Here are some items from last Sunday’s LCMS church activities.
A. The main Scripture of the service was John 3, in which Jesus has a secret conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and Nicodemus incredulously wonders how a man can go into his mother’s womb a second time. We had a skit in which the prosecutor interrogated Nicodemus. Nicodemus said that he first became interested in Jesus after Jesus displayed passion for God by cleansing the Temple. Nicodemus, too, disliked the selling that went on in the Temple, for it made the Temple look like a marketplace. But he tolerated it, since at least it made the Temple some money.
B. I am wondering what exactly the setting of these skits is supposed to be. I initially thought that the setting was Jesus’s trial, but Nicodemus was talking as if Jesus had already died and was buried, so that must not be it. At the same time, the prosecutor was saying that perhaps Jesus should be found not guilty by reason of insanity, after hearing that Jesus had said one must be born again.
C. Aside from the question of setting, the prosecutor’s statement about insanity got me thinking about Nicodemus’s bafflement at Jesus’s statement. Over two decades ago, I read John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus, and MacArthur doubted that Nicodemus in John 3 interpreted Jesus literally to be saying that a person had to be physically born a second time. For MacArthur, Nicodemus’s problem was spiritual: he did not want to repent and surrender to God, which going into one’s mother’s womb a second time symbolized. One might think that the Jewish authorities would recognize simile and metaphor when they saw them, both from a common sense standpoint and also because rabbinic literature includes figurative language. But, in the Gospel of John, people appear to be more obtuse than that. Nicodemus misunderstands “born again.” The woman at the well in John 4 thinks that Jesus is saying she can literally drink a certain kind of water and never thirst again, meaning she need not come to the well anymore. The Jews in John 6 ask incredulously how Jesus can give them his flesh to eat. They interpret Jesus hyper-literally, and thus Jesus’s word make no sense to them. C.S. Lewis popularized the “Lord-Liar-Lunatic” trilemma: either Jesus is God as he claims, or he is insane, like someone who claims to be a poached egg. Interestingly, Jesus’s critics heard him and thought that he was insane (John 10:20).
D. The pastor commented that Jesus’s critics thought Jesus was being illogical, yet Jesus had logic. John 1 calls him the logos, after all, a term used for the order that underlies the cosmos. Jesus’s logic is that we cannot save ourselves but need God to save us. Nicodemus asked if he himself needed to go into his mother’s womb a second time, as if Nicodemus needed to act. Jesus, however, stressed that Jesus came from heaven and was God’s way of salvation.
E. The Sunday school class will be studying the Book of Hosea. Specifically, the pastor will focus on passages in Hosea that the New Testament quotes. In the first session, the pastor gave background about Hosea. Northern Israel was prosperous, and Israel’s enemies were in a such a state of disarray that they largely left Israel alone. Israel felt that she was doing just fine with God, and Israel in her prosperity forgot God. We, too, tend to forget God when things are going well. True, but Israel did not figure that it needed no religion at all, for it worshiped Baal. I may ask about that in the future, though I am shy about asking questions.
F. The pastor said that Hosea was grouped with the Twelve because the Jews liked fives. The Pentateuch consisted of five books, so the Jews who put together the Hebrew Bible grouped other things into five. In the case of the prophets, they had five books: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Book of the Twelve. The point that arises in my mind, of course, is that the Jewish Tanak places Daniel in the Writings section, not in the Prophets section. Moreover, the prophetic writings of the Tanak include, not only books such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, but also Joshua and I-II Samuel. There may still be something to what the pastor is saying, though. The Jews did like to groups things in five: the Book of Psalms has five sections, for example. Plus, the Septuagint includes Daniel among the prophetic writings.
G. The pastor talked about how prophets became institutionalized as an office, such that people could be trained to be prophets, as occurred in the prophetic schools of Elijah and Elisha. God sometimes called prophets charismatically, as he did with Amos, who was not an official prophet. But there was also a prophetic office. I wondered how a person could be “trained” to be a prophet: either one heard from God or one did not. Can one be “trained” to hear from God? Well, in modern day charismatic circles, there is such a notion. Was that the case back then? The pastor replied by saying that people may have been part of multi-generational prophetic families, and they were waiting to hear the divine call; he also said that prophets were the prototypes to the scribes, the interpreters of the law, which would make them preachers who can receive training. A lady in the class remarked that, even if official prophets did not hear from God, they could still claim to do so and deliver a false message, like the false prophets in the Bible. In the Book of Isaiah, Isaiah’s school preserves and passes on his sayings (Isaiah 8). Isaiah hears from God, and his students pass on (and even interpret) what Isaiah hears. That scenario does not really fit the prophetic schools of Elijah and Elisha, who did not write books. Still, perhaps their students continued their legacy. I recall a presentation that someone delivered about prophecy at Hebrew Union College. The presenter went into studies about traditional as opposed to charismatic prophecy, and, unfortunately, I do not remember the meat of what she said. The Anchor Bible Dictionary did not entirely help on this. It did say that, in some countries of the ancient Near East, institutional prophecy included divination, and my guess is that this would entail training. How do you read the goat entrails? The biblical religion shies away from divination, though. Were people appointed to prophetic office after they manifested gifts? Could gifts be passed on to students, as Elijah did with Elisha?
H. Some of the things that were said brought to my mind scholarly discussions. The youth pastor said that Nicodemus probably became a believer because he took care of Jesus’s body after Jesus’s death, which was not done for criminals. That brings to mind the debate that Bart Ehrman put on the table about whether Jesus was historically buried. Acts 13:28-29 says that the Jewish leaders as a group buried Jesus. When Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried Jesus in John 19:38-40, was that out of piety, or were they acting as representatives of the Sanhedrin? Could it be both: someone at the Sanhedrin needed to bury Jesus, since that was its job, and, out of their devotion to Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus volunteered?
I. The pastor said that Hosea treats Israel’s time in the wilderness after the Exodus as a honeymoon (see Hosea 2:15), in contrast with her forgetfulness of God amidst prosperity. After the Exodus, Israel was in love with God; Jeremiah 2:2-3 follows that vein. The pastor contrasted that with how the Pentateuch depicts the wilderness period: Israel complains, and God sends serpents to bite the Israelites. Scholars have held that these reflect different traditions about the wilderness period. Many of them would doubt that the Pentateuch’s wilderness stories are historical but rather reflect later political agendas: the dispute between the priests and the Levites, for instance. If one wants to treat both the positive and negative traditions about Israel’s wilderness period as historical, I suppose one can. Israel was enthusiastic about God at first but then complained, or God at times chooses to look at Israel through rose-colored glasses, or to focus on the positive rather than the negative.