November 29, 2009

The lion and the lamb in SW GA

I had the privilege of teaching a combined group of adult Sunday School classes this morning at Americus First UMC down in Americus, GA (where Habitat for Humanity's headquarters is located among other things) and it was a great way to end a trip home for Thanksgiving. The adults there, most of whom were in the 50s-70s age range, were awesome. It's so great to come across adults who realize what it means to be lifelong learners.

The subject of my talk was interpreting the book of Revelation, with a specific focus on the theme of apocalyptic irony and upside-down symbolism in the book. This is one of the most helpful keys to interpreting Revelation without going off into doctrinal crazyland, as so many have done in the past. We looked at how in Revelation, Jesus is said to be a "Lion", but is seen in reality as a slaughtered "Lamb" (ch.5). Likewise, the faithful servants of God who are sealed and protected from the "wrath of the Lamb" (a seemingly oxymoronic statement if there ever was one!) are said to be "144,000" from "the tribes of Israel", but they immediately are seen in reality to be "an innumerable multitude" from "every tribe, language, people group and nation" (ch.7).

Thus, the 144,000 who are sealed are in reality all those who "follow the Lamb wherever He goes"...even if that path should lead to suffering persecution and ultimately death (chs. 7 & 14). It's not some class of super-saints who will enjoy a closer existence with God in an etheral "Heaven" while the rest of God's people live forever here on earth (as Jehovah's Witnesses often teach), nor is it confined to ethnic Jews who come to faith in Jesus during the "Great Tribulation" 7 (or 3-and-a-half, depending on who you talk to!) years before Jesus sets up a Millennial earthly kingdom in Israel (as many Rapture-Theology proponents have taught). The 144,000 of Revelation are all God's faithful followers, willing to lay down their lives for the One who laid down His life for them, depicted through Apocalpytic prophetic imagery as the true "army of Israelites"...with the true "Lion of Judah" being the slain Lamb leading the charge!

Revelation is such an amazing book!


November 22, 2009

The struggle of studying Scripture

Here's the intro from my DVD curriculum "Bible for the Rest of Us", where we discuss the struggle involved in studying the Bible, why it's okay to experience such a struggle, and the importance of community in engaging in the struggle.

Anyone interested in pre-ordering a copy of the full set of DVDs can email me at The cost for the entire course is $100 and includes PDFs of the participant's workbook.

Also, those who have taken the course already at GSUMC or AFUMC get a %50 discount!

November 15, 2009

Why you want to be 'Left Behind' (video from my course on Bible interp)

So to piggyback off of my last post (and since I'm currently working on a course covering End Times views for next semester), here's a segment from my Bible for the Rest of Us course. The section is on famous passages in Scripture that have been misinterpreted over the years. And I can't think of a more misinterpreted passage than Jesus' words in Matt.24...

November 12, 2009

Critiquing Beth Moore...this could be dangerous! :)

Let's face it...Christians, particularly Christian women--particularly Southern Baptist Christian women!--love Beth Moore.

That's an saying "Catholics love the Pope."

Christian women LOVE Beth Moore.

And what's not to love? She's encouraging, witty, humorous, self-deprecating, candid, smart, a snazzy dresser, and (I gotta admit) a good lookin' lady!

More than that, her Bible studies (of which there are a bazillion--now thankfully available in stores other than Lifeway!) are like crack to the women (and even men!) who participate in them.

Seriously, how many people do you know who've done a Beth Moore study and haven't then done a dozen more?

I know from my experience as a former Pastor of Discipleship who oversaw the church's small group ministry! I couldn't keep these studies on the shelf in my office, and was constantly asked if the church could buy the newest one for this or that women's group!

Most of the time I was happy to oblige because even though they do not target my demographic (18-40 yr old males), I could see that they were really helping grow people's faith and study of Scripture.

The only study of hers that I ever had reservations about, from a Pastoral perspective, was her "Daniel: Lives of Integrity, Words of Prophecy." However, I truly believe people benefit from hearing opposing theological views, so I didn't want to tell the group asking to do it that they could not--especially since Beth did try to lay out other End Times views in the study and stated that good faithful Christians did not always agree with the view she was presenting.

So instead of saying no, I told them to wait a few weeks so I could go over the study and see how best to incorporate it into small group ministry at Good Shepherd.

I purchased the participant's guide and proceeded to work through it. I was pleased at how good the first half of it was. Other than the sentimental language that Beth is (in)famous for ("precious one", "dear sister", etc.), I found the first 5 sessions of the study to be very well done and insightful.

However, the second half of the study is where Beth's theological sketchiness begins to emerge. By sketchiness, I mean her adherence to the recent theological system of thought known as Premillennial Dispensationalism. This view is widespread among evangelical Christians--particularly Southern Baptist and Charismatic brothers and sisters--but is a recent innovation in theology from a church-history perspective.

So rather than veto the study, I decided to take Beth up on her advice to participants throughout the book that they check with their pastors and church leaders for different perspectives (something I commend her for including!). I came up with an appendix to the study that I printed out and included in the leader's guide to the study. This way, the group could do the Daniel study, get Beth's insights, be exposed to the system of theology presented in it, and then be made aware of how it contrasts with more theologically sound views (of various traditions from church history, not just Good Shepherd's) held by the entirety of faithful Christians for the first 1800+ years of Christian history.

Below are the leader notes I appended, which I encourage anyone from any church who does Beth's Daniel study to use as well. The page number in the Daniel: Lives of Integrity, Words of Prophecy Participant's book is given, followed by a topic or quote from Beth along with my notes in response.

“Daniel: Lives of Integrity Words of Prophecy”
(Participants’ Workbook)

By Beth Moore

*Notes reflecting what many evangelicals
believe to be a more Biblical approach
to the study of Daniel, Revelation,
and Eschatology in general.*
Copyright - James-Michael Smith, 2009

Session 6

[p.119]: Babylon

Moore takes Babylon quite literally. However, in Scripture, Babylon as well as Jerusalem and Egypt function both literarily and symbolically on different occasions—context determines which is the case in any given passage.

[pp.120-121]: Rev.18

Many, if not most, evangelical scholars hold that:

  • Babylon” is primarily symbolic of the Roman Empire in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD

  • Babylon’s fall” describes primarily the coming fall of Rome to John’s original readers.

  • Such a fall of the mighty Roman empire foreshadows the fall of all worldly evil empires at Christ’s return.

  • To try to identify “Babylon” as a literal city or state in the future obscures the point of the passage and often misleads the reader into trying to identify a particular ‘Babylon’ in current world events instead of seeing the bigger picture of universal evil being defeated by Christ.

Session 7

[p.136]: “One is to develop a working knowledge of the dispensational-primillennial model of understanding the end-time events…My hope is that you’ll be able to chart end-time events on a timeline in potential chronological order by the conclusion of our series…Check with your pastor and other teachers. Ask their views and their recommendations of sound materials they’d suggest.” -Beth Moore

Note: A Disclaimer about Pre-mill Dispensationalism

While it is good to be familiar with all views on end-time events, many evangelicals thoroughly reject the model taught by Dispensational Premillennial teachers and believe “charting” end-time events to be of relatively little importance, as it can sometimes force a pattern onto the text that the text itself may not be speaking of.

Dispensational Premillennialism originated with John Nelson Darby in 19th century England and was popularized by C.I. Scofield, D.L. Moody, and Charles Ryrie. Dallas Theological Seminary was founded in order to train pastors and teachers in this view and many of the scholars Moore quotes from in this study are DTS graduates. Despite its popularity, Dispensational Premillennialism is held by very few Christians outside of North America and Australia (and almost no Christians before the 1850s) and is not borne out by a careful reading of Scripture. For a thorough critique of Dispensationalism from an evangelical Methodist standpoint, we recommend the section on Dispensationalism in Ben Witherington’s book The Problem with Evangelical Theology (Baylor Univ. Press, 2006).

However, Moore’s acknowledgement of the multiple views held by others is commendable and should be emphasized.

[p.141]: On Daniel’s vision of the beasts and kings: “Basically, two possibilities exist for fulfillment of this prophecy. It must either apply to ancient Rome or it must be yet future.” – Beth Moore

  • This is a false dichotomy. Apocalyptic literature is much more fluid and images frequently function as both referents to then-current events as well as a broader future fulfillment.

[p.141]: We presently live in the church age, but the 10 kings prophesied in Daniel 7 may emerge in the future. Many scholars ‘hold that the time of the 10 horns is yet future, that the present church age is not seen in this vision, and that the 10 kings will coexist over a future revived [or realigned] Roman Empire.’” –Beth Moore

  • This interpretation by Walvoord—a dispensationalist scholar—is based on many other assumptions. The primary one with which we disagree is that the “church age” is not envisioned. Dispensationalists see the Church as a type of “historical parentheses”, a period in history when God puts His dealings with His other people, Israel, on hold.

[p.146]: On Characteristics of the Anti-Christ

  • The Anti-Christ may be a future individual, but may also be a corporate evil symbolized by a human figure in Scripture. The passages which Moore notes when describing the Anti-Christ are not speaking primarily of a future individual when read in their contexts.

[p.146]: On “Israel” as God’s People: “This could be the nation of Israel (as His covenant and chosen people), Christians, or both.” -Beth Moore

[p.149 and 151]: “The ‘woman’ symbolizes the nation of Israel…Compared in their contexts, they refer to a horrific season of unparalleled persecution through which God will sustain Israel as a nation.” “Dispensationalists understand Israel to be a people of God distinct from the church.” -Beth Moore

  • This again is a mistaking of the modern nation of Israel with the Biblical concept of God’s people. The result is that now there are two “peoples of God”—Israel and the Church. But this is not a Biblically sound notion. There is only one “People of God”—those who believe in and follow the Messiah, Jesus (cf. Ephesians ch.2). This ‘People of God’ is made up of both Jews (Messianic Jews) and Gentiles (non-Jewish followers of Jesus).

Session 8

[p.166]: On Israel and the Church: I believe God has two distinct peoples: national Israel and the church.” –Beth Moore

  • See comments above regarding the concept of “two peoples of God.”

[p.166]: On Paul’s writings: Chapters 9-11 of the Book of Romans contain very difficult passages to understand fully. Paul wrote them under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and yet I believe even he found them beyond human comprehension…” – Beth Moore

  • This is an opinion that most evangelical scholars do not share. Inspiration does not mean that the author did not understand what he wrote; it means that God superintended what was written to preserve it from error. [For more on the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration of Scripture, we recommend “The Living Word of God” by Ben Witherington and “The Blue Parakeet” by Scot McKnight.]

[p.167]: A look at the “Tribulation” See the hand-outs, “Assumptions within the Pre-Trib Dispensationalist view” and “A Conversation between a Pre-Trib Dispensationalist and an Amillennialist” (available by email request)

[p.168]: “The nation of Israel will endure and emerge from the future terror of the Antichrist…” -Beth Moore

  • The Israel spoken of in the Bible is, again, not the current political nation of Israel. Rather, it is the “Israel of God”—those who follow the Messiah, both Jew and Gentile united under the New Covenant, and are therefore God’s People. (cf. Psa. 73:1, Jer. 31:31, Rom. 9:6, Gal. 6:15-16, Eph. 2:11-13, 3:6, Rev. 7)

[p.168]: On “Christ’s secret return partway to the earth…”:

  • There is nothing in Scripture about Christ “secretly” returning to rapture believers to Heaven. The only passage that can be appealed to as speaking of a “rapture” is 1Thes. 4:13-18. Yet when read in context, there is nothing “secret” about this event—it is accompanied by trumpet blast and a loud shout.

  • Rather than describing a secret rapture, the 1Thessalonians passage is describing the return of Christ to reign in power and execute final judgment. The imagery of “meeting the Lord in the air” is a well-known image of a Roman Triumphant Procession whereby after a tremendous victory, citizens of the city would go out into the countryside to meet their victorious ruler and accompany him back to the city where he reigns in power. This is Paul’s metaphor for Christ’s triumphant return to earth as true victorious emperor of all creation.

[p.171]: On “the days of Noah…”

The Dispensational Premillennial view that Jesus’ words about some being “taken” and others being “left behind” referring to a rapture does not hold up under a close reading of the text. Note Jesus’ words carefully:

37As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. 42 "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. Matthew 24:37-42

The ones “taken” in the days of Noah were those who were taken away by the flood judgment. The ones who were “left behind” were Noah and his family. The idea that this is referring to a rapture and that believers will be “taken” is actually the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying! Only those who are faithful will be “left behind” after God’s judgment on the world—just as Noah and family were left behind after God’s judgment on the world and Lot and his daughters were “left behind” after God’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Session 9

[p.179] On “Many wonderful things will also happen toward the end…”

  • The outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17) happened at Pentacost. It is not a future event waiting to happen. The events Moore is talking about began happening after Jesus’ ascension and will continue until the end.

Session 11

[pp.223-224] On Matt. 25:32:

  • Jesus’ words “these brothers of mine” are not referring specifically to the Jews. Jesus said, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:48-50) Jesus’ “brothers” are His followers. This is something that the Dispensational Premillennial view seems to miss.

  • The Bible Knowledge Commentary which Moore repeatedly refers to is a Dispensational Premillenial commentary by John Walvoord and Roy Zuck—two classical Dispensational teachers. It contains many interpretations that simply go far beyond the text of Scripture. An example of this is found on p.224 beginning with the phrase “A Gentile going out of his way to assist a Jew in the Tribulation will…” This is not found anywhere in Scripture and is a conclusion that is based on a prior system of Dispensational tribulation hypotheticals.

Concluding comments:

Overall, the applications Beth Moore makes in her Daniel study are excellent and many of her historical points are insightful and quite accurate, particularly in first 5 sessions. However, because she adopts a prior Dispensational Premillennial theology, including a Pre-Tribulation Rapture of believers, many of her conclusions about various key passages in Scripture are based not on the context of the passage, but rather on the system of interpretation that she has been taught. The Futurist reading by Dispensationalists of the second half of Daniel—as well as Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) and the book of Revelation—results in much speculation and the ignoring of certain historical events, which the texts primarily refer to.

Those who do this study should make a point of doing a study or taking a course by other evangelical teachers and scholars, which can offer a corrective to the popular Dispensational theology put forth by Beth Moore. Thus, they will be better equipped to separate the many good points and insights Beth presents from the faulty premises upon which much of her eschatology is based.

Iron sharpening iron,

James-Michael Smith

Methodist Examiner

So I hope people who read this will see that while I respect Beth Moore and don't think her studies should be avoided or burned as heretical, I do believe that the system of End Times folk-theology which she has been taught and which she in turn is passing on through this study is what needs to be "Left Behind."

Bracing for inevidable death-threats from the multitudes of angry Christian women,



ps: For more of my articles on things pertaining to Prophecy and End Times click here

November 10, 2009

November 2, 2009

Resource Review: Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary, vol.1

ZIBBCOT, Vol.1 – Genesis-Deuteronomy

For over a century, studies comparing the OT and the ancient Near East have hovered on the fringe of hermeneutics and exegesis. Since these studies were at times exploited by critical scholars for polemical attacks against the biblical text, evangelicals were long inclined to avoid or even vilify them…Ever since the discovery of the Babylonian flood and creation accounts, critical scholarship has been attempting to demonstrate that the OT is derivative literature, a disadvantaged step-sister to the dominant cultures of the ancient Near East. These scholars have attempted to reduce the OT to converted mythology whose dependency exposes its humanity…It is no surprise, then, that evangelicals have often rejected the claims of these critical schools of thought. (p.viii)

Thus begins Zondervan International Bible Backgrounds Commentary on the Old Testament, vol.1 - Genesis-Deuteronomy (ZIBBCOT). The opening essay on methodology, from which this quote is taken, then goes on to lay out the purpose of ZIBBCOT:

There is, however, nothing inherently damaging to orthodox theology and beliefs about the Bible if its authors were interacting at various levels with the literature current in the culture. All literature is dependent on the culture in which it arises—it must be, if it intends to communicate effectively…The biblical text, in other words, formulated its discussion in relation to the thinking found in the ancient literature. It should be no surprise, then, if areas of similarity are found. This is far different from the contention that Israelite literature is simply derivative mythology. There is a great distanced between borrowing from a particular piece of literature (as has been claimed in critical circles) and resonating with the larger culture that has itself been influenced by is literature…some genres will operate differently in the ancient world than they do in our own culture, so we must become familiar with the mechanics of the genres represented in the ancient Near East. (p.viii-ix)

Volume 1 of ZIBBCOT explores this relationship between the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy) and the surrounding literature of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria and Canaanite cultures. By looking at the texts of Scripture within their cultural background and noting the similarities as well as the differences between them and the literature of the ancient world, valuable insights can be gained as to their content, purpose and theological contributions to the community of faith.

Evangelicals have largely avoided (or simply been ignorant of) cross-cultural background analysis of the Biblical texts due largely to the conclusions of 19th-20th century critical scholarship, as noted in the excerpt from the essay above. However, the result has often been eisegesis (where modern meanings or assumptions are read back into the text) rather than exegesis (where the text’s original meaning and intent of the author determines its meaning) on the part of the very group of Christians who claim to hold Scripture in such high regard. This gives credence to the caricature of evangelicals as fideistic, unlearned, non-critical thinkers who are blissfully unaware of findings from actual biblical scholarship.

But ZIBBCOT (and other works by top-notch evangelical biblical scholars over the past few decades) render such caricatures obsolete. Below is a review of what I feel are the strengths and weaknesses of this commentary set.

[It should be noted at the outset that my comments only apply to vol.1, as I have not had access to vols.2-5...though I hope to review subsequent volumes in the future.]

ZIBBCOT’s Strengths

  1. Unique Content. The greatest strength of this commentary is its presentation of material that, until now, has been largely tucked away in dusty volumes of ancient Near East journals or relegated to footnotes in technical commentaries—and thus gone unnoticed by the average preacher, teacher and educated layperson! ZIBBCOT brings this information to the forefront, with the pertinent material from ancient Near East literature presented in context of the Biblical passage to which it relates.
  2. Visual Aesthetics and Clarity. Photos, illustrations and graphical presentation of information is EVERYWHERE in this commentary! Almost every page contains images from the ancient world, which give the reader a sense of the visual context as well as the literary. Seeing actual depictions of how the Egyptians viewed the structure of the universe as consisting of the various gods of their pantheon (pp.8, 16) does more to help the reader understand the cosmology of the ancient Near East than mere description ever could. Having an image to put with strange ancient names such as Re, Maat, Osiris, Atum, Marduk or Enkidu gives the reader a better sense of who the ancients worshipped or honored.
  3. Ease of Access. Rather than a series of articles or an alphabetical listing of ancient Literature topics, ZIBBCOT is set up as an actual commentary. After introductory essays on each book of the Pentateuch follows a verse-by-verse tour of all relevant background material from the ancient literary world. Thus, one can go straight to the passage in Scripture one is wanting context on and find it with ease, rather than having to wade through topical articles or do cross-referencing with journal articles and dictionary entries. For instance, if I want to know how the sexual purity code of Leviticus 18 compares and contrasts with other laws from that period, I just turn to the section on Lev.18 (pp.309-311) and can see a chart comparing it with the laws of Hammurabi and Hittite purity laws. This shows how Israelite purity laws stand within the overall cultural world in which they were given--but contain key differences from the surrounding cultures, which would make Israel stand out as a peculiar people among their ancient Near East neighbors.

ZIBBCOT’s weaknesses

  1. Cost. There’s simply no way around it: the average Christian will not likely spend $49.99 on a single commentary covering 5 books of the Bible, much less $249.99 for the entire set. This is a fact that the church must come to grips with. Christians choose to spend their money on cheaper, less-informative books, gifts and trinkets (aka. 'Jesus junk') from Christian bookstores rather than on valuable, meaty resources such as commentaries. This is an unfortunate reality; and one that is not likely to change anytime soon it seems. However, given the quality of ZIBBCOT, both in content and in manufacturing (full-color layout, durable heavy paper, hardback binding) it’s hard to see how the price could be reduced. Therefore, churches should see to it that they have this commentary set (as well as other more expensive excellent resources!) available to their small group leaders, Sunday school teachers and other leadership for use on a regular basis, so that their teaching ministry has access to the best information possible.
  2. Endnotes. One of the biggest frustrations I experienced in using this commentary was having to constantly flip to the end of the section in order to read the extensive endnotes found throughout the chapters. For instance, the commentary on Genesis alone contains over 700 endnotes (that means flipping to the back fo the chapter hundreds of times in order to see what is being noted)! The commentary would be MUCH easier and more enjoyable to use if it had gone with footnotes at the bottom (or in the side margin) of each page. The slick visual layout may be compromised a bit, but that's a small price to pay for not having to constantly flip 100+ pages ahead in order to see what is being cited or explained in greater detail!
  3. Lack of Theological Reflection. While the editors do a good job of giving the relevant cultural and literary information applicable to the text of Scripture in question, there is relatively little theological reflection or attempt at integration of the material in a way that the average reader can absorb. It’s one thing to know that serpent-human conflict appears in the Gilgamesh Epic, the Story of Adapa, and Egyptian literature—it’s another to know what this means for the author (or readers) of Genesis 3. It would be nice to have more of the editors thoughts on how the background information affects various theological interpretations. But in order to know what General Editor John Walton believes an informed reading of Genesis 1 actually leads to regarding questions of cosmology, creation and integration with modern science, one has to go to his separate book on the subject. However, ZIBBCOT has chosen to keep theological reflection to a minimum it seems. This is, of course, understandable for a reference work of this nature; but it may be a disappointment to many who are otherwise unfamiliar with the impact of ancient Near East studies on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.

Overall Evaluation

I would absolutely recommend ZIBBCOT vol.1 to any serious student of the Pentateuch. It should be on the bookshelf of everyone who preaches or teaches from Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus or Deuteronomy on a regular basis. The ancient Near East context of the Hebrew Bible has been long-ignored or under-utilized by evangelical and/or conservative Christians in general (and by many liberal and mainline interpreters as well!). This commentary set seeks to bring students, pastors and teachers up to speed on the effect of comparative background studies from the literature of the ancient world on interpreting the Pentateuch. And this is precisely what ZIBBCOT vol. 1 accomplishes.

Questions from children - Who created God?

Questions from children - Who created God?

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