“Going To Church”

It’s fairly common to hear people talk about “going to church” or about something that happened “at church” as if the church was confined to a specific place or time, rather than being the community of Jesus’ followers who have been saved by His blood.

Apparently though, this is not a recent problem. Hippolytus, a Church Father from Rome who lived in the third century, writes:
“It is not a place that is called church, not a house made of stones and earth…It is the holy assembly of those who live in righteousness.”
In a sense, it’s comforting to realize that, just as Ecclesiastes asserts, there really is nothing new under the sun.


The Role And Character Of Elihu In The Book Of Job

The Book of Job is widely regarded as one of the great written masterpieces of history, equally impressive for the depth of the issues it wrestles with and the great literary quality it displays.1

In this frequently discussed and often disputed book, one of the most frequently discussed and most often disputed figures is the character of Elihu, a young man who suddenly appears following Job’s final speech in Job 31, delivers a series of speeches to Job in chapters 32-37, and then disappears from the scene as quickly as he came when God begins to speak to Job out of the whirlwind in Job 38.

Perhaps no other biblical character has been characterized by scholars in such radically different ways as Elihu. Concerning wisdom, Elihu is described as either an “exceeding wise” man2 or a “buffoon”;3 concerning his motivation, he is seen as anything from a divinely-inspired “man of God”4 to the “person assumed or adopted by Satan” to attack Job;5 concerning his contribution to the Book of Job, he is considered to be “irrelevant”6 or “integral”.7

This paper will focus on the character of Elihu in the Book of Job, and will seek to determine how he should be viewed and what his role is in the overall context of the book. First, we will consider whether the Elihu speeches were an original part of the Book of Job or a later addition. Then the speeches themselves will be summarized in an attempt to determine what Elihu was trying to say and what theological contributions he makes. Finally, we will draw conclusions about the overall role that Elihu plays in the drama8 of Job.

Elihu’s Speeches: Are They Authentic?

Before the character and role of Elihu in the Book of Job can be considered, the question regarding whether or not the Elihu speeches are an original part of the Book of Job must be addressed.

Put simply, many scholars believe that the Elihu speeches as we have them now were not part of the original Book of Job. James Ross sums up the standard viewpoint on the inauthenticity of the Elihu speeches saying, “...there no longer seems to be any serious doubt that they are a later addition to the work, stemming from an author who was ‘angry‘ both with Job and with his friends....”9 Variations on this basic perspective include Robert Gordis, who holds an intermediate view on the authorship of the Elihu speeches, suggesting that they were added by the original author later in life,10 and David Clines who, without drawing conclusions about authorship, suggests that the speeches as we have them today are located in the wrong place.11

Although there are many variations, the reasons for rejecting the authenticity of the Elihu speeches basically fall into four categories. First, Elihu is mentioned nowhere in the Book of Job outside of his speeches in Job 32-37. Second, the style of the Elihu speeches is different from the style used in the other parts of the book. Third, Job’s challenge in chapter 31 calls for God, not Elihu, to make an appearance. Finally and perhaps most significantly, Elihu’s speeches supposedly contribute nothing to the Book of Job.12

On the other hand, many scholars reject these arguments as unconvincing and strongly believe the Elihu speeches to be an original part of Job.13 Although it is certainly true that Elihu is not mentioned in the prologue or epilogue of Job, it is not clear that this is significant. After all, both the Satan and Job’s wife appear only in the prologue, but they are not rejected as inauthentic characters in the book simply because they do not appear in the dialogue or the epilogue.14 Furthermore, the only reason that Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar appear in the epilogue is because they are rebuked by God for what they have said. If Elihu’s words were more pleasing to God than those of the three friends, then there would be no reason for him to appear in the epilogue in the same context.15

It is also readily apparent that there are differences in the vocabulary and style of the Elihu speeches when compared to the rest of Job,16 but these differences could be due to the fact that Elihu, as a younger man, simply spoke in a different manner than the other characters, rather than being indicative of a different author.17

In his concluding speech in chapter 31, Job does demand that God appear before him, and in a sense, it is somewhat surprising for Elihu to appear instead.18 Based on this, some scholars argue that the Elihu speeches are currently located in the wrong place. However, even those scholars who agree that the Elihu speeches are in the wrong place disagree about where they should be located,19 and this indicates the subjective nature of the argument. Furthermore, if God truly is the all-powerful sovereign that he portrays himself as in Job 38-41, it seems unlikely that Job’s concluding remarks in chapter 31 could in some way compel him to appear. The present location of Elihu’s speeches in Job 32-37 creates distance between Job’s demands and God’s appearance, thereby affirming God’s sovereignty and freedom to act how and when he chooses.20

The final argument against the Elihu speeches being an authentic part of the Book of Job is the claim that the speeches make no contribution to the book.21 However, as this paper has already implied, Elihu’s contribution to the Book of Job is very much debated, and if it could be demonstrated that Elihu does have something significant to add (as this paper will endeavor to do), this argument would lose its merit.

When the arguments against the authenticity of the Elihu material are considered individually, it is clear that they are not particularly strong and are easily rebutted. This leads to the conclusion that there is no compelling reason to consider the Elihu speeches as anything other than an original part of the Book of Job.

Elihu’s Message: What Does He Say?

With Elihu’s authenticity safely assumed, we now shift our attention to the speeches themselves in an attempt to briefly summarize his thoughts.

After Job finishes speaking, chapter 32 opens with the introduction of “Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram...” (Job 32:2),22 a description which likely designates him as a fellow countryman of Job.23 We are told in Job 32:2-5 that Elihu is angry with Job “because he justified himself rather than God” and that he is angry with the three friends because they had been unable to adequately answer Job’s arguments. As a young man, Elihu has waited for the older men to speak first, but can now hold his tongue no longer and decides to give his opinion.

Scholars are in general agreement that Elihu’s words can be easily divided into four distinct speeches.24 In Elihu’s first speech (Job 32:6-33:33), he begins by justifying his intrusion into the debate between Job and his friends. In Job 32:9, he says that “it is not the old who are wise, nor the aged who understand what is right,” but “...the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand” (Job 32:8). This idea that understanding comes primarily from God is important in Elihu’s speeches, and it gives Elihu the courage to speak up despite his youth. After summarizing Job’s claims of his innocence (Job 32:9) and God’s injustice (Job 32:10), Elihu goes on to suggest that God uses both dreams (Job 33:15-18) and physical affliction (Job 33:19-21) to instruct people and turn them away from sin.25 He then says that God sends a special mediating angel to help people escape from death (Job 32:22-30),26 before closing his speech and inviting Job to respond in Job 32:32.

When Job fails to answer, Elihu begins to speak again, and in his second speech (Job 34:1-37), he vigorously attacks Job’s denial of God’s justice (Job 34:5-6). In a verse which is representative of the entire speech, Elihu says in Job 34:12 that “God will not do wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice.” He goes on to assert that God justly governs the world without exception (Job 34:24-25),27 although he does not try to explain Job’s individual case.

In his third speech (Job 35:1-16), Elihu points out the inconsistency in Job’s competing claims that God owes him something because of his righteousness (Job 35:2), and that he is no better off than if he had sinned (Job 35:3).28 Elihu then claims that God is not affected by righteous or sinful acts of humans, at least in the sense that he is not obligated to respond in some particular way.29 This idea, in addition to rejecting Job’s claim that God owes him some sort of vindication, also shows that Elihu’s view of retribution is more nuanced than that of Job’s friends in that he rejects the idea that man’s good or bad actions compel God to respond mechanistically with either reward or punishment.

In his fourth and final speech (Job 36:1-37:24), Elihu seems to change his approach.30 Now, instead of citing Job’s arguments and focusing on refuting them, Elihu focuses solely on God, reaffirming his justice (Job 36:5-7) and his ability to use suffering to teach people (Job 36:22). At this point, Elihu uses the appearance of an approaching thunderstorm (Job 36:27-37:6) as an object lesson to reflect on the greatness of God,31 anticipating the appearance of God himself in a whirlwind.

Elihu’s Role: What Does He Add To The Book Of Job?

Having examined the content of Elihu’s speeches, we now turn to the role he plays within the Book of Job: what does Elihu have to contribute? Is he to be viewed as a primarily positive or negative character? The responses to these questions fall into three basic categories.32

First, many commentators who view Elihu in a negative light basically see him as just a younger version of Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.33 From this perspective, “Elihu was no more an inspired theologian than were Job’s friends,”34 and he was bound by the same rigid retribution theology they were.35

However, upon close examination, there are several indications that Elihu is more than just another of Job’s “friends”. First, as we have already seen, Elihu appeals to God as the source of his wisdom, rather than experience or the traditions of men. Secondly, as was mentioned earlier, Elihu’s view of retribution is more nuanced than that of the three friends, as he firmly upholds that God cannot be compelled to do anything, including rigidly causing someone to suffer as punishment for sin. Elihu also sees suffering as accomplishing several purposes in addition to punishment.36 Third and perhaps most importantly, Elihu is different from the friends in the way he approaches Job, calling him by name,37 giving him the opportunity to respond, and focusing on Job’s sinful attitudes in his present life rather than conjuring up a list of sins from Job’s past that are supposedly the source of his suffering.38

The second basic viewpoint of Elihu’s role in the Book of Job is that he is primarily intended to be an ironic character whose self-perception differs greatly from the way in which the author of Job portrays him.39 Some commentators take this idea even further, suggesting that the Book of Job is intended to be a comedy and that Elihu is the exemplar of the fool.40

Although there may be some validity to this viewpoint (after all, Elihu is unable to solve Job’s problems despite his best efforts), any suggestion that Elihu is intended to be viewed as a laughable buffoon surely goes too far for the reasons we have already mentioned. Elihu clearly comes off better than Job’s friends, as he appeals to God as the source of his wisdom, has a more subtle understanding of retribution and suffering and seems more sympathetic to Job in general. Together, this indicates that, whatever his faults, Elihu is intended to be seen in a more positive than negative light.

The third and best understanding of Elihu’s role in the Book of Job is that he helps to prepare Job for God’s appearance in the whirlwind.41 This can be seen in several ways.

First, the name “Elihu” is a variant spelling of the name “Elijah”, and Elihu’s actions in the Book of Job suggest a strong connection to the great prophet. Elijah was described as a defender of God (1 Kings 17-21) and God’s forerunner (Mal. 4:5-6), and in a similar way, Elihu has vigorously defended God’s justice and immediately preceded God’s appearance with a speech focused on his greatness.42

Secondly, as mentioned before, Elihu’s final speech in particular shifts Job’s attention away from his personal suffering and toward God. As Larry Waters points out, “before Elihu’s intervention the debate had been anthropocentric and not theocentric. Elihu rectified that situation and injected a recognition of the divine into the discussion.”43 It is only after Elihu speaks that Job is ready for the solution to his problem44 because ultimately, God himself is the solution, and it is not until Elihu speaks that Job is ready to focus on God rather than himself.

Third and finally, even the style of Elihu’s final speech prepares Job for God’s appearance, as the series of rhetorical questions that Elihu asks in Job 36-37 to demonstrate God’s greatness and incomprehensibility clearly foreshadow similar questions that God asks in Job 38-41.45

Conclusion: What Are We To Make Of Elihu?

An enigmatic character in a difficult book, Elihu deserves better treatment than most commentators have given him. Though he has been quickly dismissed by many authors as a later and unnecessary addition to the Book of Job, as we have seen, these arguments are not convincing.

Furthermore, upon closer examination of Elihu’s speeches, it is clear that he is commendable in much of what he says—he is more nuanced and accurate in his views of suffering than the three friends, and he is more understanding of Job as well.

Nevertheless, Elihu’s arguments fail to really help Job, maybe because his more refined view of the purpose of suffering still does not apply to Job’s specific situation. His words seem to fall on Job’s deaf ears, and perhaps sensing this, Elihu changes his approach and shifts the focus of his speeches toward God. This is Elihu’s real contribution to the resolution of Job’s problem—not that his words contain the answer to Job’s suffering, but that they serve to center Job’s attention on the God who in himself is the answer that Job is looking for.

In the end, Elihu is the forerunner who prepares Job for God’s appearance and as such, he plays a vital role in Job’s life and story.

• • •

1Gregory W. Parsons, “The Structure and Purpose of the Book of Job,” in Sitting With Job: Selected Studies on the Book of Job, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1992), 17; Robert Gordis, “The Language and Style of Job,” in Sitting With Job, 79.
2Charles H. Spurgeon, “Songs in the Night,” in Great Pulpit Masters Volume II (New York: Fleming H. Revelle Company, 1959), 211.
3William Whedbee, “The Comedy of Job,” Semeia 7, (1977): 20. Whedbee goes on to say that, “Though there may be ‘no fool like an old fool,’ Elihu, as a young fool, comes close.”
4Thurman Wisdom, “The Message of Elihu,” Biblical Viewpoint 21 (November 1987): 27, 29-30.
5David Noel Freedman, “Is it Possible to Understand the Book of Job?” Bible Review 4 (April 1988): 29.
6H. H. Rowley, “Job,” in The Century Bible, New Series (London: Nelson, 1970), 263.
7Lindsay Wilson, “The Role of the Elihu Speeches in the Book of Job,” The Reformed Theological Review 55, no. 2 (May-August 1996): 94.
8The term “drama” is not meant to imply doubt in the historicity of Job, but is simply an acknowledgment of the literary nature of the Book of Job. The character of Elihu, whom I believe to be an actual historical figure, also fulfills certain literary purposes in the Book of Job.
9James F. Ross, “Job 33:14-30: The Phenomenology of Lament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 94, no. 1 (March 1975): 38. Other commentators who hold to this same basic viewpoint include David Noel Freedman, “The Elihu Speeches in the Book of Job: A Hypothetical Episode in the Literary History of the Work,” Harvard Theological Review 61 (1968): 51; Marvin E. Tate, “The Speeches of Elihu,” Review and Expositor 68, no. 4 (Fall 1971): 487; A. S. Peake, “Job: Introduction, Revised Version with Notes and Index,” in The Century Bible, ed. Walter F. Adeney (Edinburgh: T. C. & E. C. Jack, 1905), 274-75; Rowley, 262-63.
10Robert Gordis, The Book of God and Man: A Study of Job (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965), 105-114. Gordis believes that, at an advanced age, the original author became more convinced of the disciplinary function of suffering, and wanted to give this idea a place in the story without taking away from the primary answer given in the God speeches.
11David J. A. Clines, “Putting Elihu in His Place: A Proposal for the Relocation of Job 32-37,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29, no. 2 (2004): 243-53.
12Don H. McGaughey, “The Speeches of Elihu: A Study of Job Chapters 32-37” (master’s thesis, Harding Graduate School of Religion, 1957), 62.
13Scholars upholding the authenticity of the Elihu section of Job include McGaughey, 62-74; J. Gerald Janzen, “Job,” in Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 217-18; Larry J. Waters, “The Authenticity of the Elihu Speeches in Job 32-37,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (January-March 1999): 38-41; Wilson, 81-94; Walter L. Michel, “Job’s Real Friend: Elihu,” Criterion 21 (Spring 1982): 30.
14Wilson, 82.
15McGaughey, 63; Wilson, 83.
16Tate, 487-88, mentions Elihu’s use of a different name for God, his preference for the first person singular pronoun, and his tendency to directly quote Job’s statements as all being distinctive. Nevertheless, he ultimately concludes that “...the arguments from style are difficult to sustain.”
17McGaughey, 65-66; Waters, 40.
18Whedbee, 18.
19For example, Freedman, “Elihu Speeches,” 51-59, suggests that the Elihu speeches were part of a major revision project, were originally divided into four distinct speeches, and were intended to be placed at certain points in the dialogue. Meanwhile, Clines, 248-53, suggests that the Elihu chapters are intended to be kept together, but should be moved after the third cycle of the dialogue ends in chapter 27, before the poem on wisdom in chapter 28, and Job’s final speech in Job 29-31.
20Donald Arvid Johns, “The Literary and Theological Function of the Elihu Speeches in the Book of Job” (PhD diss., St. Louis University, 1983), 182. “For God to appear at the summons of Job, and then present a powerful speech on his sovereignty over the universe would be very inconsistent.”
21Gordis, The Book of God and Man, 109, actually calls this the “heart of the argument” against the authenticity of the Elihu speeches.
22All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.
23Scholars disagree about the exact implications of the detailed description of Elihu’s familial background. Wisdom, 29, states that the formal identification points to the importance of Elihu’s character and message. John E. Hartley, The Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 429, says that the full genealogy “reflects Elihu’s youth and lack of personal accomplishment” but also that his name is similar to the name Elijah and reflects his role in the book as God’s forerunner. Tate, 489-90, mentions that the references seem to make Elihu a countryman of Job and hint that he is more closely related to the Hebrews than the three friends.
24Hartley, 430; Rowley, 262-91; Freedman, Elihu Speeches, 51. Even those commentators who typically count five speeches only differ in that they count Elihu’s introductory comments in chapter 32 as a separate speech. See Matthew J. Lynch, “Bursting at the Seams: Phonetic Rhetoric in the Speeches of Elihu,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30, no. 3 (2006): 349-60.
25Hartley, 430.
26Ross, 38-46, focuses extensively on this idea of an “angelic spokesman.”
27Hartley, 430.
28Robert V. McCabe, “Elihu’s Contribution to the Thought of the Book of Job,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 2 (Fall 1997): 58. “On the one had, Job feels his innocence and God’s denying him justice should qualify Job for a legal hearing...On the other hand, Job claims that his righteous lifestyle has had no effect on God.”
29Hartley, 430.
30McCabe, 60.
31Hartley, 475; McCabe, 61.
32In addition to these main viewpoints is the perspective of H. D. Beeby, “Elihu—Job’s Mediator?,” South East Asia Journal of Theology 7, no. 2 (October 1965): 33-54. Beeby sees Elihu as a “Covenant Mediator” who makes possible the presentation of Israel’s faith to Job, a Gentile. Beeby’s viewpoint, while interesting, is not supported by other commentators.
33Tate, 495.
34H. L. Ellison, From Tragedy to Triumph: The Message of the Book of Job (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 107.
35Norman C. Habel, “The Book of Job,” in The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 182.
36Larry J. Waters, “Elihu’s Categories of Suffering from Job 32-37,” Bibliotheca Sacra 166 (October-December 2009): 405-20, says Elihu suggests that suffering can be preventive, disciplinary, educational, glorifying, revelational, organizational, relational, and judgmental. This stands in contrast the three friends, who argued that “punishment for evil is the only reason for suffering,” p. 416.
37J. W. McKay, “Elihu—A Proto-Charismatic?,” The Expository Times 90, no. 6 (March 1979): 168.
38Wilson, 86; Johns, 163: “Elihu is not nearly so harsh in his attitude towards Job as many commentators have led us to believe. He comes down hard on Job only for specific statements made during the course of the debate.”
39Lynch 345-64, suggests several ways in which Elihu’s self-perception could be called into question, including Elihu’s burning anger as emphasized by the narrator in Job 32:2-5, and his declaration that he is “full of words” (Job 32:18), despite the fact that Job is already tired of the many words of the three friends and has suggested that wisdom is indicated by silence (Job 13:5).
40Norman C. Habel, “Literary Features and the Message of the Book of Job,” in Sitting with Job, 108; Whedbee, 20, is particularly hard on Elihu, calling him a “caricature” of the three friends and saying that he “...emerges in the total context of the book as a comic figure whom the author exposes and ridicules.”
41There are many scholars who hold this view including Hartley, 427; Gordis, The Book of God and Man, 115-16; Wisdom, 29; McKay, 167; McGaughey, 72; McCabe, 79-80; Johns 169-70; Parsons, 20-21.
42Gordis, The Book of God and Man, 115-16; Johns, 163-66, lists more similarities between Elihu and Elijah, but those mentioned above are the strongest connections.
43Larry J. Waters, “Elihu’s Theology and His View of Suffering,” Bibliotheca Sacra 156 (April-June 1999): 144.
44Michel, 30: “Why is it possible for God to speak to Job and for Job to hear God only after the Elihu speech?”
45McCabe, 62; Johns, 169-80, gives a detailed comparison of Elihu’s final speech and God’s speech.


Boston and New York

Back in August, Caroline and I went on vacation to Boston and New York City. It was kind of a whirlwind trip, as we only were gone for a week, and things have been pretty crazy for me ever since then with school and work, so I just got pictures from the trip up on Flickr this week.

I had never been to Boston or New York before. Prior to the trip, I was really excited about visiting Boston and wasn’t really looking forward to the Big Apple (it was Caroline who insisted on that part), but in hindsight, I was completely wrong. Other than Fenway Park and a few other places, Boston was somewhat of a disappointment*, while I thought that New York City was incredible (not as cool as London, but still really nice).

A few things we did/saw while there:
  • Freedom Trail in Boston (A lot of Revolution-related landmarks including the Old North Church, Paul Revere’s House, the graveyard where several founding fathers were buried, etc.)
  • Boston Harbor (disappointing…barely a mention of the Boston Tea Party)
  • Harvard University
  • Fenway Park (awesome; maybe the high point of the trip)
  • Grand Central Station
  • St. Patrick’s Cathedral
  • Chrysler Building
  • Empire State Building
  • Macy’s (definitely more exciting for Caroline than for me)
  • Times Square
  • Dinner in Little Italy
  • Chinatown
  • Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island (I might devote a separate post to this—it was really cool)
  • Ground Zero
  • Brooklyn Bridge
  • South Pacific on Broadway
Most of these places we visited on foot—we’d leave our hotel in the morning and then walk around all day. It really was a lot of fun, but pretty tiring as well. I wish we could’ve had another week.

*For a town with so much history, I thought Boston did a pretty lame job of preserving/sharing it. I was really excited about the Freedom Trail, but only a few of the stops were very worthwhile (like the Old North Church for example, which was excellent). Boston would be an ideal location for a comprehensive American Revolution museum…someone should get on that.


(Another Reason) Why Gmail Is Awesome

I’ve used Gmail as my primary email account for several years now and am a big fan of it.

When I first started using it, I was impressed by the search feature, which completely blew Yahoo!’s out of the water (Yahoo! has since improved, but Gmail had it first). You could type any word in the search bar and it would scan all of your emails for that word.

Also cool is the way that Gmail portrays a string of emails between a group of people as a collapsible conversation thread. It’s easy to see what everyone has said without going back and opening other messages.

But today, in what has been a frustrating and flummoxing morning, I came across my favorite Gmail feature. I was trying to send a PDF of a term paper to a professor, but, since I was somewhat flustered, forgot to actually attach the PDF. Fortunately, in the body of the email I had mentioned that I was attaching a file. Gmail noticed that I had used the word “attached” without actually attaching a file, and then asked if I had meant to do so.

Annoying and potentially embarrassing moment avoided=Gmail is awesome.


Valid Evangelism?

So I got a letter in the mail from a Christian video game company, urging me to push their products to my young people. From the perspective of LB Games, a key ingredient to the problem of young people losing their faith stems from playing secular video games, so they have developed Christian video games in an effort to use video games to actually lead people to Christ instead of away from Him.

I am probably not qualified to determine whether or not this is a good idea. Maybe this is a brilliantly modern method of evangelism, taking the Gospel to people where they already are (in front of their PC monitors, xboxes, Wiis, etc.). On the other hand, maybe it’s completely absurd. Maybe people aren’t losing their faith because of video games—maybe people are never developing true faith in the first place because we substitute things like Christian-themed video games for authentic Christianity. I don’t know.

What I do know is that despite what I assume are good intentions on the part of LB games, I won’t be promoting their products, in large part because of their headline product which they are expecting to be incredibly popular: Left Behind 3: Rise of the Antichrist.

Seeing this just makes me shake my head.

In addition to the fact that I believe Left Behind’s portrayal of the end times is biblically unsound at a fundamental level, I also wonder about the strategy of evangelizing someone through a violent video game (the game is rated T because of violence, and the cover art certainly supports that idea).

Someone once said, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Basically, the idea is that if you get lots of people to come to your church by building a really nice building, then you haven’t really brought in a lot of disciples, you’ve brought in a lot of people who appreciate comfort and architecture and aren’t necessarily opposed to Jesus. If you get lots of people to come to your youth group by having lots of fun and exciting events, then you’re really just building a group of people who like to have fun—even if it’s good clean fun—rather than follow Jesus (as a youth minister, this weighs on me a lot). But if you get people to come to your church or your youth group by teaching them about Jesus, then you’re building a group that is focused on learning about Jesus and trying to follow Him.

With this idea in mind, the implications for Left Behind 3: The Rise of the Antichrist aren’t too promising: if you win people with a violent video game that carries the tag “Christian”, what are you winning them to?


Losing Clothes

I do not, at all, enjoy shopping for clothes.

This fundamental fact about me leads to at least two other facts:

(1) I get lots of clothing for my birthday and Christmas. This is good, because it means I don’t have to shop for clothes as often.

(2) When I find clothes that I like, I tend to keep them for a long time and wear them often. For example, I still wear the button-up shirt that I wore in my 11th grade class picture (I am now 27), and I still have an Atlanta Braves t-shirt that I received in 1993.

The problem is, for as long as I can remember, I have also had a problem losing clothes, and without exception, I always lose things that I actually like. And while there are other negative characteristics of my childhood that I have happily discarded (like, say, being afraid of spiders), the tendency to lose clothes that I like has doggedly followed me to adulthood.

The other day I realized that I had lost a brown polo shirt, which was a major blow, because it had a prominent place in my weekly rotation. Add that to the blue polo which I am convinced I lost somewhere in Colorado, the long-sleeved white shirt that I wore as an undershirt in the fall/winter, and the “Salute a Veteran” t-shirt that I got for giving blood, and my wardrobe has really taken a hit over the last few years. And then there was that sweet red, white and blue windbreaker that I lost in elementary school and have never really recovered from.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to shop for clothes again.

Disclaimer: Implying that I am completely over my childhood fear of spiders might have been somewhat misleading. That being said, one of my husband-ly duties is to deal with every spider that makes the unfortunate decision to enter our house. So, it’s something I’ve been working on.


The End Of An Era

Pathetically, it has been over a month since I’ve written anything here (I’ve been busy, I swear!), but I thought it was worth coming out of retirement to briefly mention something about the retirement of long-time Braves manager Bobby Cox.

Cox announced before the season started that this would be his last, but his career officially came to an end last night when the Braves lost another excruciating one-run game to the Giants in the NLDS.

A lot of good articles have been written in tribute to Cox, so I won’t spend a lot of time doing that here, but I just wanted to note a couple of things.

First, Cox is one of the greatest managers of all time, and his run of 14 consecutive playoff appearances will likely never be equaled. He’s also one of only two managers with 6 100-win seasons, and that is impressive as well. Certainly he didn’t win as often in the postseason as I (or he, or anyone) would have liked, and near the end of his career he began to make a lot of pitching moves that I didn’t understand, but none of that takes away from a remarkable managerial career.

Secondly, people always emphasize how Cox was a “player’s manager”—he’s the kind of manager that players love to play for because he is upfront about his expectations and always supports his players. Many of his players have looked up to him as a father figure, and the fact that he inspires his players to give their best probably has a lot to do with the fact that the 2010 Braves, a team that had absolutely no business playing in the postseason, managed to come away with the NL Wildcard. You could probably even argue that of all his seasons at the helm of the Braves, 2010 was his best managerial performance.

Anyway, one way or another it’s the end of an era in Atlanta, and despite certain things that I disliked about him, I’ll miss seeing Bobby sitting in the dugout with his arms folded, muttering to himself and contemplating whether or not he should go out and get tossed from a game in order to back up one of his guys.


When Should The U.S. Leave Iraq?

According to a lot of Iraqi citizens, the answer is apparently, “Not yet.


What Does Satan Look Like?

A lot of times when you see Satan portrayed, he looks something like this: red, horned, and terrifying. And although there’s no real reason that I am aware of to assume that Satan is a certain color or that he has horns, there is reason to depict him in a frightening fashion—1 Peter 5.8 refers to him as a “…roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” That is certainly a frightening idea, so the motivation to depict Satan as some sort of terrifying monster makes a lot of sense.

But perhaps we should be asking a different question. Rather than “What does Satan look like?”, maybe a better question is, “How does Satan appear?”, because if Satan always appeared as a terrifying monster who was eager to devour us, I think we’d do a better job of staying away from him.

Unfortunately though, that’s not how he usually appears. Instead, he’s the crafty serpent in Genesis who entices Eve to sin by lying to her and seeming to have her best interests at heart (Don’t you want to be more like God? Then eat the fruit from this tree…).

Later on, when he tempts Jesus, he doesn’t really come across as that bad of a guy. At least the first two of the things he tries to get Jesus to do don’t seem too bad, and he even uses Scripture to try to convince Jesus. Thankfully, unlike Eve, Jesus sees right through Satan, will have nothing to do with him, and once again serves as an example for us to follow.

We have to get beyond the idea of Satan has a repulsive monster if we can ever hope to discern his more subtle appearances. Sometimes Satan doesn’t look like a roaring lion; sometimes he isn’t scary. Sometimes he isn’t repulsive at all and in fact, in the heat of the moment, what he has to offer might seem more attractive than anything else in the world. But it’s exactly at those times—when Satan makes an appearance in an enticing offer to sin, or bad advice on the lips of a trusted friend, or the seeming importance of all that “the world” has to offer—that he is at his most dangerous.


He Came To Jesus By Night: The Character Of Nicodemus In The Gospel Of John

The Gospel of John focuses on the revelation of Jesus as the Father’s Son, and stresses the necessity of believing in him in order to receive life. In the process of revealing who Jesus is, the Fourth Gospel chronicles the interactions he has with several minor characters, and in so doing displays the different responses that people have to the works and character of Jesus.

Of all the minor figures John introduces, few have been emphasized and written about as often as Nicodemus.1 Nicodemus is found nowhere else in the Bible and appears only three times in John. His first and longest appearance is in John 3:1-21,2 where he has a brief conversation with Jesus but seems to be incapable of understanding any of Jesus’ teachings. He is mentioned a second time in John 7:45-52, and this time raises a legal question to ensure that Jesus is treated fairly when the chief priests and Pharisees want to have him arrested. Nicodemus appears a final time in John 19:39-41, where he helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for burial.

Based on these three appearances, it is generally agreed that the portrayal of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel is supposed to be significant,3 but commentators disagree sharply as to what the significance is or exactly how Nicodemus should be characterized.

This paper will examine the words and actions of Nicodemus in the scenes in which he appears, and in the process, the conclusion which John wants his readers to draw concerning Nicodemus will become clear.

John 3:1-21: A Night of Confusion

We are first introduced to Nicodemus in John 3:1, which describes him as “a man of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews.”4 Although some scholars also suggest allusions to Nicodemus in the Talmud and in rabbinic tradition,5 these claims are more interesting than they are conclusive, and ultimately, most of the biographical information we have about Nicodemus comes from this one verse.

John’s classification of Nicodemus as a Pharisee seems to immediately portray him in a negative light, as even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus and the Pharisees did not get along. However, this initial characterization is perhaps diminished by the fact that, unlike his colleagues, Nicodemus came to Jesus with what appears to be a genuine interest in and openness to his teachings.6 As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been a man of some influence,7 and as a “ruler of the Jews”, he would have likely been a member of the Sanhedrin.8

The next verse tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night”, and is a source of much debate among scholars. Those who draw more favorable conclusions about Nicodemus usually contend that the expression is simply a reference to the time of day9 or that Nicodemus was just visiting Jesus at the period of day that was best suited for theological discussion.10 However, the fact that Nicodemus specifically came “by night” is important enough to the Evangelist that he repeats it when he describes Nicodemus in John 19:39,11 and that indicates a deeper level of significance to the nocturnal nature of Nicodemus’s visit. It has also been suggested that Nicodemus visited Jesus at night in order to keep his visit secret from the other Pharisees,12 but D.A. Carson likely has the best interpretation when he says that based off of the other uses of “night” in the Gospel of John, the word always seems to be used metaphorically for moral and spiritual darkness, and in this context, suggests that Nicodemus came to Jesus at a time when he was spiritually in the dark.13

Nicodemus begins his discussion with Jesus by addressing him as “Rabbi”, and then proceeds to explain that he knows that Jesus is a teacher from God because of the signs that he is able to perform. John 3:10 indicates that Nicodemus was a teacher of some distinction himself,14 and his use of the term Rabbi and acknowledgment of Jesus being from God shows his respect for Jesus, even if it does fall short of a full recognition of who Jesus was.15

Regardless of how Nicodemus comes across to this point, scholars are in general agreement that for the rest of the dialogue in John 3, he does not fare well, as he appears to be completely unable to understand what Jesus tells him.16 When Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:3 that one must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus takes him literally, and cannot understand how a man can physically be born a second time. After Jesus explains this teaching more fully, Nicodemus’s only response in John 3:9 is to ask, “How can these things be?” which prompts Jesus to rebuke him for being a teacher of Israel and yet failing to understand basic teaching. Paul Julian suggests that Nicodemus’s interaction with Jesus is doomed to failure from the beginning because he tries to define who Jesus is using his own predetermined criteria,17 and Terence Donaldson takes this line of reasoning a step further, saying, “Even though he seems to want to understand, the point of the story seems to be that as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and a teacher of Israel, he is almost by definition unable to understand.”18 At this point, the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus becomes a monologue, as Jesus continues to speak and Nicodemus fades into the background.19

Ultimately, when all the evidence from the first appearance of Nicodemus is taken into account, it seems clear that he is not really a believer at this point. He distances himself from the other Pharisees by coming to Jesus, he is impressed with the signs that Jesus has performed, and he is openly curious about him and his teachings, but he also appears to be so baffled by those teachings that for now he remains, from a spiritual standpoint, in darkness.

John 7:45-52: A Voice of Reason

After his evening discussion with Jesus, Nicodemus exits from the narrative of the Fourth Gospel, and does not reappear until John 7, at the end of an episode where Jesus’ teachings at the Feast of Tabernacles have prompted the chief priests and Pharisees to try to arrest him. When the officers return empty-handed, implying that there is something special about Jesus, the Pharisees rebuke them and decry the supposed ignorance of the common people who do not know the law.

As a Pharisee himself, Nicodemus is present in this gathering, and in John 7:51, raises a question in Jesus’ defense when he asks, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” This question, in addition to exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees violating their own law immediately after criticizing the common people for being ignorant of it,20 also serves to draw the collective ire of the Pharisees against Nicodemus. The Pharisees respond toward Nicodemus in a mocking fashion in John 7:52, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” The learned and respected Pharisees once again display their own ironic ignorance,21 and at the same time attack Nicodemus by implying that he too must be a follower of Jesus.22

What are we to make of Nicodemus’s second appearance in the Gospel of John? Predictably, scholarly opinion is divided. Margaret Beirne argues that this is a positive scene for Nicodemus, and points out the growth that he displays, saying, “Now he is seen to speak with a degree of courage, wisdom and precision not evident at his first appearance.”23

On the other hand, some scholars downplay Nicodemus’s role in this passage, by first noting that John 7:50 associates Nicodemus with the Pharisees, describing him as “one of them”,24 and then also claiming that by speaking out in John 7:51, he is just upholding a legal principle in order to seek a fair trial rather than making any statement about his belief in Jesus.25 However, such views really miss the point. Certainly Nicodemus is a Pharisee, and also as a likely member of the Sanhedrin Council, is accurately classified as “one of them”, but the weight of the passage emphasizes how Nicodemus is different from the rest of the Pharisees, rather than how he is like them. Furthermore, even if Nicodemus’s defense of Jesus is motivated more by a desire to uphold the law rather than his own personal faith in Jesus, the fact that Nicodemus is willing to give Jesus a fair hearing at all shows an open-mindedness on his part that speaks well for him and distinguishes him from the rest of the Pharisees.26

If Nicodemus’s scene with Jesus in John 3 shows him to be little more than a curious man who is completely baffled by Jesus’ teachings, his appearance in John 7 seems to show improvement on his part: whether or not he has come to a full understanding of who Jesus is, he is willing to speak out publicly on his behalf, an act which he undoubtedly knew would draw criticism from his peers.

John 19:38-42: An Act of Devotion

Nicodemus makes his final appearance in John 19, following the death of Jesus, where he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. All four of the Gospels relate that Joseph went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body, but only John relates that Nicodemus was also involved, that he brought 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes,27 and that along with Joseph, he bound the body of Jesus in linen cloths with the spices according to Jewish burial customs.

As is the case with his other appearances in the Gospel of John, scholars are divided as to the implications of Nicodemus’s actions in this passage.

For those who believe that Nicodemus ultimately falls short of being a disciple of Jesus, this passage supports their view in three ways.

First, much is made of Nicodemus’s association with Joseph, who is identified in John 19:38 as being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one due to his fear of the Jews. Alan Culpepper suggests that the characterization of Joseph can be applied to Nicodemus as well, and that together, they are representative of those who refuse to publicly stand for Christ because they are afraid that they will be put out of the synagogue, and that ultimately, Nicodemus “remains, therefore, “one of them,” not one of the children of God.”28

Secondly, it is also argued that Nicodemus’s role in the burial of Jesus, although indicative of a certain respect he has for Jesus, also expresses the inadequacy of whatever faith he had. Marinus de Jonge is representative of this view, and says that “...Joseph and Nicodemus are pictured as having come to a dead end; they regard the burial as definitive.”29 Basically, the suggestion is that their roles in the burial suggest that Joseph and Nicodemus have no expectation of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore cannot really be true disciples.

A third negative argument from this passage stems from John’s description of Joseph and Nicodemus burying Jesus according to the burial customs of the Jews. From this reference, Bassler argues that whatever distance Joseph and Nicodemus are portrayed as having from their Jewish colleagues is somewhat negated by the care they show in adhering to Jewish burial customs: “Even when defined most clearly as disciples, they remain firmly rooted in their Jewishness. The link with the “Jews” in this pericope is a disturbing but ambiguous element.”30

However, all of these arguments have clear problems. First, for Nicodemus’s association with Joseph to be a negative one, the testimony of the Synoptics has to be completely ignored. There, rather than being regarded as some type of inferior semi-believer, Joseph is described in Matthew 27:57 as someone “who had himself become a disciple of Jesus”, in Mark 15:43 as a man “who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” and “took courage and went to Pilate”, and in Luke 23:50-51 as a “good and upright man” who had not consented to the Sanhedrin’s plan to kill Jesus. Furthermore, when properly considered, Joseph’s actions clearly contradict the secretive nature of the discipleship that he previously participated in. As Carson points out, asking Pilate for the body of Jesus would have certainly made Joseph an outcast from the Sanhedrin, and the fact that Joseph and Nicodemus would have had servants helping them with the burial would have prevented it from being anything but a public act.31 In light of the apparent public nature of the act of burial and the testimony of the Synoptics, what seems most likely is that John is pointing out the contrast between Joseph’s former “secret discipleship” and the public act of devotion he now displays. If we are now meant to associate Nicodemus with Joseph, then it clearly seems to be a positive association.

Secondly, the argument that Nicodemus’s actions with regard to the burial of Jesus prove that he misunderstands that Jesus will rise from the dead and somehow invalidate his faith is easily dismissed. After all, John 20:9 clearly indicates that Peter and the “beloved disciple” did not understand the resurrection until after Jesus appeared to them.32 Surely if this lack of understanding does not invalidate their faith, it should not be held against Nicodemus either.

Finally, the argument that Joseph and Nicodemus burying Jesus according to Jewish customs somehow carries sinister connotations seems entirely baseless. After all, Joseph and Nicodemus were Jews; if they were going to bury someone, according to what other customs would they do so? In the context of the passage, the reference to Jewish burial customs makes more sense to explain the use of the immense quantity of spices brought by Nicodemus rather than to in some way remind readers that Nicodemus is not really a true disciple.

When these arguments are removed a more positive reading of the passage emerges where Nicodemus is portrayed as a man who, though once a secret disciple, has now shed his inhibitions and courageously shows his devotion to Jesus publicly.33 As F. F. Bruce points out, the massive amounts of spices brought forth by Nicodemus suggest a royal burial, but to Nicodemus, that is exactly what Jesus deserved. To Nicodemus, Jesus “...was in fact what the inscription on the cross had proclaimed him to be in mockery—‘The King of the Jews.’”34

Conclusion: A Believer’s Journey to Faith

As we have seen, each of Nicodemus’s appearances in the Gospel of John are interpreted differently, depending on whether or not the interpreter believes that Nicodemus ultimately came to belief in Jesus. Based on these differing interpretations, some scholars propose that the character of Nicodemus is intentionally meant to be ambiguous, but that viewpoint only makes sense if the opposing interpretations of Nicodemus are equally valid. Is that the case?

Simply put, no. Although Nicodemus certainly appears out of the darkness as a mysterious figure in John 3, his subsequent appearances clarify who he is, as each scene portrays him in an increasingly positive light: from a respectful but utterly confused teacher of Israel in John 3, to a fair-minded man willing to stand up to a hostile group of his peers in John 7, to a mourner who by his actions publicly declares his allegiance and devotion to his crucified King in John 19.

In the end, Nicodemus’s role in the Gospel of John is clear, as the Evangelist uses him as an example for all “secret” believers who cannot make up their minds about Jesus: the man who came to Jesus by night has now entered into the light that is manifested in him.

• • •

1Jouette M. Bassler, “Mixed Signals: Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (December 1989): 635; Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “What’s the Matter with Nicodemus? A Social Science Perspective on John 3:1-21,” in Distant Voices Drawing Near: Essays in Honor of Antoinette Clark Wire, ed. Holly E. Hearon (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 145.
2It is difficult to tell how much of John 3:11-21 is spoken by Jesus and how much is from the narrator, and, therefore, how much is meant to be directed specifically to Nicodemus. Some scholars consider only John 3:1-10 to apply to Nicodemus, see R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 134.
3Marinus de Jonge, Jesus, Stranger from Heaven and Son of God: Jesus Christ and the Christians in Johannine Perspective (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), 29. De Jonge is representative of this perspective and points out that the narrator’s remarks in John 7:50 and 19:39 which tie those appearances to the first in John 3 indicate that the three instances are meant to be considered together.
4All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.
5Richard Bauckham, “Nicodemus and the Gurion Family,” in The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 137-72. Bauckham devotes an entire chapter of his book to exploring the references in rabbinic traditions to a Jerusalem aristocrat named Naqdimon (Nicodemus) ben Gurion. Based on repeated family names, Bauckham believes this man to be a family member (probably a nephew) of the Nicodemus described in the Gospel of John. Also, Bauckham mentions another rabbinic tradition that refers to a man named Naqqai, who is described as one of five disciples of Jesus. Bauckham identifies this man with John’s Nicodemus.
6Gabi Renz, “Nicodemus: An Ambiguous Disciple? A Narrative Sensitive Investigation,” in Challenging Perspectives on the Gospel of John, ed. John Lierman (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2006): 260.
7F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 81: “The Pharisees...exercised an influence on the general public out of all proportion to their numbers.”
8Some commentators simply state Nicodemus’s membership in the Sanhedrin as fact, see Paul Julian, Jesus and Nicodemus: A Literary and Narrative Exegesis of Jn. 2,23-3,36, (Frankfurt: Lang, 2000), 72, 74. Bruce, 81, mentions specifically that it is the wording of John 3:1 that implies that Nicodemus was actually a member of the Council.
9F. P. Cotterell, “The Nicodemus Conversation: A Fresh Appraisal,” The Expository Times 96 (May 1985): 238-39; Bruce, 81.
10Patricia Farris, “Late-night Seminar,” Christian Century 119 (January 2002): 19; Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, “Jesus and Nicodemus,” in Come, Holy Spirit, trans. George W. Richards, Elmer G. Homrighausen, and Karl J. Ernst (New York: Round Table Press, 1983), 106.
11Bassler, 638.
12Julian, 73-74.
13D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 186: “Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew.”
14Bruce, 87: “The description of Nicodemus as the ‘teacher of Israel’ implies that he had some standing among the rabbis of his day.”
15Carson, 186-187.
16Rohrbaugh, 153, disagrees with the assumption that Nicodemus is just misunderstanding what Jesus is trying to teach him, and argues instead that Jesus is intentionally confusing him by using a “Johannine anti-language” which underscores that Nicodemus is an outsider, and not part of the group: “...in the Nicodemus episode, the function of the language is not to reveal but to obscure.”
17Julian, 74.
18Terence L. Donaldson, “Nicodemus: A Figure of Ambiguity in a Gospel of Certainty,” Consensus 24 (January 1998): 122-23.
19Raimo Hakola, “The Burden of Ambiguity: Nicodemus and the Social Identity of the Johannine Christians,” New Testament Studies 55 (October 2009): 441.
20Bassler, 640; Severino Pancaro, “The Metamorphosis of a Legal Principle in the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 53 (1972): 361.
21Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1981), 160-61, mentions that Jonah was from Galilee (2 Kings 14:25), and that Elijah possibly was as well (1 Kings 17:1).
22Bassler, 640, notes that this should not be taken as confirmation that Nicodemus now believes in Jesus: “...[A]lthough the Pharisees immediately accuse Nicodemus of being a Galilean, a label that is tantamount in this Gospel to that of believer, such an epithet on the lips of those notorious for poor judgement (v.24) does not constitute a solid confirmation of Nicodemus’s status in the Gospel.”
23Margaret M. Beirne, “Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman,” in Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: a Genuine Discipleship of Equals, (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 95.
24Culpepper, 135-36.
25de Jonge, 36, “Nicodemus’s remark does not deal with Jesus’ teaching and acts as such; he only emphasizes the legal requirement that the accused should be granted a proper hearing.” Also, Donaldson, 123.
26A fundamental characteristic of the Pharisees in the Gospel of John is that they are so closed-minded that they are incapable of giving Jesus a fair hearing. This can be seen clearly at the end of John 9, when after healing the man born blind, Jesus calls the Pharisees blind because they are unable to see the sign as evidence of who Jesus is. Nicodemus’s defense of Jesus, if not motivated by faith, at the very least shows an openness to who Jesus is that distances him from the rest of the Pharisees in a fundamental and profound way.
27Carson, 629, mentions that 100 litrai of spices was actually less than 75 pounds, and would be closer to 64.45 pounds.
28Culpepper, 136.
29de Jonge, 34.
30Bassler, 642.
31Carson, 629-630.
32Bassler, 642-643.
33Julian, 77, makes an interesting argument emphasizing the degree of Nicodemus’s devotion to Jesus, pointing out that the handling of Jesus’ body would have made Nicodemus unclean and would have prevented him from celebrating the Passover. This would have been another indication of the public nature of Nicodemus’s actions in John 19. As Julian explains, “Nicodemus has cut himself off from his fellow Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin for the greatest celebration of the year, and that to respect the body of Jesus....”
34Bruce, 379.


Great Love Hath No Man…

Despite having 10 of its members murdered by the Taliban last week, a Christian Charity group has declared that it will stay in Afghanistan and continue its work.

This article lists the responses of various Washington Post readers, many of whom are incapable of understanding why these crazy Christians would be there in the first place. I guess that wouldn’t be too surprising to the Apostle Paul:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”


Observation #10

Theological study becomes considerably more confusing if you get Arians mixed up with Aryans.


Observation #9

Few events illustrate the sinful excess of American culture like a televised eating contest where the winner consumes 54 hot dogs in ten minutes and wins $20,000 for doing so.


A New Post! (Sort Of)

I haven’t updated in quite some time, as I feel like I’ve been going non-stop since the beginning of June (if not before). After preparing for and coordinating VBS and taking the youth group to summer camp, I’m now fully immersed in reading roughly 1,500 pages of material for my grad school class which I have to travel to Memphis for on July 12.

This has resulted in me having absolutely no time for blogging (really I probably shouldn’t even be writing this; I’m just taking a break from reading). This inability to find time to blog is unfortunate, because I have several things I’d like to write about. Hopefully some time will open up after my I have class in a couple of weeks.


So Long, Junior

This morning as I was watching Sportscenter I learned that Ken Griffey Jr. had retired after 22 seasons in the Major Leagues. I wrote about Griffey back when he hit his 600th home run, but now that he has retired, I just wanted to make a couple of remarks about his career.

Although I still love baseball and expect that I always will, my obsession with baseball likely reached its peak in the early to mid 90s. At that point I played league baseball every year, watched every Braves game I had access to, spent every cent I could scrape together on packs of baseball cards, and each baseball season I devoted every ounce of free time I could to the imaginary baseball league I created in the back yard (I would play all the games myself and keep stats for all the players; it was pretty awesome in an OCD kind of way).

And during that time, Ken Griffey Jr. was the undisputed king of the baseball world. You could maybe even argue that we was the king of the entire sporting world—everyone respected Michael Jordan, but they liked Griffey. And how could you not? He did everything well and seemed to have such a good time doing it.

As time went on though, Griffey started to suffer through a string of injuries which somewhat limited his production, while at the same time a lot of other players suddenly got really muscular and started jacking home runs in quantities that made Griffey’s numbers look modest by comparison. At the time, Griffey was often overlooked because of this, but in the long run, I think it’s what will secure his legacy—he hit 630 home runs over his 22-year career, and he did it the right way. Only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays could make the same claim, and that’s impressive company.

Finally, Griffey retiring is kind of sad for me personally as it sort of marks the end of an era—the up and coming young superstar of my youth is now too old to play. If “The Kid”—who always wore his hat backwards in batting practice while blowing big bubbles with his gum—has to retire, I guess all of us are getting older, huh?


Life After LOST

I can remember back in the fall of 2005, during my last year in Searcy, when my then-girlfriend-and-now-wife started watching Season One of LOST via Netflicks and would let me borrow them when she was finished.

From the very first episode I was hooked, and now, over four years later, LOST is one of the only shows I have watched all the way through, and it is one show I will truly miss. There have been episodes (and even entire seasons) that I could have lived without, but on the whole, LOST provided a healthy mix of action, escapism and the occasional profound spiritual insight. And when you factor in that this was the first show that Caroline and I really shared together, well, it adds a special level of poignancy for me.

In this, my LOST “tribute” post, I thought I would offer some reflections on the series as a whole. If you don’t watch LOST, well, this probably won’t help you understand the obsession, so you might just want to skip this post.


Clever Details

A major strong point of LOST all along the way has been the attention paid to detail, and how often these details refer back to other events from the series. There are countless examples of this throughout the series, but I’ll just point out a couple.

Very early in the series (maybe even the first episode), Locke explains the game of backgammon to Walt, describing it as “two sides, one light and one dark.” Much later on in Season Six, young Jacob and his brother find and play a similar game, and then come to embody those opposing sides as good and evil.

In the first episode, the series begins with a closeup of Jack opening his eye following the plane crash. The last episode completely mirrors this, and the series ends with a closeup of Jack closing his eye as he dies for the sake of others. This clever framing wasn’t surprising at all, and was very typical of the way LOST alluded to itself (or other events from history, literature, etc.).


From the very beginning of the series, I have always been a huge Jack fan. Jack is intelligent and well-meaning, but the burden of responsibility he feels for the lives of others and his obsession with fixing the problems of others cause him constant problems (I identify strongly with Jack in this regard).

Jack is also very flawed, damaged by an unhealthy relationship with his father, and a constant struggle to find purpose in his existence (this theme grew as the series progressed).

That Jack was able to step up and be the leader in the end who ultimately “fixed” everyone’s problems by giving his life was, to me, very satisfying.

Jack and Kate

I was never a fan of the Jack/Kate/Sawyer love triangle, and I was afraid that Kate and Sawyer would end up together in the end. Jack ending up with Kate and Sawyer being with Juliet was the only way to go in my opinion.

Theological Implications

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about LOST is its overtly religious nature. Characters wrestle with deep spiritual issues, and while I certainly don’t agree with all of the implications that LOST makes, I think it “gets it right” a surprising amount of the time for a Hollywood-produced TV show. A few examples:

The themes of forgiveness and redemption are absolutely huge all throughout the series. After helping to rescue the Oceanic 6 from the island, Jack realizes that it was the wrong thing to do and becomes determined to return to the island so he can atone for his mistake and make things right. Sayid realizes that he has done the wrong thing by siding with the Man in Black and tries to make up for it by taking the bomb away so the others can have a chance to survive. Ilana allows Ben to join up with her group even after he kills Jacob. Jack isn’t able to move on toward the Light until he can resolve his issues with his father through the fantasy relationship with his own son. The list goes on and on, but the main idea remains: forgiveness and redemption are hard, but they’re also important. They come with effort and sacrifice, but it’s worth the effort and sacrifice.

For much of the series, LOST seems to be locked in a wrestling match between the ideas of fate and free will, but in the end, the series is clear: while forces that we have little or no control over might orchestrate our appearances in certain situations, ultimately, we choose what we do in those situations. You might potentially be in a circumstance for a reason, but that means nothing unless you choose to do the right thing. We have the ability to make choices, and those choices determine who we are.

Another point that LOST drives home is that there is more to life than this—what we do on earth isn’t the totality of our existence. What we do here is certainly important—it defines our character and influences what happens afterward (or at least, maybe it does—LOST was a little unclear on that point)—but it’s not all there is. In our materialist, if-you-can’t-observe-it-with-your-senses-it-doesn’t-exist world, this is an important and surprising message.

Finally, I thought that LOST really hammered home the reality of good and evil. A lot of people in our postmodern world try to deny the existence of good and evil, or at least deny it in an absolute sense—something might be evil to me, but that doesn’t necessarily make it evil to you—everything is relative. The character of the Man in Black absolutely affirmed the existence of evil—pure selfish malevolence without any regard for the welfare of others. Admittedly, sometimes the Man in Black appeared to be okay, but that’s true of evil as well; it can mask itself as good.

Final Thoughts

LOST certainly wasn’t a perfect TV show. It presented a lot of plot questions that it never gave satisfactory answers to. Some characters that seemed integral to the plot were killed off, sometimes without any real explanation or any further treatment, while other characters disappointed us at times with their stupid behavior. Entire seasons seemed unnecessary (looking at you, Season Two).

But there was a lot to like as well. In this fantastic, incredibly unrealistic story there was a lot of stark realism. Real life often does pose more questions than answers. People who we know and come to love disappoint us with unexplainable behaviors. Other people who we think will play a major role in our lives just disappear as we lose contact with them.

At the end of the day, LOST told a neat story, got you to care deeply about its characters, and forced you to confront some of the deep concerns of life.

Sounds like a pretty good TV show to me.


Calypso Conundrum

I generally try to avoid Wikipedia.

Not because I’m one of those people who talks about how inaccurate it is, but because I find it to be altogether too fascinating. I’ll go to Wikipedia to read an article on something I’m interested in only to discover links to other articles that I’m interested in, and before I know it, I have 12 tabs open in my browser of different articles and I’ve lost 40 minutes of my life.

I say all that to introduce the fact that the other day I found myself on Harry Belafonte’s page without knowing how I got there. In addition to discovering some interesting facts about his life, I also came across the record cover to Belafonte’s hit album Calypso:

This fascinating photo leads me to two very important questions: (1) Did Harry Belafonte really have 7 fingers on his left hand,
and if he did, (2) Why isn’t this very important fact mentioned in his Wikipedia entry?


Change (But Probably Not The Kind You’re Thinking)

Today when I went home for lunch, I stopped at the grocery store to get a couple of things.

I keep a lot of change in my car, but the change holder is pretty small and is usually overflowing, so I try to take some out to use whenever I go into a store (rather than just getting more change inside and adding to the problem of already having too much change in my car). So I grabbed a handful of change and went inside.

I picked out my few items and took them to the cashier upfront, who scanned them and told me the total was $10.81.

I dug the change from my car out of my pocket and looked at it: a quarter, four dimes, two nickels and six pennies. That’s right, exactly $0.81.

A good day.


Can The Saved Be Lost? A Study Of Hebrews 6.4-6

The Epistle to the Hebrews focuses on the preeminence of Christ as our High Priest, but at multiple points along the way, the author cautions his readers about the dangers of leaving the Christian faith. Of these “warning passages” in Hebrews, Hebrews 6:4-6 is generally considered to be the most forceful and most troublesome. This passage has sparked debate for centuries, and its abuse is one of the reasons why Hebrews was left out of the canon of the church in the West for some time.1

On a surface level, Hebrews 6:4-6 seems to indicate that saved persons who commit apostasy and consciously turn away from their faith can permanently lose their salvation. This contradicts the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, and is therefore the main issue around which battle lines are drawn in the discussion of this passage. Many claim this passage as evidence that salvation can indeed be lost, while those who adhere to Calvinist doctrine argue that these passages are not addressed to true believers, but instead to persons who have been exposed to Christianity but have ultimately rejected it.

In addition to these two major viewpoints, this paper will also present three of the more frequently discussed minority views, which help to give an idea of the different areas of contention and the wide array of interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 which are available.

The two major viewpoints generally agree on both the nature of the sin described in Heb. 6:4-6 and its consequences, but differ as to the identity of the audience to which the Epistle to the Hebrews was written.

The sin described as “fallen away” in Heb. 6:6 is generally interpreted as apostasy, or the “renunciation of the covenant relationship with God.”2 As Neil Lightfoot points out, this specific sin should be distinguished from the regular sins and shortcomings that are a part of our human nature: “Falling short is not the same as falling away. It is one thing to yield to sin contrary to the new life in Christ, it is another thing to abandon that new life altogether.”3

The consequences of this sin are grave indeed, as Hebrews 6:4-6 states that it is “impossible” to restore such persons to repentance. Although many have tried to soften the force of “impossible” over the years,4 modern critics generally reject this approach, arguing that impossible means exactly what it says.5 F. F. Bruce does a good job of harmonizing these thoughts when he says, “God has pledged himself to pardon all who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.”6

Having discussed the aspects of Hebrews 6:4-6 upon which the two major interpretations largely agree, we now turn to the area where disagreement arises: the audience to which the passage was written.

Many scholars believe that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers who are in danger of abandoning their faith and, as a result, losing the salvation they had received. Scot McKnight subscribes to this Saved and Lost interpretation, and supports his argument both with general evidence from throughout the epistle of Hebrews and also with a detailed analysis of the terms used to describe the audience in Hebrews 6:4-5. First, McKnight notes that the Hebrew writer at times identifies himself with the audience by using the first person plural pronoun “we,” and multiple times refers to his audience as “brothers.” These terms indicate that the author did not see his audience as insincere believers, but rather as fellow believers with whom he shares a spiritual relationship because of their common faith.7 In Hebrews 6:4-5 the Hebrew writer describes his audience as “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come.”8 McKnight points to these descriptions as further evidence, saying that collectively, they depict the conversions experienced by his audience. McKnight concludes, “Phenomenologically, the author believes [the audience] to be, and presents them as, believers in the fullest sense possible.”9 Speaking of this same descriptive passage, Grant R. Osborne puts it even more forcefully, saying that “it is nearly impossible to relegate these descriptions to non-Christians.”10

Even opponents of the Saved and Lost argument admit that it is the most natural interpretation if the Hebrews 6:4-6 passage is considered on its own.11 However, by looking at the pericope in the context of the whole of Scripture, they conclude that the warning passages must refer to people who are very aware of Christianity and have experienced some of its benefits, but were never true believers themselves. This interpretation allows the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints to stand. Wayne Grudem supports this Pseudo-Christian interpretation, and claims that although the terms used in Hebrews 6:4-5 to describe the audience could apply to true believers, they could also “apply to people who were not yet Christians but who had simply heard the gospel and had experienced several of the blessings of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Christian community.”12 Philip Hughes concurs, pointing to New Testament figures such as Judas Iscariot, Simon Magus, and Demas as individuals to whom the descriptive terms could be applied but were not true believers.13

Although the Saved and Lost and Pseudo-Christian viewpoints are the two dominant interpretations of Hebrews 6:4-6 and represent the vast majority of scholars and commentators, there are a few minority views as well, and we will now turn our attention to a brief description of these.

First is the Hypothetical interpretation, which suggests that the Hebrew writer is giving a description of what would happen if a true believer were to fall away, even though such an event could never really occur since true believers cannot fall away.14 This theory is supported by Thomas Hewitt, among others, who says it “has much in its favor and little against it. It in no way contradicts other passages of Scripture, neither is it in conflict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.”15 Although this view takes the apparent Christianity of the audience at face value and does not contradict with the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, it is not without problems. As David B. Armistead points out, “A severe warning against an impossible case serves no purpose whatsoever….”16 Philip Hughes goes even further in criticizing this view, saying that for the author to speak of an impossible scenario as if it could truly happen to his readers in order to frighten them into being better Christians would be “subchristian and incompatible with the whole tenor of the epistle.”17

Another minority perspective on Hebrews 6:4-6 is Verlyn D. Verbrugge’s Community interpretation. Verbrugge claims that the metaphor of the thorn-producing land that is cursed by God in Hebrews 6:7-8 forms the basis for verses 4-6, and is itself based on the Old Testament passage of Isaiah 5:1-7, which is directed toward the nation of Israel.18 Against this backdrop, Verbrugge concludes that the Hebrew writer is primarily concerned with addressing the “covenant community and not the individual child of God. Thus when we read of the falling away and of God’s subsequent rejection, it is rejection of a community that is in focus.”19 Basically, Verbrugge manages to avoid the implications of the Saved and Lost view by arguing that the author of Hebrews is not addressing individual believers, but rather a local body of the church. Although critics of this view applaud Verbrugge’s recognition of the emphasis the Hebrew writer puts on the Christian community, they ultimately think he ignores the even stronger emphasis placed on the individual, and also find his argument of Hebrews 6:7-8 directly relating to Isa. 5:1-7 to be unconvincing.20

A final perspective to consider is the Christian Maturity interpretation, which suggests that Hebrews 6:4-6 is addressed to true believers and warns not against apostasy, but a “decisive refusal to mature” in the Christian life.21 Proponents of this view disagree about the exact consequences of failing to heed the warning that the Hebrew writer gives, but they agree that eternal salvation is not at stake. Drawing largely on the metaphor of the thorn-infested ground in Hebrews 6:7-8, Thomas K. Oberholtzer sees eschatological implications, and argues that the result of continued immaturity in the Hebrews audience is not a loss of eternal salvation, but a loss of rewards in the millennial kingdom.22 Randall C. Gleason sees extensive parallels between the believers described in Hebrews 6:4-5 and the Israelites who refused to enter the land of Canaan at Kadesh-Barnea, and argues that the immature Christians of Hebrews 6 run the risk of physical death, possibly during the impending destruction of Jerusalem23 (Gleason assumes that Hebrews was written to Jewish believers living “not far from Jerusalem.”24). Both veins of the Christian Maturity view are rejected by other scholars for multiple reasons.25

The entire debate over the proper interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 is centered around the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Those who reject this doctrine have little problem accepting the passage at face value, while those who affirm it are compelled to conclude either that the passage does not refer to true believers, or that the consequences of apostasy must be something other than the loss of eternal salvation.

With the three minority views all possessing significant problems, it seems that the best interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6 must come from one of the two dominant views, which disagree about the audience to which the passage was written. Although the Pseudo-Christian view has been popular for centuries and makes some good arguments, it also approaches the passage with too much presupposition and from the outset tries to make it mean something other than what it seems to mean. The Saved and Lost interpretation, on the other hand, takes the Hebrew writer at his word, and therefore seems to be the best. After all, what more could the author have said to show that he was writing to true believers than what he already did?

• • •

1Roger Nicole, “Some Comments on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Doctrine of the Perseverance of God with the Saints,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation; Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney presented by his Former Students, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 355.
2Alan Mugridge, “Warnings in the Epistle to the Hebrews: An Exegetical and Theological Study,” Reformed Theological Review 46 (September-December 1987): 77.
3Neil R. Lightfoot, Jesus Christ Today: A Commentary on the Book of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 126.
4Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Peril of Apostasy,” Westminster Theological Journal 35, no. 2 (Winter 1973): 144-45.
5William L. Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 47A (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 142; David B. Armistead, “The ‘Believer’ who Falls Away: Heb 6:4-6 and the Perseverance of the Saints,” Stulos Theological Journal 4, no. 2 (1996): 140-44.
6F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990): 149.
7Scot McKnight, “The Warning Passages of Hebrews: A Formal Analysis and Theological Conclusions,” Trinity Journal 13 (Spring 1992) 43.
8All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.
9McKnight, 44-48.
10Grant R. Osborne, “A Classical Arminian View,” in Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews, ed. Herbert W. Bateman IV (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 112.
11Wayne Grudem, “Perseverance of the Saints: A Case Study from the Warning Passages in Hebrews,” in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge & Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce Ware (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 137; Armistead, 144.
12Grudem, 171-72.
13Hughes, 149-150.
14Grudem, 152.
15Thomas Hewitt, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960): 110-11.
16Armistead, 139.
17Hughes, 144.
18Verlyn D. Verbrugge, “Towards a New Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6,” Calvin Theological Journal 15, no.1 (April 1980): 62-65.
19Verbrugge, 62.
20McKnight, 53-54; Robert A. Peterson, “Apostasy in the Hebrews Warning Passages,” Presbyterion 34, no.1 (Spring 2008): 27-29.
21Randall C. Gleason, “The Old Testament Background of the Warning in Hebrews 6:4-8,” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (January-March 1998): 81-82.
22Thomas K. Oberholtzer, “The Warning Passages in Hebrews Part 3 (of 5 parts): The Thorn-Infested Ground in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (July-September 1988): 319-28.
23Gleason, 78-89.
24Randall C. Gleason, “A Moderate Reformed View,” in Bateman, 337-40.
25Grudem, 151-52; Brent Nongbri, “A Touch of Condemnation in a Word of Exhortation: Apocalyptic Language and Graeco-Roman Rhetoric in Hebrews 6:4-12,” Novum Testamentum 45, no. 3 (2003): 268-69; Grant R. Osborne, “Classical Arminian Response,” in Bateman, 378-95; Buist M. Fanning, “Classical Reformed Response,” in Bateman, 396-414.

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