Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom Of God (part 3)

As Mark is written within the confines of the early church that found itself immersed within much knowledge of the historical Jesus, along with resounding and powerful traditions about Him that would clearly have weighed heavily upon them in the area of practice, it is right to call attention to the marked contrast between what can be observed here in Mark and what one finds presented in a situation in the Gospel of John (which is also written during a time and within a community steeped in first-hand knowledge of Jesus). 

In John, after Jesus’ arrest and initial questioning by Annas and Caiaphas, “they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence” (John 18:28a).  The author then reports that “They did not go into the governor’s residence” (18:28c).  Why did they not go in?  It was “so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal” (18:28d).  A stark contrast indeed.  In Mark, Jesus dines with a leper, sitting on his furniture and sharing a table with him in complete disregard of established custom, clearly communicating truths about the kingdom of the Creator God and about the nature of His own rule of that kingdom through what He was knowingly and consciously doing. 

When these two accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry include such stories, both are making points that are not easily dismissed.  One account represents separation and exclusion, whereas the other highlights inclusion --- pointing to a highly necessary aspect of ecclesiology.  John’s account of a concern to not become ritually impure before the commencement of Passover is useful because it points up the high level of seriousness with which such things were taken at the time.  For the sake of rabbinic credibility, and especially that of a rabbi that carried and stoked messianic expectations, issues of impurity would have been a concern. 

With no real record of time, and no textual sense of time between His certain contracting of ceremonial impurity while at this house and the celebration of Passover with His disciples, it would appear to His fellow members of the house of Israel that Jesus has, in fact, presided over a Passover (His last supper) celebration while he found Himself in a state of impurity.  With what one must presume is a well-founded grasp of this information, Mark demonstrates a complete lack of concern in this area, and instead presents this picture of Jesus that is stocked with a great deal of implications for those, both inside and outside of ethnic and national Israel, who call or will come to call Him Lord. 

There are other quite significant points to be made.  One of those points has to do with the fact that Jesus has chosen to dine in this particular house.  Calling upon the Gospel of John for assistance, one is reminded that Bethany is the place of Lazarus’ residence.  In chapter twelve of John, it appears that the reader is presented with a story (unless there was another story about Jesus being anointed with costly oil, the action being criticized as wasteful, and Jesus criticizing the criticizers and commending the “waste”) that is based upon the same meal as that which is reported in the fourteenth chapter of Mark. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom of God (part 2)

In the same chapter, when Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin, Mark writes that “Some stood up and gave this false testimony against Him: ‘We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands.’” (Mark 14:57-58)  The author punctuates this with “Yet even on this point their testimony did not agree” (14:59), but He is clearly cognizant of and counting on an awareness of what must have been the well-known Jesus tradition recounted in the Gospel of John (not relying on John, as Mark came first, but what would have been the oral and possibly written Jesus tradition), in which Jesus says, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (2:19).  Shortly thereafter, John helpfully provides the gloss on Jesus’ words by informing the reader that “Jesus was speaking about the Temple of His body” (2:21). 

When all of this is taken together, the reader sees a widow giving all that she has (which is an almost worthless amount) to a Temple that is going to fall, which is ultimately a wasteful action, whereas the woman with the alabaster box gives something of immense value in recognition of the One that is the eternal Temple, causing the onlookers to refer to this as a wasteful action.  Jesus makes it clear that it is the former (the widow’s gift) that was wasteful (and tragic), whereas the latter was “a good service” (14:6b), and therefore not wasteful. 

Because the stories in the Gospels demand to be heard within Jesus’ pronouncement that the kingdom of the Creator God is at hand, one must ascertain what this has to do with Jesus’ kingdom understanding.  It is by this that Jesus addresses the prevalent and apparently incorrect understanding that the kingdom of His God would be centered in Jerusalem, with all nations coming to its Temple to offer worship to Israel’s God.  Jesus makes it quite clear that even though they were correct in believing that all nations would in fact come to worship the Creator God by means of the Temple, that Temple by which this God would be worshiped, in recognition of His kingdom, would be Himself (Jesus).     

To go along with the interesting theological Temple dynamic that has been inserted into the narrative here in chapters twelve and fourteen of Mark’s Gospel, the place of the meal in which Jesus is engaged and at which He is anointed, as He says, “for burial” (14:8), is the house of “Simon the leper” (14:3).  Yes, Jesus is dining at the home of a leper, and therefore dining at the home of one whose entire existence is one of impurity in relation to Jewish law and custom.  Simon would definitely have found himself at the lower end of the honor and shame social spectrum, if not outside of it altogether as one unable to even compete for honor. 

As a leper, Simon would stand almost completely outside the social order, as he would translate ritual impurity to those who came into contact with him.  In the eyes of those that were in a position to observe this meal, Jesus Himself would have fallen into ritual impurity, and amazingly, within Mark’s narrative, Jesus can be seen doing this immediately before Passover.  Though He is looked upon as a respected rabbi within Israel at this point in time, Jesus apparently finds Himself unconcerned with the perceptions. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom Of God (part 1)

Now while Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, reclining at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of costly aromatic oil from pure nard.  After breaking open the jar, she poured it on his head. – Mark 14:3  (NET)

Jesus is at a meal table.  Though there is not an explicit mention of a meal taking place, based on what is presented in the text it is appropriate to infer that a meal is taking place.  Mark writes that Jesus was “reclining at the table” (14:3b).  This is a clear indication that Jesus is participating in yet another meal, as it informs the reader that Jesus is utilizing a dining couch rather than an upright chair, and that He has most likely assumed the traditional posture of laying on the couch, propped up on one elbow, with His head near the table and His feet at the end of the couch away from the table.  Because this presents a much better picture of Jesus’ posture, it is then possible to form a more complete picture of what took place at this table. 

It is said that there was a woman “with an alabaster jar of costly aromatic oil from pure nard.  After breaking open the jar, she poured it on His head” (14:3c).  The text indicates that the woman did not stop with Jesus’ head, but might very well have poured out the perfume over the whole of His body, because Jesus, when some present scoffed at what was perceived to be a waste of a costly item that could have been sold, with the money given to the poor, responded by saying, “She has done a good service for Me… She did what she could.  She anointed My body before burial” (14:6b,8). 

There is an interesting dynamic that is at play here, having to do with the context in which Mark sets this event.  Though there is an intervening chapter of prophetic apocalyptic speech (pulling back the veil) by Jesus (Mark 13), the previous event that is recorded by Mark is that of Jesus observing the crowds making their offerings at the Temple.  While observing this activity, Jesus sees a poor widow who “came and put in two small copper coins” (12:42b), saying “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others… she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had” (12:43b,44b). 

Following that, Jesus goes on to tell His disciples that the very Temple to which this widow gave the last of what she had “will be torn down” (13:2b).  It would be difficult for the disciples not to draw the conclusion that the offering made by this poor widow, sacrificing all that she had for that which was going to be destroyed, was itself quite a waste.  From there, in terms of the presentation of events, Mark moves directly to the meal at which Jesus is present, and to the breaking open of the alabaster jar for the purpose of anointing His body, with the indignant insistence that this was nothing but a waste.  However, Mark is making a point related to the fact that Jesus saw Himself as the true Temple of God that would stand eternally, so that nothing offered to it could possibly be considered a waste (unlike the widow’s tragic offering). 

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 6 of 6)

In the United States of America, mention can be made of the “city that never sleeps,” or “the windy city.”  Those that are accustomed to operating within the social context of the United States, know that these are references to New York city and Chicago.  This is not limited to the United States, but is a common practice the world over.  One could use phrases such as “city of lights,” or “the eternal city,” in full knowledge that the user is making reference to Paris and Rome. 

Singapore, in southeast Asia, is sometimes referred to as “the fine country.”  Upon first glance, this appears to be a positive appellation, expressing a subjective sentiment not unlike the way that is traditionally applied when confronted with the “lukewarm” of Laodicea.  However, upon further examination, though Singapore is indeed a fine city-state, this use of “fine” is connected to the fact that the government of Singapore, in its efforts to keep the country clean, civil and highly organized, levies fines for littering, spitting, or chewing gum in public. 

An analogy here is probably useful.  In the United States, the city of Cleveland is roughly the midway point between Chicago and New York (much like Laodicea is roughly midway between Hierapolis and Colossae).  If somebody wanted to address the city of Cleveland, encouraging the residents to order their lives or engage in activities more akin to the goings-on in New York or Chicago for which there is a high level of notoriety (say in the area of theatre), one might write something like, “I know your deeds, you are sleeping and lacking wind.  I wish you were either not asleep or windy!  So because you are mistaken, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth!”  (“Mistaken” because one of the not-so-flattering nicknames of Cleveland is “the mistake on the lake”)  Given proper context, the residents of Cleveland would take this as a message that they needed to improve their offerings in the area of theatre, and would most definitely not understand it to be an indication that they needed to sleep less or construct windmills.   

This initially subjective usage that becomes, upon further examination, highly objective, is quite similar to what has been discovered when it comes to the information being conveyed in Revelation’s letter to Laodicea.  Clearly, the terms in use are not meant to convey any sense of morality or spiritual state, but are common identifiers.  On the other hand, there are nicknames that do have negative connotations.  One such nickname would be “sin city.”  A socially and culturally aware reader today (like that which would be expected in first century Asia Minor) would immediately think “Las Vegas.”  In the time of Jesus and His apostles, “sin city” would have been the nickname of Corinth, in Greece.  These examples (Las Vegas and Corinth) have obvious moral judgments attached to them, but one does not see that with the names associated with New York, Chicago, Paris, or Rome.   

So to put this lack of moral judgment associated with city identifiers into the context of the letter to Laodicea, which now seems to be pointing more logically towards identifiable activities and practices within the churches of the region (Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae) that would have been well known to the other churches (as information seemed to be able to flow freely between and amongst those churches, as indicated by what Paul writes to the Colossians), it would appear that one is no longer looking at a contrast.  Rather, the three temperature-related terms can now be understood as applying in reference to what was taking place in those churches, with a certain activity of Hierapolis and Colossae being approved by the Creator God, whereas the related activity in Laodicea has Jesus indicating violent illness. 

With this, it is now possible to rightly discard any idea that “hot or cold” are in anyway related to “good or bad” in a subjective or ethereal sense of spiritual condition.  It seems much more proper to think along the lines of both hot water and cold water as useful (with specific and identifiable practices of the Hierapolis and Colossae churches being useful within Christ’s kingdom and its proclamation), whereas lukewarm water is useless (with a specifically identifiable practice of the church at Laodicea failing to serve the purposes of the Christ as opposed to what was rightly taking place in the “hot” or “cold” churches --- “I wish you were either hot or cold”).  Understanding the message in this way will be far more useful, as believers will eventually end up not being left to wonder whether they are hot, cold, or lukewarm based on either a subjective self-examination or the subjective examination of a self-appointed (on both ends of the relationship) spiritual authority that will generally be partially informed and unfortunately biased.     

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 5)

Having established the close connection between Colossae and Laodicea, this does not account for the use of “cold” in conjunction with the city.  It is the presence of Colossae’s cold, fresh water streams that would have supplied this descriptive title to the city.  Laodicea was located to the southeast of Colossae, and to the northeast of Hierapolis, near the Lycus River.  This meant that the waters of Colossae (colder because Colossae was situated at the foothills of a mountain), flowed down towards Laodicea. 

The water, quite naturally, would lose some of its coolness as it flowed, rising a few degrees in temperature by the time it reached Laodicea.  On the other hand, the water from Hierapolis had to be brought uphill, which explains the aqueduct.  That water from the hot springs of Hierapolis would, of course, cool down as it traveled the aqueduct to reach Laodicea, though it would still be prized for its healing qualities even if it had fallen in temperature. 

In the case of both the water from Colossae and the water from Hierapolis, by the time it reached Laodicea, the water would be lukewarm.  Thus, the rhetorical effect is preserved, with hot, cold, and lukewarm all making reference to water.  Furthermore, in conceptual terms, the city that would be located roughly halfway between the hot city and the cold city could easily be thought of as the lukewarm city (halfway between hot and cold).  Thus Laodicea would come to be referred to as the lukewarm city, with this being common knowledge for all of the residents of the region, with nary a thought related to the spiritual tenor of the city. 

Because of the interesting geographical positioning, and the unique feature of the water supplies to Laodicea, the cities came to be linked together in common usage as the “triangle cities.”  So if it was common for the cities to be linked and identified together, and if Paul links the cities in his letter, why should one be surprised if Jesus, communicating through the author of Revelation, also links the cities, doing so by taking advantage of common nicknames that were applied to them? 

Is it warranted to think that these highly spiritualized (today and in popular ways of thinking) terms are little more than nicknames that are meant to aid in identifying the real problem within the church in Laodicea, rather than an indicator of those problems?  Why not?  Once it is established that it is not possible to revert back to thinking that hot, cold, and lukewarm are to be applied in spiritual terms or to spiritual state, then it is possible to move towards a far more proper understanding of what Jesus is attempting to communicate to this, one of His churches. 

Is it warranted to think that these were simply nicknames or shorthand references for those cities?  Again, why not?  This is not without precedence today.  Much like what was true of the utilization of terminology in context and according to then-current understanding in order to rightly understand what is being communicated (as in the case of Nimrod), most people ready make these types of applications such that they become second nature, which should cause an observer to realize that thinking about the letter to Laodicea in this way is not wholly unique.  Individuals freely and casually operate within their own historical and cultural contexts, so imagining that men and women of the first century also operated in such ways is not exactly far-fetched. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 4)

With all of that said, having posited that the “temperature” terms were geographical indicators, it is now possible to posit that use of “hot” is in all likelihood a reference to the city of Hierapolis.  It should be said that this is not groundbreaking by any means, and the same can be said for the applications that will be made to the usage of both cold and lukewarm.  These things have long been understood, but for some reason, they have been completely obscured in modern and popular considerations of Revelation and its letters to the churches.  It might be casually referenced, but not worked out to its logical and contextual conclusion, as commentators want to tread the far more popular path of Revelation as a book that tells the future, rather than a writing that tells about a faithful God and what He expects from His people as they go about living their lives in this world as His image-bearers. 

The city of Laodicea was located five miles north of the city of Hierapolis.  In Hierapolis, there were hot springs.  Owing to this, Hierapolis gained fame as a health resort, as well as being the place for the worship of the god Heracles, who was looked to as the god of health and hot waters.  Archaeology indicates that Laodicea had an aqueduct that probably carried water from the hot mineral springs of Hierapolis. 

If this is the case, remembering that this study is attempting to determine the impetus of the communication from the context of what could be readily understood by its recipients rather than from the position of attempting to unravel the events of world history using Revelation as a guide in the effort, then not only should one think “Hierapolis” when reading “hot,” but one can easily imagine that the residents of the region would have thought of Hierapolis in connection with hot as well. 

If “hot” is a reference to a city, then it would make sense that “cold” is also a reference to a city.  Furthermore, if the “hot” of the nearby city of Hierapolis is a reference to its famous hot springs, then for rhetorical consistency, “cold” should also be making reference to water as well; and that city should be in the general vicinity of Laodicea.  Is there a city to which one can logically apply this epithet?  It seems that there is, and the candidate is the city of Colossae. 

Colossae and Laodicea were situated in relative proximity.  Not only are they close in that they are approximately eleven miles apart, but the churches appear to be close in communication, owing to the Apostle Paul’s references to Laodicea in the close of his letter to the Colossians in which he instructs the church at Colossae to share the letter with the church at Laodicea, while also indicating that they church at Laodicea will share its letter with the church at Colossae.  Paul also makes mention of Laodicea earlier in the letter, when he writes: “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you, and for those in Laodicea” (Colossians 2:1a).  Clearly, there is something of a close connection between Laodicea and Colossae.  The churches were familiar with each other. 

Beyond the multiple mentions (five) of Laodicea, one can also happily find a reference to Hierapolis in this letter.  Paul, writing about Ephaphras, says that “he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis” (4:13b).  This implies a relationship between Hierapolis and Laodicea beyond that of an aqueduct.  If the church at Colossae “learned the gospel from Ephaphras” (1:7a), as Paul communicates within his opening statements to the Colossians, and then goes on to mention Epaphras in connection with both Laodicea and Hierapolis, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that Epaphras may well have been responsible for bringing the message to all three cities (though one should certainly refrain from dogmatism on this statement). 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Hot, Cold & Lukewarm (part 3)

In Revelation, though there is an employment of a significant amount of apocalyptic imagery, much like in the prophetic works of the Hebrew Scriptures, this apocalyptic imagery is primarily designed to reveal what some may refer to as “spiritual” truths and activities that are at work and at play in relation to material and physical happenings. 

Humans are limited in vision, and as Isaiah says, the Creator God’s ways and plans are not those of humanity, nor are His thoughts and deeds the thoughts and deeds of those that were created to bear His image (Isaiah 55:9).  There is something of a veil that limits human vision, which keeps humanity from seeing what it is that the Creator God sees.  The purpose of apocalypse (revelation) is to remove that veil, which is the very definition of the word. 

For those that were understood to have been receiving communications from the Creator God through the Hebrew prophets in the centuries before Christ, and for those in the first century that were understood to have been receiving communications directly from Jesus through John the Revelator, this removal of the veil, in a world in which there were no separations between religious activities and so-called “secular” activities---no division between the sacred and the profane, the unveiling would be understood as the Creator God taking steps to condescending to reveal the spiritual goings-on that were related to what was happening in the world around them.  This is dreadfully important for any potential understanding of words to be found within Revelation. 

One must remember that Paul and Peter, along with the Hebrews author and the author of the letters of John, all wrote letters to specific churches and individuals.  Though these letters would become useful to the whole of the church, they were first directed to and dealt with places, people, and events.  Knowing this, one should exercise restraint when tempted to treat John’s communications differently.  Just because a reader of Revelation happens upon fantastic and difficult-to-understand imagery, that certainly doesn’t mean that the same reader should dismiss John’s insistence that these letters, and this Revelation, are for the “seven churches that are in the province of Asia” (1:4a). 

Returning then to the words of temperature (hot, cold, lukewarm), having insisted that they serve as geographic indicators, it is imperative to realize that they are something of a play on familiar words and of what is well-known about the area in which Laodicea is set.  It should not be a surprise to find Jesus, through the author, employing such a strategy.  Even the Apostle Paul’s famous phrase of “from faith to faith,” or “ek pisteos eis pistin” (Romans 1:17), is lifted from what could be termed as the liturgy of the Caesar cult. 

In this, Paul takes a familiar term and applies it to what should be truly understood about Jesus, rather than Caesar.  This is even more pronounced with the New Testament’s employment of the very word “gospel,” which was also in heavy and specific use within the Caesar cult, in application to the works of Caesar himself.  So the New Testament has recurring instances of plays on words and the usage of familiar terms, re-worked and re-deployed for particular effect on a regular basis.