Saturday, 26 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 3: Peter's Vision

Peter's Vision of a sheet
with animals.
by Domenico Fetti
A Christian’s theology needs to be based on Scripture. If what we believe theologically cannot be found in the Bible, then we need to put it on the shelf of opinion. If what we believe contradicts the Bible, we need to file it under 'T' for Trash. Very few people who claim to follow Jesus would disagree with that. The problem arises, however, when this becomes a case of proof texting. “Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing” (Theopedia). An extreme example is using Psalm 135:5 (“…our Lord is above all gods”) to support polytheism, while ignoring verses like Isaiah 43:10. Or how Jehovah’s Witnesses use 1Thess 4:16 (…the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel) to 'prove' that Jesus is an angel, while ignoring passages like Hebrews 1. It is actually scary what you can make the Bible say with proof texting, turning exegesis into an episode of Bad Lip Reading: saying something they're really not.

As we discovered with Matthew 5 and Mark 7, saying that these passages prove Jesus abolished the food laws is an example of proof texting. I know I used them, but once I looked at their context, as well as realising the implications of Jesus doing away with any commandment, I realised they weren’t saying what I thought they said. Jesus taught nothing about abolishing the food laws, rather, he challenged the Pharisee’s unbiblical traditions. But maybe there is something in the Apostolic period (ascension to the closing of the canon) that teaches the food laws were done away with after Jesus’ ministry. In fact, there are a few verses that appear to be saying just that. But is this the case, or is this just more proof-texting?

Our first example is Peter’s vision in Acts 10. This was my go to when I was challenged on my bacon eating at a BBQ, and when I would challenge other people on why they adhered to the food laws of Leviticus. Let’s review the encounter:
Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (Acts 10:9-16)
So here, it is argued, the Holy Spirit has just declared that unclean animals are now clean. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Seminary said something similar:
As the Book of Acts makes clear, Christians are not obligated to follow this holiness code. This is made clear in Peter's vision in Acts 10:15. Peter is told, 'What God has made clean, do not call common.' In other words, there is no kosher code for Christians. Christians are not concerned with eating kosher foods and avoiding all others. That part of the law is no longer binding, and Christians can enjoy shrimp and pork with no injury to conscience.

John Piper said something similar in a sermon from 1991:
And so Peter's vision has two points: the food laws are fulfilled and ended in Jesus (Mark 7:19), and the people they kept you separate from (the nations, the Gentiles) are not to be considered unclean or common.

Let’s move beyond the proof-text and consider the context to see what this vision really was about.
What did the vision really mean?
This vision is smack in the middle of Acts 10 which details Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, and Cornelius’ encounter with the Gospel. In the opening verses, just before the vision, we are told by Luke that Cornelius had a vision to send for Peter and thus sends his servants to Joppa to get him. Then comes the vision, after which the Spirit says, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” Then we read about Peter going and sharing the Gospel and Cornelius, and his household believing, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being baptised. This is what the vision was all about; Peter going to a Gentile’s home. As I wrote in an earlier post (here) the Jews, (mostly in Judea), were reluctant to associate with the Gentiles, especially in their homes, lest they become contaminated, or as I explained in the previous post (here), be made ‘common’. This was reflected in Peter’s words to Cornelius when he arrived:“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28). This word for unlawful is actually not related to the Law. There is no commandment prohibiting Israelites from interacting with Gentiles. Rather, it is best understood as something ‘taboo’, or culturally forbidden. This is the wall of separation, as reflected in the anti-Gentile ‘Edicts of Shammai’, that were destroyed through the crucifixion of Christ (Eph 2).
So, the narrative context is pointing us to the conclusion that the vision is about challenging Peter’s perception of Gentiles. Is there anything in scripture that interprets the visions for us? This is important in scripture as the symbolic nature of visions are wide open to interpretation. Just look at the various candidates for the ‘whore of Babylon’.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look to far to find an interpretation. Shortly after telling Cornelius he shouldn’t be at his house, Peter says: “but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean…Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:28, 34-35). Notice the lack of mention about food. Maybe there’s another interpretation that mentions food? Peter explains his vision and encounter with Cornelius in Jerusalem in the following chapter:
Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me.  Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction… When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Finally, we can eat some bacon.” (Acts 11:1-11, 18). 
No, that last bit doesn’t actually say that, but that’s how some people read it. What they actually said was, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Again, no mention of food, just Gentiles. The Spirit told Peter not to make a distinction between himself as a Jew and the men as Gentiles. If the scriptures that describe the interpretation of the vision are silent of food laws, then we need to seriously question whether that was happening in the vision at all. Consider, in light of the historical context, how significant this change would be. If there was a change in food laws, it is bizarre that Peter never mentions it. To account for this, many point to God’s words in the vision themselves: “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
So our second question is, what did God really say?

Some suggest that although the vision was indeed about Jews and Gentiles, it is symbolically based on the literal removal of the food laws. For example, as John MacArthur explains:
I believe God was abolishing the Old Testament dietary laws. Why? Because they were designed to separate the Jew from the Gentile. But what is the body of Christ designed to do? Unite them. Therefore, the social barrier had to be removed for them to come together. Both groups had to learn to socialize around the table together because they were now one.
This claim is similar to one of John Piper’s argument for why the food laws were abolished and, as I explained in part one, Gentiles become a part of Israel, and the need to be set apart from the rest of the world is still there. So this connection is moot. But is there something else in the purpose of the food laws that changed after the cross? 

Interestingly, the Early Church Fathers don’t discuss food laws too often, and when they do most of them like Tertullian (Fasting, 5), Clement of Alexandria (On Eating, 2.1), and Justin Martyr (Trypho, 20), say the reason God gave the food laws was to control the gluttony and sin of the Israelites. And therefore, for them the reason Christians don’t keep the food laws (as with many other things wrongly perceived as ‘Jewish’) is because ‘we’re better than those immoral Jews.’
Some argue that it was about hygiene and health, and now that food like pork can be stored better, that need is gone. But, the scriptures say ‘be holy as I am holy’, not ‘be healthy as I am healthy.’ Furthermore, this would be no different to saying the sexual morality laws are no longer applicable because we have contraception.
I used to argue that the food laws no longer apply because Jesus makes us clean, thus putting an end to the purity laws. But, as I explained in a previous post, there was no ceremonial washing for eating shellfish, so that cannot be the case. And yes, the cross cleanses us from our guilt and sin, but that it not an invitation to disobey the commandments of God.
There are many possible reasons for setting the distinction between clean and unclean animals, which in fact had occurred by the time of Noah (Gen 7:2, 8:20), but ultimately it is somewhat of a mystery. However, our obedience should never be based on our ability to understand why, or whether we can find ways to avoid the consequences and reasons, excuses, and loop-holes to not obey.

But we still have this declaration from the Spirit. How do we make sense of this?
Firstly, look at what Peter said in response to the command, ‘rise and eat’: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” Because the sheet contained clean and unclean animals, in Peter's mind the clean creatures are now made common (koinen) because they had touched the unclean animals, thus the sheet has common and unclean. That Peter considered them separate but related categories is evidenced by his use of “the disjunctive conjunctive E (koinen E akatharton)” (House, 146). Then compare this with the Spirits response: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 
Peter: common and unclean
Spirit: common
Note that the Spirit makes no mention of unclean, just common. If this vision was about food as well, the Spirit would have said: “What God has made clean, do not call common or unclean.” But He doesn’t. The Spirit is saying, as Jesus did in Mark 7, “get the idea of koinen out of your mind, especially with the Gentiles. Go to visit Cornelius, for just as the lamb is not contaminated by the pig, neither will you be contaminated by the Gentile's home.”

So, as with Mark 7, because we fail to recognise the cultural context, namely the difference between common and unclean, this encounter is easily misunderstood. As we have seen by considering the context, claiming this vision is permission to put some pork on your fork is nothing short of proof-texting.



In our next part, we will consider the words of Paul and what he has to say about food. Perhaps there is something in the Pauline corpus that says eating pig and prawn is okay now.





References

Clement of Alexandria, On Eating.
House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in
       Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983. P 143-153
John Piper, “What God Has Cleansed Do Not Call Common”, Sermon 20 Oct 1991.
John Macarthur, “Salvation Reaches Out”
Justin Martyr, Trypho the Jew.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. (May 21, 2012). "The Bible condemns a lot, but here's why we focus on              
        homosexuality". My Take. CNN. Retrieved 2012-05-21.
Tertullian, On Fasting.
Theopedia, Proof texting


Image:
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fe/Domenico_Fetti_-_Peter's_vision_of_a_sheet_with_animals_-_Kunsthistorisches_Museum_Wien.jpg

Thursday, 17 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 2: A response to J.Piper.


Did Jesus declare all 'foods' clean?

Without knowing the whole story, we are bound to misinterpret things. There is a TV trope known as ‘Out of Context Eavesdropping’ where one person hears only one side of a conversation and jumps to the wrong conclusion. For example, on an episode of the Simpsons Lisa overhears her crush talking to someone names Clara and thinks she is his girlfriend. But it is his sister. Or in an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, Willis and Arnold overhear their adopted father say that black boys should be with black families, and end up thinking that he doesn’t want them. But it turns out that he was just repeating what a white social worker had said before she was thrown out. Without understanding other cultures, misunderstandings are bound to arise too. Consider how in Japan, the common American act of tipping is actually taken as an insult. Or how in the Middle East a thumbs-up is the equivalent of giving someone the bird. Similar things happen in Christianity too. Many onlookers since the beginning have questioned why we ‘eat the body of our god’ because they misunderstand Communion. So, as we can see, it is important that we understand cultural context and get all the information, lest we come up with a misguided interpretation of what others are about. And this is also true when we approach the scripture. It is easy to unintentionally misread a passage of scripture because we import modern ideas or we are missing a key piece of historical/cultural information. We saw in our last post that this was true of Matthew 5:17, and as we will see in the following posts, it is also true of Mark 7.

In my last post, I agreed with John Piper that we as followers of Jesus need to listen to what Christ said about the Old Testament Law. Having considered textual, idiomatic, and linguistic context of ‘fulfil’ from the first example that he provided of Matthew 5, we saw that Jesus was actually teaching the opposite of what Piper suggested it meant, namely, that in fulfilling the Law, He was faithfully teaching and upholding it. We also saw that there was nothing in the law or the prophets that demonstrate that God had intended for the faux category of ‘ceremonial law’ to be only temporary.
There is, however, another teaching from Jesus that Piper quoted which looks very much like He did do away with the food laws, and that is from Mark 7:15-19:
 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
And reading that does make it look like a ‘done deal’. 'See, Jesus declared all foods clean.' And for Piper, “[this] is the key text…” But is this verse saying what we think it says? Did Jesus in fact annul and abolish the food laws in this dispute with the Pharisees? Let’s look at the textual and cultural-historical context before examining its linguistic context.

In verses 1-5, we are provided with the situational context and we discover that the dispute was about the washing of hands according to ‘the traditions of the elders’. As the Pharisees asked Jesus “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (v5). As Mark explains, the Pharisees had taught all the Jews that they must wash (baptise) their hands and cups and crockery before eating, especially after being in the marketplace. This is not because they are germaphobes, but because of their understanding of clean and unclean. They believed that everyday things considered ‘clean’ can be contaminated by something unclean. In this case, they believed that by being in the marketplace among the Gentiles that their hands would become contaminated. And if they did not ceremonially wash their hands, their food would become inedible through its defilement. When something clean became defiled, the Pharisees called it ‘common’, or in the Greek koinen. For example, the disciples were eating with ‘koinais hands' (Mark 7:2,5). The category of ‘common’ is often equated with the category of ‘unclean’ from the Law. However, in the Septuagint, unclean (e.g Lev 11:18) is never translated as koinen, but rather akatharta, further demonstrating that they are different categories.
So, based on repeated use of koinen and the phrase ‘tradition of the elders’, we find that, “Mark is careful to point out that the disciples have not violated the Torah but [rather] the… ‘tradition of the elders’” (Rudolf, p 294). Note too how Moses or pigs never come into this conversation at all. Therefore, any apparent challenge made to clean/unclean distinction of food in this dispute needs to be understood through the lens of this context, i.e. the traditional Pharisaical category of ‘common.’

The first apparent challenge the food laws is found in verse 15:
“Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
This statement is often taken to mean that eating bacon doesn’t make you unclean anymore. However, there is a difference between the nature of ‘unclean’ food and nearly every other unclean thing in Leviticus. When someone became unclean through excessive menstruation, childbirth, touching a dead body etc… a ritual was provided to make them clean again. But when it came to eating pig or prawns, there is no cleansing ceremony. There were no restrictions on access to the Tabernacle for those who had eaten unclean food. The only way they did make one unclean, is by touching their carcass (Lev 11:24-28), but this was true of clean foods too (Lev 11:39-40), meaning there is a difference between a carcass and prepared food. It is also important to note that here Jesus is talking about things that make you ‘common’ (koinen), whereas in Leviticus 11 only eating “the swarming things that swarm on the ground” will make you ‘unclean’ (akathartoi [LXX]). Thus, we can say that eating unclean foods (with one exception) never made you unclean or common. Moreover, in Matthew’s account of this discussion, Jesus concludes by saying:
But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile [make koinen] anyone (Matt 15:18-20).
This further reinforces that this debate is about the traditions of the elders and not the Levitical food laws. Therefore, we can better understand Jesus as saying in verse 15 that the eating of clean food with common hands will not render that food common.

This is also true of verses 18 and 19 where we find Jesus explaining to the confused disciples:
Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
To clarify his teaching, Jesus gives his disciples a lesson in biology lesson to let them know that whatever impurities the food ‘may’ have, God designed the human body to use that which is good and to remove that which is impure. Moreover, all food enters the stomach and the digestive tract, and not the heart - the source of sin - and its impurities are expelled. And again, Jesus is talking about the category of ‘common’, not unclean. So, as we covered with verse 15, He is not (and cannot be) talking about pig making us unclean.
Then comes, as it appears in most English translations (except for the KJV), a parenthetical commentary statement from Mark:
“In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (NIV).
What is most interesting, is that this phrase isn’t in the Greek. Rather it merely says ‘purging all food.’ So how did modern translators get ‘Jesus declaring all foods clean’ out of ‘purging all foods’? Well, in most languages, verbs and nouns need to match grammatically. The word for purging is a singular participle in the nominative case (the subject, or ‘main actor’ in the sentence). And because the closest matching nominative is ‘Jesus’ all the way back in verse 18 (and He said), the translators concluded that Jesus must be the one doing the cleansing. There is, however, an exception to this rule:
“In Greek grammar… the nominative singular participle may sometimes refer to something within the previous context or to something implied in the context not explicitly mentioned, even though it may not be in the same grammatical case” (Hegg, 2)
We see an example of this in Luke 24:47:
“that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
The verb ‘beginning’ is a nominative singular participial with no matching noun to act as its antecedent. However, we know that it is referring to the preaching of repentance. Therefore, we are not bound grammatically to attach ‘purging all foods’ to a noun 38 words prior. Instead, we can understand the phrase as the conclusion to Jesus’ biology lesson, and not Markian commentary. This was the interpretation given by Novation, a Pope in the third century.

But grammar is not everything. We need to consider context too. Earlier in in verses 6-8, Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question comes in the form of a reprimand and quotation of Isaiah, accusing the Pharisee’s of “rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition.” This is a rebuke against the Pharisee’s prioritisation of ritual impurity (as defined by their tradition) over ‘moral’ defilement (as defined by the commandments of God). By responding to the Pharisee’s challenge in this way, Jesus is reminding them that the commandments of God overrules their traditions, especially the ones that negate God’s Law. We see something similar in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt 23:25-26).   
Therefore, based on his rebuke, we see that Jesus’ argument “centres on a single point – the overarching priority of the Torah” (Rudolf, p 295). Thus, when it comes to verse 15 and 19 it becomes extremely unlikely that after Jesus declared the sacredness of the Law, rebuked the Pharisees for hypocritically neglecting ‘the commandments of God’, He then goes and abolishes a significant part of the Law, the implications of which I discussed in my previous post. Some might argue that Jesus had the authority to modify the Law, but if He did, why was He later asking the Father if He could bypass the cross? That is one stipulation of the Law that I am sure Jesus would have wanted to change.

But let's say that Jesus was actually declaring all foods clean, I have a question:
Why is there such a lack of reaction? Why was this never mentioned at Jesus’ trial? Changing a law like this would mean instant conviction. Instead, they needed people to lie to try and convict Him. Moreover, consider how in the mind of Jesus’ audience forbidden food was not simply unclean, but detestable. In fact, Many Jews in the Hasmonean period (140-116 BCE) “chose to die rather than be defiled by food…" (1Macc 1:62-63, 2 Macc 7). Although this is a kind of argument from silence, the silence is nonetheless worth noting. 

As we have examined Mark 7:1-19, we see that this conversation had nothing to do with Levitical food laws, but rather the traditions of the elders. This is the case for many of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees. Therefore, based on the grammar and the context of this statement, we can conclude that Jesus was not doing away with the divine commandment to abstain from unclean food as proposed by John Piper and many others.
It appears that because the context and grammar of this encounter with the Pharisees were ignored and overlooked, the interpretation and translation of Jesus’ teaching is corrupted by ‘Out of Context Eavesdropping’, leading to the misunderstood conclusion that that the food laws were done away with. But rather, He was challenging the Pharisee’s preoccupation with ritual purity and man-made traditions over and against the commandments of God and the weightier matters of the Law.

Having considered the teachings of Christ as put forward by John Piper, we find that they are not actually saying what he claimed they were saying. I agree with Pastor John that we need to follow Christ’s teaching on how to relate to the Old Testament Law. But as we have seen, we have no record of Him teaching that the food laws are done away with. Although, that is not all the New Testament has to say on food laws. Maybe He did teach it and it wasn’t written down. Considering its significance that is surprising, but not impossible. I’m sure if John Piper had time in his podcast, he would have discussed Acts 10 and Romans 14 as well. These will be the focus of my next posts.



References

Blass, Debrunner, and Funk. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Hegg, Tim. Mark 7:19b – A Short Technical Note. Retrieved:
House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983, p 143-153
Novation, On the Jewish Meats. Retrieved:
Reiscio, Mara & Walt, Luigi. “There is Nothing Unclean” Jesus and Paul against the Politics of Purity. ASE. 29, 2012, p 53-82.
Rudolph, David. Jesus and the Food Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19b. Evangelical Quarterly. 74, 2002, p 291-311
Zell, Paul. Exegetical Brief on Mark 7:19: “Who or what makes all foods clean?” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly. 109, 2012, p 209-212.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 1: A response to J.Piper.

I had been planning for some time to write an article about the place of Old Testament food laws in the life of the Christian, but because I have just started some holidays I was putting it off for a little bit. That was until I saw an episode of ‘Ask Pastor John’ on the Desiring God website (here) that was a response to a question on the topic, and felt that it needed a response. Not so much as a direct response to him (the odds of him actually reading it are a million to one), but rather that his take is a summary of the common argument against the need for Christians to follow biblical food laws. And ones that I argued in unison for some time too. In fact, it is only since the beginning of this year that I had come to the position I have, which is just over a year since I began to recognise the relevance of Torah in the life of the Christian. And there is a good reason I put off looking into it: I was worried about what I might find. I was scared that I would have to abandon my arguments as to why I can disregard the food laws. And changing a diet can become difficult. I was worried about the social awkwardness of having to say ‘I don’t eat bacon.’ And my concerns were warranted. I found that the common arguments don’t hold much water once you dig a little deeper into their proof texts and telling people you’re not eating pig products can have people accuse you of being fussy, Jewish and even eating Halal. And saying goodbye to hotdogs, pepperoni, and 90% of a pizza menu can make mealtimes difficult. But, like celiacs, vegetarians, and diabetics, you learn to adapt. But in the end, it is more important to obey what you see scripture as teaching rather than what is popular, convenient, and delicious. And I don’t judge or condemn those who disagree with me. I make jokes with my wife about ‘eating the demon meat’, but it’s only in good fun.

Before I begin I want to say two things. The first is that I recognise and know from personal experience that if this is new to you, your inclination is going to resist much of what I am going to write, just as I did. But I ask, as I always have since I started writing these posts, that you lay aside your theological traditions and love of bacon, and consider what I have to say with prayer and humility, an open mind, and an even more open Bible. And I invite you to provide feedback in the comments section below. The second, is that my critique of John Piper’s answer should not be taken as disrespect or a rejection of him. I have much respect for his theological wisdom and experience and many of his teachings have been edifying and encouraging. And so it is with humility that I outline why I disagree with him on this issue.

I’m going to split this response over a few articles. In the first two, I am going to be responding to John Piper’s main points, which is primarily centred around his interpretation of Matthew 5:17-18, and Mark 7. In the following posts, I will be addressing Peter’s vision of the sheet in Acts 10, and Paul’s words in Romans 14 that ‘nothing is unclean’ and his words to Timothy ‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected.’ So if you get to the end of this and say ‘but what about…?’, they’re coming.  If you can think of any others, please comment below.

The episode of Ask Pastor John that I am responding to begins with a listener asking the question: 
"I would really like to know whether it is sinful for me to eat pork and bacon." 
In his response, Piper begins by saying:
The good impulse is the desire to obey God. There’s nothing wrong with that. That belongs to what it means to be a Christian. The bad impulse is the failure to obey Christ who teaches us how to obey God in regard to the Old Testament.
So for Piper, we need to listen to Christ and what he said about obeying the Old Testament. And to that I say "amen"! We need to keep the teachings of Christ supreme in our walk, so I know that John Piper is coming from a good heart and right motives. He then moves on to quote Matthew 5:17-18 to see what Jesus did say:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Piper explains that in this passage, Jesus is explaining that through Him, the Old Testament Law was modified, which includes doing away with the food laws. As he explains:
in Jesus [is the fulfillment and accomplishment] of the Law and the Prophets that God always intended in the Old Testament as the consummation and the end of the ceremonial laws. So, the effort to hold on to the prohibition of eating pork is, in effect, a refusal to submit to God’s plan for the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus.

As I said earlier, I can see and agree with the heart of where John Piper’s interpretation of this passage is coming from. Like Stephen, Piper is telling people not to resist the Holy Spirit in its working out of God’s plan for humanity (Acts 7:51-53). I also agree that we should live in the freedom and liberty that the Gospel provides. Unfortunately, Piper’s exegesis and interpretation of Matthew 5 falls short in a few ways. I have discussed this at length here, however what follows is an abbreviated form of that.
Firstly, his interpretation of fulfil neglects the linguistic and historical/cultural context of the word. When interpreting Scripture, it is important that we allow the meaning of the word as used by the author to influence our exegesis, not what we think it means. Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’ use of the word queer in the Narnia series. Surely we wouldn’t say the series is about a homosexual lion. So, what was meant by fulfil when Matthew wrote his Gospel? Well, the word used for fulfil in Matthew is the Greek word plerosai, which means to make complete and to fully teach. It’s like adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. In fulfilling the chocolate-chip cookie-dough, you’re not throwing away the dough; you’re making it complete by adding the chocolate chips. When it comes to fulfilling the Law, what Jesus was doing, was revealing the depth and significance of the commandments of God. Moreover, the use of ‘fulfil’ in the active voice rather than the passive voice (plerothe) means that it is different to the prophetic function of fulfillment (Matt 8:17, 13:35 etc…). This is further brought out when we consider the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, ‘fulfilling the law’. In Jesus’ day, to ‘fulfil the law’ was a Rabbinic term that meant to uphold and correctly teach. And to say a commandment was done away with and no longer relevant, is to ‘abolish’ that law (Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14; Horayot 1:3); something Jesus said he didn’t come to do.

Secondly, note that Piper neglects to quote the very next verse:
Therefore [because I have come to correctly teach and uphold the Torah] whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments [including food laws] and teaches others to do the same [‘put some pork on your fork’] will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
By Jesus’ own words, if He has relaxed the prohibition on unclean meat, He has just made Himself least in the Kingdom (the next post will deal with Jesus' authority to change the Law).

The third is Piper’s claim that:
In the Old Testament, God always intended for the consummation and end of the ceremonial laws.
This point is difficult to uphold for two reasons.
Firstly, I don’t see that in scripture. I see nowhere that Leviticus 11 was only temporary. I see nothing in the prophets about them going to be removed (Amos 3:7). I do, however, see the opposite in the very words of Jesus John Piper quoted earlier, that not the smallest detail will pass from the Law, “until heaven and earth pass away.” Taken literally, that hasn’t happened yet. Taken metaphorically, it means it never will.
Here’s three further examples:
1. Through Malachi, the Lord declares that He does not change and that the people should return to His statutes (Mal 3:6-7). If eating pig was an abomination in His eyes in the days of Moses, that would not change. (Read more here)
2. In Isaiah, God says that after the Judgement:
Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig's flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord (Isa 66:15-17).
Why, if pig is okay to eat, will God put an end to eating it?
3. In Ezekiel, it is prophesied that after the reconstruction of the Temple, the return of God’s glory, and the restoration of Israel (with whatever millennial framework you want to interpret that):
[The Priests] “shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (Ez 44:23)
If clean and unclean is done away with, why are they teaching it?
But, if there is a verse that says that the food laws are temporary, I would love to read it. Piper seems to invoke how God’s people are now made up of more than the nation of Israel as justification for this position, since “the prohibition of certain foods as unclean was a temporary part of God’s way of making Israel distant or distinct from the nations of the world.” But I have dealt with the irrelevance of that claim in my previous posts of how we as Gentile-born followers of Christ are now a part of Israel. Also, we are encouraged in the New Testament to ‘be holy as God is holy’ (1Pet 1:16), and set apart from the world (Jn 17:14-15)) which is the same justification given for the food laws (Lev 11:44-45).
The second problem with this claim is that this division between ceremonial law and moral law is a false categorisation. As E.P Sanders (p.194) explains, “Modern scholars often try to divide the law into ‘ritual’ and ‘ethical’ categories, but this is an anachronistic and misleading division.” In reality, the scriptures only provide two related categories of Law: how we relate to God, and how we relate to others (e,g, Matt 22:36-40, Lev 19:18, 1Jn 4:20). But even if a case could be made for moral and ceremonial law categories, consider how the most repeated commandment in the New Testament, to abstain from idolatry, is ceremonial rather than moral in nature. Consider too that three of the four ‘minimum requirements’ from Acts 15, are ‘ceremonial’ and food related.

Piper also invokes Galatians 5:6, and substitutes pork eating for circumcision saying, “Neither pork eating nor non-pork eating counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” And in terms of justification, absolutely, which is what Galatians is about: people accepting formal conversion to Judaism as a means for salvation, as symbolised in the term ‘circumcision.’ The letter to the Galatians was never written to nullify ceremonial law, but rather challenging a salvation based on works and national identity, as in Acts 15. So, to substitute circumcision with eating-pork doesn’t work as circumcision was seen as the way of getting in and abstaining from pig was because they are in. And Piper is correct in saying that Paul in his letters does not send people back to “the Old Testament ceremonial laws of circumcision and food laws.” But this is most likely because Paul, in writing to Gentile-born converts, had to spend more time teaching them to obey the ‘second great commandment’, and commandments prohibiting sexual immorality and idolatry as religion and morality was a foreign concept to Roman Pagans. Honouring one's god through ceremony and ritual, however, was second nature. Nonetheless, Paul agreed with the Jerusalem council (and the Holy Spirit) that the Gentile-born believers would learn the Torah in the synagogue (Acts 15:19-21).

So as we have seen, Matthew 5 and Galatians are not good places to defend the ‘legalisation of pig meat’ as the typical interpretation, as espoused by Piper, seems to ignore their historical, idiomatic, and textual contexts. Because of the amount of words needed, I am leaving until the next part of this series to examine Piper’s use of Mark 7 and ask, did Jesus really declare all foods clean?



References
Sanders, E. P. Judaism : Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
Babylonian Talmud: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Talmud/talmudtoc.html
Image:
http://njdivorceblog.typepad.com/.a/6a00d83453a2a469e2015391fa3388970b-pi



Thursday, 3 November 2016

Christian Cultural Identity: The Church and Israel.


In the previous post, we began to look at how scripture defines and describes our Christian Cultural Identity If you have not read that, I recommend beginning there before reading here. We saw that both the Jew and Gentile are of equal status and united in Christ, and that the Gentile’s identity is very much tied into that of Israel. As I said previously, this is not the modern geopolitical state of Israel, but rather the ethnic people of group that was the nation of Israel (I will explain this in more depth in this post). In this post, we will begin to dig further into this topic to help better understand the Cultural Identity of a Christian. 
We find Paul expressing and describing this idea more deeply in his letter to the Ephesians, except this time he has exchanged an agricultural metaphor to more political language:

Therefore, remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (Eph 2:11-19).
What we find in this passage is that those called ‘the uncircumcision’ (AKA Gentiles), have through Christ joined the Commonwealth of Israel. In fact, the phrase, ‘been brought near’, is taken from the Hebrew ‘kabbel’, which is the technical term for making a convert used in Jewish proselytism from the phrase: “to bring one near [kareb]... the wings of the Shekinah.” (JewishEncyclopedia). Thus, we have been proselytised into the Commonwealth of Israel. This is made possible by the blood of Jesus, and “abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” This here is often taken to mean that the Law of God was annulled to let Gentiles in. For Calvin, the obstacle was more specifically the Ceremonial Law (Inst. 2.7.17). Although 'commandments' (entolon) can refer to God’s commandments (Matt 15:3), that there is not one commandment within the entire Law that restricts access to God for the Gentile, nor instructs Israel to be in a state of hostility with Gentiles, excludes this interpretation. Rather, it refers to man-made edicts, such as is used when John reports that “the Pharisees had given orders…” (Jn 11:57). Thus, Paul is talking about the ordinances set down by the likes of Rabbi Shammai (as discussed last post) who established man made rules to keep Gentiles away. As Jesus rebuked the Pharisees: “…you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Matt 23:13). And by being made one in Jesus, He has nullified this law sanctioned by the Sanhedrin, which became a deeply entrenched cultural rule and tradition, to get the Jews to realise that Gentiles are equal citizens of the Commonwealth.

What did Paul mean by Commonwealth? The word for Commonwealth, politeia, is used to denote a civil administration, constitution and way of life, and a group of citizens. This process of entering the politeia is very much like the naturalisation process of an immigrant gaining new citizenship. They are not ‘notional citizens’ like some people would see them, but are in the eyes of the rulers of that nation and in their mind, genuine Australians, Americans, Germans etc… In the same way, we are not ‘spiritual Israelites’ we are Israelites. As Paul wrote elsewhere:
“For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom 9:6)
“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit.” (Rom 2:28-29)
“…it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”  (Gal 3:7).
And this is consistent with the original use of politeia. The Greeks used politeia to define themselves in their Hellenistic diaspora. Being Greek was not necessarily those who lived in the region of Greece, or those who had Greek ancestry. Rather, being Greek was a matter of thought and education. Thus, in using this term, Paul is saying that by joining the politeia of Israel, they are becoming an Israelite in thought (faith in and devotion to God), education (the Torah), and practice (obedience to the commands of God).

That there is a change in ‘citizenship’ becomes evident when we examine Paul’s instruction to the believers in Ephesus in a later chapter: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do.” Why? Because being a Gentile was your ‘old self’ and ‘former manner of life’ (Eph 4:22-23). Paul describes the identity of the Gentile as one who is alienated by God and sinful by nature (Eph 4:18-19), and this does not fit the description of the identity of a Christian. In short, if you’re in Christ, you’re not a Gentile. Yes, we are still technically Australian, American, German etc... but we are no longer Gentiles; our true citizenship is in Israel.

So, based on Roman 11 and Ephesians 2, we can see that Gentiles do in fact adopt an Israelite identity when they become followers of Jesus. And although there are followers of Christ who are Gentile by birth, there is no such thing as a Gentile Christian. And as members of the body of Christ, we belong to the church, or ekklesia. Although a Greek, political term, the New Testament authors drew it from the Old Testament equivalent qahal. This word was translated into the Greek Old Testament (LXX) as ekklesia, and in our English translations as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly.’ However, is it not interesting that despite being translated as ‘congregation’ in the Old Testament, that same this word is almost always translated as ‘church’ in the New Testament? And even when the NT makes reference to the ekklesia in the OT, it is translated as congregation (Acts 7:38), despite being ‘church’ in the 113 other non-political instances of the word. Why the inconsistency? Perhaps, for those wanting to promote a solid and definite division between Old and New, Israelite and Gentile, reading about ‘the church in the wilderness’ under Moses would be too challenging.

As members of the politea of Israel, Gentiles by birth can become full members of the ekklesia which originated in the Old Testament. And this is a principle, process, and practice that is not unique to the New Testament. Consider Ruth who declared to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Also, consider the prophetic words of Isaiah: “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people [Israel]’” (Isa 14:1). Isaiah also prophesied that this would carry over into the New Covenant: “For the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob” (Isa 56:3). 

As Scripture has shown, there is a continuity of identity from the Old into the New: Gentiles who join themselves to the Lord become Israelites. Many want to claim that they are beneficiaries of ‘the covenants of promise’, having ‘hope and belonging to God’, but do not recognise that they also belong to the ‘Commonwealth of Israel’ (Eph 2:12). As God explained to Abraham, “…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2). Not through: In. The way to inherit the covenants of promise is by being brought into his line of descendants. As Luther explains: "Through our faith in Christ Abraham gains paternity over us and over the nations of the earth according to the promise…" And by embracing this, we can find greater assurance that we will receive the benefits of this covenant promise; justification by faith to be adopted as the people of God and heirs to inherit His Kingdom (Gal 3:7-9, 29; 4:7). We can also find deeper meaning and significance when we realise that our spiritual lineage and heritage was not birthed at Pentecost in 30AD. Our roots go back to Abraham, and beyond. Not in an abstract, spiritualised, typological sense. But in a real and genuine way. 

Does this mean that we have to start speaking Hebrew, dress like Jews, eat challah bread, and live in Israel? No. There is room for cultural diversity within the commonwealth, provided it does not violate its constitution: The Scriptures. But what it does mean is that we cannot dismiss Old Testament laws and festivals as ‘Jewish’ and argue that ‘the Law was given to the Jews and not Gentiles, therefore it does not apply to us.’ This reasoning is faulty for two reasons. The first is that it is categorically incorrect because Jews are the tribe of Judah and the Law and festivals belong to God. They just happen to be given first to those people. Baptism, Communion, the Great Commission, and the Gospel were given first to the Jews, yet no one calls them Jewish. And secondly, it is irrelevant because even if they were only given to Israelites, by joining ourselves to God, we become Israelites too. Therefore, to say the Christian needs to keep the feasts etc… is not a cultural imposition as many would suggest. However, saying one must do so according to extra-biblical customs is cultural imposition. Now, there may be other grounds that these laws might be dismissed, but ‘cultural grounds’ cannot be one of them. What was given to Israel in the Old Testament is the culture of the Kingdom of God, and by joining ourselves to the King through Jesus the Messiah, we come under His constitution and enter His culture.

The church hasn’t replaced Israel. The church is Israel because there is no such thing as a Gentile Christian.



References
Calvin, John. (1581). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Kindle
Jewish Encyclopedia, Proselyte:
           http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12391-proselyte
Luther, (1535). Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, (trans. T. Graebner). Kindle


Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Christian Cultural Identity: Jew vs Gentile


As the ‘Like’ emojis on Facebook have recently revealed, Halloween has come and gone. In Australia, this annual event has never had a strong following. Growing up, our observance of the day involved little more than watching the latest Simpson's ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episode. I think we had trick-or-treaters once, but that’s about it. Recently it has developed a greater following here. Shops have begun selling Halloween merchandise and more people are celebrating it. But overall, Halloween is seen by most Australians as an irrelevant American celebration, at least the way it is observed today, and that it should be left over there. This country, despite its claims to multiculturalism, is really resistant to cultural imposition. And I’m sure that is true of many other countries too. And this comes back to the importance of Cultural Identity. Cultural Identity is what gives people meaning and understanding about their place in the world, it shapes and forms how they live, and it gives them a firm foundation upon which they can find dignity, value, and self-worth. And to impose another culture onto this is to challenge this foundation.


And we could say the same thing about our Christian identity and practices. It is important that we can discern between what is cultural and what is scriptural when it comes to the way we practice our faith or, live out our Christian Cultural Identity. It is important that scripture shapes and informs our Christian Cultural Identity and refuses the imposition of any cultural practice outside of scripture.
But what does the Bible say about the cultural identity of the Christian? How are we to understand who we are as followers of Christ? What does it mean and how does it look to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven? Over the next three blog posts we are going to be exploring scripture to better understand this identity. Originally, I had planned for this to be only one post. But because of the size of the topic, it has turned into two. And this is just a warm up.

For the Christian, our identity is very much tied up with the person of Christ. Scripture tells us that in Him, we are holy and blameless new creations, free from condemnation, co-heirs and sons of God, belong to the body of Christ, citizens of God’s Kingdom, we have purpose, hope and eternal life and many others (Crossing Church). And because all who follow Jesus are united in Him, our global cultural identity has no advantage over another. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Rom 10:12). In other words, because He is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, “he will show himself to be kind to all who will acknowledge and call on him as their God” (Calvin).
Much of the book of Romans is addressing the conflict between Jews and Gentiles.

 The Jews saw themselves as superior because they were God’s chosen people and the Gentiles were a bunch of ‘Johnny-come-latelys’ and therefore not real covenant members. This was an issue in many first-century communities of faith, and something that Paul addresses in the letter to the Ephesians. He explains that in Christ, both Jew and Gentile have been unified into “one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph 2:15-16). The term new man most likely comes from the Latin phrase novus homo, which was a term to describe someone from the lower classes of society who was the first in their family to achieve senatorial status. But despite being recognised by the State as genuine senators, those who were senators by birth did not recognise them as such (Rosenquist, 2016). The same thing was happening with the Gentile believers as the Jewish believers were treating them as lower class citizens. This mindset comes from the edicts of Rabbi Shammai, who around 10AD founded a major Pharisaical school of thought that believed only descendants of Abraham were beloved by God and thought only extremely exceptional Gentiles should convert. This belief was articulated in what is known as the ‘18 Edicts’ that enforced the separation of Jews and Gentiles (Richardson, 2003). Within these edicts was a declaration that even though a Gentile may live out a life entirely faithful to the Torah, they were not really a Jew unless they underwent formal conversion (Rosenquist, 2016). This kind of thinking had flowed over into the New Covenant community and therefore required Paul to respond by declaring that the Gentiles did not have to undergo formal conversion to Judaism to be saved (which is the context for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15), and that the Gentiles are of equal status.

And the Gentiles saw themselves as the new way and “scorned everything Jewish – and very likely with a number of intermediate positions” (Moo, 1996: 21). So, as well as dealing with Jewish feelings of superiority, Paul also had to deal with Gentile pride. This is why he reminded them that the Jews are the foundation from which the Gentiles have entered into covenant with God through Jesus (Rom 11), and that there was a time when they were not members of the covenant community of God (Eph 2:11-12). And so one of Paul’s major purposes in many of his letters is to say that neither Jews nor Greeks (Gentiles) are better than the because both are under sin (Rom 3:9), and that God is the creator, Lord, and saviour of both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 3:29-30). This is why, in Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile in God’s eyes because both are of equal status (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11).

And this is one of the many great truths of the Gospel; that people of all nationalities are welcomed to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. People everywhere can experience salvation without becoming Jews. And this was a mental obstacle in Peter’s mind that needed to be overcome through the vision of the sheet and his encounter with Cornelius: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation, anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). But it is interesting what the church has done with this idea.
There is a perception that because Gentiles do not have to adopt ‘Jewish cultural practices’ to be saved, that their identity remains radically distinct. Ironically, through the process of upholding their equality, they have maintained their separation.  And of course, many cultural distinctions would remain. Language, food, dress, extra-biblical practices, and extra-biblical values can remain distinct. This is very much like how no two people from the same culture become exactly the same when they become followers of Jesus, but are united in their faith. Scripture, however, seems to suggest that rather than maintaining their Gentile identity, followers of Jesus who are Gentile by birth actually take on a new identity. And this becomes evident when we examine Romans 11, Ephesians 2, and the origins of the word ‘church’.

In Romans 11, Paul is addressing the Gentiles about their spiritual heritage and explains:
…if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true…. if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.                          (Rom 11:13,17-20,24).
Here is an agricultural metaphor, explaining how Gentiles have been ‘grafted onto’ an olive tree, a symbol of Israel (Jer 11:16). I should explain that I am not describing the modern geopolitical state of Israel. But rather, the nation of people who were united in their covenant with God.  And with grafting branches, the new branch assumes and takes on the identity of the tree it has joined. It ceases to be a member of the old tree, and now becomes a part of the new tree. So, through this imagery Paul is saying is that Gentiles have joined Israel, thus becoming a part of them as if they were a natural member. And in doing so, he is getting the boastful Gentiles to remember the origins of their salvation and to realise “that they did not otherwise grow up as God’s people than as they were grafted in the stock of Abraham” (Calvin). There is no Gentile and Jewish tree, but one tree representing Israel as ‘members of the same body’ (Eph 3:6). Note too, the order this takes place. The Gentiles join Israel, it’s not the Jews who join the Gentiles. In the Gospel, an Israelite identity maintains priority. As I often heard in the Army, “you joined us, we didn’t join you.”


In part two, we are going to examine Ephesians 2 to examine more deeply what it means for a Gentile to be grafted into Israel. 



References

Calvin, John. Romans. Kindle
Crossing Church. Our Identity in Christ According to the Scriptures:
Moo, (1996). The Epistle to the Romans.
Richardson, (2003). Origins of Our Faith: The Hebrew Roots of Christianity.
Rosenquist, (2016). The Bridge: Crossing Over Into the Fullness of Covenant Life. Kindle