Church Write-Up: Snakes with Legs; Luke’s Census; Shepherds; Dominion; Healing Atonement; Advent; “Let Me Out”; the Way to Repentance

Here are some items from the church services that I attended last Sunday.  I visited the “Word of Faith” church and the Missouri Synod Lutheran church.

A.  The pastor of the “Word of Faith” church was saying that snakes used to have legs, on the basis of Genesis 3:14, where God tells the serpent that the serpent will crawl on his belly as punishment for his deed.  The implication, according to the pastor, is that the serpent did not crawl on his belly before that curse.  I wondered if snakes used to have legs, according to a scientific or evolutionist perspective.  Blue whales, after all, used to be land creatures.  I found this NPR article: How Snakes Lost Their Legs.

B.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church mentioned a discussion that he had with a skeptical friend.  The friend was saying that Luke 2:1-5 was wrong about the date of Caesar Augustus’ census: that it occurred later than Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus, in 6 C.E., rather than during it, as Luke narrates.  The pastor seemed open to the possibility that Luke was not accurate about the exact date of the census.  This somewhat surprised me, since he appears to treat the Gospel nativity accounts as historical.  He did not elaborate too much on his view here, but he asked why Luke mentions the census, rather than simply telling the nativity story as Matthew did.  The pastor said that Luke-Acts was part of Paul’s defense before the emperor, and Luke 2:1-5 was arguing that God can work through corrupt political systems, such as that of Caesar Augustus, whose census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus.  The pastor also said that Luke 2:1-5 had in mind Augustus’ claim to be the Son of God and the inaugurator of a new era: in Luke 2:1-5, Augustus plays a role in the inauguration of a new era, but the Son of God and actual inaugurator would be Jesus.

I have encountered that idea about Luke-Acts before.  Some have claimed that the reason that the death of Paul is not narrated in Acts is that it was written before Paul died, and this would be consistent with the claim that it was composed by Luke as part of Paul’s defense.  Several scholars do not share this idea, though.

I wrote about the census of Luke 2:1-5 here, detailing problems scholars have had with Luke’s historical placement of the census.  But I briefly mention in that post a scholarly attempt to defend Luke’s historical placement of the census as accurate.

I find something that Richard Carrier said about Luke’s historical placement of the census to be interesting.  In this article, Carrier argues that Luke relied heavily on Josephus.  But that raises a question: how could Luke be relying on Josephus, when Luke appears to place the Augustan census at a different time in history than does Josephus, who places it in 6 C.E.?  Carrier argues that Luke is being deliberate here:

“Josephus uses the census as a key linchpin in his story, the beginning of the wicked faction of Jews that would bring down Judaea (and the temple), whereas Luke transvalues this message by making this census the linchpin for God’s salvation for the world, namely the birth of Christ (which also would result in destruction of the temple)…”

For both Josephus and Luke, according to Carrier, the Augustan census instigated a highly significant series of events.  For Josephus, it marked the rise of the Jewish insurrectionists who later would contribute to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the main event that Josephus discusses in Jewish Wars.   For Luke, it marked the birth of the Savior of the world.  Luke also believed that the census related to the destruction of Jerusalem, albeit differently from Josephus.  The census marked the birth of Jesus, and, for Luke, the destruction of Jerusalem was due to Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus (Luke 13:34).

C.  The pastor at the “Word of Faith” church said that shepherds were “church-skippers”: they did not go to synagogue or the Temple because they were busy watching their sheep, and they were not considered particularly trustworthy.  Yet, in Luke 2:8-20, the shepherds are the ones to whom the angels appear, and whom the angels tell about the birth of Jesus.  The angels tell them about the significance of Jesus’ birth: to bring peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.  They go to see the infant Jesus, praising God.

I wrote about this view about shepherds here.  I have questions about that view, as I write there.  Still, the pastor’s interpretation is consistent with the message of Luke’s Gospel: that Jesus came to save the unrighteous and the outsiders, those who may not even have thought much about God.  God still honored the “church-attenders” when Jesus was an infant: in Luke 2:25-36, Simeon and Anna, who were devout worshipers at the Temple, got to see the Christ child and appreciated his significance.  But, according to the pastor’s interpretation, God reached out to the “church-skippers” as well.

D.  The “Word of Faith” pastor said that the Gospel is about Christians, as God’s new creation, having dominion over creation, a la Genesis 1:28.  He said that dominion belongs to humans, not to gazelles.  But humans have exercised that dominion poorly.  That is why God recreated humanity.  There may be something to this, when it comes to a Christian reading of the Bible.  I wondered if the pastor was leaning towards political dominionism, and that would be surprising because, ordinarily, he is politically neutral when it comes to Left-Right distinctions.  I remember hearing Pat Robertson say on TV that a person who is not ruled by the Spirit of God has no business ruling in government.  I am not so optimistic, though, considering the damage that religious people have inflicted when they had political authority.  I am not saying that secular authorities are that much better—-there are plenty of secular authorities that have inflicted damage—-but why are there so many cases in which Christians in governing positions fail to bring about peace and justice, and, in some cases, even work against them?

E.  The “Word of Faith” pastor also said that Jesus came to heal humanity’s hatred of God.  We hate God, he said, in that we do not care for God’s command that we place God first, and also in that some things about the God of the Bible rub us the wrong way.  But God healed this division, and we see that God is a loving Father.  This sounded like a subjective view of the atonement—-like the moral influence view—-or he may believe that God through the Holy Spirit heals people’s personal alienation from God.

F.  The pastor at the Missouri Synod church said that “advent” means coming in strength or with enthusiasm.  He said that “ad” in the Latin meant “strength,” while “vent” refers to “coming.”  I knew that “vent” meant coming.  I thought that “ad,” however, meant “to” or “toward.”  I was right.

According to this author, though, “advent” was often used for to refer to military arrival, or the arrival of royalty.  Maybe the pastor was correct on his main point, but not on the basis of his analysis of the word “advent.”  I admit that I have not done a search of the term, though.  This and this dictionary on antiquities state that it was used for the Roman emperor’s arrival, which was commemorated in coins, so it makes sense that it would come to be used for the arrival of Christ.

G.  The Missouri Synod pastor relayed a story that was told by Paul Harvey about a chimpanzee who was taught sign language, and the first thing that the chimpanzee said was, “Let me out!”, meaning out of his cage.  Here is the story.  The pastor employed that story to make a homiletical point, but I felt sorry for the chimpanzee.

H.  Using personal and chimpanzee-related anecdotes, the Missouri Synod pastor addressed the question of how we can possibly repent, when many of us are locked into certain mindsets.  That is a good question.  I wonder the same thing myself so many times.  How can I “turn” from sin, when sin is ingrained within me?  I have a “confession” part of my prayer times, and I often give my flaws to God rather than making a vain promise that I will, by the strength of my own will, cease having those flaws.  In some areas, though, I make a sincere attempt to avoid making the same mistakes, since they can be hurtful to others.

The youth pastor talked about Luke 3:10-14, where John the Baptist gave practical advice about how to repent: share what you have with those who lack; tax collectors should collect only what they are authorized; soldiers should be content with their wages rather than forcibly extorting money from people.  That was a point that also stood out to me in a book that I read over a decade ago: Pastor Gerald Mann’s When the Bad Times Are Over for Good.  I did not particularly care for that book, but two chapters, the one on grace and the one on practical repentance and obedience, have stayed with me for almost twenty years.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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One Response to Church Write-Up: Snakes with Legs; Luke’s Census; Shepherds; Dominion; Healing Atonement; Advent; “Let Me Out”; the Way to Repentance

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