In the American Dream, everyone can prosper if they just work hard and be good productive citizens. For the Old Testament says that if Israel does what God commands, God will prosper them with blessings of fruitfulness. Numerous Americans, in turn, have applied these Bible passages to themselves: everyone who is a good citizen and works hard should prosper (and thus be blessed by God).
But in this “Protestant work ethic,” those who don’t prosper are looked down on, since they are obviously at fault for not being blessed by God. Thus the poor should not be helped or given charity because they are just too lazy to work or too full of vice. After all, Paul says in 2 Thes. 3:10, “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Yet earlier, in 1 Thes. 4:9-11, Paul combines working with helping others: they should work with their hands and continue to show love for one another, including (helping) even brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia.
In Acts 20:34-35 Paul reminds the elders at Ephesus how he was an example for them by working with his hands in order to pay for his necessities, as well as for those with him (like Timothy). Paul adds that his work allowed him to help the weak; he then quotes a saying of Jesus not found in the Gospels: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
In Jesus’ new covenant, prosperity is no longer a blessing (as in the law of Moses); Jesus blesses instead the merciful, those who show mercy on the weak; and Jesus refuses to bless the rich, whom he commands to sell treasured possessions and give to the poor. Similarly, in 1 Cor. 4:8-13 Paul uses satire to contrast rich Corinthian Christians who “have become kings” with “us apostles,” who are “fools” for Christ’s sake; for Paul and other apostles “hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless” (as they travel to new places); and “we labor, working with our own hands;” so we are considered the “garbage” of the world. Like Paul, most people who suffer hunger from time to time have been people who work, yet have suffered from irregular work or employers who pay poverty wages.
When Paul goes to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles Peter, James, and John about his gospel among the Gentiles, Paul says the others recognize the truth of this gospel, and simply remind Paul to remember the poor, which Paul says he is eager to do (Gal. 2:1-10). The poor in Jerusalem play a large part in Paul’s later mission, especially when he organizes a “collection” of money for the poor saints in Jerusalem (described most fully in 2 Cor. 8-9, and referred to also in 1 Cor. 16:1-4 and Rom. 15:25-27).
Thus Paul places much importance on helping the poor, especially poor brothers and sisters in Christ. Not only destitute widows and orphans, but larger groups of saints whose environment and/or employers have worked against them so that they lack basic necessities, should be helped by those able to make a little extra from their own work. In the early churches, most of the extra money available among Christians went to help those most in need–whom they came into contact with regularly as they met in homes and shared meals. When rich Christians refused to help, and indulged themselves at the expense of the poor, Paul warns them: “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:29, in a context of rich Christians segregating themselves and their rich food from hungry poor Christians in 11:17-34).
Did Paul really want to silence all the women in the churches? It seems so, after reading a passage like 1 Cor. 14:34 (“the women should keep silence in the churches”). But what is the larger context of that statement?
Going back to 1 Cor. 14:26, Paul asks his readers, “What then, brothers (and sisters)? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” When Paul writes “brothers,” does he mean only men or also women (sisters)? The passage that helps answer this question the best is Rom. 16:1-17. In Rom. 16:17, Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers, to . . .” What is interesting is that he is referring to readers he has just greeted in 16:1-16; there are almost thirty names or individuals greeted, and around a third of these names are women, starting with Phoebe, “our sister,” in 16:1. While Paul does use the singular “sister,” he never uses the plural “sisters;” for the plural “brothers” (as in Rom. 16:17) is meant to include both the brothers and sisters (of 16:1-16).
Returning to 1 Cor. 14:26, when Paul writes “brothers,” he thus includes brothers and sisters, sisters like Chloe (from 1 Cor. 1:11) or like the women who pray or prophesy (from 1 Cor. 11:5). And in 14:31 Paul adds that you (“brothers” and sisters, from 14:26) can “all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” All the brothers and sisters can prophesy in an orderly fashion, for when they come together, each has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.
So who are the women of 14:34 who are expected to remain silent? In 14:35 Paul says if they have questions, they should ask their husbands at home. These women come to the churches with their husbands, but seem only to have questions, rather than a hymn or lesson or revelation. These women would be wives who join their husbands, who are “brothers” that know and believe the truth about Christ. But their wives do not know or believe; they are not (Christian) “sisters.” In fact, Paul writes that it is shameful for a woman/wife (like these) to speak in church (14:35); for when they speak, it is not the truth about Christ.
Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts (like prophecy) in 1 Cor. 12-14 starts out in 12:1-3 by referring to the difference from what they said before they became Christians (like “Jesus is cursed”) with what they say now that they are Christians (like “Jesus is Lord”). To say “Jesus is cursed” in a church would indeed be shameful, and could be what some unbelieving wives might say.
In 1 Cor. 14 Paul contrasts the spiritual gift of prophecy–which instructs and builds up others in the faith–with the spiritual gift of tongues, which by itself is of no benefit to the others. The better gift is prophecy; unlike tongues, a word of revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching directly builds up others in the faith (14:1-6). In 14:24, Paul adds that even if unbelievers or outsiders enter (the church), they will be convicted by all the prophesying. Thus the unbelieving women/wives of 14:34 would be welcome to attend the churches, but not so that they could speak against the faith, but so that they could be convicted by the prophesying of the brothers and sisters.
Note finally that the context of these church meetings was a very informal gathering (in homes), where each brother and sister was encouraged to participate. It was not a context of a formal church service in a bigger building where a pulpit predominates, as was later the case (through much of church history). Paul’s words about women/wives that should not speak are not about who can preach behind a pulpit or about who should have authority. Paul’s words are about who can speak to build up others in the faith–and who should not speak, because they will not build up others. Churches today would build up others in the faith better if they returned to the smaller, more informal, gatherings where all (Christians) could participate.
Patriotic Christians point to Paul’s words in Romans 13 in order to justify their loyalty to ruling authorities. It seems Paul is commanding everyone to submit to, and be obedient to, the governing rulers.
The context of Rom. 13:1-7, however, favors a more limited view of the “good” that rulers accomplish. Paul’s use of “good” and “evil” in 13:3-4 is preceded by his use of those words in 12:17,21. Paul follows Jesus in 12:14 when he tells the Roman Christians to bless those who persecute them, not curse them; in 12:20 Paul adds that if their enemy is hungry, feed him (again reflecting Jesus’ call to love even enemies). Thus Christians should not repay evil (persecutors) with evil (that persecutes or curses the persecutors) (12:17); rather than being overcome by evil, they should overcome evil with good (12:21). Instead of avenging themselves, Christians should leave any vengeance to the wrath of God (12:19).
Paul then introduces the governing authorities in 13:1 as those whom God might use as instruments of wrath against those who do evil. They are the ones who will punish evil (persecutors) and approve good (that does not get revenge on its own); they are the ones who can become servants of God for the good of persecuted Christians; they can execute God’s wrath on evil persecutors (13:3-4). If Christians, however, decide to do evil (and get revenge on their persecutors), God could use the authorities to punish that evil as well (13:4). That is why everyone (the persecutors and the persecuted) should be subject to the (punishment of evil by the) authorities (13:1).
After 13:1-7, Paul then resumes and concludes this theme started in 12:14 by telling Christians not to owe anything (any revenge), but to love one another (13:8). And love does no evil to a neighbor (13:10).
The context before and after Rom. 13:1-7 shows that Paul is commenting on specific kinds of good and evil–and on how Christians should respond: when the evil of persecution arises, they should not pay it back with similar evil; they should above all love their enemies; and they should let any punishment of that evil be done by the authorities; so everyone (especially the persecutors, but also the persecuted) should be subject to the authorities, who might be used by God to punish such evil.
Paul is not saying that the authorities are usually servants of God. Outside the limits of punishing persecutors of Christians, or the revenge of Christians, the authorities are not generally God’s servants. What Paul thinks of such rulers in general can be found earlier in Romans. He depicts the Gentiles–including Gentile rulers like the Roman authorities–as not acknowledging the great God of creation (Rom. 1:18-28). Because they exchanged the glory of God for the glory of images of man (like the statues of rulers, who were idolized as gods, especially after they died), God’s wrath gave them up to their own evil thoughts and deeds. As a result, they were filled with all kinds of evil: covetousness, malice, envy, murder, deceit, boastfulness, heartlessness, and ruthlessness (1:29-31).
A specific example of how Paul dealt personally with a Roman authority is found in Acts 23-24. After being persecuted and almost killed by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, Paul is rescued by a Roman tribune (a military officer) and put in prison until the Roman governor can hear his case (Acts 23:26-35). The Roman governor Felix converses from time to time with his prisoner, Paul, hoping to get a bribe from him (24:24-26). But Paul does not flatter him or submit to his wishes. In fact, when Paul speaks to Felix about faith in Christ, he also argues with him about justice, self-control, and future judgment (from the king of kings). This strong challenge against the evil of Felix leads him to tell Paul to leave (and go back to prison). Paul does not consider Felix a servant of God in general; he confronts Felix’s behavior as worthy of God’s wrath; and Paul says this to Felix’s face.
Those who use Paul, especially his words in Rom.13, to affirm their general patriotic loyalty have misunderstood him.
When Jesus tells his disciples not to be anxious (or not to worry) about their life–what they will eat or drink or wear (Mt. 6:25)–many have thought primarily of the anxiety (or worry) of not having enough to eat or drink or wear. But the context before and after this verse shows that the anxiety here is more about wanting and getting even more than enough; it is about the worrisome task of working hard to accumulate the “better things” of life.
Matthew 6 starts out with Jesus teaching about giving alms (to the poor), praying (for daily bread), and fasting. In 6:1-18 Jesus says to do these religious acts secretly, rather than showing off in order to receive praise from others. Then in 6:19 Jesus turns to the topic of not laying up treasures on earth; for where your treasure is, there your heart (with its desires and plans) will be (6:21). Here Jesus is raising the issue of a life where one’s heart should not be obsessed with treasures on earth. In 6:24, Jesus personifies mammon (wealth) as a master that competes against God.
So when Jesus speaks against anxiety about food, drink, and clothing, he is building on his words about a heart that is hell-bent on accumulating wealth, on getting treasures like the best and most food, drink, and clothing. In contrast to such an anxiety driven addiction, Jesus points to the birds that do not work at sowing, harvesting, and gathering into barns; yet the heavenly Father feeds them (6:26). Likewise the lilies of the field grow and bloom beautifully, even though they don’t work or spin (wool) to adorn themselves (6:28). Even king Solomon–in all his glory (wealth)–was not that elegant (6:29). And not only the Jewish elite like Solomon, but also the Gentiles are seeking all these things (6:32): they are anxiously pursuing treasures on earth that show they are elite; they are driven to want and work for more and more treasures.
Such hustlers are filled with greed, manipulation, and accumulation; they seek the glory that comes from succeeding in a constant competition with others around them. They can never rest, because they are worried that someone else might be gaining on them, or that someone else is still ahead of them in this race for glory (wealth, status, and honor).
Such a life is what the American Dream is all about; it is what the “pursuit of happiness” really means (for most people). Rather than give alms generously to the most needy, many Americans assert that anyone who is not too lazy to work hard can go “from rags to riches.” Rather than pray for simple daily bread, numerous Americans thank God for the daily “blessings” on their dinner tables (red meat and soft drinks). Rather than fast, busy Americans buy fast food. The American Dream is the anxiety driven life on steroids (now dreaming of better houses, stock portfolios, cars, and screens).
But Jesus is talking about what everybody–Jewish elites like Solomon as well as Gentiles–is busily pursuing as worthwhile in life. And it is even a major temptation for his disciples. Later, in his parable about the sower, Jesus speaks of “thorns” that grow and choke the planted seed (Mt. 13:7); then he explains that the soil where the thorns are is the one who hears his word (about the kingdom) but the “cares” (the same Greek word as in Mt. 6 for “anxiety” or “worry”) of the world and the delight in riches choke the word and it becomes unfruitful (13:22). The anxiety of the world in general is feverishly seeking the delight of riches. Disciples who retain (or catch anew) that “fever” will not be spreading Jesus’ word of the kingdom, and its righteousness of giving alms and praying for daily bread, instead of seeking the world’s glory. Moreover, when churches delight in their buildings and budgets, and desire tithes and offerings to satisfy that delight, with maybe a little left over for the poor, they also choke the word of the kingdom (and substitute religious platitudes).
Earlier, in Isaiah’s day, when the calamities of Israel should have led to mourning, the people pursued “slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine,” saying “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isa. 22:12-13). In our day, disciples of Jesus will be blessed if they mourn over the anxiety of the world and instead hunger and thirst for the righteousness of showing mercy to those in need. If it is more blessed to give than receive, the blessed life for disciples will include the downward mobility of generous giving and sharing rather than the upward mobility of restless receiving and gloating.
I have read that Jesus’ words in Jn. 8:32–”you will know the truth and the truth will make you free”–are inscribed in stone on the CIA headquarters building. This misuse of Jesus’ words is meant to legitimate spies whose “intelligence” will (supposedly) keep their nation free.
When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking to Jews with divided loyalties, wanting to hear from him while remaining loyal to their national leaders (especially the Pharisees, who ruled over the synagogues, where they taught and enforced the law of Moses given to their nation). Jesus said if they continued in his word, they would be true disciples, and know the truth, and find freedom (Jn. 8:31-32).
The Jews replied that they were already free, and were not slaves to anybody (8:33). Jesus disagreed, disclosing that the truth was they were actually slaves of sin (8:34). Even if they discounted the Roman occupation of Israel, and lived under the Jewish law of Moses and its authorities in the synagogues, Jesus asserted that they were not free. Freedom to live under their preferred national fathers still involved slavery to sin. Only if the Son of the Father made them free would they be truly free (8:36).
So the Jews reverted back to their favorite forefather, Abraham; he was their truly great father, the founding father of their nation (8:39). When Jesus questioned whether Abraham was truly their father, they got testy, turning to “intelligence” (rumors) probably coming from their ruling fathers, the scribes and Pharisees; they told Jesus, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, God” (8:40-41). After Jesus revealed that their true father was the devil–because they were full of lies, and wanted to get rid of Jesus, who spoke the truth–they turned to even more desperate rumors: Jesus was a Samaritan and had a demon (8:44-48).
The truth that Jesus was trying to tell them was thus about the fathers they followed: the devil (the ancient serpent) and their spying, rumor-mongering scribes and Pharisees (a brood of vipers). Because Jesus exposed the sin of their lies and plans to demonize and destroy him, they reacted even stronger to Jesus’ truth about freedom from such sin.
Later, in Jn. 16:2, Jesus warned his (true) disciples that they (the ruling fathers) would throw them out of the synagogues, and even kill some of them, thinking that was part of their service to God. But Jesus said that despite such tribulation in the world (due to lies and plots from ruling fathers), his disciples could still have joy, because the truth was Jesus had overcome the world and its sin (16:33). If they remained true to him, it would be his Spirit of truth speaking through them; so even though they would face the same kind of opposition Jesus faced, they would also remain faithful to their one true Father, just like the Son sent from heaven by the Father.
What was true then about freedom remains true today; revered ruling fathers continue to deceive and destroy, even in the name of God, as they desperately seek to gain or maintain their power and wealth. The Son who rejected such fathers in order to remain true to the Father who sent him can still show us the truth about freedom from such sin.
When Jesus points to a child as an example for his disciples, what kind of example does the child represent? Do children represent simple faith, humble attitudes, and/or trust in their parent(s)?
In Mt. 18:1-2, the child is meant to be a contrast to the disciples, who have just asked Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” This question takes on even greater urgency when Jesus and the disciples approach Jerusalem (in Mt. 20:17); the disciples think Jesus is about to take over and rule all Israel, with them as his “right hand” men. Thus when the mother of James and John lobbies for their high positions at Jesus’ side (as he rules), the other disciples are upset (20:20-24). They all want to be the greatest.
So Jesus is contrasting these men–who presume they will soon enjoy powerful positions, honored status, and material glory in Jesus’ kingdom on earth–with this child, who has no such presumptions. He tells the disciples: “Unless you turn (repent) and become like children, you will never (even) enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself, like this child, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
To be like the little child means to be humble, to be like lowly children whose status is the least among the kingdoms of earth. The disciples’ status on earth, among the kingdoms of earth (including the kingdom of Israel), must be lowly if they are to be part of the kingdom of heaven; and the most lowly will be the most great. As he repeats in Mt. 19:30 and 20:16, the last will be first, and the first will be last.
When disciples humbly give up ambitious dreams for high positions in a kingdom of earth, and instead (like Jesus) challenge those who ambitiously seek to rule over and profit from others, they will be despised, slandered, and persecuted (like the prophets before them) . Yet their reward will be great (honor) in heaven (Mt. 5:10-12). Humble disciples who endure the worst hardships and persecution might be pitied (or despised) by even some other disciples; but the most humble will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Humility here is more than an attitude; it is a lowly status, a lowly life. This humility rejects what the kingdoms of earth honor; it turns away from what the world values and glorifies; and it challenges those who want to be great now. True disciples do these things because they value Jesus and his kingdom more than anything else.
The A-Team of the Apocalypse (the subject of my April posting) has a formidable opponent in the red team of Revelation: the red dragon, the scarlet beast, and the scarlet harlot. The beastly red dragon of Rev. 12:3 is identified in 12:9 as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” In 13:1-3 the dragon gives its power and great authority to the beast coming out of the sea; the whole earth follows the beast with wonder. The saints, however, whose names are written in the book (scroll) of life, refuse to give allegiance to this beastly power; so the beast fights and slaughters some saints with the sword (13:7-10).
This dynamic duo of the dragon and beast is then expanded in 17:1-4 with the scarlet harlot, who rides the beast, now colored scarlet also. As the red dragon and scarlet beast slaughter with the sword all over the earth, the scarlet harlot sits pretty, drunk with the red blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses of Jesus (17:6; 18:24). The red team is bloodthirsty.
When the slaughtered Lamb is given the book (scroll) of life by the one on the throne in heaven, he will open the scroll by opening its seven seals (5:1-5). The only other mention of red in Revelation is when the second seal is opened: a bright red horse comes, whose rider is given a great sword, and he takes peace from the earth, so men slaughter one another (6:4). This thus portrays the beast (or one of its heads, identified in 17:9-10 as kings) riding the red dragon; their teamwork wreaks havoc all over the earth, slaughtering with their great sword.
John’s visions of this red team expose the violence of Satan’s world empire, which was the Roman Empire then. This international empire came out of the (warships on the) sea in order to enforce its authority and enhance the beauty of its great harlot (city). All the luxuries, resources, and merchandise of conquered lands came flowing into the city–including slave labor (18:12-13). Her wealthiest businessmen were the “great men” of the earth (18:23), who enriched the various kings of the earth and lesser merchants, who all supported this red team. The majestic city that dazzled was then Rome.
Jesus shows these visions to John in order to awaken the churches in Asia Minor–not far from Rome–to the grim realities of imperial power and wealth. For most of the seven churches have benefited from their cities’ close links with Roman power and wealth. But their toleration and even adoration of the “beast” and “harlot” have meant their becoming part of the “fan club” of the red team, whose “captain” is the dragon.
Moreover, apocalyptic symbols–like dragons, beasts, and harlots–have an ongoing usefulness to expose later appearances of the red team in history. For the beast of 13:2, that is a combination of wild animals (the leopard, bear, and lion), draws on older symbols itself. Daniel 7:3-6 portrays great beasts that come out of the sea (a lion, bear, and leopard), and identifies them as kingdoms, and kings (7:17,23). And the scarlet harlot is depicted in Rev. 17:5 as that older great city, Babylon the great. The great world empires, and their showcase cities, continue to come throughout history, like the waves of the sea.
Many people in the world today who might read the above description of the red team would have little trouble identifying its present form. The world empire that now brings “shock and awe” via its wild unleashing of the “sword” is the U.S. And the great city that profits from this slaughter and showcases the luxuries and wealth that result is New York–with its great international bankers and businessmen. Revelation can continue to expose the dangers of our patriotic love, our love for the rich and powerful, because like most of the seven churches (of Rev. 2-3), many of our churches are also deceived by this red team. Because we profit from its beastly rampages, and desire its beautiful luxuries, we listen to false prophets who proclaim the good intentions of the beast and the harlot, the “innocence” of this violent empire and its wealthy corporations. According to the false prophets, the bad guys are primarily those who speak or act against this empire.
The challenge for churches and Christians continues to be: Whose team do you like? Whose team do you adore and give allegiance to? Whose team do you listen to and believe? For only one team, the A-team of the apocalypse, is telling the truth and is worthy of adoration and allegiance. Many Christians and churches in the U.S. are not persecuted because they are not true prophets; it is not in their self-interest. Revelation shows that this present comfortable position–allied with the red team–endangers one’s eternal position; for the red team (that rules the international seas) will end up in the lake of fire.