Category Archives: Biblical History

The Esteem of Men

mona

About a month ago, a friend took me to Mona, Utah to fly fish for carp. We arrived as the sun was coming up on a beautiful still morning to find thousands of big carp packed into a small collecting pond of the reservoir. It was beyond awesome for the size and numbers of the fish we were catching. I felt like we were in some untouched wilderness that had never seen an angler, rather than being a mile from Interstate 15.

I was back in Utah for a conference recently and on the way home we drove by the reservoir.  I was devastated to find it had been completely drained. There were hundreds of thousands of carp lying dead around the empty reservoir. The carcasses were so thick that they literally formed a carpet of carp.1 It was a fish kill of Biblical proportions.2  It was foul and stinky. Most of all it was tragic.

Such a policy come to play because the carp was not esteemed of men. As it turns out the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has plans to make Mona a wiper fishery. 3 These plans made it necessary to kill all the fish in Mona, drain the reservoir and start fresh. That was bad news for the lowly carp.

Now anybody that contrasts the merits of the common carp versus the wiper would probably jump behind the DWR in a heartbeat. Carp are an invasive species that are hard on the natural habitat and threaten native species. They are stinky, ugly and highly unpalatable as a table fish. Not only that, they are smart, and cagy and very hard to catch. When you tally up the points, the common carp comes out slightly above pond scum on the value scale.

This battle was over before it started. Not all fish are equally esteemed in the eyes of men. We have no trouble devaluing the carp and favoring the wiper, or the Bonneville Cutthroat, or the endangered Humpback Chub.  It’s quite reasonable and understandable. But it’s all too easy to extend this type of bias to one another. A great example of this human devaluation is illustrated in a quip of the emperor Augustus against Herod the Great.  Augustus joked “it is better to be Herod’s pig than son”.4 Though Herod would never consider eating pork, he didn’t seem to have any reluctance about killing his sons if he perceived them as a threat. His pigs were safe; his sons–not so much.

Though nowhere near Herod on the degenerate scale,  most of us are well-practiced in the art of forming quick opinions about others based on the relative value scale. Race, religion, gender, physical beauty, socioeconomic rank and nationality have historically been part of well-entrenched checklists that determine relative value as a person. I recently had occasion to drive through a pretty rough part of town and found myself jumping to all kinds of conclusions about the people I saw living under bridges and panhandling for spare change. Lots of things were going through my head, but Christ-like love was not one of them.

Today I was reading the account of Peter’s vision and subsequent meeting with Cornelius in Acts 10, which ushered in the preaching the Gospel to gentiles. As the reality of this truth came to him, Peter said “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but  in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” It was not nationality but rather repentance that was the determining factor for Cornelius to receive baptism and membership in the Church. Paul taught the same principles; so did Nephi. Though human perception is riddled with bias, God’s is not.

But to think of God’s view of us as simply unbiased, is to miss the the big picture. He sees past our flaws and is somehow able to not define us by the worst thing we’ve ever done. Add to this His unconditional love, and it becomes difficult fully comprehend. Consider the awe that Jeremiah  must have felt when the Lord told him “I have loved thee with an everlasting love”. He sees us differently. God sees us as we may become–not as other men see us. 5

God does not look on the outward appearance. I believe that He doesn’t care one bit if we live in a castle or a cottage, if we are handsome or homely, if we are famous or forgotten. Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely.6

Our challenge personally is to live up to this pure love that is so devoid of bias and so eternal in its perspective. Hopefully, as we come to experience it, and believe it,  we can begin to see others the same way.

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Guest Blogging @ JorieLovesAStory.com

Enslaved-to-Saved-blog-tour

My friendship with Jorie is an unlikely one. We met through the promotions department of Cedar Fort Publishing during the promotion of my new book. Jorie is the owner and author of a popular blog: www.jorielovesastory.com. She agreed to review my book and participate in the blog tour. We’ve had many provocative exchanges since that first email.

Jorie quickly recognized that my book was a LDS perspective  on early Christian attitudes about conversion to the Gospel. For the first Christians, they thought of their personal conversion as enslavement to Jesus Christ. Her first question for me was how could this relevant to a non-LDS Protestant. My response seems to have been enough to persuade her to review the book AND invite me to contribute a guest post to her blog.

It was a great pleasure to write this piece for Jorie, since it’s helped us to forge a better understanding of how much we share in common–in spite of our different religious traditions. Thanks Jorie!


The following post was originally published on May 12, 2015 at Jorie Loves A Story

I recently read about a 2014 poll on religion, which states that 83% of Americans identify themselves as Christian. It’s a remarkable statistic in an America that feels more divided than ever. Issues of race, nationality, social status, political affiliation, gender and sexual orientation seem to increasingly dominate our conversations. This has a tendency to leave us feeling like we share nothing in common with anyone. But within this survey is a statistic that gives me hope. This poll indicates that 4 out of 5 of us share one very important thing in common: Jesus Christ.

Still, Christians in America come in more flavors than you’ll find at Baskin Robins (217 denominations to be exact based on this source). That makes for a lot of differences in the details of how we conceptualize Jesus Christ, not to mention how we worship him. Is there any unity of belief? The answer is a resounding yes. Whether you’re Catholic, Southern Baptist, Methodist or Mormon, we all agree on these fundamental tenets of the faith:

  • God is our Heavenly Father
  • Jesus is the Son of God
  • Man has been alienated from God by sin
  • God loves us in spite of our sin
  • God gave Jesus to atone for our sins
  • By faith in Jesus Christ man can be saved and inherit eternal life

Even still, it would be difficult to find a single passage in the Bible that we could all agree on which represents a mission statement for of Christianity. I feel the one that comes closest are words that Jesus used himself, recorded in The Gospel According to St John:

 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17:3, NIV).

The way Christians come to know God, differs based on their religious tradition. But a large part of knowing Jesus comes from studying his life. Virtually every Christian denomination urges its members to individually study the life and teachings of Jesus on a regular basis. For this we must go to the Bible. But the Bible is not a contemporary document. It was written in Greek almost two thousand years ago and then translated into dozens of English translations.* Translational nuances give each version of the Bible its own perspective and biases. Is there any wonder why there are so many Christian denominations?

This basis of my new book Enslaved to Saved: A Metaphor of Christ As Our Savior came into being when I encountered one of these translational nuances in my personal study. While reading the Bible (I use the King James Version) I noticed at tendency for Paul to refer to himself as the servant of Jesus Christ. Having been impressed by this detail, I looked up the word servant in my Bible Concordance to better understand what the original biblical texts were saying. In doing so, I was astounded to find that in the original Greek language that these Epistles were written, Paul described himself as the slave of Jesus Christ.

It proved to be somewhat of a game changer for me. Everyone knows that slavery is bad. It is one of the darkest stains on the history of human cruelty. Its repercussions persist for generations beyond its abolishment, and it continues to be a source of shame and resentment in our country. Yet, the Bible seemed to be speaking of slavery in such a matter of fact way.

As I looked further into this I found that the doctrine of slavery to Jesus Christ was extremely common in the writings of the New Testament. Yet this message is whitewashed from many English translations of the Bible. When the Bible was first translated into English during the early 1600s, translators selected words to maintain established social order in the United Kingdom. They could hardly have the Word of God endorsing slavery in such a vocal way. As a result, the word servant was adopted—a kinder, gentler form of service compared to slave.

I felt like I had made a discovery that significantly changed my perspective on how the Apostle Paul viewed himself in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. He thought of himself as Christ’s slave. I expanded my study to see if this perspective was shared by other early Christians and was completely amazed. This idea was pervasive and part of a much larger theme in the New Testament than any one person or epistle.

Why would something so horrific as slavery be such a common theme in the writings of the New Testament? This question became the impetus for my book. I realized that there are many important reasons why this message would resonate with early Christians.

Firstly, the institution of slavery was a part of everyday life in the first-century Roman world. In fact, slavery had always been part of everyday life back to the time of the patriarchs. Slavery to God was part of the identity of the Jews. The children of Israel had been enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. But God miraculously liberated them through Moses and the people then became his slaves (Leviticus 25:55). Over the course of their history, the Northern Kingdom was enslaved by Assyria followed by the enslavement of the Kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians. When liberated by Cyrus, the Jews returned to their homeland. Though now free once more, they retained an acute awareness of themes of enslavement by oppressors, and liberation by God, to whom they were forever slaves. Accordingly, there are extensive teachings in the Old Testament and Law of Moses about slavery. Furthermore, we find many references to slavery in teachings of Jesus Christ.

Since Christianity sprung from the roots of Judaism, it should be no surprise that these themes would be present within the early Christian community as well. Instead of enslavement to Pharaoh or Babylon, Christian leaders taught that men were enslaved to sin. The good news of the Gospel was how Jesus Christ ransoms those enslaved to sin, and in the process becomes a new master to them as he sets them free. They taught that true freedom comes to those who voluntarily subject their will to that of Jesus Christ and remain faithful in this service.

Anciently slavery was a condition that was worse than death, and associated with utter hopelessness and loss of control. Yet enslavement to Christ was paradoxically esteemed to be an essential element of conversion that brought joy, freedom and eternal life. By illustrating this metaphor from the context in which the New Testament was originally written, my book helps the reader gain a new perspective about Jesus Christ. This perspective strives to improve the reader’s relationship with their Redeemer, and inspire them to more completely surrender their will to His.

________________

*I counted 222 modern English translations of the Bible.

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Seeking Smooth Things

nahum1
The Pesher Nahum scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q169) makes cryptic references to a group called ‘The Seekers of Smooth Things’. The theories about who these people were have some fascinating implications for the Church today.  

Initially Published at Millennial Star on February 23, 2015

I enjoy biblical history and have recently been studying the transitional period between the Maccabean Revolt and its resulting Hasmonean Dynasty and the Roman takeover of Judea. Over the course of this study, I encountered a quizzical group known as The Seekers of Smooth Things.  The story of this obscure sect of Judaism, and their relevance to us today, begs to be told.  But first, some background 1   . . .

The Transition from Persian to Greek Rule 

Following the death of Alexander the Great 2, his vast kingdom was divided up among his generals, with Ptolemy 3 taking Egypt and Seleucus 4 taking Syria.  Judea found itself in the middle of territorial battles between these two quarreling Greek armies. Ultimately Judah was conquered by the Seleucids, but the Jews continued to be unapologetically Jewish in their customs and religion. This proved to be very problematic for their new Greek masters.

In an attempt to control and more completely pacify the Jews in the Seleucid Kingdom, king Antiochus IV 5 made the worship of the God of the Jews punishable by death. He flooded Judea and Palestine with Greek culture and Greek religious practices. He even went so far as to dedicate the temple in Jerusalem to Olympian Zeus in 167 BC. Many of the Jews were perfectly willing to adopt Greek customs and religion in exchange for the favors offered by Antiochus. It seems that Greek religious observance was a whole lot more convenient to them than Jewish religious observance.

But not all Jews were so willing to adopt new ways and walk away from the worship of Jehovah. Mattathias was a country priest and the patriarch of the Hasmonean family. In an act of defiance, he killed a Jew that was about to make a sacrifice to a Greek god (1 Maccabees 2:15-25). Mattathias and his five sons then fled into the wilderness and started a popular uprising against the Seleucids. This movement, known as the Maccabean 6 Revolt, eventually displaced the Seleucids and put the Hasmonean family on the throne and in the office of High Priest at the temple.

Once securely in power, the Hasmoneans rapidly degenerated into the same kind of wickedness that prompted the Maccabean uprising in the first place. Predictably, a pious sect of Jews rose up in rebellion against Alexander Jannaeus 7, a particularly evil Hasmonean king. These rebellious Jews, who later came to be know as Pharisees, were so desperate to overthrow the Hasmoneans that they sought the assistance of Demetrius III Eucaerus 8, the Seleucid king. Ultimately, Alexander Jannaeus prevailed. The details of his cruel vengeance on the Pharisees were described by Flavius Josephus:

he [Alexander Jannaeus] brought them [the Pharisees] to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13:380)

There is a corroborating account of this incident found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Pesher Nahum scroll (4Q169). 4Q169 was written by a rival sect of Jews known as Essenes. This scroll describes how the Jews sought the assistance of Demetrius of Greece but were defeated by Alexander and then crucified. However 4Q169 uses code names for many of the key characters. Alexander Jannaeus is called the furious young lion; the rebellious Jews are referred to pejoratively as the Seekers of Smooth Things.

I don’t think its possible to hear a descriptor like the Seekers of Smooth Things and not have your curiosity roused. As already implied, it is generally (though not universally) felt that this refers to the Pharisees.  The modern perspective portrays Pharisees as ultra-conservative adherents to the Law of Moses. However, in the first and second century BC they were viewed by some as being far too liberal. This was certainly the view of the Qumran Community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  Were we to speak Biblical Hebrew, we might recognize the nickname The Seekers of Smooth Things as a clever pun.

“Seekers of smooth things” is a pun in Hebrew: dorshei hachalakot instead of a title the Pharisees perhaps used for themselves: dorshei hahalachot, seekers of the way to keep Torah. (source)

The Essenes felt the Pharisees had  perverted the true worship of Jehovah.  Though they claimed to be in search for the right way to follow the Law, the Essenes felt The Seekers of Smooth Things had really  taken the easy way. As a result, there were not many tears shed in Qumran when 800 Pharisees and their families were destroyed by Alexander. Rather, the atrocities of Alexander were viewed more as divine retribution for those that had corrupted the proper worship of Jehovah.

Modern Parallels

For me, history is fascinating, but even more so when I find some parallel that can be relevant to the world I live in today. Jehovah did not make it easy for the Jews anciently to worship him. Similarly, in the modern LDS church we find ourselves surrounded by a world that is increasingly Greek in its customs and beliefs. It’s not getting any easier to be faithful. The appeal of compromise and taking an easier way is ever-present for Church members. As was seen with the Hellenized Jews of the 2nd century BC, many progressive Mormons seem all too ready to compromise on tenets of the faith that have been historically non-negotiable. It is troubling and schismatic.

I’m certainly not advocating a Maccabean approach to progressives, where we rise up like Mattathias and destroy them in righteous indignation. The isolationist tendencies of the Essenes at Qumran is probably not that productive either. I would propose that Mormons be unapologetically Mormon in the way they live. The Church should not be shamed into compromising on fundamental  doctrines that are increasingly unpopular, just because our world is desperately seeking after smooth things.

We assert to the world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored in its fulness through the Prophet Joseph Smith; that Jesus Christ directs this church through living prophets. Furthermore, we individually experience the comfort, joy and peace that the gospel brings. Why then is it so tempting to apologize to the world when church leadership refuses to be Hellenized? Why are we so easily shamed by the scoffing of the world (1 Nephi 8:28), when we are not guilty–except of offending Satan and being unwilling to compromise when questions have been settled by living apostles and prophets?

Though Isaiah was prophesying about Israel’s impending destruction for rejecting God’s prophets, he might also have been warning the church today:

 . . . this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord:

Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits:

Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us. (Isaiah 30:9-11) 9

Isaiah foretold the destruction of Israel for rejecting the prophets and seers: they wanted to hear ‘smooth things’ more than they wanted to hear ‘right things’. As a result, Assyria was unleashed, and  the Northern Kingdom was overthrown. I fear that many in the church today could meet a similar fate, figuratively speaking.

It is an article of our faith that:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. (Articles of Faith 1:11)

We must not deprive others of their rights to worship as they see fit. Likewise we must not surrender our privileges to the voice of popular opinion. I am inspired by the defiant words of Mattathias when he was commanded by the king’s official to sacrifice to the gods of Greece:

Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments:

Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers.

God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances (1 Maccabees 2:19-21).

 Though the Apocryphal writings in the Books of the Maccabees are not canonized scripture, the words of Mattathias ring true, and are certainly words to live by. If only I could be so resolute as Mattathias!

It has never been easy to be faithful to God in any age of history, and we should not expect an easy time of it today. Those that are faithful are inevitably noticed and are made to suffer for it. Part of the process that qualifies us to inherit eternal life is to endure the shame of the world (2 Nephi 9:18;Jacob 1:8). We must seek God’s approval, not man’s approval (John 12;43; Galatians 1:10; D&C 3:7). It requires that we seek right things, not smooth things.


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Enslaved To Saved

Cover

 

I just got the art work for the book cover from Cedar Fort along with an anticipated publication date of May 12, 2015.

Here’s a quick overview:

LDS people generally identify strongly with the idea of being servants of the Lord. Yet, where the KJV of the Bible reads ‘servant of Jesus Christ’ the original Greek in which the New Testament was written invariably reads ‘slave of Jesus Christ’. Although latter-day saints believe the Bible as far as it is translated correctly, most fail to understand the servant/slave translational nuance. This significantly limits the understanding of the original message of these important passages. Since the early saints truly considered themselves slaves of Christ, we as latter-day saints have much to learn from this perspective.

This book teaches the New Testament message that men are transformed from being slaves of sin, to slaves of Christ as they are redeemed by His atonement. It illustrates how frequently the New Testament equates conversion to the gospel to becoming a slave of Christ. It chronicles the many instances in which the early apostles and gospel narrators referred to themselves in this way. It also reviews the extensive Hebraic tradition, which held that man was the slave of God, and numerous instances where theme of slavery is found in the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Anciently slavery was a condition that was worse than death, and associated with utter hopelessness and loss of control. Yet enslavement to Christ was paradoxically esteemed to be an essential element of conversion that brought joy, freedom and eternal life. By illustrating this metaphor from the context in which the New Testament was originally written, my book helps the reader gain new perspective into their relationship with their Redeemer, and more completely surrender their will to His.

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