Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Matthew 27:52-53

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about the resurrected saints in Matthew 27:52-53.

Q:  Can you explain the resurrection of the saints that occurs after Jesus death in Matthew 27:52-53?  Who were they, and what happened to them after they were raised?

This is one of those little-known details of the Gospels that is often overlooked and rarely understood.  Even Matthew, himself, who is the only Gospel writer to include this detail, gives us very few details, and no explanation about, the event. 

What we do know is that this occurs at the time of Jesus’ death.  This is a sign that accompanies an earthquake and the thick curtain that divided the Most Holy Place from the rest of the Temple being torn in half.  All of these events are more than coincidental. 

Earthquakes were commonly associated with God’s judgment in the Old Testament.  In this case, the earthquake signifies that God’s judgment has been poured out upon Jesus and now stands satisfied by His death. 

The temple veil marked the boundary which could not be crossed by humans, because God’s presence was dwelling on the other side, and unauthorized entry would bring certain death.  Even the high priest could only enter once a year and only after first making sacrifice for his own sins beforehand.  That it was torn indicated that the separation from God caused by sin had now been overcome and that the forgiven could now approach God directly with their prayers and requests. 

Resurrection of the dead was a sign commonly associated in Old Testament prophecy with the coming of the promised Messiah.  However, these prophecies often did not distinguish between Jesus first and second comings, and what remains to be completely fulfilled when Jesus returns was seen being fulfilled on a small scale during His life and ministry.

We see this as Jesus, for a number of people, gives sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, casts out demons, and overcomes all kinds of illness and disability during his ministry—all of which will be fulfilled completely when He comes again on the Last Day. 

These dead who are raised are similar.  On three occasions, Jesus did raise the dead during His ministry, and now in connection with His death, we see resurrection occurring again.  We know that there were not only a few who were raised, because Matthew calls them “many,” yet this is also short of all being raised. 

We also know that those who were raised were “saints,” that is, those who died trusting in Jesus.  These could be saints who witnessed a portion of the life of Jesus, but died prior to His crucifixion, or they could be Old Testament saints from prior eras who died trusting that He would come one day, or even both, but Matthew does not clarify. 

We also know that they rise in connection with Jesus’ death, which is actually quite appropriate.  Even though Jesus rises on the third day, prefiguring for us what awaits all  believers on the Last Day, these saints rise as Jesus dies, emphasizing that it is Jesus’ death which purchases God’s forgiveness and blessing for us, which result in Resurrection. 

However, they do not appear in Jerusalem until “after His resurrection,” leaving us to wonder where they remained in the meantime.  Matthew does not explain this detail either, but since we know Jesus remained on earth 40 days following His resurrection, which his whereabouts only occasionally being made known, we can conclude that God also made similar provision for these resurrected saints during these three days. 

The destiny of these resurrected saints in the time which follows is also a matter of uncertainty.  Since it seems that the three individuals raised by Jesus during His ministry later died again (as we do not see them walking among us today), along with the few resurrected by the Prophets before Jesus and the Apostles after Him, it seems reasonable that these saints also returned one day to their graves. 

However we also have a concrete example in Elijah, and perhaps a second in Enoch, that it is quite possible for a person to go to be with the Lord while remaining in the body.  So, perhaps these saints, like Elijah and Jesus Himself, dwell with the Lord in their body while the rest of the saints await the Last day for that privilege. 

Even in spite of these uncertainties the message of the resurrected saints is clear—Jesus death gives life to those who trust in Him—first restoring our souls for the remainder of earthly life, but ultimately for physical life which will continue without end. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sola Scriptura?

My article from this week's newspapers:

Q:  Does the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) mean that Christians are forbidden from using any other sources to help them understand the teachings of Jesus?

Sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is the only authority for teaching in the Christian Church, was one of the “Four Solas” of the Reformation, which also included Sola Gratia (Grace Alone – that salvation is purely a gift from God, not earned by our deeds or behavior), Sola Fide (Faith Alone – that God’s grace is received by simply by trusting in Him, and not by any human effort or ability), and Solus Christus (Christ Alone – that God’s grace, in which we trust, comes to us only because of the crucified Christ). 

While there have been many historical misunderstandings of each of these, Sola Scriptura can have its own particular challenges.  On one hand, many churches have introduced one or more sources of authority alongside of the Scriptures, while at the same time, many reflexively reject all other documents and formulations out of hand, even when they are not elevated to the same level as Scripture. 

On one side of the equation, it is dangerous to add sources of authority alongside of, or particularly, above, the Bible. The apostle John even warns of this danger in the final verses of the book of Revelation, promising divine consequences to any who would add to or take away from Scripture.

One way in which this occurs is when there is a human official who is given the authority to unilaterally rule on what the Bible means and to speak with divine authority on issues that are deemed to be unclear in the Bible or where the Bible has remained silent.  In addition to the inherent danger of adding rules or teaching beyond the Bible, there is also the potential that the official, whether intentionally or unintentionally, will find themselves in a situation where their declarations contradict Scripture, which results in their ultimately becoming superior to the Bible or reinterpreting the Bible to fit with the new teachings. 

Another way in which this occurs is when a person’s individual experiences are allowed to become a source of authority. Because religious experiences cannot be verified, they leave no reliable way to know whether they were genuine, mistaken, or even a deception sent by the enemy, making them inadequate as authorities regarding God and what He desires or wants us to know, especially in cases where they contradict or go beyond the written Word. 

Another category of extra-Biblical sources is the History, Liturgy, and Creeds of the Church.  These differ, because they are rooted in Scripture itself.  Church History tells us how past Christians have handled questions and understood the Bible.  The Liturgy speaks to what the beliefs of Christians have been through the ages or what the emphasis of a particular tradition might be, and the Creeds are summaries of Scripture intended to aid memorization and to briefly, yet clearly, articulate the core beliefs of the Church to others. 

While these could become dangerous in the event they were made equal to Scripture or placed above it, they are not inherently problematic.  Because the ancient Creeds, for example, are drawn completely from Scripture, they merely repeat in summary form what has already been said, and do not add to the Bible. 

When liturgy or historical documents are used with the understanding that they are drawn from and ultimately point us back to Scripture, they actually aid our understanding of what Scripture has already said and help us to understand and avoid the places where those in the past have gone astray, and as long as the understanding remains that they are secondary documents derived from Scripture, and never equal to or above it, they become aids that allow us to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before as we address the contemporary questions of our age from a Biblical foundation. 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Should pastors be called Father?

My article from this week's newspapers about using "Father" as a pastoral title:

Q:  Is it acceptable to call a pastor “Father” in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:9?  What are the appropriate ways to address clergy in various churches? 

While there are many forms of address for clergy, such as Pastor, Father, Reverend, etc. their particular use does vary from denomination to denomination and according to circumstances. 

Reverend (abbreviated Rev.) is one title for which its use is confined to a particular sphere.  While it is true that clergy of various degrees and in the majority of denominations properly deserve the title Reverend, it is often misused in American English. 

It is intended to be a written form of address, such as when addressing or signing letters, but it is not intended to be used as a form of spoken address (“Hello, Rev. Luther;” “I just talked to Rev. Luther.”) It is also intended to be used with the clergy’s full name (Rev. Martin Luther) and if one desires to be meticulous about it, should be preceded by “The” and followed by the clergy’s familiar title (The Rev. Father Martin Luther, The Rev. Pastor Martin Luther), although this practice is in decline in recent years.

Pastor is typically appropriate for a majority of clergy.  How this title is used will vary between churches.  Traditionally, the word Pastor followed by the last name (Pastor Luther) would be used in spoken address.  Although in past generations, it would have been considered disrespectful, it has recently become more common, especially in more informal churches, to use the title Pastor with the first name (Pastor Martin) instead. 

The title Father is most commonly used among Roman Catholics, but does have some following among Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches.  Some objections have been raised to this term, based on Jesus words in Matthew 23:9, when He says, “Call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 

However, when taken in context, it would be difficult to understand this as prohibiting the use of Father as a title in the church.  First of all, such an understanding would prohibit us from calling even our biological fathers by that name, since Jesus says to call “no man” father.  Additionally, in the surrounding verses he makes similar prohibitions about using the titles Rabbi and Instructor as well, which have not historically been understood as universal prohibitions. 

Even more, the Apostle Paul speaks of himself as a spiritual father in 1 Corinthians 4:15 and calls Timothy his “true child in the faith” in 1 Timothy 1:2.  Finally, He instructs believers not to rebuke their pastors but to encourage them as they would fathers in 1 Timothy 5. 

Teachers of Christianity, such as Martin Luther have also understood many offices with earthly authority as being derived from the authority of fatherhood—particularly in vocations such as teacher, pastor, and government rulers, and the first generations of reformers retained the title Father for their pastors prior to its later disappearance. 

The most sensible approach to this saying of Jesus seems to be as a warning against those who demand titles of honor (such as the Pharisees who were there with Him) and against honoring a man more highly than God.  So, if a man demands the title Father and uses His authority contrary to God’s Word, it would certainly be inappropriate to give him any honor or obedience.  However, if a man acts in service to God as a ruler, pastor, or teacher, and teaches and rules according to God’s Word, it would be a matter of Christian freedom what title one is to address him by—whether pastor, father, or otherwise.