A seasonal excerpt from The Corinth Letters

With Christmas fast approaching, I thought it would be timely to present this excerpt from The Corinth Letters.  Read it to find why I find Christmas pageants so frustrating (big hint: there was no inn keeper!)

***

During breaks, Emily, Mariam and Matt would sit on their camp stools drinking tea or coffee and chat. It was during one of these chats that the topic of Christmas came up again.
“What’s an Australian Christmas like, Matt?” asked Mariam.
“Ah, well, quite a bit different to what you’ve experienced, I’m sure,” replied Matt. “Firstly, since we’re in the southern hemisphere, Christmas occurs in the middle of summer. And it can get really hot! I’ve had Christmases where it’s been 40 degrees in the shade – that’s more than a 100 degrees Fahrenheit, by the way. What is completely bizarre, though, is that we still hold to lots of the northern hemisphere traditions. So Christmas dinner will consist of roast meat, often turkey, and sliced ham off the bone, with plum pudding and custard for dessert. And we sing carols about dashing through the snow while sweat pours off us in great swathes!”
Emily and Mariam chuckled at the incongruousness of it all.
“And do you have Christmas pageants?” asked Emily.
“Yes. Most churches do some sort of re-enactment of the Christmas story, usually with children playing all the parts. My family would usually go to church for that, the one day of the year that we would all go to church. We would open our presents early in the morning – as early as we could, usually. Then Mum would make us get dressed in our best clothes, which would usually be totally unsuitable to the hot weather, and we’d go to church. Then, afterwards we would head to whichever relative’s house had been selected for the family lunch. There would be bon bons… er, Christmas crackers, you call them,” added Matt when Emily had looked puzzled. “We’d tell each other the terrible jokes, moan about the poor-quality plastic toys and put the coloured paper hats on.”
“So did your Christmas pageant include the innkeeper?”
innkeeper
Matt stopped to remember the last one that he had attended. It had been quite a few years ago. “Yes, I’m pretty sure. It always seemed a bit weird to me, to be honest. Why on earth would the innkeeper send away a woman who is in the process of giving birth? Seemed pretty heartless to me.”
Emily’s eyes gleamed. “That’s because it’s completely wrong!”
Now it was Matt’s turn to look puzzled. Mariam, too, had turned to look at Emily questioningly.
“Let me explain,” Emily said, getting out her phone. She spent a couple of minutes looking up a couple of passages in her Bible app. “OK, here’s what it says in the old version of the NIV: ‘So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’[1]
“Now there are two problems with the usual church presentation of this story. The first thing is that they usually portray Mary’s labour pains starting just as they are arriving in Bethlehem. But the text clearly states ‘while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born’. So Joseph is not the idiot he is made out to be, travelling with a nine-month pregnant woman. No, he planned ahead. They travelled to Bethlehem some time before the baby was due and so were very definitely settled somewhere when the birth occurred.
“But the second problem is that somewhere. Where did the birth take place? And where was there no room? Well, the word that is translated here as ‘inn’ is the Greek word kataluma. But elsewhere in the gospel of Luke, that same word is translated ‘upper room’. For example, when Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover, they do so in a kataluma.[2] This word really means ‘guest room’ which in the houses of that time was often located in an upper part of the house. Now apparently there are some Greek texts where the word kataluma is used to refer to an inn, but these are rare. And there is a far more common word for ‘inn’. Which is why Luke uses a different word in the parable of the Good Samaritan: in that story, when the Samaritan takes the man who had been beaten up to an inn[3], the word used there is pandocheion, which really does mean ‘inn’ with an innkeeper and rooms that can be let for a price.
“So there was no inn in the Christmas story. Instead, Mary and Joseph were staying in a regular house, which makes complete sense when you consider that Joseph had returned to the place of his birth: he was returning to family. And in that culture, hospitality is central. There is no way that Joseph’s family would not make room for them. The problem is, though, that Joseph’s entire extended family had returned to Bethlehem for the census. So the house is packed! The kataluma, the guest room, is chock-full of guests, which means there was no room for Mary to give birth there. Instead, she had to use the lower room of the house at the bottom of which was a sunken area where the family’s animals would be stored at night. And this is where the manger comes into it: there would have been a receptacle for animal feed, and it was into this that Jesus was placed. And apparently this was unusual enough for the angels to use it as a sign for the shepherds that they might know they had found the right place.[4]
“Finally, this helps to explain why in the gospel of Matthew, when the magi arrive on the scene, the text says they entered the house over which the star came to rest.[5]
When Emily paused for breath, Matt spoke. “Well, that makes a lot more sense.”
“Ooh, there’s more!” said Emily excitedly. “If you look at the latest version of the NIV, they have changed the text slightly: Mary ‘wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.’ Just goes to show that some of these deeply-held traditions take simply ages to be rooted out, but it can happen.”
Soon after, they went back to work. But Matt was left with a strong sense of his ignorance when it came to the Bible. Sunday school classes were only a distant memory – and if Emily was to be believed, quite often wrong in what they had taught, or at the very least misleading. His recent readings in the New Testament had left him with far more questions than answers. Surely there was something he could do to remedy that?

_____________
[1] Luke 2:4-7.
[2] Luke 22:11.
[3] Luke 10:34.
[4] Luke 2:12.
[5] Matt. 2:11.

MST Press Reprints!

Here’s some exciting news for you: MST Press has agreed to reprint the first novel in the Exegetical Histories series, The Ephesus Scroll, and my play, Saul, First King of Israel.  Since this meant preparing new print files, I thought it was worth while doing a complete redesign of Saul (the previous cover was definitely looking its age!) and adding an endorsement to Ephesus to bring it in line with The Corinth Letters.

I’m particularly excited about the new-look Saul.  The Rembrandt painting on the front is exquisite and the off-centre title is rather striking.  The description on the back is also new and, I think, helps to draw the reader in.

Let me know what you think in the comments!

Ephesus Scroll front cover

Ephesus Scroll back cover

Saul Front Cover

Saul Back Cover

The Corinth Letters is here!

And it comes recommended by Dr. Colin Kruse, respected Pauline scholar and author of a number of New Testament commentaries: “creatively conceived… illuminating and engaging… hard to put down”.

Here’s how to get a copy…

If you want to purchase the paperback there are two options:

  1. You can order one from Koorong (A$21.99).
  2. Those of you outside of Australia can get one from CreateSpace (US$14.99).

If you want to purchase the e-book (only US$4.99) there are lots of options:

  1. I highly recommend SmashWords.  You can get every possible format from them, including PDF, EPUB and MOBI (which is the file-type that works on Kindles).
  2. It is also on Amazon.
  3. And Kobo.
  4. And iTunes.

Don’t forget to post a review when you’ve finished reading it!  And post your review on Amazon, Smashwords and Goodreads if you can.  The more reviews (especially positive ones!) the better…

Koorong Ad

The Corinth Letters is coming!

And it comes recommended by Dr. Colin Kruse, respected Pauline scholar and author of a number of New Testament commentaries: “creatively conceived… illuminating and engaging… hard to put down”.

Here’s how to get a copy…

If you want to purchase the paperback there are two options:

  1. You can order one from Koorong (A$23.99).
  2. Those of you outside of Australia can get one from CreateSpace (US$14.99).

If you want to purchase the e-book (only US$4.99) there are lots of options:

  1. I highly recommend SmashWords.  You can get every possible format from them, including PDF, EPUB and MOBI (which is the file-type that works on Kindles).
  2. It is also on Amazon.
  3. And Kobo.
  4. And iTunes.

Don’t forget you can also pre-order a copy.  That way, you can be reading your copy on the 1st of December!

A Communion Reflection

I wonder what the disciples thought of that last supper they had with Jesus.  Particularly in Mark’s gospel, there’s a real sense of danger and intrigue.  Jesus tells two of his disciples to go into the city where a man with a water jar will meet them.  (Remember that in this culture men simply did not carry water jars; that was women’s work.)  So the two disciples are to follow this man to a house.  Then they are to ask the owner of the house to show them the guest room.  And then they are to prepare the Passover meal there.

Why all this cloak and dagger stuff?  Well, the simple answer is that Jesus is probably trying to prevent Judas Iscariot from knowing his future whereabouts.  He couldn’t exactly say, “Go to Mary, the mother of John Mark’s house and prepare the Passover in their upper room”.  Then Judas could simply go to the chief priests, tell them where Jesus would be, and that would be that.  No, Jesus wanted to have that last Passover meal with his disciples.  And only then would he allow himself to be arrested.

So why was it so important to Jesus that he celebrate that Passover meal?  As good Jewish people, Jesus and his disciples would have celebrated Passover every year of their lives.  But this one was to be different.  For Jesus reinterpreted two parts of the meal: the bread and a cup of wine.  He took some bread and he broke it.  Now this was a normal part of the Passover meal.  But as he broke the bread he added some new words: “This is my body.”  And then he took a cup of wine and passed it around.  Again, this was a normal part of the Passover meal.  But again he added some new words: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

I can picture those disciples looking at one another.  What’s he saying?  Jesus had already told them he was going to die at the hands of the chief priests, but that on the third day he would rise again.  But they’d never really understood.  Now, with a piece of broken bread in their hands, and a mouthful of wine in their mouths, Jesus’ imminent death became real.

I am pretty sure that at the time they did not really understand the significance of what Jesus was saying.  But afterwards they did.  After Jesus had died and had been resurrected, they began to understand what his death meant.  They realised that his broken body was necessary so that our sins could be forgiven.  They realised that his blood had inaugurated a new covenant, a new agreement, between God and humanity.
And they remembered this every time they broke bread and drank wine.  Certainly once a year at Passover.  But possibly even more regularly than that.  Why?  Because Jesus asked them to.  Mark doesn’t record it, but Paul does, in 1 Corinthians 11.  Twice Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me”.

So each time we gather like this and take a piece of bread and drink a small cup of juice we remember what Jesus did nearly 2000 years ago.  And each time we too have a tangible reminder of Jesus’ death.  We know that our sins are forgiven through what he did on the cross.  And we know that we are sons and daughters of God as a result of that new covenant.  So when you take a piece of bread and eat it and take a mouthful of wine do not be sorrowful as you remember Jesus’ death.  This is a moment of joy!  Forgiveness of sins is ours through Jesus!  Our relationship with God is restored!  Let us remember what Jesus did and be glad.

Now on CreateSpace!

The Ephesus Scroll is now available as a print-on-demand paperback on CreateSpace: click here to check it out.

To mark this milestone, the front cover of the book has been slightly changed:

CreateSpace Cover

(By removing the scroll fragment from behind the book’s title, it just gives a better contrast, allowing the title to be more clearly seen.)

In addition, my two other books are also now available. Firstly, Meeting Of Minds (my first novel which is a sci-fi / virtual reality / humour mash-up involving hackers, aliens, and galactic exploration) is available here:

CreateSpace MOM CoverSecondly, Saul, First King of Israel (a play based on the Biblical book of 1 Samuel) is available here.  The text looks great, and would be eminently suitable for study at high school level.  I am also very much hoping that now that it is available in print form, it is now one step closer to being performed!  Please get in contact with me if you are interested…

CreateSpace Saul Cover

Why I Want To Be ‘Left Behind’

There’s a new Nicholas Cage movie coming your way and it’s called Left Behind. If you don’t know about it yet, I think you soon will. Even the normally cool Relevant magazine is getting excited about it. The movie is based on the first book of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind multi-volume series. Strictly speaking it’s a reboot since there have already been a few movies made of this series. But this one has a much bigger budget and, well, Nicholas Cage:

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 10.47.59 AM

With trepidation I followed the link to watch the trailer on You Tube. Not having read the books I cannot comment on how faithful the new movie will be compared with the series. But one line in the trailer really struck me: a young woman says, “The God my father talked about would never do something like this!” I am guessing that she is referring to the disappearance of all Christians in a secret rapture.

I would like to take this opportunity to publicly agree: I do not believe there will be a secret rapture.

Jigsaw Hermeneutics

The doctrine of a secret rapture is by no means new: there have been other books (Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth to name one among many), movies (A Thief In The Night) and even songs (Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready…”) that describe such a thing. But the effect of this teaching is often one of engendering fear, and not even a fear of going to hell so much as a fear of having to live through something called ‘the Great Tribulation’.

It should be noted at the outset that the rapture – secret or otherwise – is not in the Creeds or the 39 Articles. Instead, the Creeds simply state the fact of Jesus’ return in an event that will involve both the resurrection of those who have already died followed by a great judgment. So basically this is not a doctrine of first importance. It is a ‘non-essential’, as in the phrase usually attributed to Augustine: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

So where does the concept come from? The doctrine of a secret rapture of Christians comes from bringing together a few different passages of the Bible and arguing that these different passages are actually all speaking about the same thing. I call this jigsaw hermeneutics: different bits of Scripture are treated like jigsaw pieces and are fitted together (actually, forced would be a better way of describing it) into a big picture that owes more to the interpreter’s presuppositions than it does to the individual pieces themselves.

Regarding a secret rapture, there are two main passages: 1 Thess. 4:15-17 and Matt. 24:30-31, 36-41. Then there are quite a few secondary verses used to support the basic teaching: for example, John 14:2-3, Ezek 20:34 and 2 Thess. 2:7, among others. However, a discussion of the rapture is rarely separated from a discussion of the Great Tribulation, so all of Matt 24 – 25 (as well as the parallel passages Mark 13 and Luke 21) come into play, as do many other passages, not least the entire book of Revelation!

The end result is this doctrine of a secret rapture of Christians, secret in that those not involved (non-Christians) only become aware of it after the fact, rather than during the event itself. This is further complicated by the discussion as to when this rapture will occur with respect to the Great Tribulation, resulting in pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, and mid-tribulation raptures.

An Important Principle of Biblical Interpretation

I would like to argue, however, that such a doctrine must be treated with great caution. For one thing, a derived doctrine should not contradict a direct doctrine, that is, one that is explicitly taught in Scripture. Consequently, doctrines that are based on harmonisations need to be examined in the light of an extremely important principle of Biblical interpretation. Put simply, each passage should be interpreted within the literary and historical context in which it is found. What this usually means in practice is that passages must primarily be dealt with within the book in which they are found.

As a good example, how many people know that the Antichrist does not appear anywhere in the book of Revelation? Instead, the references to “antichrist” in 1 John 2:18 – and neglecting the reference to many “antichrists” in 2 John – are harmonised with the beast from the land in Rev. 13:11-18 who is also referred to as the false prophet (Rev. 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Paul’s references to “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:3-12) are usually also thrown in for good measure! The end result of this conglomeration is to blur what the separate passages are actually teaching or describing in favour of constructing some sort of hybrid ‘bigger picture’ of the End Times. Against this particular harmonisation, in 1 and 2 John the author is talking about false teachers within the church, not some End Times satanic ruler. And for anyone wanting to explore the book of Revelation in its first century context, I would recommend reading my novel, The Ephesus Scroll.

Similarly, if we allow the passages that are used to support a secret rapture of Christians to be interpreted within their contexts, we are actually being faithful to the Bible, albeit at the expense of losing sight of this bigger picture of the rapture. However, I would contend that this is actually no loss since this secret rapture of Christians is actually unbiblical in that it is explicitly contradicted by the very passages used to support it.

1 Thess. 4:15-17

There is no denying that 1 Thess. 4:15-17 is dealing with what has since become known as the rapture. Paul here does explicitly state that when Jesus returns Christians will join with Him in the clouds and be with Him forever from that time on. However, this is not the main point of the passage. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them about the ultimate fate of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters who had already died. They had somehow reached the conclusion that those who had died would miss out on being with Jesus forever. Paul then teaches them about the resurrection of the dead that is to immediately precede the rapture.

Now, if this was all that people taught about the rapture then I would be happy to be included and there would be no need for a blog post such as this. However, Paul says nothing in this passage about this event being secret, an event that would only become apparent to non-Christians by them finding clothes, glasses, and false teeth on empty seats previously occupied by Christians!

In addition to this, Paul uses a word that was used to describe a delegation of people who would go out from a city to welcome a visiting dignitary.  But then they would accompany the dignitary back into the city.  So by analogy, even when Christians join Jesus in the clouds – Acts 1:11 tells us that he will return the same way he departed – they will then return to earth and be with Jesus forever here.

Matt. 24:30-41

This brings us to the passage that is most often used to support the element of secrecy. Actually, you would think that such a thing would be impossible given the way this passage starts:

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (v30-31)

This is explicitly said to be a world-wide public event. Then, only a few verses later, Jesus says, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (As an aside, if only Christians had taken that verse seriously, there would have been a lot less End Times speculation – and shame on those who say that this verse doesn’t rule out knowing the year or even the month!) Jesus then provides some illustrative material to support his statement, illustrations that all have something in common: suddenness and unexpectedness.

It is here that we find the classic “Left Behind” verses:

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (v40-41)

Now those pushing for a rapture harmonisation argue that those being taken here are the same as those being gathered in verse 31. But this is not necessarily so. After all, the verses immediately preceding are concerned with the time of Noah and the Flood:

For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (v38-39)

This is what is being discussed: judgment upon those not ready. When Jesus goes on to describe two men working in the field and one is taken, he means one was not prepared for the return of Jesus and is thereby taken in judgment. Similarly, with the two women grinding away at their hand-mills: one is prepared for Jesus’ return, the other is taken in judgment. This is why Jesus concludes this passage with the following words:

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (v42-44)

Conclusion

So, if this is what it means to be “Left Behind” then leave me behind! I don’t want to be taken in judgment. Rather, I want to be prepared for Jesus’ return, a return that will not happen in secret but will be witnessed by the whole world. I want to join with Him and all Christians – both those who are alive at the time and those who will be resurrected – in that great ingathering that will then occur. So, really, if anything should be left behind please let it be this unbiblical notion of a secret rapture of Christians.

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