What I learned in Seminary This Quarter

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Another quarter has come to end and again I sit, reflecting on all that I have learned over the last three months. I did a lot this quarter.  I wrote intensive papers on Absalom’s revolt against David and the Call of Elisha.  I studied the Sermon on the Mount more intensively than ever.  I learned about great men and women of the reformation and throughout Western Christian history.  People like Conrad Grebel, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anne Judson and Josephine Butler.  Each subject, each person more interesting and influential than I ever expected.

I could go on and on about the details of all the learned, but those kind of posts make for a long and boring blog.  However, I can reflect on the overarching things I learned this quarter.

1.  I learned that if you look for Jesus too hard in the Old Testament, you miss out on God. 

I took a class called “Former Prophets.” In it, we studied most of the books of the Old Testament after the Pentateuch (The first five books of the OT).  We studied the Kings of Israel like David and Solomon, then the Kings of the Divided Kingdom. But most importantly, we studied about God’s love and desire for his people and their rebellion against Him.

One specific story that is found in Isaiah 7 is what is known as “The Sign of Immanuel.”  Most Christians grew up, as I was, thinking that this passage is about Jesus. However, when read in context, one begins to realize that when Isaiah speaks to the King, they are in real trouble and a message about a messiah hundreds of years later would have been of little help.  God’s mercy and faithfulness shines through the Old Testament.  I won’t go into detail about this story here, but you can check it out Claude Mariottini’s blog starting here.

2.  I learned that when it comes to the ethics of Jesus, virtue ethics is just not enough.

Virtue ethics teaches that good habits produce a good person, and a good person does good acts.  I would think that most of us believe this, and nothing is really wrong with this way of thinking.  But I don’t believe this is what Jesus taught.  When one studies the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the best place to go if studying Jesus’ ethics, one beings to realize that Jesus never makes the connection that habits produce a good person.  A good person it formed solely by his proximity to Christ.  For more on this, check out my discussion on the fulfillment of the law.

Jesus’ ethics are three fold: From below, which means some of his ethical teachings are based in reason and practicality. Many of the OT laws fall into this realm. They were also from Above, which means that at times God will direct his children and that is that.  It is a loving, merciful father telling his child “Because I said so.”  And finally, Jesus’ ethics are from beyond. That means, they have an eschatological impact.  The ethics of the Kingdom of God which will be fully realized someday are here in part.  This is a rather hard to understand. Here Jesus gives commands that seem impossible to follow because he is describing what the world will be in the end. For more on the ethics of Jesus, also check out Scot Mcknight’s, blog here.

3. I learned that the history of the Church is full of men and women who did great things, but in the end they were still human. 

When it comes to great men and women of faith, we have a tendency towards hero worship.  For instance, I grew up in the reformed church. My grandparents when to Calvin church, my friends when to Calvin college, and my pastors graduated from Calvin seminary.  And to be fair, Calvin did some amazing things for the reformed faith.  He challenged authority where few else would, and he stood firm in his beliefs no matter what.  However, he was also connected to an oppressive city/church council in Geneva and was at times very harsh (Rumors of him burning people at the stake are greatly exaggerated. One man was put to death in Geneva during the time of Calvin, and reports vary on his involvement in the instance).  David Livingstone, one of the most famous missionaries of all time, had only one convert during his time in Africa, and that man converted back later on in life.  But his work to fight the slave trade in Africa changed the world for the better. 

The men and women God chooses can be anyone, anywhere.  They are often unqualified for where he has called them and they would not be who you or I expect to be his agents.  But isn’t that a lesson we keep on learning? From Abraham and Moses to David and the disciples and eventually Paul, God is constantly reminding us that who he chooses to bring further his Kingdom will never be who we expect.  So we must treat all with love and respect.

And finally, as always, here at Northern Seminary weaving through all my classes and homework, internship and jobs, one thing remains:  That when it comes right down to it, the one thing I am constantly learning is how to love God with all my heart, strength, soul, and mind and to love my neighbor as myself.  Jesus said there is no greater commandment than these.  I just forget sometimes that they will take a lifetime to learn.

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What Did Jesus Mean by Fulfillment?

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file0001788588747            When Jesus talks about the Law, sometimes we are left feeling more confused than before he spoke.  Jesus seems to be enigmatic when he refers to the Laws followed by the first century Jews.  In many ways, we know Jesus followed the Law. He goes off and prays, he goes to Temple, etc.  We also can conclude this because when he chooses to deviate from the commonly practiced laws of the day, the Pharisees seem to make a big deal about it.

However, Jesus also makes incredibly audacious claim about the Law. He tells his followers the he has fulfilled the Law.  What did he mean by this?  Does he abolish it? Nullify? Re-interpret? Intensify? Or some of those? Or none of those? We must look carefully at his teachings, specifically those found in the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew to help us understand this statement.

I think we can start off by negating any idea that Jesus nullifies or abolishes the Law, mainly because Jesus straight up tells us he doesn’t.  Early on in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells us he hasn’t come to abolish but rather fulfill (Matt. 5:17).  Obvious, but important. Often we read this statement, agree with it, and then go right on living our lives as if Jesus actually did abolish any sort of concept of moral law or rules.

Things get more interesting the further we go into the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-37).  Jesus begins to seemingly clarify, or qualify, the Law.  He defines adultery, murder, and oaths in a new way.  He makes them not just outward or physical offenses, but also offenses of the mind and heart.  I believe that no one has read these passages and has been able, in good conscience, to convince themselves they have not committed the listed sins.  Yet, Jesus still chooses to challenge us with these statements.

But Jesus is not done. In Matthew 12:1-14 and 15:1-20 we see a different approach to the Law.  Here Jesus has let his disciples and himself off the hook when it comes to observance of the Law in matters of the Sabbath and defiled food.  Each time, when challenged, Jesus turns the tables on the accusers, pointing out the flaws in their logic when it comes to the Law.  Jesus is pointing out the ridiculousness of the laws, and how whether they are broken or not depend on a point of view more than anything else (Maybe Obi Wan was on to something?).

And then we have Matthew 17:24-27.  The riddle of the Temple tax.  Here Jesus tells Peter to pay the tax to the temple, something set down in the time of Leviticus, and commands him to follow the Law so as “not to cause offense (NIV).”  Here we see Jesus almost towing the line.  He seems to be following the law, even if he does not respect it.

So where do all of these stories get us? Jesus obeys the Laws most of the time.  But other times he seems to clarify, or one could even argue intensify, them.  Or he re-interprets them. Or he submits to them so as not to “cause offense.”  Which one of these approaches answers the question: What did Jesus mean by fulfill?

My conclusion: All of them.  Jesus’ act of fulfillment includes clarification when they are vague or being sidestepped. He re-interprets when they have been over-interpreted to help remind the people of the original intent of the specific law.  And he obeys the ones because he is not here to upset, overthrow, or claim any certain kind of earthly power.  All of these approaches are ways of fulfillment.

To help understand this, it is important to go back and remember the original purpose of the Law in Jewish world.  For the Israelites, the Law was not something that was followed so much, but rather something you were under. The Law was a physical manifestation of the covenant made by God to the Israelites.  Those who were circumcised and a part of the covenant followed the Law not because it determined their in or out-ness, but because following the Law kept them close to God.  They were a nation not just set apart from the world, but also to God. The Law was an integral part of that.

Paul helps us understand this in his letter to the Ephesians. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph. 2:13 NIV).”  Here Paul is speaking to the Gentiles, who were originally not under the Law, but now, through Christ, have been “brought near.”  The purpose of the Law, originally, was about keeping the Jews close to God.

However, when Christ comes, that all changes. Suddenly, Christ is now on earth.  People shake his hand, hug him, kiss him, and even spit on him.  Suddenly, God is near no matter what. And with the coming of the Spirit, he stays near.  We use phrases like “Jesus lives in my heart” because now he is always near.  In the past, God existed in the temple and to enter the temple you had to be clean. No so now. The curtain has been torn and now nothing physical separates us from God.  (This is not an argument for penal substitution atonement, by the way.  However, one can’t deny that in Jewish temple practice, God was clearly given a physical location in the Temple and the Most Holy of Holies).

So if we are physically near God, what can set us apart? Our hearts and our minds.  That is why Jesus teaches the law through interpretation, clarification, and submission.  The purpose of the Law, to keep us close to God, hasn’t changed, but the landscape surely has.  Christ knows the things that will keep us from following him: Adulterous and murderous thoughts, blind submission to rules rather than remembering them for their original purposes, distractions of the earthly commitments and pleasures, or even rejection of the laws due to pride or self-righteousness.  All these things can keep us from a focused life on Christ.