Tag Archives: matthew

Botticelli, Temptation of Christ

The Temptation of Jesus As Literature

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness is one of those overly-familiar gospel episodes that reward a fresh reading with open eyes. In terms of history and theology, this is one of the more difficult passages to analyze. Questions abound: who is meant to have witnessed and recorded this event? Is this a pale description of a spiritual or psychological experience, or a literal throwdown between Jesus and an embodied “devil”? Was this some kind of legal gauntlet that Jesus had to pass to prove himself the son of God, or just a dramatic manifestation of his anxiety and doubt?

Those are all fascinating questions, but they lend themselves largely to speculation. Approached as a work of literature, on the other hand, the text has much more to offer. This is a carefully and creatively composed piece of storytelling with many observable features which provide structure and impart meaning. All three of the synoptic gospels offer a version of this episode, while John’s gospel omits it. I’m going to focus on Matthew’s version and its appreciable literary form.

Matthew 4:1-11: Jesus Wanders in the Desert

The opening chapters of Matthew present the birth and early life of Jesus as a series of fulfillments and echoes of the story of Israel. Each episode is ordered and detailed to invoke elements and themes from Genesis and Exodus (and from Talmudic expansions on those stories): Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, flees to Egypt with his family. There are dreams and intrigue with kings and diviners, and Jesus passes dramatically through a body of water at his baptism. Then here, in chapter 4, he wanders the desert in an ordeal that lasts “forty days and forty nights,” and next he will go up on a mountain and talk about law.

So what is Matthew’s agenda in casting Jesus in a remake of Exodus? In a general sense, of course, he wants to establish Jesus a true Jew and Israel’s true Messiah. But the significance of the temptation story in particular is best understood if we pay attention to the details. The short text can be broken down into five units; an introduction, three temptations, and a conclusion. Each of the temptations includes a specific allusion to a text from Exodus and a rebuttal from Jesus that quotes Deuteronomy 6. Here’s the broad outline, with more details below:

  1. Introduction (Matthew 4:1-2): Jesus fasting in the desert
  2. Temptation 1 (Matthew 4:3-4): Stones into bread
    1. Reference: Exodus 16:3 (“bread”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:3
  3. Temptation 2 (Matthew 4:5-7): Throw yourself down
    1. Reference: Exodus 17:2,7 (“to the test”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:16
  4. Temptation 3 (Matthew 4:8-10): Bow down
    1. Reference: Exodus 32:8 (“bow down”)
    2. Rebuke: Deuteronomy 6:13
  5. Conclusion (Matthew 4:11):  The devil left him

Like the Israelites those millennia ago, Jesus is “led” into the desert where he faces three specific temptations that his ancestors also faced there. But where they failed, grumbling and rebelling, Jesus is faithful and true. And his source of inspiration is Deuteronomy 6, the defining expression of Jewish identity and belief. He essentially defeats the devil with Judaism.

Now let’s consider the actual temptations in a little more detail:

Temptation 1: Magic Bread (Matthew 4:3-4)

The identity of Jesus’ adversary in Matthew’s text is rather slippery. He is first called “the devil,” but usually just “the tempter,” and eventually Jesus calls him “you satan!” Whoever or whatever he is, the tempter begins by challenging the “famished” Jesus to turn some stones into bread to nourish himself. Jesus answers with his first quote from Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to keep you alive, you actually live on every word that comes out of God’s mouth.” (Deut 6:3)

This temptation involves the miraculous provision of dirty bread. For the Israelites (in Exodus 16 and following) God provided manna, and the temptation was to hoard or grumble or otherwise fail to appreciate the provision. For Jesus the circumstance is different but the temptation is the same. He is dared to exploit his privilege in order to instantly gratify himself rather than staying hungry and continuing to trust in divine providence.

Temptation 2: Go Jump Off a Cliff (Matthew 4:5-7)

Next the tempter takes Jesus up onto the temple mount and dares him to jump off, so that God might “command his angels” to come down and save him (a quote from Psalm 91). Jesus rebukes him with another Deuteronomic comeback: “You mustn’t put the Lord your God to the test!” (Deut 6:16)

This is another reference to Exodus, specifically Exodus 17 where the Israelites demand a miracle and Moses responds with a similar warning about putting God “to the test.” (Exo 17:2) But the Israelites intensify their protest and Moses capitulates in an incident with his staff and a rock that will see him banished from the promised land. The temptation here is not just ingratitude but a complete lack of faith manifested as a demand for religious signs and proofs, an exchange of reason and trust for insecurity and superstition. For Jesus the choice is between triumphant religious spectacle or quiet humanity, and he chooses the latter.

Temptation 3: Bow Down (Matthew 4:8-10)

Finally, Jesus’ devil takes him to a “very high mountain,” where they survey the “magnificent kingdoms of the world.” “I’ll give them all to you,” he says, “if you’ll bow down and worship me.” Jesus must have been listening to the audiobook of Deuteronomy on his phone that morning, because he is ready with one more quote: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone!” (Deut 6:13) The devil leaves him.

Here is an allusion to the famous incident in Exodus 32 when Moses ascends Mount Sinai and within five minutes the people below are “bowing down” to worship a fertility idol in the form of a golden calf. For the Israelites, this was simply the temptation to return to the glamorous and expedient type of local religion to which they had been accustomed. For Jesus, the temptation is to embrace the glamorous and expedient type of power and glory afforded by the empires and kingdoms of the world. To this day, political and military power are the only way most humans can imagine anything resembling justice to be accomplished. But Jesus knows there is a better way.

The Big Picture: Jesus the Good Jewish Human

Most readers of the New Testament, missing the literary clues and references, have imagined that these trials were unique to Jesus and his heavenly vocation as savior and messiah. But Matthew’s point seems to be that these three temptations – instant gratification, superstition, and power politics – are all common. They are common to Israel and common to humankind. What makes Jesus extraordinary is his transcendent response to these universal temptations, grounded in humility, faith, and an ongoing trust in divine goodness. Matthew is inviting his Jewish readers to place their trust in Jesus, the true Israelite and the true human. He portrays Jesus as “one of us,” which ought to make his goodness all the more relevant and inspiring.


Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 1: So Many Swords!

From the earliest days of Christianity, mercy and nonviolence have been integral to the character and legacy of Jesus as understood by most of his followers. It’s unfortunately true that some of the most popular and influential Christian institutions have diminished or even contradicted this theme, but there have always been prophetic voices calling us back to the fundamentally peace-loving and forgiving ethos of Jesus. For a growing number of Christians today (your humble blogger included) this isn’t just a nice fact about Jesus, that he happened to be a pacifist, it is the very heart and essence of his message, his life, and his revelation of the divine.

Those who seek to challenge or to mitigate Christian nonviolence find plenty of cause to do so in the Bible’s own words. Violent visions of God and judgment aren’t just relegated to the “Old Testament,” they are common in many books of the New Testament, from the letters of Paul and Peter to the politically charged visions of Revelation. If you want a God and a universe which are ultimately and inescapably violent, the Bible’s got you covered. Those of us who espouse nonviolence as the true heart of Christianity – and the true heart of God – do so based almost entirely on the words and person of Jesus as described in the gospels.

And that’s why critics love to throw certain verses from the gospels in our faces. Continue reading


Errant Notions Part Four: Jesus and Scripture

Latest in a series of posts exploring common arguments for “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible was authored by God and is without error in its every statement.

If you want to win an argument about theology or the Bible or really anything, your best move is to demonstrate that Jesus is on your side. Somewhere on the social Internet at this very moment, someone is posting something glib and ill-researched about Jesus’ politics, his views on gun control, or which shows would fill his DVR. For evangelicals defending the inerrancy of the Bible, it has become quite popular in the last few years to claim that Jesus himself was the original biblical inerrantist.

Different forms of this argument have come from different corners of Christian culture, but most of them say something like this: Jesus believed and taught that the Bible is the inerrant, verbally inspired Word of God, and so must we. The specific claims attributed to Jesus here are that all the words of the Bible are a) perfectly true and without error, because b) they were supernaturally transmitted to their authors by God Himself. In a moment we will consider sayings of Jesus that are commonly used to support these claims.

You Know The Drill

If you’ve been following this series you know what comes next. Before we can assess the prooftexts for this argument, a major technical clarification has to be made. Our first question, of course, is what “Bible” or “Scripture” might have meant to Jesus. It certainly cannot have included the New Testament, the contents of which would not be written for some decades after his departure. To complicate matters further, there wouldn’t even be an official canon of Hebrew Scriptures until that same later period. Jesus quotes many of the familiar Hebrew texts from our “Old Testament” and surely considered them sacred scripture. Still, it must be established here on the outset that “the Bible” or “the Scriptures” did not and could not mean precisely the same thing to Jesus as they do to the Christian inerrantists who invoke his endorsement.

Now let’s look at the two most popular passages of New Testament scripture used to demonstrate that Jesus affirmed the inerrancy of the Hebrew Bible.

Matthew 5: Every Jot and Tittle

In the Gospel of Matthew, in the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says the following:

“Don’t suppose that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! I’m telling you the truth: until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot, not one tittle, is going to disappear from the law until it’s all come true. So anyone who relaxes a single one of these commandments, even the little ones, and teaches that to people, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But anyone who does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-19)

We have every reason to believe that the “law” and “prophets” Jesus refers to are portions of the same Hebrew Scriptures we know today. And as to whether his comments constitute a claim to the “inerrancy” of those scriptures, it would frankly be difficult to suggest otherwise. The real issue, however, is how this “inerrancy” might work and what it means and accomplishes. In a sense, it is ironic that modern inerrantists would appeal to this passage, which calls for strict obedience to a law that no Christian feels compelled to keep today. But their point, they’ll say, is that Jesus believed the law (and thus our biblical record of it) to be perfect and infallible.

But surely his unequivocal endorsement of the law must be weighed against Jesus’ radical re-interpretations of it, which enraged and scandalized the “inerrantist” watchdogs of his own day. Jesus’ claim is not merely that the law is true, but that it is going to “come true,” that every squiggle and dot of it will be “fulfilled,” and he will personally make this happen. He then presumes to reframe and reshape the law on his own authority, in many sayings like this one:

“You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil! Instead, when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one toward him.”
(Matthew 5:38-39)

So which one is inerrant, “an eye for an eye” (from the written law) or “turn the other cheek” (from Jesus)? They represent two very different responses to evil. The jots and tittles say one thing, Jesus says another. It appears that the ultimate fulfillment and truth of the law, according to Jesus, is not to be found in the aging scrolls or their classical interpretations, but in the person and perspective of Jesus himself.

John 10: Scripture Cannot Be Broken

“We’re not stoning you for good deeds,” replied the Judaeans, “but because of blasphemy! Here you are, a mere man, and you’re making yourself into God!”

“It’s written in your law, isn’t it,” replied Jesus to them, “‘I said, you are gods’? Well, if the law calls people ‘gods,’ people to whom God’s word came (and scripture cannot be broken), how can you accuse someone of blasphemy when the Father has placed him apart and sent him into the world, and he says, ‘I am the son of God’?”
(John 10:33-36)

So this one is interesting. Basically, some of Jesus’ neighbors want to execute him for calling himself “son of God” (something he only does in John’s gospel, but that’s another discussion). Jesus defends himself by quoting Psalm 82, in which God incidentally refers to a group of mortal beings as “gods.” However, it is Jesus’ parenthetical statement that “scripture cannot be broken” that has become a slogan of the inerrancy movement. This too is rather ironic.

The overall point of Jesus’ words seems to be that scripture can be used to condemn or to rationalize almost anything. By the scriptures an angry mob can set out to murder a blasphemer, and by the same scriptures the victim can defend and justify himself. Both Jesus and his attackers agree that “scripture cannot be broken,” what sets them apart is what they choose to do with it. Unbreakable scriptures can be a weapon or an instrument of salvation.

This passage is also understood by some to support the “plenary verbal inspiration” of scripture, the belief that God supernaturally dictated the words of scripture to its authors. But I have to chalk this up to a (willful?) misreading of the text. The “people to whom God’s word came” are not the inspired authors of the Psalm, but the “sons of the Most High” in the context of the Psalm, the ones God called ‘gods.’ On this point it’s a bit of a stretch.


To sum this all up: It would be foolish to deny that Jesus had the highest possible view of the Jewish scriptures. But this is not a complete picture. He also shifted the onus of infallibility and authority onto himself and his teaching as the ultimate fulfillment of the scriptures. When today’s inerrantists use the Bible as an impenetrable shield against criticism and doubt, or a foregone justification of their own self-interested interpretations, they are at cross-purposes with Jesus. Jesus points us not to the static words of the ancient written law or to cold, unbending religious certitude, but to his own authoritative interpretation of the scriptures which always bends toward empathy and selfless love.

Using Jesus to establish the integrity and authority of the Bible gets it completely backwards. Jesus is our beacon of truth and authority, not the book. For Christians, Jesus is the inerrant word of God.


More On the Post-Resurrection Stories

Mveng Resurrection Chapel of Hekima College Nairobi

Engelbert Mveng: Resurrection, Hekima College, Nairobi, Kenya, 1962.

I touched on this in my Easter post, but I want to say a little more about the details and ramifications of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. Here are three deeply significant aspects of these strange tales that might have been obscured by traditional readings of the Bible.

1. Jesus returns in peace, unexpectedly.

Clearly no one in the gospel stories expected Jesus to be resurrected. Even when Jesus made cryptic predictions about his death and vindication, his followers told him to stop talking crazy and asked when he was going to become king and kill all the bad guys. As I’ve explored at-length elsewhere, the designation “messiah” had little to do with dying and coming back to life and everything to do with winning wars. After Jesus was executed, no one was looking at their watch wondering what was taking him so long. They were defeated and dejected. Their candidate was gone. The end.

And so when Jesus is resurrected, according to the synoptic gospels, it’s a surprise that completely blindsides his friends and followers. The shock and terror of the disciples is dramatized in the gospel texts, and we sympathize. Running into someone you watched die would be unsettling, to say the least. But once again, a deeper consideration of the historical and political background amplifies the drama. No one had ever imagined that a messianic candidate would die and be resurrected, but if that WERE to ever happen, surely the vindicated one would start the holy war to end all holy wars. With God clearly on his side, nothing could stop him. The disciples aren’t just scared because they think they’ve seen the ghost of a beloved friend, they’re staring at the risen body of the prophet they betrayed and abandoned. They must be thinking that judgment day is upon them.

But it wasn’t. Jesus announces “peace!” and tells them not to fear. The disciples (and innumerable Christian interpreters since) still want to know when the war will start, and Jesus lovingly smiles and shakes his head.

2. Jesus returns as a stranger.

The resurrection narratives in the gospels are diverse and sparse in detail, and they leave us asking many questions. In light of their ambiguity, however, continuities become more significant. For example, in every appearance story not a single person recognizes the risen Jesus on sight. From the final chapter of Matthew’s gospel to Paul’s vision in Acts, the resurrected Jesus is always encountered first as a stranger. This detail is easily overlooked, but its implications are staggering.

Quite in line with his expectation-defying career as a most unlikely messiah, Jesus is not portrayed as returning from the grave in public spectacle and revenge. His appearances are quiet and private, and his own friends don’t recognize him until they talk and eat with him. This Jesus is not the Jesus of triumphalism or culture war. This Jesus does not take over the world from an earthly seat of power, nor does he publicly shame those who don’t know him. He comes quietly alongside his followers and reveals himself in intimacy and friendship. An encounter with this Jesus is unexpected, a run-in with a stranger, a stranger who challenges and forever changes the way we look at things.

3. Jesus returns to affirm life, not “afterlife”.

The synoptic post-resurrection tales are remarkably brief, given their centrality and theological weight. As a result, we have tended to fill them out with our own assumptions and infer our own meanings. For many, the whole point of Jesus’ resurrection is to prove that heaven is real, and that Jesus can take us there with him if we negotiate a ticket. A peek at the texts, however, reveals a different agenda.

In Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers to go and make “disciples” (students) of his teachings who will keep his “commandments”. In Mark, the risen Jesus instructs the twelve to spread his message and “baptize” new followers.* In Luke, the most extensive of the narratives, Jesus reads scripture and eats with his followers, charging them with the task of being “witnesses” to his life and legacy. There is not a word about life after death or of his followers “going to heaven” when they die, but there is a clear mandate to proliferate his teachings. This includes his commandments to love God and neighbor, and his message of repentance and empathy.

Other texts will speculate about the nature of Jesus’ “appearing” at the “end of the age,” and of the fate of humanity and creation, but the gospels’ resurrection stories are clearly more concerned with the present. Here, Jesus’ legacy is first and foremost for this life, the one we’re living, for the well-being of his followers and of the whole world that God loves. This is the Risen Jesus we meet in the pages of the Bible and, hopefully, the one we seek in our lives.


*In Mark’s gospel proper, the risen Jesus says nothing at all. There are two “extra” endings, from 16:9 onward, widely considered to be later additions. It’s fairly easy to see why, even on the surface.


More On Inerrancy, Because Monday

My original post on Rescuing the Bible From Inerrancy has been read about a thousand times, and while it generated only a single comment here on the blog, there were Facebook comments and shares with more comments, a few emails, and (best of all) several real-life conversations. The feedback was mixed; some Christian friends were uncomfortable with what felt like an attack on the bible, and some non-Christian friends wondered what the big deal was anyway.

The feedback from Christians was the most interesting, and it came in two distinct flavors. Retorts from conservatives/evangelicals basically said, “No, you don’t understand – the bible IS inerrant because it HAS to be!” which only illustrates my point, I think. Agree to disagree. But the most helpful pushback was actually from like-minded Christian friends who said, “We basically agree, but why stress errancy? Why undermine people’s faith in the bible based on a technicality?” While I think my post did touch on this, it’s a valid question and worth revisiting.

My point was never about the technical errancy of the bible. In rejecting the modernist category of “inerrancy,” I’m also implicitly rejecting its counterpart “errancy.” I’m suggesting that these are not the most helpful terms when it comes to describing what the bible actually is, a collection of ancient documents. If I wave my hand and declare them to be “inerrant,” I’m fooling myself and stacking the deck against intellectual honesty. If I quarantine them as “errant,” I’m still playing into the notion of factual veracity as the primary gauge of a document’s value. What does it mean for a poem to be “inerrant”? For the self-defining stories of a community to be labeled “errant”? How do those labels help us engage with the actual content of the bible?

And this is the crux of the issue for me: it’s all about our POSTURE as we engage with the text. Are we open to an encounter with the weird and the unexpected? The disturbing? The divine? Or have we made up our mind ahead of time that it’s all somehow magically perfect, a database of categorized truths ready to be observed, memorized and enforced? Inerrancy is like an immunization against the crags and surprises in the text. It puts the text on a shelf so high we can’t see the fingerprints all over it. It turns the volume of our own doctrines and interpretations up so high that neither the text’s authors nor God Himself can cut through the noise and say anything new.

Here’s an obvious and practical example of the problem as I see it:

  • The bible says (or rather, the authors of Exodus 21 write, citing the law) “If there is harm, you shall repay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
  • But Jesus of Nazareth (in Matthew Chapter 5) says, “You have heard it was said, ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn him the other also.”

Two “biblical” principles: violent retaliation and nonviolent confrontation. They are, on the surface, at odds with one another. So which of the two is “inerrant”? Which one is an “infallible doctrinal truth” and the “foundation of our faith”?

Now, you can point out that talion (“eye for eye”) was actually a progressive (read “less violent”) ethic in its ancient context, and that seems to be the case. So when Jesus proclaims the godly ideal of nonviolence, we might receive it as a more pure and evolved but consistent version of the old principle. Maybe. Maybe not. We’d need to wrestle with it for a while. Meanwhile, it took our subjective evaluation and historically-informed interpretation to get us even this far. And once we’ve acknowledged the possibility of an evolution of ideas among the various conversant perspectives in the bible, inerrancy as a presupposition becomes at best unhelpful and at worst a hindrance.

We may insist that the principles and ideas we extract from this subjective process are “trustworthy” and even “infallible,” but the only way to prove them out as such is the same way we encountered them in the first place: open and honest encounters with other humans. You can’t just declare it to be true and go back to bed, you have to live it out for the rest of your life. “Truth” apart from relational experience is just an abstraction. Many “bible believers” throughout history have lived “eye for eye” as “inerrant truth” and spilled a great deal of blood. Jesus himself lived “turn the other cheek” to its perilous extremity.

I believe that God can and does speak through scripture. I believe we can encounter Him in its pages in authentic and spectacular ways. I believe that the bible is precious and crazy and human and divine and ancient and alive. I trust in it, even as I often toil to make sense of it, and I think you should too. But it does no good to engage it with our brains tied behind our backs.


Attack of the False Prophets!

sheepdog-wolfOne of Christian culture’s favorite things to do is reappropriate the ancient language of the Bible for whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish at the moment. We’re not just constructing a new building, we’re “taking possession of the land of promise.” I’m not hogging the copier, I’m “doing kingdom work under the anointing of the Spirit.”

And if what you’re trying to accomplish at the moment is warning your own tribe about a bad seed from another, you’ll find plenty of ammunition in the text. The language of “false prophets” and “false teachers” gives our criticism an air of authority and an edge of supernatural danger. These people aren’t just misguided or unhelpful, they represent an evil force of opposition which is as wrongheaded and wicked as we are correct and righteous. The Christian Internet is standing-room-only when it comes to this sort of name calling. A Google search for “false teachers” unearths countless warnings and accusations, but very little about the context and meaning of these phrases in the Bible.

In the interest of constructive discussion, I offer brief glimpses at these two labels in specific scriptural settings.

False Prophets! Run!

“15 Watch out for false prophets. They will come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are hungry wolves. 16 You’ll be able to tell them by the fruit they bear. You don’t find grapes growing on thornbushes, or figs on thistles, do you?” (Matthew 7)

This is a big one because it comes from Jesus, and if Jesus said it then I can throw it as hard as I like in your face and you just have to take it, right? One of the unfortunate ways we’ve abused the legacy of Jesus is to assume that everything he did and said was for and about the church, that is, us. Jesus’ primary vocation was not to be the founder of the church and a new religion called Christianity, it was to be a Jewish prophet in the tradition of the great prophets of Israel and Judah. (For more on this see my recent podcasts on Matthew’s Gospel.) Getting Jesus’ context and self-identity wrong has led to widespread misunderstanding regarding his words and deeds. Some examples:

  • Matthew 18:15-20 is read as a primer on church discipline rather than a plea for peacemaking among neighbors (modern translations complicate this by using the word “church” instead of “assembly”).
  • Jesus’ parables are read as pep talks about evangelism and the “second coming” instead of announcements of YHWH’s return to Israel in Jesus’ own time (see Matthew 13 and parts of 21-22).
  • And his prophecies of imminent judgment and destruction on Jerusalem are read as descriptions of the “end of the world” (see Matthew 24-25 and the related discussion in this podcast).

In the same spirit, we’ve heard Jesus’ warning about “false prophets” as a divisive and ominous declaration that there are bad guys among us who must be exposed and expelled. Was Jesus really trying to fill us with anxiety and suspicion, or is there something else at the heart of his message? It just so happens that the immediate literary context of Jesus’ “false prophets” teaching is the “Sermon on the Mount,” wherein he admonishes his listeners not to worry and not to judge others. So what is his point about these “wolves in sheeps’ clothing”?

The collection of teachings we call the “Sermon on the Mount” was Jesus’ way of fleshing out his core message, the coming of the “Kingdom of God” to earth and what life, religion and (what we call) politics would look like within that new reality. It was an overwhelmingly positive – even joyous – message, but it carried with it a harsh critique of the status quo in Jerusalem. In Messiah, God was returning to his children Israel, and he found them mired in anxiety and greed, prone to violence, suspicious and judgmental. Jesus was calling his fellow countrymen to repent of those old ways and to join him in a new way, a “narrow way” chosen by few.

It’s at the end of this “Kingdom Discourse” that Jesus issues his warning about “false prophets” and their failure to produce “fruit.” On the one hand, he is calling out his nation’s leadership for failing to produce the fruit of the Kingdom of God (peace and justice), but he’s also doing something remarkable that gets to the heart of this whole matter: he is offering himself up for scrutiny. Jesus invites his listeners to follow him and trust him that, in the end, his way is truly God’s way and will produce real fruit.

Jesus isn’t just calling names or drawing a line in the sand, he’s calling all eyes and all judgment onto himself and his message, onto his every word and deed. Are we prepared to put ourselves in the same position when we point the finger at others?

Behind You! It’s a False Teacher!

“1 Now the spirit declares that in the later times some people will abandon the faith and cling to deceitful spirits and demonic teachings 2 perpetrated by hypocritical false teachers whose consciences are branded with a hot iron.” (1 Timothy 4)

So maybe Jesus wasn’t talking about the church, but these dudes certainly are. The epistles are a collection of letters written by the apostles and leaders of the early church movement to various colleagues and congregations. They give us glimpses into the lives and challenges of the first Christians, where the chaos of Jewish/Gentile relations and the specter of persecution often led to strong rhetoric and fierce division. And so today, when many in the church are eager to set boundaries around acceptable beliefs and practices, passages like the one above provide a convenient template for condemning and dismissing an offending party. Hey, the Bible warned us there would be “false teachers” with “demonic teachings!” But if we do our homework and learn to appreciate these incendiary passages in context, well, we learn some stuff. You know the drill.

First, it’s very important to remember what these epistles represent. These are not catalogues of universal teachings to be memorized and obeyed for all time. This is ancient correspondence, letters between apostles and elders and congregations. When we read 1 Timothy or Ephesians or 2 Peter or Judah, we’re literally reading someone else’s mail. They reveal much and may even teach much, but they are not designed to function outside of their natural habitat.

Some of Paul’s letters (like Romans and 1-2 Corinthians) were intended to be read aloud to a specific congregation, and they address crises and challenges faced by that group. In the case of 1 Timothy and the passage quoted above, we’re reading a private letter from Paul to one of his younger colleagues, one that may have never been intended to be read by anyone else. Try reading the letter with this in mind, and you might be surprised how candid and even how negative Paul comes across. He insults members of Timothy’s congregation by name and condemns various groups inside and outside the church using the harshest of terms. This is not a criticism of Paul, but simply an attempt to be as honest as possible about the text as it really is, not necessarily how tradition has handled it.

So, in a brutally honest and private communication, Paul warns Timothy about “hypocritical false teachers.” And what “demonic” things were these false teachers teaching?

“3 They forbid marriage and teach people to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by people who believe and know the truth.”

The “false teachers” in Paul’s world are the ones who are placing boundaries around “acceptable” beliefs and practices! Specifically, these were Christians who insisted that Gentile believers had to adopt certain Jewish observances or be excluded from the “family of God,” which Paul insisted was open to everyone. It’s very ironic, then, that Paul’s warnings would be co-opted today by those seeking to impose boundaries of their own.

The language of “false” or “heretical” belief is more often than not employed today to stifle or condemn differences of opinion that fall well within the spectrum of historical “orthodoxy.” But it’s much easier to (literally) demonize a different point of view than to engage with and be stretched or challenged by it. Instead of imposing boundaries and stifling faith, Paul fiercely defended the simplicity and openness of his gospel message. In the opening of this same letter he described it like this:

“5 The goal of such teaching is love – the love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1)

False teachers, then, like false prophets, are the ones who fail to produce real fruit like love and sincerity. And, like Jesus’ warning, Paul’s carries a positive inference: if false teachers impose boundaries and divide God’s people, then follow me for the way of true love and unity and freedom. We are probably never justified in using the “false” labels on our ideological enemies. If we dare, we’d better be ready to back it up with some fruit of our own.