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Month: December 2016

Isaiah 7:14: Hardship, Hope, and My Emmanuel Child (Part 5)

Isaiah 7:14: Hardship, Hope, and My Emmanuel Child (Part 5)

In my final chapter in my Isaiah 7:14 series, I wish to share a very personal story regarding the impact the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 has had in my life. Allow me to just jump right into the story…

A Most Surprising Conception
In 2006, I got married. A year later, my wife and I had moved to Alabama, where I began to teach at a small Christian high school and she enrolled in a nursing program. Three and a half years later, in December of 2010, she had achieved her goal and became a registered nurse. With that accomplishment achieved, we both felt we could finally start a family.

The thing was, though, she had a bit of endometriosis, and so she made an appointment with a doctor in early December to have a D & C done. Within days of having the D & C done, though, she started feeling nauseous in the mornings, and for that matter, throughout the days as well. It couldn’t have been morning sickness, we assumed, because we hadn’t had sex since her D & C yet. In addition to the nausea, she also started having pain in her right leg, right around her knee.

Christmas came and went, the nausea continued, and the pain in her leg seemed to get worse. And so, in early January, she went back to the doctor to ask about the constant nausea. He wanted her to do a birth control test, which she found funny, because, due to the constant nausea since the D & C, there had been no opportunity to “make a baby.” In any case, she took the test, and lo and behold…she was pregnant.

What soon became apparent was this: we had gotten pregnant about 7-10 days before she had gone in for the D & C, and they had done the D & C while she was pregnant…and somehow, that little fertilized egg had survived the D & C. That was one tough little fertilized egg! So wouldn’t you know it? We were going to have a boy!

…but the pain in her leg continued to get worse.

Bad News
The doctor didn’t want to do an x-ray on her leg during the first trimester, so it wasn’t until the end of February that we had the x-ray done. What it revealed, though, caused our hearts to sink: that pain in her leg that started around the time our child was conceived was cancer. My wife had osteosarcoma in her leg, and the cancer had already almost eaten through the bone.

Within days, I, my wife, and her mother were driving down to Birmingham to see surgeons, cancer doctors, and to find out what treatments were possible, and whether or not she would be able to keep our baby. The drive down to Birmingham was quiet and somber. There was a sense of doom, and I had this foreboding feeling that I was going to be a single parent.

Once we got to Birmingham, our initial visit didn’t ease that sense of doom. The surgeon’s initial comments were ominous: yes, it was cancer, yes, there would have to be chemotherapy and eventually surgery, and no, he wasn’t sure if it was possible to keep the baby. If we held off on chemotherapy until after the baby was born, it might be too late for my wife, and she might die. The choice might be forced upon us: the mother or the child.

I remember that moment after the doctor left the room—my wife’s mother and I were silent, just trying to soak in the news. At that moment, my views on the whole abortion issue took a radical shift. No, I do not like abortion, and no, I am not 100% “pro-choice.” But at that moment I realized that there are situations in which such a choice is forced upon you—you sometimes have no choice but to be forced to make a choice. I can’t be for banning abortion in all cases, because there are horrific circumstances when the government shouldn’t force the hand of a couple when they are forced to face the hardest, most painful decision they will ever have to make.

In any case, after a few moments, my wife looked at both me and her mother and said, “What? I’m keeping this baby. It was a miracle that he survived the D & C, I’m not going to terminate this pregnancy.” Personally, I was relieved to hear her say that. It was a miracle our baby even survived the D & C—I didn’t want to terminate the pregnancy. In any case, I told her I would support her no matter what.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to make that dreaded choice after all, for when we saw the second doctor, the one who specialized in cancer, he informed us that there was a chemotherapy treatment that would attack the cancer, but that wouldn’t affect our unborn child. Our child would probably be born smaller than normal, and would probably be a little delayed in developing initially, but in time he’d should catch up.

And so, that was a relief to hear. Still, that meant that we were facing chemotherapy during pregnancy. That was going to be tough.

Treatment…and the Name Emmanuel
And tough, it most certainly was: trips to Birmingham for chemotherapy every three weeks, vomiting, sickness, constant worry—this was the new normal. My wife’s mother came to help, and ended up living with us for a year, first to help with the cancer treatments, and then to help with the baby while she was recovering.

Early on in the chemo treatments, we were still trying to finalize a name for the baby. We had agreed that his first name was to be Elliot, but hadn’t figured out a good middle name. I had been mulling over the name Emmanuel for some time. I reflected on what the name meant, “God with us.” I also reflected on what I had learned about the greater biblical context of Isaiah 7:14. Yes, it meant “God with us,” but it was a prophecy spoken in the midst of turmoil and trial. It was a prophecy that said, “Yes, God will be with you when His salvation comes, but He is also currently with you, in the midst of hardship and suffering.

Hezekiah was born in the midst of Assyrian oppression; Jesus was born in the midst of Roman oppression. We were dealing with the oppression of cancer. And so, one night while we were in the ER due to what ended up being complications, I suggested that we give Elliot the middle name of Emmanuel. My wife agreed—it was our statement of faith that God was with us, even in the midst of cancer.

The Birth…and More Surprises
Our fifth wedding anniversary was spent in the hospital in Birmingham. That was the date my wife had surgery on her leg to cut out the diseased bone and to have it replaced with a titanium rod.  A happy anniversary, it was not. The surgery was successful, though, so that was another hurdle we cleared.

A month later, though, my wife developed preclampsia, and due to her situation, the doctor wanted to keep her in the hospital in Birmingham. Elliot was originally due to be born on August 25th, but because of the preclampsia, the doctor determined Elliot would have to come a month early. The date was set: July 25th we were going to have a caesarian.

Because I had to finish fixing up the house and putting in new flooring in the baby’s room, various family members helped out by spending time with my wife in Birmingham. I had spent time with her for a few days up until a week before the new due date. Then as I went back home, her mother came down to spend a few days with her, and then when she had to leave, her aunt and grandmother spent a few days with her.

The caesarian was scheduled for a Monday. As it so happened, her aunt and grandmother had to go back to Illinois the Saturday before the caesarian. My parents had driven over from Little Rock on that Saturday to our house. The plan was then for my parents and I to drive down Sunday, and then be there for the caesarian, and then her mother would be able to get there shortly after that. That meant my wife was by herself for Saturday.

…and wouldn’t you know it? (Yes, you’re guessing correctly)…

With the baby’s room ready, my parents and I were ready to drive down first thing Sunday morning. We all went to bed that Saturday night, but then at 2:40 am, my phone rang. It was my wife—her water broke, and they were about to take her into the delivery room. Our unborn baby had his own timetable, and I was a two-hour drive away.

I hung up the phone, told my parents to go back to sleep and just drive down in the morning, and then by 3:00 am, I was pulling out of my driveway. On my way down to Birmingham, I actually got pulled over by a police officer. I hadn’t been excessively speeding, but at 4:00 am, he apparently had nothing better to do. When he came up to the car, I explained that my wife who had cancer was about to give birth to our premature son. He immediately said I could go.

I got to the hospital at 5:00 am. My wife was in recovery…it turned out that our baby, Elliot Emmanuel, was not the type of baby who was going to wait for anyone. He had made his entrance to the world at 3:00 am, the very time I was pulling out of my driveway. The labor had been all of 15 minutes. I missed the birth of my son.

My wife was fine, but obviously in need of sleep, so after checking in on her, the nurse took me to the NICU. It was there I met my son, Elliot Emmanuel Anderson. He was born at 3 pounds, 6 ounces. His arms and legs were so skinny, my first thought was that he looked like a Kermit the Frog doll. When I held him for the first time, I can honestly say there wasn’t any immediate emotion. It was just surreal. I was sleep-deprived, exhausted, and just in shock…but also extremely relieved. At the same time, I remember thinking, “O wow, this is going to be hard.”

Well, as small as Elliot was, even though he spent the first few days in the NICU, he turned out to be just fine. Within the first 24 hours he was breathing without help, taking a bottle, and yes, he showed he had the ability to poo. Although my wife still had two more chemo sessions to go, we felt the light in a very dark 2011 was finally breaking. Our son was born, Elliot Emmanuel had arrived…God was with us.

Only, the darkness continued…

But There Rarely Is a Happy Ending
I wish I could say that the light dawned and that everything turned out fine. But life isn’t always like that. There still was a long road to recovery for my wife, and over the course of the next year, the stress and strain of everything that had happened resulted in the eventual end of our marriage. In October 2012, she filed for divorce, and that started another painful chapter of life that went on for another year and a half. And then, once the divorce was finalized in May 2014, it was at that time that another chapter in my life began, one that I’ve written about before: I was informed by the new young earth creationist headmaster of the school I had worked at for seven years, that I was no longer a “good fit” for the school because I didn’t subscribe to the belief that humans and dinosaurs lived together a mere 6,000 years ago. I have to hand it to the guy, he had an incredible sense of bad timing. Talk about kicking man when he’s down.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And through all that, I was faced with the challenge of raising my son, my Emmanuel child, as a single parent. The foreboding sense I had on that first drive down to Birmingham proved to be true, just not in the way I had feared it would.

The delays the doctor said Elliot would have are there, but he’s improving and catching up every day, and I still have hope that we’ll get to that point in the near future. Every night I tuck him into bed, more times than not in my own bed. Every night, when I’m ready to go to bed, I pick up my sleeping child and move him to his room. And every morning, right around 6:15 am, he comes into my room, crawls into my bed with his Kindle, and I slowly wake up while he attempts to sing along to some numbers song, or the alphabet song, or “The Wishy Washer Washerwoman” by the Learning Station.

This is my life…and God is with me. Every day. Through IEPs, speech and occupational therapy sessions, through potty-training, through unemployment, through the pain of divorce, through cancer, through all the pain, hurt, self-doubt, frustration and despair—Emmanuel.

I know it’s easy to focus solely on a cute Christ child, and feel the warm fuzzies of Christmas as you drink hot cocoa and open presents, but I’ve got to tell you, Emmanuel isn’t cute to me. Emmanuel and the Christmas story is a harsh slap in the face of reality. Yes, the Emmanuel sign is ultimately one of hope, but it is born in pain and despair. It is born in times of oppression and heartache. The Emmanuel child is raised when it seems all hope is gone, and his first steps are often those taken in flight from danger.

When I read Isaiah 7:14 and contemplate its fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, I am reminded that life is harsh, and tough, and unforgiving. When Emmanuel comes, we do not escape those harsh realities. If anything, Emmanuel signals the beginning of more, and he forces us to bear even more than we thought we could bear. Yet somehow, we do, for the burden we bear is Emmanuel’s gift of Himself. We bear that gift because it becomes our responsibility. By bearing Emmanuel’s gift, we learn what transformation looks like in real time: it is absorbing the pain and suffering while dedicating ourselves to go about the business of raising the salvation gift God has allowed to be born in this world of heartache and sin, all in the hope that one day, “those walking in darkness will see a great light.”

After all, for unto us a child has been born. Unto us, a son is given.

But we must remember, that’s not the end. That is only the beginning. We must live out, and actually raise, that salvation in the course of our lives, in the midst of a world that can be very bleak at times.

So, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.

Isaiah 7:14–O Come, Emmanuel: A Personal Story (Part 4)

Isaiah 7:14–O Come, Emmanuel: A Personal Story (Part 4)

Over the past couple of days, I’ve shared some insights regarding Isaiah 7:14—it’s original context during the lifetime of the prophet Isaiah, and then how that impacts our understanding of Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 in his story about the birth of Jesus. Today, though, I want to share more of a personal story of how that verse, and the famous Christmas song, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has impacted my life. Biblical insights and biblical study are good things, but without the personal encounter in one’s life, such things are in danger of remaining solely intellectual exercises.

Episode One: My Epiphany in Kazakhstan
As I am guessing many can relate to, when I graduated college, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a teaching certificate, a degree in English, and no job. In fact, for my first two years after college, I lived with my parents and scrapped through life as a substitute teacher at the various schools in the Wheaton area. That could be a story in and of itself, but suffice it to say, I was miserable. Many of my friends were off getting married, getting into careers, and starting families…and I was living with my parents, unable to get a date to save my life, and routinely being called “Doogie Howser” by junior high brats. I did that for two years—and as my mom would tell you, I was “not a nice person to live with.”

Such is the angst of many kids in their early twenties. They feel they’re supposed to be “adults,” but really aren’t, and in a tight job market, they feel like they’re spinning their wheels and going nowhere, and they feel like utter failures. That was certainly me. And so, what I decided to do was to join the Peace Corps, and by the summer of 1993 I found myself in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, teaching English as a Foreign Language to Kazakhstani nationals. I had figured that since I had an English degree, why not use it to see the world?

Joel in Karaganda…Lenin statue still standing

And I had gotten to…Kazakhstan, specifically, the northern city of Karaganda, where winter came by October, and they didn’t turn the hot water on until November. Now, it certainly was an adventure, but I quickly realized one thing: I found teaching English as a foreign language really boring. And, as anyone who has lived overseas will tell you, there is a significant culture shock and the inevitable feeling of loneliness.

To make a long story short, by mid-October I found myself at my desk in my little, cold dorm-room, writing to my parents about how much I hated my life, and how I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Even though it was October, I decided to put in a Christmas tape that another Peace Corps member had given to me: A Winter Solstice, Volume 3. It was that night that I had an epiphany that changed my life.

I don’t like to over-spiritualize things, but I don’t know how else to explain it—God entered the room, through that tape. It was one of those moments in one’s life that you remember distinctly. I was at my desk, writing to my parents about how I hated my life, and then the Turtle Island Quartet’s version of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” came through the speakers. Here is the actual recording:

I had heard that song all my life, but for some reason, that version, that particular arrangement, was light a shaft of light in my soul:

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, who ransoms captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Two things immediately struck me. First, how is that about Christmas? It’s about Israel in exile, not the baby Jesus in a manger! O, I knew that yes, ultimately it is about Jesus, but having grown up in church, I had just been conditioned to “jump to the end,” so to speak, and get the “Jesus answer” without really pondering the deeper questions that the Old Testament lays out.

But the other thing that struck me at the same time is what changed my life. I knew, before that song finished playing that night, that I wanted to go back and get a master’s degree in the Bible. I had always been fascinated with biblical stories; the Bible had always fascinated me. I just had never thought of pursuing that as a mode of study, though, because I thought the only thing I could do with it was to be a pastor—and believe me, if there was one thing I knew about myself, it was that I was not suited to be a pastor.

But that night, as I listened to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” I felt God saying to me, “Look, you have that interest and passion…pursue that. Even if you end up not doing anything with it, learn it for the sake of learning it. Pursue that interest because the desire is in your soul.” And so, I ended my letter to my parents by asking them to send me some college catalogs, so I can look into programs for theology or biblical studies. I stayed in the Peace Corps for that year, but then came back to the states to work full-time at anything for a year, so I could save up enough money to go to graduate school.

My two closest friends, Ian Panth and Jason Carroll, at Regent College

During that year, as I worked as both a custodian and a teacher-aide, I also took a correspondence first-year New Testament Greek class. I ended up going to Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where over the course of the next two years I took classes from Eugene Peterson, Bruce Waltke, J.I. Packer, and Gordon Fee. It was the best life decision I had ever made. I got a master’s degree in New Testament, and then, as life tends to go, I ended up getting a job teaching English and Bible at a small Christian high school in California.

Episode Two: Academic Emmanuel
After four years at that Christian school, I decided I wanted to go back and get a PhD in the New Testament. As it turned out, I didn’t get in to the programs I applied for, so I decided on a “Plan B.” I went back to British Columbia, to Trinity Western University, and got another master’s degree—this time in the Old Testament. I had figured I should “bone up” on the Old Testament before I went on and pursued a New Testament PhD.

Well, my time at Trinity Western altered my path a bit. Growing up in Evangelicalism, I thought I knew the Old Testament fairly well. Guess what? I didn’t. But far from being discouraged, Trinity Western opened the door to the world of the Old Testament for me, and as I looked through to that country, I realized I could spend my entire life exploring it, and I would never see it all. And so, I decided I would still pursue a PhD, but it would be in the Old Testament.

In any case, one of the classes I took was on the Book of Isaiah. Peter Flint, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls scholar taught the class, and it was in that class that I had first ever heard of the “Syro-Ephraimite Crisis.” As I took that class, it simply amazed me to realize that all those verses from Isaiah I had thought were just predictions about Jesus really had their own original contexts in which that actually made sense. I ended up doing my paper for that class on, you guessed it, Isaiah 7:14 in its original context.

In the process of researching that paper, I realized there was a whole lot more to Isaiah 7:14 than I could fit in a 25-page paper. And so, as it turned out, a few years later, when I wrote my PhD dissertation, I chose to expand on that paper from my Isaiah class, and write on Isaiah 7:14 within its original context in Proto-Isaiah.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” was the song that essentially began my path into the academic study of the Bible, and the verse that inspired that song, Isaiah 7:14, was the focus of my PhD dissertation that essentially completed my formal academic study of the Bible. Emmanuel was at the beginning, all throughout, and at the end of that particular journey in my life.

But my Emmanuel story doesn’t end there…

Isaiah 7:14: How Matthew Used It in His Gospel (Part 3–Jesus: Hezekiah 2.0!)

Isaiah 7:14: How Matthew Used It in His Gospel (Part 3–Jesus: Hezekiah 2.0!)

The Gospel of Matthew actually begins with a genealogy. It records Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph all the way back to Abraham. Most people, I assume, probably skip over those verses—all those “begats” get rather redundant. Besides, who cares? Why did Matthew put it in there anyway? Let’s just get to the story we all know and love: the birth narrative, complete with Gabriel’s announcement to Joseph, the wise men from the east, and Herod’s dastardly attempt to kill the baby Jesus. That’s the Christmas story (or at least part of it…the other part being in Luke—of course, most of us just conflate the two into one big crèche-filled scene).

Now, we pretty much know the story: Joseph is engaged to Mary, but finds out she’s pregnant. He knows he’s not the one who got her pregnant, so he plans to end the engagement quietly. Then an angel appears to Joseph and encourages him to marry Mary anyway, because “the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” and that child would be named “Jesus” because he would save people from their sins. It’s at that point that Matthew then points out that this was to “fulfill” what Isaiah said back in Isaiah 7:14: “Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel.” Matthew then points out that Emmanuel means “God with us.”

After that, we have the scene with the wise men coming from the east. They first stop in Jerusalem, and unwittingly alert Herod that a new king has been born. And when Herod finds out that it was in Bethlehem, he tells the wise men to send word back to him if they find the child. They do, but then are warned in a dream not to tell Herod; and when Herod finds out they went back east without telling him, he sends some soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the male children two years and younger. Joseph though has been told by an angel in a dream to take his family and flee to Egypt until Herod is dead. When Herod dies a few years later, Joseph takes Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth where Jesus grows up.

Like I said, we generally know that story. We skip over the genealogy, and then get to familiar territory. But do we really understand what the story is about? Again, I think this is a case where we are so familiar with the story, we have actually blinded ourselves from seeing what it really is about. We generally tend to reduce the story to a few soundbites: the virgin birth, the census that gets them to Bethlehem (that’s from Luke), the wise men and the star, the shepherds (Luke again), and Herod being a bad guy. It makes for a great crèche, and a very cute children’s play at church…and we pretty much leave it at that.

But I’m pretty sure that Matthew wrote his first two chapters other reasons that reasons for a crèche and a children’s play. And, like I hinted at in the first post in this series, I don’t think his primary goal was to somehow “prove” that (A) Jesus was born of a virgin, and (B) that therefore Jesus is God. Now, don’t get me wrong, both Matthew and Luke do say she was a virgin, and both (as well as everything else in the New Testament) do proclaim that Jesus is God in the flesh. I just think Matthew’s reasons for writing his first two chapter are different than what we traditionally assumed.  (Whew…that’s a 600-word introduction!)

Matthew’s Genealogy
In order to understand Matthew’s reference to Isaiah 7:14, not only do we need to consider the original context of Isaiah 7:14 (as I did in the previous post), we also need to consider Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 in the context of Matthew’s infancy narrative. And part of that context is the genealogy that we often ignore.

Here’s the point of that genealogy in brief. There are three things to take away from it: (A) Jesus is a child of Abraham—he’s a Jew; (B) Jesus is in the royal line of David—he’s the Jewish Messiah; and (C) four women are mentioned in the genealogy: Tamar (1:3), Rahab (1:5), Ruth (1:5), and Bathsheba (1:6). Why does Matthew mention these four women? It’s quite simple: all four women were associated with Gentiles (Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth certainly were Gentiles, and Bathsheba was married to one—Uriah the Hittite); and all four were associated with, let us say, some questionable sexual behavior. So why would Matthew go out of his way to point these four women out?

Again, it’s simple if you think about it. If you were a Jew living in Nazareth, and that local girl Mary got pregnant before she was officially married to Joseph, would you buy the “O, I’ve never had sex, I’m still a virgin” argument? I’m thinking no, you wouldn’t. The fact is, even though we don’t even question the virginity of Mary, I can guarantee you everyone back then certainly did—you probably would too, if you were there at the time. Therefore, to be blunt, Mary probably didn’t have a good reputation, and Jesus probably grew up being considered a bastard. Give that obvious stigma, Matthew goes out of his way to mention Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Why? Because these four women, even though they had all done something sexually questionable, nevertheless were all held in high regard within Judaism—it was understood: God works through the lowly and marginalized. This tends to be God’s modus operandi—and Matthew wants to remind us that this questionable conception of Jesus is just the God of Israel doing His thing.

But there’s one more thing: all four women are associated with Gentiles. Therefore, Matthew’s overall point is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who will bring salvation, not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles. Yes, all that is from Matthew’s genealogy. I’m betting you’re not going to skip over biblical genealogies so quickly now!

Matthew’s Use of Isaiah 7:14
With that set out, we finally come to the scene in question, where Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14. So why does Matthew quote Isaiah 7:14 and claim it is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy? Well, he’s not saying that Isaiah made a prediction 750 years earlier that was finally coming true. And he’s not trying to make a biological argument that “God got Mary pregnant.” Even though both he and Luke do affirm that Mary was a virgin, that fact isn’t Matthew’s focus.

Indeed, that fact isn’t the focus of any New Testament writer anywhere else in the New Testament. It’s interesting to realize that the virgin birth story gets absolutely no air-time anywhere in the New Testament outside of Matthew and Luke’s infancy narratives. And, as shocking as it may sound, absolutely no theological significance is given to the virgin birth anywhere in the New Testament. Matthew and Luke mention it, leave the reader to say, “Huh…that’s interesting and odd,” and then just drop it.

But then what is Matthew emphasizing? Well, if you know your Old Testament story, you would (as most Jews would) immediately recognize that Matthew is referencing the story of Ahaz, Isaiah, the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and the birth of Hezekiah. And you’d also know how that initial prophecy back at that time came true during Hezekiah’s reign, when Sennacherib invaded Judah. And I think you’d be able to put two and two together:

Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy about the birth of a Davidic king, born during a time of crisis for God’s people, and who would grow up during a time of oppression of God’s people. And it was a prophecy that God would not only be with His people (“God with us”) during those times of oppression and suffering, but that He would also save His people from that oppression and suffering through the faithfulness of that Davidic king. That’s the story Matthew is referring to by that quote of Isaiah 7:14. Therefore, Matthew is essentially saying to his readers, “You know that story of Hezekiah, and how God brought salvation to His people because of Hezekiah’s faithfulness? Well, Jesus is like that…BUT BIGGER!

Jesus was not simply a Jewish Messiah who would save the Jews from Gentile oppression, like Hezekiah did. Jesus was the savior of the whole world, who would save both Jews and Gentiles from the real oppression of sin and evil itself.

Jesus is Hezekiah 2.0, but on a much bigger scale.

That is why it is so necessary to understand the Old Testament story, and to understand how New Testament writers like Matthew are using the Old Testament. They’re not claiming these verses are centuries-old predictions. They’re telling the story of Jesus in the language and against the backdrop of the Old Testament story: Jesus is like Hezekiah, but bigger; Jesus is like Moses, but bigger; Jesus is like Joshua, but bigger; Jesus is like Israel itself, but bigger. That is how Jesus is the fulfillment of so many Old Testament stories and prophecies.

But There’s One More Thing…Let’s Get All Roman!
So, Matthew was all about emphasizing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah who would bring salvation to both Jews and Gentilesthat’s why he mentions the wise men. And as well, Jesus was the true king of the Jews, not Herod…that’s why Matthew tells us about Herod.

But there’s one more thing I think you’ll find amazing. In case you didn’t know, within Judaism there was never a belief that the messiah would be born of a virgin. It simply wasn’t part of their messianic expectations. That’s why Matthew’s account of a virgin birth is so odd. The only virgin birth stories in the Greek world concerned Greek mythological heroes, like Perseus and Romulus, and rulers, like Alexander, and Augustus. And I can guarantee you that Matthew was not trying to equate Jesus with figures from Greek mythology.

So why would Matthew include this story of the virgin birth, especially if he doesn’t elaborate in it at all? Yes, hopefully now you see the connection he makes to Hezekiah, but still, taking about a virgin birth in the Roman world can bring a lot of confusion, right? Well, yes it could, but let’s consider something else.

In order to understand why Matthew included the story of the virgin birth, we need to look at the end of Matthew, namely Matthew 27:54. After witnessing the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Roman centurion stated “Truly, this was God’s Son.” That’s a very unusual confession coming from a Roman centurion. Why? Because in the Roman world, the “son of a god” was none other than Caesar himself. That’s a big deal. For what we need to realize is that in addition to his messianic claims that Jesus was the long-awaited Davidic Messiah and Son of God, Matthew is also claiming that Jesus is greater than even Caesar. Both with the virgin birth story, as well as with the confession of the centurion, Matthew is making the claim that Jesus, not Caesar, is “the Son of God.” Both scenes serve as direct challenges to the claims of Caesar.

In the Roman world, it was clear who Caesar Augustus was. He was known as “the savior of the world” who was “born of a virgin,” who “wiped away sins,” and whose birthday was described as, “the birthday of the god who has been for the whole world the beginning of good news.” Yes, you read that right: if you lived at the time, all those phrases would have been identified with Caesar Augustus. Think of it this way: If I wrote, “Jesus is the true ‘father of our country,’ not…” you would end that sentence with “George Washington,” because in America, we all associate that phrase “the father of our country” with George Washington. Now, we know that he is not literally the father of the country, but it is a title we give to him to honor him as probably the most important “founding father.” In the same way, although Augustus was call “the son of a god” and “born of a virgin,” everyone knew who his parents were. The titles were metaphorical, and since it was Augustus who ushered in a whole new era of peace to the Roman world, these designations served as titles to honor Caesar Augustus, and emphasized his political authority and power.

Therefore, when you read through Matthew from beginning to end, you can imagine how the claims of Jesus being “the savior of the world,” and “being born of a virgin,” would have been understood in the first century Roman Empire. Therefore, Matthew’s depiction of Jesus is doing two things: not only does it serve as a challenge to Herod claims of kingship, it also serves as a challenge to the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus himself: Jesus is the true King of the Jews, not Herod; and Jesus is the true Savior of the World who was born of a virgin, not Caesar.

In Conclusion
That’s quite a lot of material I just laid out there. It’s a lot to chew on. Hopefully now, though, you can understand Matthew’s infancy narrative a bit more clearly, when read against the backdrop of the original context of Isaiah 7:14 and the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and also when considered against the backdrop of the Roman understanding of Caesar Augustus. What is Matthew saying about Jesus? It’s Jesus, not Herod; it’s Jesus, not Caesar.

Therefore, while not denying the virgin birth, we need to be okay with the fact that Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 7:14 is not an attempt to explain how Jesus became the Son of God, but rather, simply the fact that he is….the Son of God, the Jewish Messiah, and the Savior of the World.

Isaiah 7:14 and the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis…and What That Means for Jesus (Part 2)

Isaiah 7:14 and the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis…and What That Means for Jesus (Part 2)

One of the disadvantages of growing up in church, particularly Evangelical churches, is that from the time you step foot in Sunday School classrooms, you are inundated with Bible stories: Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Abraham and Sarah, Joseph’s coat of many colors, the Plagues of Egypt, the Parting of the Red Sea, Mount Sinai, Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, David and Goliath, Solomon’s wisdom…well…let’s face it, after Solomon, I doubt there were too many other Old Testament stories. Okay, okay, Elijah and the chariot of fire—that was always popular.

And then, of course, there is Jesus: the virgin birth, 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, the various healings and exorcisms, and of course the Transfiguration, the triumphal entry on a donkey, Judas, the Last Supper, the Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Jesus before Pilate, the Crucifixion, and of course, the Resurrection—Jesus wins! Take that, you Pharisees!

So, how is all this a disadvantage, you ask? It’s simple: we grow up thinking we know all about those stories because we’ve been listening to them since Sunday School. We tend not to realize that the Sunday School versions of those stories are over-simplistic and “dumbed-down” versions suitable for children. We thus think we know what the stories about, when we really don’t know what the stories are about.

For example, if you sat in on my classes when I simply give my students a brief overview of Solomon’s reign as recorded in I Kings 1-11, you’d be quite shocked. I mean, you probably think, “Solomon: wealthy and wise; that bluff to split the baby thing; he built the Temple; got a little horny when he hit his mid-life crisis, ended up having lots of wives and concubines, and built a bunch of shrines for foreign idols—doesn’t seem to ‘wise’ at that point, but hey, we all make mistakes! Overall, Solomon was pretty good for most of his life, right?”

Well, I think the writer of I Kings might quibble a bit with that Sunday School version of Solomon’s life, to say the least. But once you realize just what kind of king Solomon ended up being, it makes more sense why the kingdom was torn apart in a civil war, seemingly as soon as Solomon’s body was laid in the ground. Simply put, I Kings is telling us, “Hey, look at Solomon, the ‘wisest’ and ‘wealthiest’ king in Israel’s history—a royal screw-up!”

My point? For many (if not most) of us, our superficial familiarity with the stories of the Bible often blind us to the fact that we have never really read the Bible, and are thus actually quite ignorant of much of what is in it.

That’s why when we read Matthew’s infancy narrative, particularly Matthew 1:23, where he quotes Isaiah 7:14, it never occurs to us that Isaiah 7:14 had an original context in the history of Israel—it’s a prophecy, therefore it is a prediction of the virgin Mary and Jesus. End of story. Move on.

But You Really Need to Know the Beginnings of that Story
Well, let’s not move on so quickly. Let’s try to understand and appreciate how that story develops first. Remember Wayne’s World, when they’d want to take you to a different time? That’s what we’re going to do in order to understand Isaiah 7:14 in its original context. We’re going to travel back in time to roughly 742 BC Jerusalem, when Ahaz, the new king of Judah, was facing a potential crisis: the northern kingdom of Israel (sometimes called Ephraim) had teamed up the neighboring country of Aram (also known as Syria) and they were threatening to invade Judah—hence, the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis.

Now, there is a lot of issues and complexities to this time in Israel’s history that biblical scholars love to discuss and debate. I should know, I wrote my entire PhD thesis on these very issues that surround Isaiah 7:14 in its original context. If you want to give yourself your very own Christmas treat, grab some hot cocoa, wrap yourself up in a blanket by the fireplace, and go to this site, where you can actually read my entire PhD thesis: Isaiah 7:14—Identity and Function Within the Bookend Structure of Proto-Isaiah. If you feel reading 300 pages might be a bit too time-consuming, though, allow me to give a much briefer glimpse regarding the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis.

What’s Going on in Isaiah 7 (and chapters 8-12 for that matter)?
In all seriousness, though, once you simply understand the situation regarding the threat Israel and Aram were posing to Judah, particularly to Ahaz, the new king of Judah, Isaiah 7 actually becomes quite easy to understand. In fact, Isaiah 7:1-2 lay out that very historical situation: Ahaz was scared of the threat posed by Israel and Aram.

It’s at this point that the prophet Isaiah takes his son Shear-jashub (the name means “A remnant will return”), and he goes to confront Ahaz. In Isaiah 7:3-9, Isaiah basically says this to Ahaz: “Hey Ahaz! Don’t be afraid of those two punks, Rezin and the son of Remaliah (Rezin was the king of Aram, and the “son of Remaliah” was Pekah, the king of Israel)! They won’t succeed! Just put your trust in YHWH!” Got it? That’s it: Isaiah’ message to Ahaz—Don’t worry! Trust YHWH!”

Not only that, but then Isaiah gives Ahaz a veritable gift. In 7:10-11, Isaiah says to Ahaz that he can ask YHWH for any sign at all, and YHWH would do it, just so Ahaz could have confidence that YHWH would protect him, just like He promised. Ahaz’s response in 7:12, though, is simple: “No, I’m not going to bother!” And why not? It becomes quite obvious, both in Isaiah 7-12, as well as the other account in II Kings 16—Ahaz chose not to trust YHWH, and instead appealed to the king of Assyria for protection, after all, Assyria was the major empire of the time—they could protect Judah, as long as Ahaz agreed to pledge allegiance to Assyria. The thing was, though, Assyria was kind of like the mob. You ask the godfather for a favor, O he’ll do you a favor…but then he’ll never leave you alone, and you’ll soon realize that you got more than you bargained for. (Think how Lando Calrissian felt when he made that deal with Darth Vader, to hand Han Solo over. Assyria was the Darth Vader of the time).

Needless to say, Ahaz’s complete refusal to put his trust in YHWH was not only an affront to YHWH, it was going to prove to be incredibly stupid. And it is thus in that historical context of (A) the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and (B) Ahaz’s refusal to trust YHWH, in favor of appealing to Assyria for help, that the famous Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 makes sense.

Isaiah 7:14 in the Context of the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis
So what was Isaiah’s reaction to Ahaz’s refusal to take YHWH up on His offer? Quite simply, the rest of Isaiah 7:13-25 can be summed up this way: “You idiot! You asked Assyria for help? Well, Assyria will come in and help alright! Assyria will destroy both Israel and Aram, just like you asked (7:16) …but Assyria isn’t going to leave! Assyria will put you under its boot! Judah is in for a heap of trouble (7:17-20)!

In fact, once you realize that, you can read the entire unit of Isaiah 7-12, and you’ll see that Assyria is mentioned all over the place. The message is clear: Ahaz failed to trust in YHWH, and put his trust in the Darth Vader of the time—he opened the door to a whole lot of hurt on Judah, and Judah was going to suffer…a lot!

So How Does Emmanuel Fit in to All This?
In the midst of this avalanche of prophecies of doom all throughout Isaiah 7-12, though, there seems to be a glimmer of hope. First, Isaiah tells Ahaz (during the time of the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, mind you), “Here’s a sign for you! Look! The almah is going to get pregnant and give birth to a son (i.e. Emmanuel). By the time he grows up Assyria’s going to destroy Israel and Aram!”

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That prophecy actually doesn’t sound too hopeful! Whoever that child is, Isaiah is saying that Assyria is going to come in and terrorize Judah within that child’s lifetime!

You’re right: that prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is one of coming doom and devastation for Judah at the hands of Assyria. This is re-emphasized in Isaiah 8:1-8—at the end of yet another prophecy about the destruction Assyria would bring, Isaiah equates Assyria to a flood that will sweep into the land of Judah…and he calls Judah, the land of Emmanuel! Again, the Emmanuel prophecy seems to be associated with God’s judgment on Judah by the hand of Assyria, because of Ahaz’s display of unfaithfulness to YHWH.

Simply put, Ahaz was going to realize that God was alive and active in Judah (i.e. “God with us”), because God was going to respond with judgment upon Judah because of Ahaz’s unfaithfulness. When you’ve done something wrong, and your mom says, “Wait until your father gets home,” you are fully aware that dad is home, when you’re draped across his knee and he’s spanking your behind!

Ahaz, you’ll know God is with Judah, because He’s going to spank you with the wooden spoon of Assyria!

But Where’s the Glimmer of Hope?
That’s not the end of the story, though, because that Emmanuel child is also the means by which hope is kept alive in Judah. For it is Emmanuel who is being talked about in Isaiah 9:2-7 (another “Christmas-time” passage associated with Jesus: “Unto us a child is born; to us a son is given”)—Isaiah prophesied that it would be through Emmanuel that He would turn around and humiliate Assyria.

And then there is Isaiah 11:1-11 (yes, another “Christmas-time” passage: “There will come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. And the Spirit of YHWH will read upon him…”). It is through Emmanuel, the “shoot of Jesse,” that YHWH would save the remnant of His people who suffered under Assyria. (Remember when Isaiah first went to Ahaz? He took his son, “A remnant will return”?).

Simply put, when you read Isaiah 7:14 and consider the fact that Isaiah made the Emmanuel prophecy during the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and when you consider it in light of the larger context of Isaiah 7-12, the fullness of what Isaiah ended up saying to Ahaz is this:

“Ahaz, because of your unfaithfulness to YHWH, you’ve opened the floodgates to oppression by Assyria. That is YHWH’s judgment on you for refusing to trust Him! This will happen by the time that child to whom that woman gives birth grows up! But YHWH is going to work through that child to eventually humiliate Assyria and save the remnant of Judah, because that child is going to be faithful to YHWH…something you have refused to be!”

So Who Is Emmanuel? Look No Further than Isaiah 36-39
In that original context, who do you think the Emmanuel child was? A child born to a woman in Ahaz’s court, who would witness the Assyrian destruction of both Israel and Aram, but also the Assyrian invasion into Judah—Judah, the land that would be known as “Emmanuel’s land”? A child who was clearly a royal figure who would put his trust in YHWH and be the means by which YHWH humiliates Assyria and lifts the Assyrian boot off from Judah’s neck?

The answer isn’t really a mystery. The first part of the Book of Isaiah (scholars call it “Proto-Isaiah”—it covers chapters 1-39) gives the answer in a very artistic, narrative fashion. Now, “Proto-Isaiah” covers the time of the historical prophet Isaiah, roughly from 750-700 BC. The first “big event” recorded is the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis in Isaiah 7-12. The last “big event” recorded is found in Isaiah 36-39: it recounts the invasion that Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, launched into Judah in order to destroy Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, because Hezekiah had rebelled against Assyria by refusing to pay any more tribute to Assyria.

Sennacherib’s Prism, in which we find his account of his campaign into Judah.

Long story short: Assyria “flooded” into Judah, destroyed 46 towns in Hezekiah’s kingdom, and put Jerusalem under siege. Hezekiah appealed to Isaiah and asked Isaiah to pray to YHWH for him and for the remnant of Judah. And, in response to Hezekiah’s demonstration of faithfulness to YHWH, Isaiah assured him that Sennacherib would never set foot in Jerusalem. Instead, he’d suffer a humiliating defeat, and would return back to Nineveh.

And lo and behold, that’s what happened. Sennacherib never took Jerusalem. His army suffered huge losses outside of Jerusalem’s walls, and he high-tailed it back to Nineveh, where he was assassinated by two of his sons.

Hezekiah, the Emmanuel child Isaiah prophesied about during the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis during the reign of his father Ahaz, put his faith in YHWH during his own crisis of Sennacherib’s invasion (something Ahaz had failed to do)—and, just as Isaiah had prophesied, YHWH honored Hezekiah’s faithfulness by repelling the Assyrian threat.

Hezekiah was the Emmanuel child of Isaiah’s prophecy. And that’s why we have a Book of Isaiah to begin with: Isaiah’s prophecies regarding Emmanuel during the time of Assyrian oppression came true, and Isaiah was vindicated as a true prophet of YHWH. His prophecies were preserved by the Jews, because what he had prophesied had come true.

This identification of Hezekiah with passages like Isaiah 7:14, 9:1-6, and 11:1-11 is actually nothing new. It’s found in Jewish rabbinic writings known as the Targums, and there is even an account of a debate between a certain Jew named Trypho and the early Christian philosopher, Justin Martyr, in which Trypho basically says, “We Jews have always known Isaiah 7:14 is about Hezekiah,” to which Justin replied, “No! It’s a prediction about Jesus!”

Well, I think Trypho was right: Isaiah 7:14 is originally about Hezekiah. But I also think Justin Martyr is right: Isaiah 7:14 is about Jesus…but Justin Martyr is wrong about one thing: it’s wrong to think of Isaiah 7:14 as a prediction about Jesus.

Now I know…you’re probably thinking, “But Hezekiah’s mother couldn’t have been a virgin—are you saying that that Hebrew word almah doesn’t mean virgin?” Basically, yes. The Hebrew word that specifically denotes “virgin” is betulah. Now, almah can be used to refer to a virgin, but that must come from the context of the passage, and in the original context of Isaiah 7, there’s nothing that would suggest the almah is a woman is a virgin.

The ambiguity of the word, though, does have an impact on Matthew’s infancy narrative. Tomorrow, I’ll explain what I mean. Tomorrow, I’ll explain how knowing that these famous “Christmas-time” passages of Isaiah 7:14, 9:1-6, and 11:1-11 were originally about Hezekiah actually help us understand Jesus better.

Isaiah 7:14: Misconceptions and False Assumptions…and What that Means for Jesus (Part 1)

Isaiah 7:14: Misconceptions and False Assumptions…and What that Means for Jesus (Part 1)

It’s Christmas, and if you have grown up in church (and probably even if you haven’t), no doubt you are familiar with Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” Matthew 1:23 quotes this verse and claims that Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Matthew also goes out of his way to emphasize the importance of the name “Emmanuel”—it means “God is with us.”

Unfortunately, I think too many Christians (and virtually everybody, for that matter) don’t fully understand what Matthew is doing when he quotes Isaiah 7:14. If you are like me, chances are you grew up essentially being told that (A) Isaiah predicted the virgin birth of Christ 750 years earlier, (B) Matthew was claiming that Isaiah’s prediction finally came true when Mary miraculously conceived, and eventually Jesus was born, and (C) this “proved” Jesus was God because, after all, that’s what “Emmanuel” means; Jesus couldn’t have been conceived the “natural” way, because then that would mean he wasn’t God.

And if you have been involved in any arguments regarding Isaiah 7:14, perhaps you are familiar with the dust-up over the word in question: almah in Hebrew (the one that’s used in Isaiah 7:14), and parthenos in Greek (the word that’s used in Matthew 1:23). Does almah mean “virgin” or does it mean “young woman”?

Let Me Make You A Bit Uncomfortable
Well, let me state up front that I am not going to go that route in this post. But I do want to say that there are a host of assumptions in the typical understanding regarding Isaiah 7:14 that are simply misguided. Let me throw out a few things that might made you step back and feel slightly uncomfortable:

  1. In the Old Testament, what determined whether or not a prophet was a true prophet or a false prophet was whether or not what he said would happen actually happened, either in the prophet’s lifetime or shortly after. If it didn’t happen, the prophet would be considered a false prophet, and the Jews would certainly not preserve his writings and prophecies. So, why would the Jews have kept Isaiah’s prophecy of 7:14 for 750 years? If it didn’t come true during Isaiah’s lifetime, wouldn’t he have been considered a false prophet? [Spoiler alert: Yes, that’s exactly what he would be considered!]
  2. For that matter, is it correct to assume that the proper understanding of “prophecy” is simply “prediction of far off future events”? [Spoiler alert: No, it’s not correct to assume that!]
  3. Is Matthew just trying to “prove” that Jesus is God by claiming a 750-year-old prediction (one that the Jews would not have kept that long) finally came true? [Spoiler alert: No, that’s not what he’s trying to do!]
  4. Today, we are aware of how conception works: a man’s sperm gets into a woman’s egg. Therefore, to make sense of Matthew 1:23 (and Isaiah 7:14), we assume Matthew is claiming that man’s sperm wasn’t involved in Jesus’ conception, and that God somehow did something miraculous to Mary’s egg in order to conceive Jesus. Therefore, on a mysterious level, somehow God the Father is really Jesus’ “biological father.” But Matthew, as all people back then, had no notion of sperm and eggs—so are our assumption as to what Matthew is claiming correct? In other words, is Matthew saying what we think he’s saying? [Spoiler alert: I don’t think he is!]

Now That You’re Uncomfortable…
Don’t worry, I’m not going to argue that Jesus was not born of a virgin. I do want to suggest, though, that by assuming that Matthew’s primary concern is about predictions and modes of procreation, we might not be really listening to what Matthew is actually saying. We might be reading Matthew’s infancy narrative (and by extension Isaiah 7:14) through modern lenses that are actually the wrong prescription, and therefore are blurring the message that Matthew is trying to clarify.

You see, like Mark and John, Matthew is telling the story of Jesus and His Gospel of the Kingdom of God against the backdrop of the larger story of Israel’s history. That’s why they are constantly quoting or referring to so many passages and prophecies in the Old Testament. They aren’t saying, “Hey, these predictions from hundreds of years ago are now coming true in Jesus!” For that matter, many of those prophecies were never even considered by Jews to be messianic in the first place.

The reason Matthew, Mark, and John aren’t saying that is because they didn’t view those prophecies as far off predictions. [Just for clarification’s sake, the reason I’m not including Luke is because Luke was writing to a Gentile audience, and therefore purposely left out most of the quotes and references to the Old Testament—his Gentile audience wouldn’t have understood them.]

Gabriel Appears to Joseph

Instead, Matthew, Mark, and John, by quoting or referring to so many Old Testament passages and prophecies, were purposely trying to get their readers to understand Jesus in light of Israel’s story in the Old Testament. Or, as I tell my students, they are saying, “You know that passage in the Old Testament (like Isaiah 7:14)? Well, this episode in Jesus’ life is like that…but bigger!” Therefore, if you want to really understand what Matthew, or Mark, or John is saying about Jesus, you have to take the time to look back at the passage or prophecy to which they are referring, and understand what it originally was about. Only then will you be able to understand what they are trying to say about Jesus.

Trying to Come to a Fuller Understanding of the Gospel Narrative
So if you’re up for a challenge, come with me on a brief tour back in time to an event in Israel’s history that you probably have little or no idea about. Trust me, it will have the effect of deepening your understanding of the New Testament story.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t learn about this event until I was 32 years old. I grew up in church, went to a Christian high school, went through an entire master’s program in the New Testament, and I had no idea this event ever took place. Well, let’s put it another way: I never really paid attention to it. After all, it was the Old Testament—and the only thing the Old Testament is really good for was to point out those “prophecy-predictions” and show how they “prove” Jesus is God!

Needless to say, I don’t feel that way anymore. That’s not the way to understand the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament; that’s certainly short-changing the value of the Old Testament itself; and by extension, that ends up presenting a rather anemic and shallow understanding of Jesus and the Gospel.

I often tell my students that if you don’t know your Old Testament, you’ll never fully get the New Testament. In this Christmas season, therefore, over the next couple of days, allow me to take you on a short journey in three stages: (A) to an extremely important event in Israel’s history, (B) to Matthew’s story of Christ’s birth, and then (C) to a personal story of my own involving Emmanuel. What more can you ask for? A little bit of Old Testament, a little bit of New Testament, and a personal story of my own.

What do Fruit Flies Have to do with Eternity? (Still more celebratory excerpts regarding evolution and the Christian Faith)

What do Fruit Flies Have to do with Eternity? (Still more celebratory excerpts regarding evolution and the Christian Faith)

Fruit Flies, Transformation, and Eternity
Since I’m on the topic of fruit flies, let me make another point. Due to the short life span of fruit flies, scientists can observe generations upon generations of them in a short period of time. Typically, a fruit fly’s entire life is about 30 days. Let’s put that into perspective: from a fruit fly’s perspective, a human being who lives for 85 years would have lived 1,034 lifetimes. For human beings to get an idea of what’s that like, trying imagining a being living 87,890 years. And then try to imagine that being’s lifetime of 87,890 years being only one generation in a long history of that species’ existence. Time becomes so vast that, from the perspective of the limited blip of a lifetime of a human being, you might as well just say it is eternal.

Trying to understand “eternity” really is impossible from our perspective. Even to say “God has always existed,” or “God exists for all time” is to, in fact, confine God to the limitations of time. You simply cannot express the concept of eternity in human language, for human language is ultimately a product of this limited realm we call “time.” When we consider the difference of perspective of a fruit fly in comparison to a human being, though, I think we can at least get a better understanding of it. One day in the life of a fruit fly is the equivalent of almost three years in the life of a human being. Recently in my life, I went through a period of three years that saw some major life-changing experiences in my family: pregnancy, cancer, chemotherapy, major surgery, recovery, birth, raising a toddler, and a long, drawn-out and bizarre divorce that lasted for 19 months.

From my perspective, as I was going through that time, those three years seemed like a hellish eternity. I thought those trials and conflicts would never end. Still, even though they have had a life-changing impact on me, those three years will have amounted to a relatively short period of time in the course of my entire life. The thing I realized in the midst of those trials was that the kinds of changes those conflicts had on me were entirely dependent upon the way in which I chose to react to those conflicts. Or to put it in “evolutionary terminology,” my Spiritual life has “evolved” (I think for the better) because I chose to respond to the inevitable conflicts in life in certain ways, whereas if I would have chosen to respond in different ways, my Spiritual life would have regressed, or ultimately might have taken a darker turn.

Genetic studies have shown us that there is already in living organisms something capable of adaptation, evolution, and transformation, that, when a certain “switch” is flipped, makes it capable of adapting to its environment for its relatively brief life. By the same token, God has “built into” human beings the ability to choose how to react to the inevitable conflicts of life; and our ability to choose, to “flip certain switches” woven mysteriously within the very fabric of our being, will determine if we in our “natural state” (what C.S. Lewis calls Bios) will transform (and “evolve,” if you will) into the higher form of Spiritual life (what C.S. Lewis calls Zoe), into not just more highly developed creatures, but into transformed beings who mature fully in Christ, and who thus will be revealed as “sons of God,” just as Romans 8:19 states, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”

We in our natural, time-limited states, tend to only see the immediate pain and conflict in our lives, and we can’t really get “the big picture” of God’s eternal perspective. But the evolutionary changes we see in fruit flies, within their brief, entirely natural lives can help us put our own conflicts into perspective. We are made for eternity, and although we cannot yet fully comprehend such a thing, we can see that the trials and tribulations we inevitably experience in this life shape, mold, and transform us in ways that have eternal consequences.

As long as we respond to those trials and tribulations with faith, hope and love, we can be assured that such “fiery ordeals,” however presently painful, will turn out to be fires that purify us into eternal righteousness. Yet we should also remember that if we respond to those “fiery ordeals” with hatred, contempt and bitterness, those very same fires that could purify us will end up enveloping us in our own personal hell. Strange at it may sound, evolution helps us see the trials in our lives from an eternal perspective.

What Do Fruit Flies Have to do with the Trinity? (And other celebratory excerpts regarding Evolution and the Christian Faith)

What Do Fruit Flies Have to do with the Trinity? (And other celebratory excerpts regarding Evolution and the Christian Faith)

In a recent Facebook thread on one of the sites I follow, a question was raised regarding the creation/evolution debate, specifically, on whether or not there was anything out there that actually celebrated how science, philosophy, and theology could inform one another. Well, in the last chapter in my book, The Heresy of Ham, I attempt to do this very thing. And so, I thought over the next couple of days, I would post a few selections from that chapter, in hopes of inspiring people to see that evolutionary theory, if understood in its proper light, can actually help us understand the Christian faith better. Enjoy…

Fruit Flies, The Trinity, Creation, and Relationship
A few years ago, I saw this particular video on Nova concerning evolution. It was entitled What Darwin Never Knew.[1] The entire 2-hour special is fascinating, but there is one segment in particular that blew me away…it was all about fruit flies. Basically, there are two types of fruit flies: one with dark spots on its wings, the other without dark spots. Scientists wanted to find out why some fruit flies have these spots, while others don’t. Well, they looked at the genetic code of both types of flies and found to their astonishment that both flies have that “paint-brush gene” that coded for the dark spots. The natural question became, “If both flies have the same “paint-brush gene,” then why does one fly have dark spots and the other doesn’t?

The answer was found in the supposed “junk DNA” of the genome that nobody really understood—it is called the “dark matter” of the genome. In fact, 98% of the double-helix of the DNA structure doesn’t code for proteins. What this means, basically, is that the monumental step forward with the Human Genome Project that successfully coded the proteins of the genome, still left 98% of the double-helix uncharted. That fact alone should blow us away and leave us in sheer awe of the complexity, creativity, and mystery of life.

In any case, scientists found a difference in the “dark matter” around the “paint-brush gene” between the two flies: the spotted fly had a stretch of DNA that was different from the unspotted fly. So scientists took that stretch of DNA, combined with the gene in a jellyfish that makes it glow, and then injected it into the unspotted fly. Guess what happened? The unspotted fly developed glowing spots on its wings!

What scientists had found was essentially a switch in the DNA structure. It basically turns on and off the genes that make stuff. If the switch is turned on, then the “paint-brush gene” paints dark spots on the wings of fruit flies; if the switch is turned off, then that “paint-brush gene” is essentially out of work.

What this all boils down to is that evolutionary theory has been able to show how, at the genetic level, biological organisms interact and adapt to their environment in the natural world. The genetic information and ability is already there in the fruit fly, or bird, or bacteria, or human being, to do a whole bunch of “stuff.” Whatever “stuff” any given organism does, though, is dependent upon its interaction with its surrounding environment. What this shows, therefore, is something we should have known anyway: creation is not a static thing, but rather an on-going creative process of life. Creation is happening every second of every day. This is the sort of thing many of the early Church Fathers said almost 2,000 years ago.

Evolution, God, and Creation
Now, what does this say about God? I think it forces us to abandon two extremes regarding God and creation. Not only must we abandon the idea that God is something like a watch-maker who created the “universe-clock” way back when, and then let it run all on its own, but we also have to abandon the idea that the natural processes we see in the natural world are all there is—for evolutionary theory blows both the mechanistic understanding of the universe and the naturalistic view of the world out of the water. The universe, and the world in particular, neither is simply a machine built by an “intelligent designer,” nor the product of blind processes.

A machine (like a battery-powered clock, for example) will run in the same way whether it is set in the Himalayas, the Amazon jungle, or the Sahara desert—the only thing that can “happen” to it is that either its batteries run out, or that something in that given environment destroys it. Simply put, you, me, and creation itself, is not a machine governed by blind natural laws and processes. A machine cannot adapt and evolve—it is not relational. By contrast, living organisms, indeed creation itself, is fundamentally relational—it interacts, adapts, evolves, and creates ever-new life forms in relationship to other forms of life within creation.

From the Christian perspective, this concept of life being fundamentally relational should not surprise us at all. First, this helps us understand the Trinity a bit better. The doctrine of the Trinity reveals to us that God Himself, as the source of all life, is a relational being within Himself. He is not a static “thing,” but rather a living, relational, life-giving being. He is, as C.S. Lewis said, sort of a perichoretic dance (perichoresis is a Greek word that is used to describe the Trinitarian relationship within God), and His purpose for His creatures is for us to enter into that dance.

And so, this biological reality of evolution within the natural world points toward the deeper reality of the life of God Himself: the spiritual dance of the Trinity is being performed on the stage of this natural world. God is dancing, He has created us to enter into the dance by means of relating to everything within creation: a close friendship, a hike in a forest, giving birth, painting a landscape—all of these things require relationship, and the very concept of relationship demands personhood. All these things in the natural world impact who we are on a Spiritual level, for there is interaction, adaptation, and ultimately transformation from being mere creatures to being Sons of God who will rule all of creation with our Lord and Brother Christ

The Icon of the Trinity

Second, this should also help us understand creation as it relates to God a bit better. Instead of understanding the laws of nature as mechanistic or blind processes, I think evolution, by showing the very relational character of creation itself, reveals that what we call the laws of nature are, in fact, living, relational laws, reflecting the very metaphysical nature of the living, relational God, and bringing forth the kind of creative life in the natural world that is ever-present within the Trinitarian life of God. In that sense, just as human beings are made in the image of God, and thus are to reflect the nature of God, the very creation itself also reflects in its temporal, natural life the very eternal life of God. Therefore, to partially quote one of my favorite songwriters, Bob Bennett, the task of human beings as the royal, priestly custodians of God’s creation is to enter in, take part in this miracle of creation, and offer it back up to the Lord of Life:

            A light shining in this heart of darkness; A new beginning and a miracle
           Day by day the integration of the concrete and the spiritual[2]

We see it around us every day. The very theory of evolution itself opens a door to understanding the miracle of creation even more. And in that sense, by further unlocking the mysteries of the natural world, evolutionary theory opens yet another door to deeper Spiritual realities. It is our task, as image-bearing priests of God, to offering everything in creation up to God, and thus integrate “the concrete and the Spiritual.”


[1]“What Darwin Never Knew,” Nova.
[2]Bob Bennett, “Matters of the Heart.” Matters of the Heart. Star Song Records, 1982.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 27): The Cultural Influence of the High Catholic Age–Music, Literature, Art, Architecture (Yeah, it’s a pretty big deal!)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 27): The Cultural Influence of the High Catholic Age–Music, Literature, Art, Architecture (Yeah, it’s a pretty big deal!)

The High Catholic Age didn’t just give the world monasteries, advances in technology, universities, revolutions in philosophy, the foundation for the natural sciences, and free markets (as if that wasn’t plenty enough). No, while all these advances were nothing short of world-changing, we would be betraying history if we didn’t also point out the era’s astounding contributions to the greater culture, namely in the areas of art, music, literature, and architecture.

Just in case you didn’t know, it was during the High Catholic Age (supposedly the “Dark Ages”!) that musical notation was invented and musicians began to experiment with greater complexity of harmonies between various instruments like the pipe organ, the clavichord and harpsichord, the violin and bass fiddle among others” (Stark, Victory of Reason 51). It was during the High Catholic Age that we find the first use of oil paint upon a stretched canvas; and it was during the High Catholic Age that the use of common language (vernacular) was popularized in literature (think of writers like Dante and Geoffrey Chaucer).

The Troubadours
In fact, perhaps the biggest influence in the area of literature was the rise of the Troubadours. C.S. Lewis described the impact of the Troubadours as a literary movement that “effected a change which has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life untouched, and they erected impossible barriers between us and the classical past or the Oriental present. Compared with this revolution, the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature” (W. Andrew Hoffecker, Revolutions in Worldview 150).

So what exactly was the hallmark of Troubadour love poetry and prose? Think of chivalrous knights, virtuous ladies, the legends of King Arthur, and the concept of courtly love. It was the Troubadours who invented this entire genre that has forever affected literature (and movies) to this day. In courtly love poetry, a knight, upon seeing a certain virtuous lady, is immediately overcome with a painful yearning to gain her attention and love. Therefore, he devotes his passion and loyalty to his lady-lover to honor her, love her, protect her, and care for her. Simply put, his love for his lady makes him into a more chivalrous, noble man.

This was nothing more than the celebration of romantic love, not for the purposes of just indulging in illicit sexual exploits, but rather for the purposes of transforming the lovers into more godly and honorable human beings. Indeed, anyone who reads Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur will be struck at the deep Christian imagery and themes throughout the entire work. One cannot truly pursue one’s lady-love unless one also devotes himself to pursuing Christ. Simply put, it was the Troubadours and the concept of courtly love that essentially “Christianized,” and thus glorified, the whole notion of romance.

What’s up with where Literature Courses put Dante and Chaucer?
Other literary achievements of the High Catholic Age can be seen in the works of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321 AD), Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400 AD), Petrarch (1304-1374 AD), and Boccaccio (1313-1375 AD). For reasons that completely escape me, in most literature books, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is set firmly within Medieval Literature, whereas Dante’s Divine Comedy is mostly associated with the Renaissance. I don’t understand the rationale for this, given the fact that Dante actually lived his entire life before Chaucer was even born! For some reason, Dante is almost always associated with a movement that took root over 100 years after his death. Why is that done?

I have a theory. As we will learn later on, one of the things the proponents of the so-called Enlightenment of the 18th century tried to do what to portray the previous 1500 years of European history as “the dark ages.” In fact, the very terms of “the dark ages” and “the enlightenment” were made up by men who hated the Church, and therefore were trying to argue that science was breaking the chains of old, religious superstition. It’s a narrative that most people still buy into: the part of history in which Christianity was most influential was characterized by fear, terror, superstition, and ignorance (i.e. the “dark ages); whereas ever since the dawn of science and reason, history is now hearkening back to that “golden age” of ancient Greece and Rome (i.e. the “enlightenment”).

Of course, such a narrative is false to the core. As we have been seeing, there wasn’t a “dark ages.” In fact, it was precisely because of Christianity’s influence that what we have come to deem as “the dark ages” was actually a time of incredible enlightenment on many levels. So what does this have to do with placing Dante in the Renaissance, when he actually lived and wrote 100 years before Chaucer? Well, if you know anything about Dante’s Divine Comedy, you know that it is filled with references to ancient Greek and Roman mythology of the ancient classical period. Of course, the proponents of the so-called “Enlightenment” argued that it was only during the Renaissance that literature of ancient Greece and Rome was rediscovered—after all, people in those “dark ages” were ignorant of classical learning!

But then here we have Dante—clearly living in what was deemed “the dark ages,” yet clearly displaying a thorough knowledge of classical learning. What’s an Enlightenment thinker to do? Such a fact completely disrupts the whole Enlightenment narrative of history! Well, let’s just insert Dante into the Renaissance, and hope nobody notices the historical contradiction that completely cuts the legs out from under the false Enlightenment narrative of history.

But as anyone with any knowledge of engineering and architecture will acknowledge, the “Gothic” architecture of the High Catholic Age was anything but uncivilized and barbaric. In fact, it vastly surpassed the old Romanesque architecture of ancient Rome. The only way architects of ancient Rome could support the sheer tonnage of stone that was needed to keep the buildings up was to build extremely thick walls. This meant that ancient buildings tended to be extremely dark and dank, due to the fact that there was no room for windows in the thick walls. The architects of the High Catholic Age, though, came up with a revolutionary new architecture: thin walls, supported by flying buttresses, were able to disperse the heavy weight of the roof and actually make the building even more secure.

This also allowed for further creativity: incredibly large, stained-glass windows allowed the sun to bathe the interior of churches with light and display in vivid color artistic renderings of biblical stories. Peasants who either could not read or had no access to a Bible were able to go to church and learn about the Bible and Christian theology through art. And then there was the construction of the high spires and steeples that pointed up toward heaven, giving glory to the Creator who bestowed upon human beings the rationality and creativity to offer up God’s created order in forever varied and creative ways. “Gothic” is certainly wasn’t—it was the new Christian architecture, and it far-surpassed the limited pagan architecture of the old world.

We simply do not appreciate the tremendous leap forward the High Catholic Age in the areas of not only markets, and business, but also hospitals, arts, music, literature and architecture. As you can no doubt tell, I have a palpable antipathy for the so-called Enlightenment, because I’ve come to realize that the standard Enlightenment narrative we in the western world have been fed for the past 250 years is not simply wrong, but it is a purposeful lie. The very terms we just unthinkingly accept (i.e. “Dark Ages,” “Enlightenment”) promote certain assumptions about history and Christianity that never get critically analyzed. And thus, they end up perpetuating an ignorant and uninformed narrative about Christian history.

I joined the Greek Orthodox Church over ten years ago, but being the English major that I am, I still am fascinated by “Medieval” literature, art, music and architecture of the “Catholic” world of western Europe. It utterly amazes me. I have one more post on the High Catholic Age to go. Hopefully, these posts have encouraged you to get more interested in a truly remarkable period of history and culture. The following link is to some Troubadour music on youtube:

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 26): Monks and Capitalism…Open For Business!

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 26): Monks and Capitalism…Open For Business!

In this next to last post about the High Catholic Age (aka. “The Middle Ages”), I want to focus on something that may come as a surprise to most people—indeed I was surprised when I found out about it. What is the “it,” you may ask? Well, it’s something that still is often in the news today: capitalism, free markets, and the ideal conditions that encourage innovations and inventions.

And yes, it seems that we have the Medieval…I mean, the monks of the High Catholic Age to thank for it.

In addition to inventing universities and revolutionizing philosophy, the monks of the High Catholic Age sowed the seeds of something else: free-markets and capitalism; and with that came a host of innovations and inventions that literally changed everything in the world. It started with the fact that, in the attempt to separate themselves from the world, monastic orders attempted to become completely self-sufficient monastic estates. What this meant was that monastic orders essentially went into business—be it wool, wine, beer, etc.—in order to gain self-sufficiency.

Now, the actual term “capitalism” wasn’t even a term until 19th socialists/anarchists/communists used it as a pejorative to describe the kind of free market economy that came out of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, even today, “capitalism” carries with it very negative connotations by many on the political Left, as an oppressive economic system that benefits only the rich, at the expense of the poor working class.

Well, before we just accept the definition that was championed by the USSR and Communist China, step back and try to get a broader perspective. Sociologist Rodney Stark defines capitalism as “an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well-organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relatively free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated and actual returns” (Victory of Reason 56).

The Pagan World’s Demise and Christian Europe’s Rise…Open for Business!
In fact, a broader view of history allows us to see that it was because of the disintegration of the “old world” of paganism that Western Europe was in prime position to develop an entirely new economic system that eventually became what we know today as “capitalism.” And what was it that put them in a prime position? It was the absence of any kind of over-bearing state (think the Roman Empire) imposing harsh regulations on the market. In other words, there was tremendous opportunity and economic freedom in the High Catholic Age for anyone to take advantage of—and it was the monastic orders who led the way.

Vincent Carroll states in his book Christianity on Trial, “A market economy thrives in a culture of invention and creativity. This too was a distinctive gift of the Christian West, which flowered in its first full glory during the medieval era. The Judeo-Christian belief in the dignity of manual labor also played a role” (22). When the various estates across Europe saw how successful the monastic estates were becoming, they began following the “monastic business model,” if you will, and slowly the economic wheels of progress began to rebuild Europe.

As Stark points out, these estates became so successful that they eventually evolved into cities, and with that there was a further evolution in long-term city management. The growing economy developed more specialization in the workforce, that barter economy gave way to a cash economy, and with it came the whole concept of mortgage lending. Take, for example, cloth making. During the High Catholic Age people developed a way to mechanize cloth making. This inevitably lead to centers throughout Europe that specialized in cloth making; and this lead to the cloth making industry, which in turn became a major engine of commerce, and this further developed financial institutions throughout Europe.

Are You a Realtor or a Businessman? Thank a Monk…
It was the monasteries that paved the way for all of this. And the heart of all this was the concept of private property. Stark tells us, “John of Paris argued that private property is necessary for the maintenance of civil order: ‘For if things were held unreservedly in common, it would not be easy to keep peace among men. It was for this reason that private possession of property was instituted.” (Victory of Reason 78). Even the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas noted “that although private property is not ordained by divine law, it is in accord with the natural law—that is, inherent in human nature as derived through reason” (Victory of Reason 79).

Because the monasteries owned their own property, they were free to constantly stream-line administrative tasks and search out technological advances that were able to make their monasteries more efficient. In short, because they themselves were responsible for their own economic achievements, they were more motivated to do their jobs better.

And this led to yet another contribution Christianity made to the real world. It was the monastic orders that emphasized and taught about the dignity and virtue of manual labor. Let’s be clear: such a notion was foreign in Roman times, for manual laborers were slaves. Yet it was the monks who taught that Adam was ordained by God to rule the world by serving and caring for creation; Jesus was a carpenter and a servant-king. Work was good, and part of what it meant to be made in God’s image was to engage in the task of caring for his creation. Far from secluding themselves from the world to just “pray all day,” the monks of Western Europe immersed themselves in God’s creation by serving and working, and thus reflecting God’s image in their very labor. As Saint Benedict said, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as prayerful reading…. When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks.”

Such a Christ-like mentality on the part of the monks of the High Catholic Age led to an explosion in innovation and invention that the world had never seen before. Stark points out that all the following things came out of what I have termed “The High Catholic Age”: water mills, windmills, horse-collars, harnesses, reins, iron shoes for horses, the heavy, wheeled plow, fish farming, three-field crop rotation, chimneys, clocks, heavy cavalry, cannons, the stern-post rudder, the round ship, the magnetic compass, the blast furnace, steam power, layered stand below paving stones, the mechanized manufacture of paper, improvements to printing, improvements in mining, eye-glasses, crankshafts, and the beginnings of modern chemistry.

Wow…in addition, as Stark points out, “Not only did most Europeans eat far better during the Dark Ages than in Roman times, but they were healthier, more energetic, and probably more intelligent” (Victory of Reason 42). Not only that, but as Jean Gimpel states in The Medieval Machine, “The Middle Ages introduced machinery into Europe on a scale no civilization had previously known” (1).

Eilmer of Malmebury Almost Outdid the Wright Brothers by 800 Years
Yes, that’s right, they even got really close to inventing flying machines! An 11th century monk at Malmesbury Abbey named Eilmer designed a hand-glider, and actually flew for several hundred feet, before he crashed and broke both his legs. While he was recovering, he realized that the reason he had crashed was because his glider needed a tail. Unfortunately for him (and for Western civilization), his abbot ordered him not to continue his experimentation with his flying machine. Think about that for a second. If Eilmer had been allowed to give it another go, western civilization wouldn’t have had to wait another 800 years for Orville and Wilber Wright!

We were just “that close” to having airplanes in the 11th century. Well, that might be over-stated a bit, but the fact is that even Roger Bacon, a Franciscan scientist and philosopher, speculated about the eventual invention of “flying machines.” As Vincent Carroll states, “For Bacon, the empirical route—real-world verification through controlled experiments and observation—was the only reasonable way to proceed” (Christianity on Trial 69).

In any case, as writers like Stark and Carroll point out in their books, the very concepts of what would eventually become modern capitalism—that of profits, property rights, credit, and lending—can all be traced back to Christianity’s influence on Europe during the High Catholic Age. As Stark states, all the developments mentioned in this post “can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation entailed in the gift of reason. That new technologies and techniques would always be forthcoming was a fundamental article of Christian faith. Hence, no bishops or theologians denounced clocks or sailing ships—although both were condemned on religious grounds in various non-Western societies” (Victory of Reason 48).

Simply put, Christianity was good for business, and thus good for society, because Christianity emphasized the dignity of work and the responsibility to care for God’s creation.

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