The words and the Word of God

Though for many Christians today “the Word of God” means a book of Scriptures or the Bible, in the Bible itself the Word of God is associated with a spoken word or a word we hear but not a written word.  Or, as early Christians would come to understand it “the Word of God” means the Second Person of the Holy Trinity especially obvious in chapter 1 of John’s Gospel but also in the Old Testament prophets when the Word of the Lord comes too them and speaks to them.  The Word of God has power to act and enact while the written word bears witness to the Word of God which is heard and obeyed.

Just read the Acts of the Apostles to get a sense of this.   The Word of God is spoken (4:31, 13:46), preached (6:2),  received (8:14, 11:1), proclaimed (13:5), sought (13:7), heard (13:44), glorified (13:48) and taught (18:11).  The Word of God both increases (6:7) as well as  grows & multiplies (12:24).  Clearly the Word of God is not a book but something more.  As it says in Hebrews 4:12 – “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  There is a relationship between the written letters on a page and the Word of God, but the Word of God is living, is a spiritual force.  For Christians the Word of God is Jesus Christ, the God who becomes incarnate as a human (John 1:14).

Look at 2 Chronicles 34:21-

“Go, inquire of the LORD for me and for those who are left in Israel and in Judah, concerning the words of the book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the LORD that is poured out on us, because our fathers have not kept the word of the LORD, to do according to all that is written in this book.”

King Josiah sees the writings in the book that the priest reads to him, not as the Word of the Lord but rather the written word in the book is what the Word of the Lord commanded.  Or, perhaps, the written word is simply what needed to be done to show that people listened to the Word of God and obeyed.  But the written word is not equivalent to the Word of God.  Rather the written word bears witness to the Word of God.  We see a similar thing in the New Testament when Jesus says to Satan:

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'”    (Matthew 4:4)

What is written is not the Word of God but rather only the commandments related to how people should live.  The written word bears witness to the Word of God.   Which is what Jesus teaches in John 5:39-46 –

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.

As Jesus understands Torah, Torah is about Jesus.  Moses in writing the books of the Law was really writing about Jesus.  Moses is a prophet who bears witness to Jesus more than a historian writing the narration of human history.

We see an interesting relationship between the Word of God and a written word in Exodus.  “Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, ‘All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do.’ And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.”  (Exodus 24:3-4)    Moses comes to the people and tells them the words of the Lord – God’s word is spoken and to be heard.  Only after all the people hear the words and agree to obey them does Moses write them down.  They are not put into a written form until the people agree to do them.  The covenant will involve a written agreement, but the Word of God must first be heard and willingly accepted as that which is to be obeyed; Only then is it put into writing.   After this, the written covenant is accepted again this time in ritual worship – it is sanctified as the people once more agree to it: “Then Moses took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”  (Exodus 24:7-8)

It is the same for us today, for in the Liturgy again we have the Blood of Christ and the spoken Word proclaimed and we agree to God’s new covenant.  And interestingly the very next thing that happens in Exodus is a meal eaten before God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Exodus 24:9-11)

It is only after Moses spoke God’s words to the people and the people agreed to obey that the covenant was confirmed in liturgical ritual that involved blood. Only after all of this does God speak about putting His words into writing.  In Exodus 24:12, we read:  The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”  But even then another 40 days will pass before it happens (Exodus 24:18).

Only in Exodus 31 does God finally write the words which Moses proclaimed to the people and wrote down for the people.  But first God tells Moses he must once again proclaim (verbally) these words of the perpetual covenant.  Only then do we read in Exodus 31:18 – And he gave to Moses, when he had made an end of speaking with him upon Mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

In Deuteronomy 9:10-11 we read another version of this same narrative:

And the LORD gave me the two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them were all the words which the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And at the end of forty days and forty nights the LORD gave me the two tables of stone, the tables of the covenant.

God’s Word is first spoken, it was written down by God on the stone tablets only after the people agreed to the terms of the covenant.  Moses was to smash God’s written words, the stone tablets,  when the people disobeyed God even before Moses could bring the written word to them.  But even tablets of stone written by  God’s own hand were not permanent and cannot be equated with God’s word.  For as it says in  1 Peter 1:24 -25 – ‘The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides for ever.That word is the good news which was preached to you.”

God’s Word cannot be equated with a written form.  God’s Word is not coterminous with the scriptures for the scriptures bear witness to God’s Word.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.

Repentance: Being Washed by God

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;

according to your abundant mercy

blot out my transgressions.

(Psalm 51:1)

4587289405_a856b3139d_nThe 51st Psalm is used frequently in Orthodox prayers and services as the Psalm of repentance.  King David, the Psalmist and author of Psalm 51, is portrayed at times in Orthodox prayers as the model of a person who repents of their sin.  David is a prophet and saint in the church, but he certainly was not sinless and pure.   He does through his own life choices come to know why he needs God’s mercy and cleansing.  He asks God in his penitential Psalm twice to “blot out” first his transgressions and then his iniquities.  Why “blot out?   What does this imply?  It is an unusual phrase whose meaning is very revealing.  In this blog series, I intend to pursue uncovering some of the depth of Psalm 51. In this first post I will rely mostly on the work of Theophan Whitfield in his insightful article, “Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek“, (in FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI),  who mentions two themes we can see in the psalm – the theme of cleansing but also a legal theme.  Whitfield ties the themes together and helps make the Psalm more understandable.

First Whitfield explains the importance of the imagery of “blotting out” which the Psalmist applies to his iniquities.

“… mahah, which is translated most frequently in the RSV as the verb ‘to blot out.’  In antiquity, especially where writing was done on leather scrolls, erasures required ink to be washed and wiped away.  Consequently, mahah has strong associations with accounting, with maintaining and adjusting records.  There are several references in Torah to the act of blotting out names and deeds as just punishment for evil deeds.  Most vivid in this respect is the prayer of Moses that God will forgive the Israelites for their idolatrous worship of the golden calf:

‘But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin-and if not, blot me (mahani), I pray thee, out of they book which thou hast written.  But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out (’emhennu) of my book’ (Exod 33:32-33).

Here, the image involves erasure of names out of the divine Book of Life itself, names of those whom God will remember no more.”  (p 40-41)

39031405792_a629758391_n

We see the purpose of the metaphor of blotting out when we understand how it was used in the ancient world.  The only way to erase a mistake in a document written on an animal skin was to wash the document or blot out the mistake and then write it again.  Since accounting and inventory requires frequent changes in the records, blotting out is certainly associated with giving account, or judgment.  Thus the metaphor of blotting out works well with the concept of sin.

In the Exodus text referred to by Whitfield, we see the accounting concept being used by Moses but now for a divine accounting with the book of life where God records the names of those God wishes to remember –or not!  The same concept appears in Revelation 3:5 where Christ says:

He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.  

In this we also come to see a baptismal reference – our sins are washed away or blotted out, not just from us but maybe even more importantly from the book that will be opened at the great judgment.

8186043131_525d67df40

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)

We want our sins, not our names, blotted out of God’s books.  In the end the written texts, the scriptures which are truly important are the ones God has written about us, not what is recorded in the Bible.  Thus the importance of  baptism in which our sins are washed away from ourselves as well as blotted out from God’s book which God will read on the great day of judgment.  The Word became flesh (John 1:14), but we are to become God’s word in the kingdom!  In this case it is truly God who writes us into His book, who makes us His Word.  Whitfield writes:

“In v. 11, the psalmist begs God to turn away-not from him, but from his sins.  He asks God to ‘blot out’ his iniquities as a substitute for blotting out the psalmist himself.”  (p 48)

God became human so that we might become god.  In the end we want to be noted by God – by being written in God’s book.  We must not simply read or even memorize scripture, we must become the word of God in God’s judgment.  Scripture truly is not a book that a publisher prints but really is that record God keeps of us.

40856463594_c8a99963a9-1

Getting back to Whitfield, he continues unwrapping the concept of “blotting out”:

“…in the flood narrative in particular. [Gen 6-9]

So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out (’emheh) man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and east and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’ (Gen 6:7).

The use is not merely metaphorical.  Here, God is ‘sorry’ that he made man and beast.  He made a mistake, and in the context of bookkeeping (and the context of Scripture!) the appropriate response to a mistake is to wipe away what one has done.

In Psalm 51, however, mahah is used in connection with God’s mercy, not with divine punishment.  The psalmist pleads for mercy through the wiping away of his sins.” (p 41)

6849440680_8d065d21e2-1

Here we see the full extent of “blotting out” for now we realize that the erasure of our names means we will disappear from the face of the earth. God is sorry in Genesis 6 that He created humans, but for God all the sins of humanity which cause Him grief can be blotted out.  The waters of the flood are going to cleanse them away, just like baptism cleanses our sins today.  The great difference is baptism does not drown us, just our sins.  In Genesis 6-9, God is requiring an accounting and realizes that the humans God created were a mistake and being impermanent beings it is possible to blot them out!  The imagery is powerful, God’s heart is broken by His human creation (Genesis 6:6).  It is this broken heartedness which God can recognize in us as true repentance.  The value of the story of the flood is not in its literalness but in what it reveals about God, us, sin and repentance.  Repentance is God blotting out our sins to cleanse us and make us a new creation.

The blotting out of sin is used to bring to our minds how mistakes or wrongs are corrected in accounting.  It is difficult, but possible, to wash away what is wrong in the written ledgers.  Wrongs can be washed away with some effort and corrected.  It is an image that God calls to mind at the time of the great flood as well as at the great judgment day.   In both cases, we humans end up standing before God to await the sentence being pronounced – what is written in the book of life: our names or our sins?

Whitfield says this standing before the judge is referred to in the Psalm in another way when the Psalmist says his sin is ever before him:

“The description of sin sitting ‘in front of me’ and ‘in front of you’ indicates that the psalmist is face to face with God, which is the traditional image of standing under judgment in a court of law.”  (p 45)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The imagery of Psalm 51 calls to mind judgment but also the possibility of mercy.  God can wash away our sin while leaving our names in the book of life.  We are to become scripture, God’s written word, if we are to live with God forever.  Scripture thus is not a book exterior to us in which we learn about God, but rather is what we are to become to be with God in the Kingdom.  Christ is the Logos of God and we are the logoi of God written in God’s book of life.

Next:  Repentance: Telling God What to Do

Being Taught by God

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

God promised that the day would come in which He would write His law upon our hearts.   That internalizing of the Word has several possible meanings but one thing it seems to imply is that there will be no need of some kind of intermediary between God and people.  We won’t need Scriptures, nor will we need teachers to interpret the Word for us.  This isn’t even a matter of memorizing scripture verses, for even that falls far short of what God has in mind for us.  God will place His Word directly on our hearts and we will know that Word from within ourselves.  We won’t even have to call the Word to mind, for we will be one with the Word.  We will no longer forget or be ignorant, for God’s Word will abide in us and we will always be aware of the Lord.   Would that that day would come.  For still today many know neither God’s Word nor God’s presence.  And even many of us who believe the Word and know the Word, still at times forget it, or ignore it, or avoid it or deny it.   And so we struggle while living in the world with temptation, sin, ignorance, confusion, doubt and all human foibles, failures and hubris.

Christ Teaching – 4th Century Roman

St Gregory of  Sinai (d. 1346AD) was particularly mindful of God’s promises and prophecies to be with His people.  He especially found Isaiah‘s words, which the Apostle John quotes, to be significantly important to us.

It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.   (John 6:45)

St Gregory says we have to move beyond the words printed in Scripture to understand what the Spirit is saying, and in so doing we come into union with God.  In this way the Scriptures cease to be external to us for they unite us to God.

The physical eye perceives the outward or literal sense of things and from it derives sensory images. The intellect, once purified and reestablished in its pristine state, perceives God and from Him derives divine images. Instead of a book the intellect has the Spirit; instead of a pen, mind and tongue – ‘my tongue is a pen‘, says the Psalmist (cf. Ps. 45:1); and instead of ink, light. So plunging the mind into the light that it becomes light, the intellect, guided by the Spirit, inscribes the inner meaning of things in the pure hearts of those who listen. Then it grasps the significance of the statement that the faithful ‘shall be taught by God‘ (cf. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), and that through the Spirit God ‘teaches man knowledge’ (Ps. 94:l0).     (St Gregory of Sinai,  THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 40928-40948)

In this process we move beyond simply reading the words of Scripture to having them transferred to our hearts, but they don’t remain as words still needing to be interpreted, for we grasp their meaning, and they grasp our hearts and minds, so that we live the Word, rather than merely reading it, memorizing it, or interpreting it.  Now the Word abides in us and we know God rather than simply know about God.  We experience God in our hearts as the Prophet Jeremiah promised.

St Gregory of Sinai goes on:

“As the great teacher St John Chrysostom states, we should be in a position to say that we need no help from the Scriptures, no assistance from other people, but are instructed by God; for ‘all will be taught by God‘ (Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), in such a way that we learn from Him and through Him what we ought to know. And this applies not only to those of us who are monks but to each and every one of the faithful: we are all of us called to carry the law of the Spirit written on the tablets of our hearts (cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), and to attain like the Cherubim the supreme privilege of conversing through pure prayer in the heart directly with Jesus.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 42158-42168)

St Gregory says this is what every Christian should experience.  We cease looking for God “out there” somewhere in a distant heaven or at the end of time, for God enters our hearts here and now, and makes our heart heaven, makes us the temple of the Spirit, makes us realize that God is with us and within us.  This in turn helps us get through each day in good cheer  even with all the trials and tribulations that might assail us.  Christianity is not a “die and go to heaven” religion for the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21)

 

 

 

A Life-giving Myth (I)

“A Life-giving Myth” is the title of a short story in John Breck’s THE LONG JOURNEY HOME.  It is the last and longest story in the collection.  The stories are OK, but in some of them the “story” is superfluous as  is the case “The Life-giving Myth” where a professor is giving a lecture and the content of the story is the lecture.  It easily could have been presented as an essay.  It was my only favorite in the collection of stories.    In this series of  three posts I want to highlight the things from the “story” which seemed so profound to me.

“… those who have drifted away from the faith under secularizing pressures, or because we in the Church have done a poor job of opening their eyes to transcendent reality, and to the presence in creation and in their lives of an infinitely powerful and all-loving God.” (p 218)

The Church leadership and members should remind themselves constantly that our real goal is to open the eyes of everyone to that transcendent reality who is love and who cares about all of creation, namely our God.  The Church too often reduces itself to defending Tradition, maintaining customs, opposing countless sins and human failures.  The Church sometimes sees the job of leadership as to be police rather than pastors (shepherds)- enforcing rules, disciplining the unruly, imprisoning in hell non-conformists.   The Church gets reduced to law enforcement as well as being involved in judgement and even punishment of sinners, rather than in their salvation.  Another unfortunate development is when the Church is willing  to be the hiding place for anyone who is afraid of the 20th Century (even though we are already in the 21st!).   Clergy can act as if their only real concern is that someone unworthy might try to touch God and the clergy come to think that their main purpose is to make sure that doesn’t happen.  Clergy, canons, iconostases, asceticsm can be used as little more than the tools to keep the unworthy away from God, so that the laity remain forever exiled from God because of their sinfulness.  AND, at times clergy act as if their main message is to make sure the laity are aware that they (the laity) are deservedly exiled from God . In this thinking, Heaven is the goal but it will always be far beyond the people’s reach because they are unworthy.

Breck instead envisions a transcendent God who in Christ is imminent and accessible to humans:

“Eternity in fact is ever-present.  it is not only beyond time and space, beyond the physical universe.  It embraces and penetrates, so to speak, everything that exists, including ourselves.”  (p 232)

The claim of the Gospel is that God is always drawing us to Himself to embrace us, love us, share His divine life with us.  The whole of Orthodoxy is based in one idea that God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us.  God wants us (especially sinners!) to come to Him.  God came to earth to gather us together, not to cause us to flee from His presence.  The purpose of Liturgy and ritual and Scripture is to make God accessible to us – to make the transcendent break into our lives.

And for this reason Breck tries to rescue the idea of “myth” as a way of seeing how God is making Himself known to us and accessible to us.  Scripture is theology under the guise of narrative as the Fathers said.  Myth in this thinking does not mean “fiction” but provides us a way of gaining insight into reality.  God uses “story” or narrative to convey divine and eternal truths to us even in our sinfulness and despite it.

“Such myths use symbolic metaphorical language to express relationship between heaven and earth, between God and human kind, that ordinary language is incapable of revealing and expressing.”  (220-221)

How often the Patristic writers warned us that our language is inadequate for understanding God, and that if we think too literally, we not only do not understand God but rather turn God into an idol of our our making, in our own image, to suit our own purposes.   Poetry and myth, the languages of Scripture try to lead us beyond the limitations of our own experience and to take us to the unknown, to God as God is and chooses to reveal Himself to us.  Poetry and myth both remind us that God cannot be apprehended by human concepts and language.

“…every aspect of our life, every atom of our physical being, every movement of our heart is directed by him (God) teleologically toward a single goal:  the goal of life beyond the physical existence, with a full participation in his own divine life.  Thus we can affirm that he not only knows ‘about’ our needs, our suffering and our destiny; he shares actively and decisively in them.  He ‘knows’ them in the biblical sense of participation.  There is no human suffering, for example, that he does not share to the very depths.  As Isaiah declares of the Lord’s Servant, ‘he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.‘  This is as true a characteristic of God as his creative energy that ceaselessly brings things from non-existence into being.”  (pp 230-231)

God does not leave us to history, God enters into history and shares our history including the pain and sorrow of it.  God accepts our destiny, becoming one with us, part of the created order and what is happening and is going to happen to humanity, the world and the cosmos.  Nothing that happens or that He allows to happen has no impact or effect on God – in fact all of it impacts God and God in the incarnation makes sure of that!   History and our experience of it become imbued with divinity, and thus become something more than mere materialistic events, they become the stories of God, they are turned into God’s Word.  The Word becomes flesh, but in that process human life becomes the Word as recorded in the Scriptures.  Myth in this sense is not fiction but human life revealing divinity and divinity working in and through humans and human history.  We can never fully understand how the transcendent God can not only touch creation but becomes part of it.  That is the real sense of Christian myth – our world touched by the transcendent because God is revealing Himself to us and in His Light we see light.

Christianity is not meant to be a self-help program to allow us to succeed or be satisfied with material creation.  Christianity is not trying just to help us get to heaven.  Rather Christianity is God’s own presence in this world, enabling us all to become united with God, here and now – to experience heaven on earth even in the midst of sin and suffering and death because Christ has overcome this world.  Christianity is revealing this world as our way to union with God.

We really don’t need the Church to tell us how far we have become separated from God, alienated from the divine, exiled from Heaven.  We can experience that perfectly in our daily lives.  What we need is for someone to show us the way to reunion with God, to show us what communion with God looks like, and enables us to become deified.  That is the purpose of the Liturgy, of icons, of ritual, symbol, or poetic hymns.  It lifts us up to heaven and makes heaven present on earth.

Next: A Life-giving Myth (II)

 

What is a Biblical Prophet?

And the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.”   (1 Kings 17:24)

On July 20 we Orthodox commemorate the Holy Prophet Elijah (Elias).

8187085900_958873d7d7

“…the word prophet (a compound from the Greek word for “speaker”) does not mean in the first instance someone who predicts the future, but one who speaks out on behalf of God – not one who foretells, therefore, but one who tells-forth (which often also includes, of course, foretelling the future). The primary and defining characteristic of the biblical prophet, then, is to be sought in the divine vocation and mission of telling and speaking in the name and by the designated authority of Another.”  (Jaroslave Pelikan, Whose Bible Is It? p. 11)

4919188068_68c551f510

Old Testament as Images of the New

While many Christians love to defend the literal reading of Scripture, in Orthodox hymns we are more likely to find the richness of Scriptures.  The literal reading of a text is often not seen as the true significance of the text.  For one thing Orthodoxy follows the teaching of Christ that the Old Testament is really about Christ.  “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.  . . .  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.”  (John 5:39-46)  For example,  a hymn for Wednesday Matins of the 2nd Week of the Pentecostarion offers our interpretation of Genesis 22 (Abraham’s offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice) and from Jonah 1-2:

ISAAC WAS LED UP THE MOUNTAIN AS A SACRIFICE;

JONAH DESCENDED INTO THE DEEP.

BOTH WERE IMAGES OF YOUR PASSION, O SAVIOR:

THE FIRST WAS BOUND FOR THE SLAUGHTER;

THE OTHER PREFIGURED YOUR DEATH

AND YOUR WONDROUS RISING TO LIFE!  LORD, GLORY TO YOU!

Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

Noah: Prophet Preparing Us for the Coming of Christ

During the week days of Great Lent we generally do not read Scripture lessons from the New Testament.  Rather, the daily readings are from Isaiah, Proverbs and Genesis.  This does give us a chance to contemplate a world without Christ and the resurrection – to intensify our sense of being in exile from the Kingdom of God.  We  think about the world of the Fall before the coming of Christ and yet, paradoxically,  our food fasting by denying us the foods of the fallen world enables us to experience the foods available to us in Paradise (Genesis 1:29, 2:16).  And yet . . . we don’t ever read the Old Testament apart from Christ.   We always read the Old Testament through the lens of Christ and we believe the Old Testament bears witness to Christ and is about Him.  We read the Old Testament to learn about Christ, not about science or history.  Jesus said of the Old Testament:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.  (John 5:39, 46)

Moses wasn’t writing history so much as writing about Christ!  That is how Jesus Himself reads and understands Genesis.  So the real question for us as Christians is not “what does Genesis teach us about ancient history?”, but what does it teach us about Christ?  What was Moses trying to tell us about the Christ long before Jesus was even born?  Throughout the New Testament, we see how the New Testament authors read Moses as being a prophet, writing about what God is doing and what God is going to do.  Noah in this context too is a prophet, preparing us to know Christ.

So in Matthew 24:36-44 we read Jesus teaching about the end times, the eschaton:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. …  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”

 

We read a very similar message in the parallel passage in Luke 17:26-30 where Jesus says:

As it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of man. They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was in the days of Lot—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed.

The story of Noah and the flood is mentioned in the Gospels not to teach us about ancient history, but to prepare us for the future second coming of the Lord.  If reading about the Flood causes you to want to go in search of the ark, you are looking in the wrong direction, for the Gospels says the narrative about Noah is to prepare us for the eschaton and the end of this world.  Noah’s story looks even beyond the time of the Gospel into the parousia when Christ will come in glory.  We are reading the account of Noah during Great Lent, not to learn history but to get our minds geared toward the future coming of Christ.  The story of the flood is thus orienting us toward Christ and His coming again, not to some ancient event or story which may or may not have happened.

In Hebrews 11:6-7, we read:

And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.

Noah in this text is being upheld as a model of a person of faith, who doesn’t know what is going to happen, but who believes in God.  Again, the lesson is being used to orient us toward this future and what God is going to do.  We need to live by faith in this world in order to be righteous as Noah was righteous – we are awaiting Christ’s coming again, just as Noah had to wait to see what God was going to do.

In 1 Peter 3:18-22, St Peter connects the story of Noah to baptism to help us understand the sacrament and life in the Church.  The Church is like Noah’s ark in which we are saved from the flood, but the flood is no longer drowning sinners but rather the waters are cleansing us from sin.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Photo by Jim Forest

Finally, St Peter also interprets the scriptures of Noah and the flood as a teaching about the future Judgment of the world:

For if God . . . did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly . . . then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, (2 Peter 2:4-9)

There is a “history lesson” to be learned from the Genesis account of Noah and the flood, but the lesson is to help us get through our current struggles in this world and to prepare us from the coming judgment day.   The New Testament interprets and uses the Genesis flood story to show us God’s concern for the righteous in this world and to prepare us for the coming judgment of God.  We should not be caught by surprise about events that are going to take place, because we have been forewarned about Christ’s coming again.  However, if we read about Noah to learn ancient history, we are going to miss the real lesson of Genesis, which is as Christ said about Him not about the past.

Jesus and Moses

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . .  Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”  (Luke 24:27, 44)

Bible Reading: Gateway to the Spiritual Life

“Constant pondering on the holy scriptures will always fill the soul with incomprehensible wonder and joy in God.

We should consider the labor of reading the Scriptures to be something extremely elevated, whose importance cannot be exaggerated. For it serves as the gate by which the intellect enters into the divine mysteries, and takes on strength for attaining to luminosity in prayer.

The reading of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead which gives birth to prayer.”

(St. Isaac of Nineveh, The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p.. 8, 36, 38)

Jesus in Context

Most Orthodox calendars list daily Scripture readings in which we have perhaps a Gospel lesson for the day.  And while we certainly benefit from the daily reading of Scriptures and from considering a short Gospel lesson, we can also gain additional insight by reading any one Gospel lesson in its context – considering how it fits in to the other lessons before and after it.  So, for example if we take the Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 (Christ forgiving a paralytic his sins and then healing the paralytic) which we read on a summer Sunday and look at that lesson in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel we may note other details.  Consider  Matthew 8:14-9:13 as a larger context for the miracle of healing the paralytic:

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also all those who were ill or demon possessed.  There is no sense in this event that Jesus made discipleship a pre-condition for being healed, nor do we even see Him requiring people to make some ascetical effort to obey God, or even a demand that they repent before He will heal them.  The story is one of God’s grace towards sinners and the sick, not about people attempting to be righteous or being rewarded for their efforts.   Christ does not seem in this case to determine if they are worthy of the miracle nor if they have a proper faith or even if they practice any faith.   Jesus heals all who are brought to Him.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Jesus, unlike modern televangelists or healers, is not trying to attract attention and a crowd.  When Jesus sees the crowd gathering, he says it is time to move on.  He is not there to set the stage for a bigger ministry nor to collect accolades or donations. He completely misses the PR opportunity.  He receives no glory from adoring followers.

What Christ does is give freely God’s abundant mercy and then He moves on.  If people want to become part of His successful ministry, they themselves have to give up everything to follow Him.  No wonder Jesus appeared in such a backward time and such a strange land with no mass communication.  Jesus was seeking neither fame or fortune – he was seeking nothing that today’s mass media gives and which those who want stardom can’t resist.  Jesus built nothing like those who create media empires today.  He chose His time and place for a reason.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

The disciples have seen all that Jesus did – healing all the sick, casting out demons, and they have witnessed the crowds being attracted to Jesus.  But now, when they experience their own personal miracle in the storm at sea, the best they can do is wonder about what kind of man Jesus is.  They wonder why the winds and sea obey Jesus, but besides being dumbfounded, they show little insight into understanding who Jesus is.  They apparently think there might be something special about Jesus, but they are not sure what!

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

While the disciples are uncertain what to make of Jesus’ special powers, the demons have no doubt about who He is – the Son of God!  The demons show their powerlessness in the face of Christ.  They have to ask permission to leave.     The crowd this time reacts strongly to Christ – they expel him from their land.  The crowd of city dwellers perform their own exorcism of they land by begging Jesus to leave the neighborhood.  Jesus answers their prayer.

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus, now back on the Jewish side of the lake, performs another miracle, but some of the Jewish leaders are offended by Jesus’ words, thinking Jesus is a fraud or worse, they are accusing Jesus of leading people away from God.  On the other hand,  the crowd reaction is fear as they are astounded by what Jesus can do – and they are afraid of Him!  The proximity to divinity is terrifying, but really in this passage we are considering it is only the demons who obey Christ and declare Him to be God’s Son.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus continues on His sojourn, now sitting to eat with a bunch of sinners rather than with those who were known to practice the faith.   These practitioners of the faith cannot understand why Jesus has table fellowship with people who are obvious sinners.   Jesus responds with the astonishing message that these sinners are exactly the people He is seeking out – hardly the kind of Messiah the righteous are working so hard for.

Seeing Jesus in context, we realize what it is for Him to be the Christ and the Son of God and the Lord.  He heals all, not just believers.  He eats with and has fellowship with sinners not just with the spiritual ascetics.  He flees from the crowds who would want to be empowered by Him make Him their earthly ruler.  He lives according to a Kingdom not of this world.  He does God’s will and brings God to all without wanting the prestige and power humans want to attribute to Him.   No wonder the disciples were so confused about who He is.

Jesus taught: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”