoying the vivid description of the plague given by the master.  Then he said, ‘This plague cross commemorates the 315 people killed here in 1637.  Our fair isle has seen waves of plague since the 14th century.  Yet in our day, a plague far worse of a different kind has spread far and wide.  People do not even know that there is a plague, but more are taken by it than the plague that killed the people buried here nearly 400 years ago.  It is a plague marked by the falling numbers of persons in the Church of Wales.  It is the plague of unbelief.  The plague in the 17th century was spread by a small flea; this plague is spread by a small doubt that God has spoken in his Word, the Holy Scriptures.  That plague was spread as fleas jumped from the dying to the living; this plague is spread by the priests and professors of those dying in the churches of Wales, Scotland, and England.  The administration of doubt has become the Eucharist of these ministers who say that God has not revealed the way of righteousness in His Word to a people walking in darkness, that God has not offered in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross the way of reconciliation, and who teach that other faiths offer equally valid ways to God and truths by which they might live despite the Church.  They call evil good and good evil, put darkness for light and light for darkness, and put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!’

The crowd was astonished.  The master picked up a handful of dirt from the ground and threw it into the air.  ‘You say that you are clean, but you are not.  God alone can make you clean through Jesus Christ.  Repent and believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, and you will find his forgiveness and cleansing.  If you love Him, you will obey his commandments.’  Then the master began to walk along the Wilton Road to the Wye River.  The people followed him to see what else he might do or say.

When they arrived, the master entered the river.  ‘Who will receive a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?’ he asked.

‘But we are already baptized,’ someone said. 

‘Was it a baptism of repentance?’ 

‘We do not know.’ 

‘Can you repent and not know it?’ 

‘Perhaps someone—a parent—repented on our behalf?’ 

‘A noble hope,’ said the master, ‘but does not repentance mean that it is yours and yours alone?’ 

‘Must we not be baptized in the church?’ someone else asked. 

‘Would that it could be so,’ replied the master.  ‘But not everyone who says to Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Only those who do the will of God the Father will enter.  But to evildoers who pretend to follow Jesus, our Lord will say on the day of judgement, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”  Thus, those who worship God will worship Him in Spirit and in truth.’

Another said, ‘Do we really need to repent rather than just accept everyone as they are, warts and all?  To speak of sin creates such disunity and intolerance.  Doesn’t love mean never having to say you are sorry?’

‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,’ replied the master.  ‘Our unity is found in the fact that we are all sinners, not in pretending that we have not sinned.  Our unity is found in that Christ has died for all, the just for the unjust.  And our unity is found in the good news that whoever believes in Jesus will not perish but have eternal life.’  Then he added, ‘Unless Jesus washes you, you will have no share in him.  But if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For he alone is our source of life, our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and our redeemer.’

An elderly man of 86 years asked someone to help him into the water.  With tears of repentance and joy, he said, ‘I was baptized as a baby by a priest who ran off with the secretary.  My parents went to church as everyone else, but they were not believers in Jesus Christ.  I have lived long enough to know again and again that I have sinned and need Jesus’ righteousness.  Even my own goodness, such as it is, is as filthy rags before him.  I cannot stand before a holy God and expect to be accepted except by His grace.  I come in repentance to be baptized today.’

The master welcomed him.  ‘By the confession of your sin and your profession of faith in Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,’ he said.  Then he immersed the man in the waters of the Wye.

The master said to the man and all those standing on the shore, ‘All of us who are baptized are baptized into Jesus’ death.  We are buried with him so that, as Christ our Saviour was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so too we might be raised to walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with Jesus in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  For whoever has died is freed from sin.  But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So also you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’

No one else entered the waters of baptism that day.  ‘I tell you,’ said the master, ‘there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.  Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay in helping them?  Indeed, he will grant to them justice.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find much faith in our fair land?’

[Note: Scripture passages have been quoted heavily in this story.  The New Revised Standard Version was used.]

Irony and Secrecy in Mark's Gospel

Why does Jesus tell some people in Mark to keep quiet about what he does and who he is?

This has been a major question in Markan studies for a hundred years!  An initial answer was given from a liberal perspective by William Wrede.  Wrede said that the 'Messianic Secret' (the title of his book, published in German in 1901) was invented after Jesus.  His idea was that nobody claimed he was Messiah, including Jesus himself, during his lifetime and so the notion that he was Messiah was read back into his life and ministry.  This notion in its various forms has dogged Markan studies ever since.  

N. T. Wright argued decisively, in my view, that Jesus knew he was Messiah and intended for people to understand him as such during his ministry (see Jesus and the Victory of God).  Yet the so-called 'Messianic Secret' actually has various dimensions to it--it is not just about Jesus being Messiah. Jesus teaches in parables ('riddles'), he tells people not to announce that he performed a healing, he silences the demons declaring him 'Son of God', and his disciples do not completely understand his messiahship.  There may well be a variety of answers to any 'secrecy' motif in Mark's Gospel and not simply one about his messiahship.

Mark, though, tells the reader who Jesus was in Mk. 1.1!  So, the reader 'watches' people trying to understand who Jesus is throughout his Gospel.  We can say some brief things about all this.  First, there is more than one so-called 'secret'.  Jesus seems to have a challenge with authorities (his relative, John the Baptist, was beheaded!): it was advisable not to get publicity for amazing miracles if he wanted more time before his arrest to accomplish a teaching ministry.  Thus, there is a very practical reason for this part of secrecy, including his ministry in the countryside, in the border region of Galilee, on boats, to the average people, etc.

His silencing the demons could include the same reason, but also, who would want even a correct identification to come from demons?!  Jesus wanted people to come to understand who he was; he was not interested in getting endorsements as to his identity from any group--least of all demons!

His teaching in parables is a matter of hearers' hearts: to understand Jesus, one's heart has to be right.  It is not just a matter of intellectual understanding.  Isaiah 6.9-10 is offered as an explanation for Jesus' teaching in parables, as is the Parable of the Sower in Mark 4.  You know who Jesus is because of your heart, not because of what you know.  This relates to the idea of 'faith': knowing Jesus is a matter of belief and putting your faith in him.

This is different for the reader of Mark's Gospel, however.  Mark helps the reader to hear the truth about Jesus.  Mark 1.1 identifies Jesus first as 'Messiah' (Christ)--a realization that comes to Peter in Mark 8, midway through the Gospel.  (See Mark 8.27-30).  From that time on (Mark 8.31), Jesus began to unfold the greater truth of this identification: the Messiah would go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and be raised again.  The whole story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the Temple (Mark 11), and his being crowned with thorns (Mark 15.17) is about Jesus' being Messiah--but in an ironic, surprising way that people cannot understand at the time.  How could the Son of David, Israel's king, arrive in Jerusalem only to be put to death by the reigning authorities--including the foreign, occupying authority of Rome?  

Mark 1.1 also identifies Jesus as 'Son of God'--a title used of national leaders, particularly of the Roman emperor, in Jesus' day.  It also had a wider meaning to Jews (Israel, e.g., is God's 'son').  But, in Mark 15.39, the centurion overseeing Jesus' crucifixion declares at the point of Jesus' death that Jesus was, indeed, a/the Son of God.  That Jesus' identity as 'Son of God' would be revealed by his executioner, by a Roman, and at the time of his death is also ironic.  This irony of Jesus' identity seems to be related to how it is revealed: as with the parables, people have to come to understand who Jesus is despite the situation rather than because Jesus tells them outright.  Thus, Mark's Gospel takes the reader through the story of Jesus to discover that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God in ways they never would have expected and through a faith in him despite the circumstances.

Some believe that Mark's Gospel ends in irony.  After keeping Jesus' identity secretive throughout the Gospel, when the risen Jesus now tells the women to go tell his disciples to meet him in Galilee, they say nothing to anyone out of fear (Mark 16.7-8; this is the actual end of the Gospel as vv. 9-20 were a later addition trying to resolve this surprising ending).  Andrew Lincoln has argued that this surprising ending may fit the context of Mark's Gospel being written in Rome during the time of Nero's persecution of Christians.  If so, the Gospel ends as a challenge to Christians not to be silent but to witness to who Jesus is.  Another way to understand this ending is that the women's response could be understood to mean that they did tell the disciples but did not broadcast Jesus' resurrection in Jerusalem (surely this is what happened!).  Thus, v. 7 is the key: the risen Jesus would now reveal himself fully to his disciples back in Galilee (a safer place for them than Jerusalem).  They would be able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together in their post-resurrection meeting of Jesus; they would understand how he was both Messiah of the Jews and 'Son of God' for Jews and Gentiles.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Misinterpreting Scripture: David Runcorn on Genesis 18-19

The term ‘sodomy’ for homosexuality comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19.  The use of this term by the Church indicates the consistent understanding of the text throughout the Church’s history: it is a story about, among other things, homosexuality in Canaan.  Not so, say a number of modern interpreters who wish to find some other meaning in the story or who, more likely, have an agenda to find anything in the text other than a story about disordered sexuality.  In the Pilling Report, David Runcorn follows the recent interpretation of several others as he puts forward a single interpretation that fits his agenda.  For these interpreters, the story of Sodom is a story about hospitality—not accepting the stranger.  In this way, the text is made irrelevant for the Church of England’s present confusion over the issue of homosexuality.[1]

So, have modern interpreters, followed by some western Anglicans such as Runcorn, discovered a better interpretation of Genesis 18-19 than that which interpreters through the centuries have previously held?  I have addressed the issue of this passage in greater length elsewhere with an examination of the text and its interpretation in Jewish and early Christian literature.[2]  As a narrative, the text lends itself to various applications, without limiting interpreters to a single point as is often the case in interpreting, for example, epistles.  The primary purpose of the story is to illustrate how completely wicked Sodom and Gomorrah were—a key point made earlier in Genesis (Gen. 13.13).  This makes limiting the text to a single sin unlikely.  Indeed, Jewish texts interpreting the story identified several sins with Sodom and Gomorrah, not just one.

Runcorn makes note of a single Jewish text interpreting the story: Ezekiel 16:

Ezekiel 16:49-50 (ESV) Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.  50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.

Oddly, he reduces this passage to the sins of pride and inhospitality.  However, Ezekiel intends to charge Sodom with a variety of sins, not just one or two.  Also, reference to Sodom’s ‘abomination’ (whether taken as a single sin, as in the ESV translation, or as a collective noun (as the NRSV or NIV) may well address or include its sexual abomination.  The term ‘abomination,’ after all, is used of homosexuality in Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 (though the term is not limited to this application).  Also, Ezekiel intends to draw parallels between Sodom and Jerusalem, and one of the latter’s sins is repeatedly described in Ezekiel 16 as sexual immorality (Ezek. 16.15-17, 20, 22, 25-38, 41, 43, 58).  While the indictment is metaphorical for Jerusalem (her ‘whoring’ after other nations, her idolatry), it was not metaphorical for Sodom.  The meaning of ‘abomination’ in Ezekiel 16.50, therefore, surely stands for Sodom’s sexual immorality.

Another text that makes impossible any reduction of Sodom’s sin to something non-sexual is the parallel passage of Joshua 19.  As in Genesis 19, there is a background in the story of hospitality to a stranger.  Yet the story has so much more to it than this.  In both stories, there is an attempt by males in the city to have sex with another male, and this, not violence, is the primary focus of the texts (Genesis 19.5; Judges 19.22).  To be sure, violence and rape are awful sins, and these are more pronounced than the matter of inhospitality in the stories.  Yet the ‘wicked’ (Gen. 19.7; Jdg. 19.23) and ‘vile’ (Jdg. 19.24) act is a description of the men of both cities wanting to ‘know’ the male visitors.  ‘To know’ someone in such contexts means to have sex with that person. 

If in Genesis the men are angels, in Joshua the man is human—the issue is not sex with angels but sex with other males.  In Joshua, the man succeeds in avoiding homosexual abuse by sending out his concubine instead, whereas in Genesis Lot’s daughters are offered to the crowd but are not sent out.  In Joshua, the woman dies, and the man cuts her body up and sends the parts out to the tribes of Israel.  The response of Israelites is that ‘Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak’ (Judges 19.30).  It is simply impossible to read this story as a story of inhospitality or pride.  The issues are violence, gang rape, and, especially, homosexuality.  The parallel with Genesis suggests that the town of Gibeah had taken on practices associated with the Canaanites.  The reason for wiping out Sodom or Gibeah is not that they were inhospitable—even if this is a minor aspect of the stories.  God does not wipe out a population over inhospitality.  The main reason is that they sunk so low in their unrighteousness as to engage in homosexual acts.

Beyond the issues already noted, another problem with the 'inhospitality' interpretation of the story of Sodom is that it does not explain Gomorrah’s destruction.  The angels only visit Sodom, but both cities are destroyed.  Also, they came to see if there were any righteous in the city (Gen. 18.26-32), not to see if they would be received well as strangers.  Lot’s offer of his daughters in place of the strangers for sexual abuse leaves most modern readers cold: how could he do such a thing?  At such a point, the simplistic hospitality interpretation becomes morally repugnant, for it suggests that having your daughters raped is better than being inhospitable to (male) strangers.  Yet this is not the intention of the story.  Rather, the ethical point of the story is that the men of Sodom were so sinful that they would not accept sex with females over their preference for males.  The reader is intended to gain moral instruction not from Lot’s offer of his daughters but from the depth of Sodom’s moral turpitude.  The story in Judges 19 carries the same message: the men of Gibeah had sunk to an equally low morality—homosexual acts.

Finally, Christians need to consider the Biblical canon as a whole, not just individual texts examined on their own.  In the case of Genesis 18-19, we particularly need to consider Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2.6-7:

Jude 1:7 (ESV) just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

2 Peter 2:6-7 … if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;  7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked….

Neither text, of course, suggests that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin was inhospitality, and both texts highlight the two cities’ sexual immorality.  The problems addressed by both Jude and 2 Peter are the false teaching and practices of persons compromising Christian orthodoxy with the alien views of an ungodly culture—as is now the case in western society and, sadly, western mainline denominations.  This can happen when false teachers simply oppose the teaching of Scripture, and it can happen when people let the influence of culture weigh so heavily on their reading of the Scriptures or hearing from the Church’s teaching that they actually begin to think that the Biblical text says something else than it does.  Runcorn's error is the latter, although the Pilling Report also expresses the voice of others quite willing to set aside Scripture entirely.  Either way, false teaching is perpetrated in the Church of England and true Christian witness to the culture will have to be found elsewhere.

[1] David Runcorn, Appendix 4: ‘Evangelicals, Scripture and Same Sex Relationships—an ‘Including Evangelical’ Perspective,’ in Report of the House of Bishops: Working Group on Human Sexuality (Nov. 2013); online (accessed 24 December, 2016), pp. 176-195.
[2] S. Donald Fortson and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).

Friday, 23 December 2016

Misinterpreting Scripture: David Runcorn on Leviticus 18.22 and the Need to Read Scripture in Literary Context

Possibly most misinterpretation of Scripture is simply the result of not reading a text in its own literary context.  This is the sort of thing warned against in primary school.  Take, for example, one of the arguments regarding Leviticus 18.22:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

David Runcorn argues in the Pilling Report of the Church of England on human sexuality that this text is not about men in homosexual relationships.[1]  His interpretation appeals to what he thinks is the cultural context for this verse, and he uses that line of reasoning to try to limit the way the text otherwise seems to read.  (After all, are not laws written for broad application unless otherwise limited?)  The suggested cultural context by Runcorn is a male dominated society in which men are being told not to behave like women in passive sexual acts (i.e., penetrated by another male).  In this way, the text is dismissed from any relevance to homosexuality: it becomes an archaic text speaking to an inferior culture to our own in that it affirms male dominance.  Amazingly, Runcorn moves from an unproven thesis to its acceptance without any argument, and he concludes:

What is at stake here is not a supposed divine plan of heterosexuality, but a supposed divine plan for male dominance.

With that, the report moves to another text for consideration.

So many things are wrong with this sort of approach to interpretation that it is difficult to focus on the main point I wish to make: read texts in their own literary contexts.  For one thing, Runcorn might have explored whether any ancient Jewish or Christian interpreter ever read Lev. 18.22 as support for male dominance.  (Had he done so, he would have found that no author ever even thought of reading the passage this way until recent decades, let alone in antiquity.)  Christians would also want to ask whether the Church has ever interpreted the text this way.  Teachers and priests in the Church have an obligation to explain and defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints—or at the very least engage what the Church has taught. It should also be noted that Runcorn references only a single secondary source for his reading of Leviticus 18 rather than engage various scholarly discussions of the text.[2]

One need not know anything about the practices of homosexuality in the Ancient Near East, however, to see that Runcorn’s view is impossible.  Consider the literary context of Lev. 18.22.  First, a variety of sexual acts are condemned in Leviticus 18 that cannot be subsumed under the simple category of dominance/submission.  In fact, none of them can.  Many of the forbidden sexual acts (uncovering the nakedness of someone) have to do with which kinship relationships are not permitted.  Also, the command in Lev. 18.21 is against child sacrifice to the god Molech, and Lev. 18.23 forbids sexual relationships with animals.  The idea of dominance/submission has been snuck into the reading of v. 22; it is not part of the immediate literary context.

Furthermore, the laws against forbidden sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 are repeated in part in chapter 20.  Texts not only need to be read in light of the surrounding verses but also in light of the surrounding chapters.  The reason for repeating laws just two chapters later is that ch. 20 includes punishments for specific sins.  Lev. 18.22 is repeated in Lev. 20.13, which reads:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Note that the text calls for both persons—whether active or passive—to be put to death, not just the person playing a passive role in a homosexual act.  Thus, Runcorn’s imagined reason for Lev. 18.22—that it is about men behaving like women—cannot be the intention of the text.  This is a simple example of eisegesis, reading an idea into the text.

Interestingly, Paul makes use of Lev. 20.13 when citing the 5th – 9th of the Ten Commandments in 1 Timothy 1.8-10, since he uses the passage to interpret the commandment not to commit adultery (Exodus 20.14; Deuteronomy 5.18).  We know this because Paul creates a compound word out of two words in Lev. 20.13 for what we today call ‘homosexuals’.  The two words are arsenos—male—and koitÄ“s—bed (a euphemism for sex).  No other literature in antiquity prior to Paul uses this compound form of the word, arsenokoitai, suggesting that it is his creation.  Yet the word’s meaning is clear, and it comes from a text that has this meaning: males performing same-sex acts.  Indeed, the words are side-by-side in Lev. 20.13, and no spaces would have been used in the Greek text of the passage that Paul would have read in the first place as spaces between words were added much later in ancient Greek texts.  Paul interprets the 7th Commandment to mean sexual sin in general, not just adultery per se, and, in 1 Timothy 1.10, Paul interprets this commandment to proscribe ‘sexual immorality’ in general (pornoi) and aresenokoitai (homosexuals).  Thus, Paul uses Lev. 20.13 to interpret Ex. 20.14 and/or Deut. 5.18.  (Interpretation of the 7th Commandment more broadly and in light of Leviticus 18 and 20 was also followed by Philo, a Jewish scholar of the 1st and 2nd century AD, in his Special Laws 3).  Paul has no interest in the issue of dominance/submission.  He is not limiting the meaning of the 7th Commandment but broadening its meaning, and, like Philo a few decades later, he understands it to refer to any form of sexual immorality, including homosexuality (both active and passive participant).

Thus, reading in context can help an interpreter not make basic mistakes in interpretation.  Had Runcorn read Lev. 18.22 in its immediate literary context in the same chapter, or read it in light of the larger literary context of ch. 20, or read Leviticus in light of Paul’s use of the texts in 1 Timothy 1.10, he could never have ventured so far off the path of plausible interpretations of the text when appealing to an interpretation based on a cultural context of male domination.

[1] The Pilling Report was published as a Report of the House of Bishops: Working Group on Human Sexuality (Nov. 2013); online (accessed 22 December, 2016).  David Runcorn’s comments are in Appendix 4: ‘Evangelicals, Scripture and Same Sex Relationships—an ‘Including Evangelical’ Perspective,’ pp. 176-195; see pp. 185-186.
[2] The reference given is to Gareth Moore, A Question of Truth, Continuum (2003), p. 80.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Our Great and Awesome God


The Exodus of Israel from their subjugation in Egypt meant more than freedom.  It meant becoming a people and gaining an identity among the nations.  No longer a slave community serving the Egyptians, they were brought by God out of Egypt to their own land.  God made a covenant with them that gave them their own, unique laws among the nations.  They told their own story, beginning with the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—continuing with the judges and kings, and looking beyond their exile to God’s redemption.  Yet, more than anything else, this becoming a people meant becoming the people of God, and that meant telling their story as the story of God’s dealing with them.

Our Awesome Deliverer and King (Exodus 15)

The story of God that Israel told declared that God is great and awesome.  It is a story they learned at the very beginning of their history as a nation.  God was their awesome deliverer.  Israel would tell from generation to generation that “the LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household” (Deuteronomy 6:22).  Having been liberated from slavery in Egypt and having been brought through the waters on dry ground, the Israelites sang a song about God’s wonderful works.  They began, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:1).  They sang, “The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation” (v. 2).  They declared, “Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power” (v. 6).  They asked, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? (v. 11).  Their song concluded by affirming God as their king: “The LORD will reign forever and ever” (v. 18).  As Israel sang the story of their God, they confessed for themselves and declared to all the surrounding nations that God, their God, was great and awesome.

Our Awesome Covenant God (Exodus 34)

Israel would continue to see God’s awesome deeds as they were made his treasured possession.  God said, “I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you” (Exodus 34:10).  This passage continues as God explains that he will drive out the inhabitants of Canaan before His people, and it explains why He will do so.  These inhabitants are idolaters, and they would only be a snare for God’s people were they to remain in the land.  God declares Himself to be a jealous God, one who will share His glory with none other (v. 14).  Knowing that God was the one establishing His covenant with them, the Israelites were not to fear the enemies that rose up before them.  This covenant God told them, “Have no dread of them, for the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God” (Exodus 7:21).  This covenant God also holds His people to the stipulations of His covenant.  They are to worship Him alone and to abide by His laws.  So Moses says to Israel as they are about to enter the promised land,

Deuteronomy 10:12-22  So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,  13 and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.  14 Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the LORD your God, the earth with all that is in it,  15 yet the LORD set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today.  16 Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.  17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe,  18 who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  19 You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  20 You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.  21 He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.  22 Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the LORD your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.

The blessings of living in covenant with this God also come with the warning of curses if His people fail to abide by the stipulations of the covenant.  Moses warns, “If you do not diligently observe all the words of this law that are written in this book, fearing this glorious and awesome name, the LORD your God,  59 then the LORD will overwhelm both you and your offspring with severe and lasting afflictions and grievous and lasting maladies” (Deuteronomy 28:58-59).

We see, then, that the word “awesome” means not only that God does amazing things but also that He is to be feared.  The Hebrew word for “awesome” includes these various ideas.  The word for “awesome,” nora’, means to be feared, reverenced, and held in honor.  It is a word that derives from the word for “to fear”.  He is not awesome like a fireworks display, delighting the eyes and entertaining the crowds.  He is awesome like a bull elephant in his majesty, greatness, power, and might, to be feared and marveled at all at once.  To enter into a covenant relationship with such a God is both a wonderful and fearsome thing, and that is exactly what Israel experienced in the history of its relationship with Him.  He acted mightily on their side, redeeming them, blessing them, but also chastising and punishing them.

Israel testified that “the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth” (Psalm 47:2).  They knew that their experience of God was a testimony to God for His awesome works in creation itself—something all peoples of the earth could affirm:

Psalm 65:8-13  Those who live at earth's farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.  9 You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.  10 You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.  11 You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.  12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy,  13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.

Our God, Awesome Before All Others (Psalms 99 and 145)

God is not awesome with others who are awesome, for He alone is God.  He is uniquely awesome, and He alone deserves praise.  The right response to our great and awesome God is praise and worship.  The psalmist says,

Psalm 99:1-5  The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!  2 The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.  3 Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!  4 Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.  5 Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!

Words to extol God’s awesomeness declare who He is and what He has done.  Psalm 145 expresses God’s greatness and awesomeness:

Psalm 145:1-13  I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever.  2 Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.  3 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.  4 One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.  5 On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.  6 The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness.  7 They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.  8 The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  9 The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.  10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your faithful shall bless you.  11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power,  12 to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.  13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The LORD is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.

This psalm understands the response to God’s greatness and awesomeness to be meditation, praise, and witness.  Meditation requires remembering what God has done and not forgetting it.  Praise involves verbalizing God’s awesome deeds and worshiping God.  Witness involves intentionally telling others who God is and what He has done.  Thus, God’s people are to pass on from generation to generation the truths of God’s awesome deeds, His goodness, righteousness, mercy, love, compassion, faithfulness, and grace.  It also involves the challenge to all to recognize that He is indeed God and King, to be blessed forever and ever by all peoples.

Our God is Awesome in Forgiveness (Daniel 9)

Finally, God is great and awesome, to be honoured and feared, not only because of who He is and what He has done to establish a people for Himself.  He is also great and awesome because He forgives the sinner.  The king with unrivalled power is awesome in His greatness, but greater still is the king who, with such power, also forgives.

So we find a further lesson for Israel about God’s awesomeness in His forgiveness.  Sent into exile by God because of their sins, they still find hope.  God is a God of compassion and faithfulness, even to sinful and faithless Israel.  Daniel prays a prayer of repentance to God, appealing to God’s awesome forgiveness and mercy.  He confessed and prayed,

Daniel 9:4-16  Ah, Lord, great and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love with those who love you and keep your commandments,  5 we have sinned and done wrong, acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from your commandments and ordinances.  6 We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.  7 "Righteousness is on your side, O Lord, but open shame, as at this day, falls on us, the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you.  8 Open shame, O LORD, falls on us, our kings, our officials, and our ancestors, because we have sinned against you.  9 To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against him,  10 and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets.  11 "All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. So the curse and the oath written in the law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against you.  12 He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers, by bringing upon us a calamity so great that what has been done against Jerusalem has never before been done under the whole heaven.  13 Just as it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us. We did not entreat the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and reflecting on his fidelity.  14 So the LORD kept watch over this calamity until he brought it upon us. Indeed, the LORD our God is right in all that he has done; for we have disobeyed his voice.  15 "And now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand and made your name renowned even to this day-- we have sinned, we have done wickedly.  16 O Lord, in view of all your righteous acts, let your anger and wrath, we pray, turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy mountain; because of our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors, Jerusalem and your people have become a disgrace among all our neighbors.


We proclaim the awesomeness of God.  He is awesome as deliverer, awesome in making a good covenant with His people, awesome beyond all others, and awesome in His forgiveness.  It is one thing to be delivered from subjugation, quite another to be made God’s own people.  It is one thing to be called to relate to an awesome God who is distinct from all others, quite another to receive His forgiveness.  God reveals Himself in the story of Israel as an awesome God, and His people’s mission is to proclaim His awesomeness among the peoples of the earth. 

Those who need deliverance from evil and oppression can find Him to be their awesome deliverer.  Those who are adrift amidst the confusions of life and religions can come to know Him in His commandments and faithful covenant with His people.  Those for whom there is little awe left in life, for whom sickness and sin and corruption and suffering obscure the joy of living, can come to know the One who reveals His awesomeness in creation.  Those who need a new start, forgiveness for sins past and empowerment to live righteously in the future, will find that God is awesome in His forgiveness.  Celebrate the awesomeness of God.

What the Old Testament lessons of God’s awesomeness show is delivered in Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the deliverer and redeemer sent by God.  He is the one who establishes a new people for he is our source of life, our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption.  He is the one who reveals the Father, the one in whom all the fullness of deity dwells.  And he is the one through whom God forgives us all our sins.  We serve an awesome God.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

In Memorium

Eugene Edgar Grams (1930-2016): A Son’s Tribute 

Eugene Edgar Grams was born in Rosendale, Wisconsin on 19 September, 1930.  He married Evelyn Phyllis Louton in Potgietersrus, Transvaal, South Africa on 20 March, 1952.  He died peacefully, though after a time of failing health, in Springfield, Missouri on 9 December, 2016.  He is survived by his three sons and six grandchildren.

Our hearts are sad to say goodbye, but we rejoice in the sure hope that Dad’s absence from the body means that he is present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).  Though we cannot fully comprehend these things on this side of the curtain of death, we believe that Dad is now with his beloved Phyllis, with their daughter, Faith Hope Grams, with his parents, William and Martha, and other family and friends, including Dad's beloved sister, Arlene, who died as a young girl.  We, as Christians, believe that to depart from this life and be with Christ is far better than what we now experience in a fallen world (Philippians 1:23).  And we wait with a sure hope for the resurrection of all those who have died in Christ.  As John wrote, ‘Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3.2, ESV).  Dad has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). 

Dad’s life is the testimony of a faithful steward of God's grace.  Through God's empowerment and by His grace, he accomplished so much as a missionary to South Africa in the years from 1952-2008 in evangelism, by planting about 35 churches, and through establishing Cape College of Theology (now Global School of Theology) in the Western Cape.  He also served in pastoral ministry in the area of Flint, Michigan at Riverside Tabernacle, Trinity Assembly of God, and New Life Christian Fellowship.  His ministry touched many lives.  We are assured that, by God’s grace and through his faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2.8), he will receive the ‘crown of righteousness’ (2 Timothy 4.8).  May we all have such faith in Jesus, live in such hope, and serve him all our days. 

The following chapter is an excerpt from Stewards of Grace: A Reflective, Mission Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962 (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010).   It testifies to the power of God to transform lives.  Dad's ministry as a steward of this grace over many years was the most formative experience for my own life and ministry and provided me with a powerful testimony of the power of God to transform lives.  Thanks, Dad.

Chapter Nineteen: God's Gold

Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, in accordance with his great mercy, has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, into an incorruptible inheritance, both undefiled and unfading, kept in the heavenlies for you, who are being kept by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the final time (1 Peter 1.3–5).

[Some material is omitted from the chapter in this excerpt.]

Gene’s friend, the Sharpeville, Transvaal–based evangelist, Rev. Philip F. Molefe, had said to him, “Let me do the evangelizing and you do the teaching.”  Gene agreed, and the two men, almost the same age, began plans for what would be known as the Meloding Revival. Gene’s close friend and former colleague in ministry in the northern Transvaal, Johannes Mukwevho, also joined them in the Free State at this time.
When Gene wrote in October, 1960 in the Pentecostal Evangel about the wonderful ministry of God in Meloding earlier that year, he spoke of it as a “revival.”[1]  The revival lasted most of the year.

          [Some material is omitted from the chapter in this excerpt.]

There were already a handful of believers in the Assemblies of God church in Meloding before the revival was planned. They formed a house fellowship with the pastor, Rev. Tsotetse. The tent campaign was, however, an effort by others on behalf of this little church that did not even have a building. Rev. Philip Molefe came from Sharpeville for the initial meetings in March and April of 1960, and then again in August of the same year. Johannes Mukwevho also came down from Louis Trichardt in the northern Transvaal when he heard that a translator was needed for these meetings. He and Philip Molefe had worked together before in Sharpeville, just as he and Gene had also worked so well together.  The Assemblies of God work in Sharpeville began about five years earlier than that in Meloding. The initial converts in the revival campaign led by Molefe totalled 325. They were baptized in the river and then marched through the township singing, “I will follow Jesus.”[2]
The plan was that Molefe would be the primary evangelist, and Gene would be the primary teacher during the revival. Gene would also raise funds, engage the various government officials in securing sites for church buildings, and interact with the police. Rev. Bethuel Mofokeng, also from Sharpeville, came to speak in the meetings, as did several others. One of these was Rev. John Tlotlalemajoe, who organized counselors, that is, people who could talk with those wishing to give their lives to Christ after a service and pray with them. He eventually became the pastor of the church in Thabong, Welkom.[3]  Choirs from established churches came on various nights by bus to sing. Christian films and testimonies also conveyed the Gospel, and Gene later held six weeks of Bible doctrine classes for the new believers. There were speakers who addressed women and children as well. Phyllis Grams had oversight for this work, although, again, a number of persons were involved.
Announcements of the intended meetings began with the help of someone from Mission Aviation. This missionary suggested that pamphlets be drawn up and dropped over Meloding from the air. Gene was not too certain about this approach, but as the man wanted to play a part, he found himself dropping leaflets announcing the meetings from several hundred feet above the township. Later on, Gene was somewhat discouraged when he discovered that the leaflets were being used for toilet paper, but, one way or another, news of the tent meetings did get around.
The handful of believers in the Meloding church used to meet in an unfinished, rented house, and a larger place was needed for the campaign. The local government gave its permission to erect a tent in Meloding from the 5th of March to the 5th of April, 1960. But the revival required extending this period several times so that the tent campaign lasted, as they had in other regions, about three months. The tent itself had to be extended to accommodate the large crowds, which, at times, could even reach 2,000 people. As the numbers swelled, many in attendance had to stand or sit outside, but they were still able to hear everything over the public address system. The combined attendance over the first weeks of meetings was over 40,000, if one adds up the attendance for each of the nights. Many people returned night after night, but people not only came from Meloding. Others came from all over the Orange Free State, parts of Basutoland, and even the southern Transvaal. By the time that the campaign ended, the tent was in ruins, in part because of the high winds that blew across the area.
On the first night of the tent campaign, Mr. Phera, a member of the Location Advisory Board for Meloding, became a Christian. That day, he had had a quarrel with his wife and had beaten her severely. By evening, he was intoxicated and stumbled to a seat in the tent. During the service, he sobered up and responded to the Holy Spirit’s speaking to his heart. His life was forever changed that night. His wife saw the difference in her husband over the next few days and also became a Christian. To have such a testimony from a man of such standing in the local government “stirred all of Virginia,” wrote Eugene Grams in a newsletter. Many who came to the tent meetings from the area came because they had heard what had happened to Mr. Phera. Some said, “If God can change a wicked drunkard like Mr. Phera, He can also change me.”
Early in the campaign, three or four gang members became Christians. They would sit, night after night, in the front row seats. Alongside the nightly message explaining salvation in Jesus Christ, the campaign had a theme: God can do anything. There is nothing too difficult for God. He can make the vilest sinner clean, can transform lives, deliver people from demon possession, heal the sick, and restore broken relationships: God can do anything. Mr. Phera had discovered this the first night of the campaign, and these former gang members could testify to the change in their lives as well.
But one night, about two weeks into the campaign, Gene noticed that the former gang members were not present. He feared the worst: were they, like the seed that fell among the rocks in Jesus’ parable of the sewer, going to wither and die after a short, encouraging growth spurt? Gene could hardly preach as he turned this thought over and over in his mind.
All of a sudden everyone in the tent heard the worst noise imaginable. All eyes turned to the back of the tent and saw the tent flaps being pulled back. The former gang members walked in, dragging a man who was entirely naked and shrieking. The men delivered him to the front of the meeting, tied up with ropes and belts. He struggled to free himself but was securely bound. Gene looked at the former gang members for some sort of explanation. One young man said, “Moruti Grams, you have been telling us that God can do anything. What about this?”  Gene looked back at the man, a wild man completely out of his mind, as close to an animal as a human can become. And yet he was even worse off than that, for Gene could see that the man was possessed by demons. His eyes were clouded, as though in a trance, and he did not seem in control of his own person or able to interact with others at all. He had descended into an internal world of torment. A woman came up and covered his nakedness with her Basotho blanket.
The man was well known in the area. He lived mostly in the cemetery but was also known to wander aimlessly far and wide, through fields and along the roadsides. Once he wandered as far away as Vereeniging, nearly 150 miles away, and back.
As when the paralytic man was lowered through the roof by his friends in the middle of Jesus’ teaching in a packed house, this meeting came to a standstill. It is one thing to speak of God’s Kingdom, that God was powerfully present, but it is quite another to have to stand up to a challenge to this message. The entire campaign could be discredited: if the God who can do anything could not help this madman, the speakers would be false witnesses, people’s hopes would be dashed, and the church in Meloding would be demoralized and perhaps even disband.
Gene and Phyllis, together with some other believers in the meeting, began to pray for the man. They prayed for about two hours while people watched: could God help the wild man of Meloding? Then, suddenly, the man’s eyes became clear and he looked around as though to say, “Where am I?”  The trance–like state that he had been in for years broke. He identified himself as Thomas Khajwane.
Thomas Khajwane was reborn that evening. He was transferred from demonic possession to the freedom of a child of God. In the following days, Gene and other ministers visited his home and met his parents. Gene’s Sesotho was still not strong enough to engage the conversation that he needed to have with Khajwane, and Khajwane did not know any English. So an interpreter was also present. His parents were also present. They showed Gene the paraphernalia purchased at great expense from witchdoctors to ward off evil spirits. Some pieces of red, electrical wire, bought from the witchdoctor at an exorbitant price of 60 pounds, were placed at the entrance to the home and in the ceiling—a graphic symbol of power, pointed defiantly towards any invading spirit. But they were powerless to keep away the evil spirits.
The transformation of Thomas Khajwane, needless to say, brought others to the tent campaign. His parents became Christians, as did many others, including a young woman who would become Thomas’s wife. The two would not long hence have a baby girl, whom they named Eugenia.
Soon after his conversion, Thomas explained through an interpreter, “Moruti Grams, I have never been to school a day in my life. How can I ever grow in the Lord unless I am able to read His Word?”  God proved His power once again in this life. Only six weeks later Thomas Khajwane demonstrated to Gene Grams that he could read both Sesotho and English perfectly. He soon became a member of the church choir and later on was made an esteemed member of the town council.

[1] Eugene E. Grams, “Revival in Orange Free State,” Pentecostal Evangel (16 Oct., 1960), pp. 14–15.
[2] Vernon Pettenger, “Before the Sharpeville Massacre,” Pentecostal Evangel (June 5, 1960), p. 15.
[3] Rev. Tlotlalemajoe has remained the pastor in Thabong all these years. At the time of writing, he is in his mid–eighties.