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Christ-Myth Angels

Joey Dodson —  December 23, 2013 — 1 Comment

I watched the “Nativity” movie with my family the other night. Afterwards I concluded: “Aside from some minor inaccuracies, the film wasn’t bad.” To which my clever daughter quipped:  “Well, the Book’s a lot better.”

Similarly, I’d have to say that when I look around at most of the modern renditions of Christmas: the Book’s indeed a whole lot better. One conspicuous example is Christmas angels. During this holiday season, it seems there is an angel around every corner. We recognize them by their wings. But in the Bible, angels don’t really have wings. I guess they could have wings if we equated them with the likes of the cherubim in Ezekiel or the seraphim in Isaiah. Cherubim, however, have four faces and their bodies are covered with eyes. And seraphim have—not two wings—but six. I admit it would be fun to replace the Christmas angels in our manger scenes with creatures such as these. Can you imagine the fright it would cause if we redecorated the angel costumes in our pageants as these figures? (Add some Revelation 12 to the mix and we got the makings of a Peter Jackson movie.) But alas, I doubt that the angels who proclaim “In Excelsis Deo” to the Shepherds in Luke represent the same heavenly creatures in Isaiah who cry “Holy, Holy, Holy…”  (Unless they are shape-shifters! How cool would that be?)

Now that I have ruined nativity scenes for some of you, allow me to tackle one more possible angelic misconception: the guardian angel. John Calvin argues that to say whether or not each believer has a single guardian angel assigned to her goes beyond what Scripture says. Or better: it does not go far enough.

Sure when Jesus says that the angels of children always behold the face of the Father, the Lord insinuates that there are certain angels to whom the kids’ safety has been entrusted. But perhaps it is a stretch to infer from this that each believer has her very own angel. Rather than being protected merely by one single angel, the Bible suggests that all of the angels watch for our safety. Why do we want a single special guardian, when we have an entire heavenly host watching out for us? According to Calvin, when we limit God’s care to a single angel, we do “great injury to ourselves and to all the members of the Church.” We do so by denying the value in God’s promises of auxiliary troops, who encircle and defend us so that we are emboldened to fight with all our might. Calvin goes on to apply this point to believers. Since the Lord has provided us with protection (not of one angel, but of myriads of them), “let us not be terrified at the multitude of our enemies, as if they could prevail.” Rather, let us adopt the sentiment of Elisha: “There are more for us than against us!”

As I was typing in haste one day, I made an embarrassing typo. Instead of Angel of the Lord, I typed, ‘Angle’ of the Lord. In the delirium that comes at the end of a semester for professors, I began to mock myself. Was he a “right” angle or an “acute” one? Although some Christ-myth mistakes make us laugh, there are some that are very dangerous. One that stems back to the early church and remains a clear and present danger is for us to be more fascinated with the angels of the Lord than we are with His presence. With or without his angels, whom shall we fear when the Lord of Hosts is on our side? We are confident that nothing-nothing-nothing can separate us from the love of God through his Son. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are great and all, but at the end of the day and in the thick of the fray, it is through Christ that we are more than conquerors.

He Hasn’t Forgotten

Joey Dodson —  December 11, 2013 — Leave a comment

“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” ~ Luke 1:54-55

I was reading Psalm 44 the other day and was struck by the vitriol the Psalmist directs towards the Lord. The Psalm begins praising God for his former faithfulness to Israel (vv. 1-8). But then it turns on the Lord and accuses Him of rejecting His people. According the Psalmist, Israel trusted the Lord—only for God to hand them over to be devoured like sheep. Their “Savior” ripped them from their homeland and scattered them throughout the world (vv. 9-11). What’s more, He sold them out—and only for a pittance!

The Psalmist continues to rail against God. Because of YOU, Israel is but a sad joke to the world. Because of YOU, we face death at the hands of the Gentiles (vv. 12-22). Through angry tears, the Psalmist shakes his fist at God and claims that the Lord has forgotten His people, even though Israel has not forgotten Him (vv. 17-21). Although Psalm 121 promises that God never sleeps or slumbers, this Psalm entreats God to rouse from His careless nap and to remember his everlasting covenant.

PregnantBut it’s interesting to compare the song of Psalm 44 to the canticle of Mary in Luke 1.  Consequently, we see that the triumphant proclamations of the latter answer the desperate questions and prayers of the former. God has not rejected his people forever. He hasn’t forgotten his promises to Israel. Through the divine fetus in her womb, Mary knows that God has come near to rescue the descendants of Abraham. Through this Son of David, the Lord will absorb Israel’s shame. She will no longer be the butt of the joke among the nations: she will become a light to salvation for them.

Has God forgotten His people? To such a question, Mary smirks and rubs her pregnant stomach. The conclusion of her song sounds a resounding “NO.”

Seneca

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of suffering. Specifically, I raised the age old question, “Why does God allow his children to suffer?” And although I have spent a lot of time looking into the Bible’s answer to this question, in yesterday’s post I explored one of three similes that Seneca, a first-century philosopher, gave in order to explain why the godly suffer. Yesterday’s simile was of the godly as “disciplined children.” Today I will continue by looking at two other similes: “proven soldiers” and “victorious athletes.”

 

Proven Soldiers

Seneca compares the godly who suffer to proven soldiers. Whereas the raw recruit turns pale at even the thought of a wound, the veteran warrior looks undaunted upon his own gore, for he knows that his blood has often been the price of his victory. “In like manner, God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, those whom he loves.” For this reason, the philosopher argues, God actually afflicts the greatest of all people with illness, sorrows and misfortune. These situations are compliments rather than curses, evidence that this child has been deemed worthy of God’s purpose. Furthermore, through suffering, God makes his children to be a pattern for others: in fact, they are even born in order to teach others how to endure hardships.

When good people suffer, then, their hardships serve as affirmation of their character and as an opportunity for growth. In a phrase that echoes Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4, Seneca states “Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men.” So also, returning to the military metaphor, Seneca says that Fortune chooses to confront the courageous rather than to waste time by contesting the weak. Lady Fortune cries out:

Why should I choose that cowardly fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power—he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face…I am ashamed to meet a man who is so ready to be beaten.

Therefore, while Fortune disdainfully passes these people by, she seeks worthy opponents—the brave, the stubborn, the unbending—those against whom she can flex all her might.[1]

 

Victorious Athletes

Having used the similes of disciplined children and proven soldiers, Seneca appeals to the experience of athletes.[2] He claims that the great person cannot be approved without an encounter with suffering. Those who are truly misfortunate, then, are those who have never been misfortunate. Without hardship “no one will know what you can do—not even yourself.” He continues by likening untested character to a runner who races in the Olympic Games without any other contestant. How absurd! This person may gain the prize, but he did not win the race; he may have the crown, but he does not posses the victory (coronam habes, victoriam non habes).

 

Conclusion

Finally, like a good teacher, Seneca answers his student’s questions with more questions:

How can I know with what spirit you will face poverty, if you always wallow in wealth? How can I know with what firmness you will face disgrace and ill fame…if you attain to old age amidst rounds of applause rather than through pain?

Of course, Seneca’s teaching does not serve as a substitute for the Holy Scriptures. But his examples can complement them. And without “ruining the question with an answer,” perhaps Seneca’s similes can encourage my students and even you in the midst of divine fatherly discipline, battles with hardships and marathons through suffering.



[1] Cf. Robert Service’s “The Law of the Yukon”: This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: “Send not your foolish and feeble, send me your strong and sane—Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat. Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons…”

[2] Cf. Heb 12:1-3; 1 Cor 9:24-27,

A student once asked his Rabbi, “Teacher, why does the Lord allow evil in the world?” The Rabbi responded, “With such a good question, my son, why would you want to ruin it with an answer?” Despite the Rabbi’s clever response, the question “Why does God allow his children to suffer,” remains an apt one—especially in light of current blows such as crashing economies, threatening epidemics, surrounding wars and rumors of wars. My students also ask me this question in various forms. Their pain behind the question drives me to search for answers—answers not to ruin the theological question or to solve a theoretical paradox but ones to encourage them through real hardships.

Seneca

I have studied the Scriptures to see how certain passages handle problems of suffering. But I also became curious as to how those who did not know Job’s God or Paul’s Christ answered such questions.  One of my favorite extra-biblical responses to the problem of suffering comes from a first-century philosopher by the name of Seneca.[1] One of Seneca’s students put the question like this, “If Providence truly reigns supreme, then why does evil befall the good?”[2] Seneca responds to his student by employing three similes: godly people who suffer are like (1) disciplined children, (2) proven soldiers and (3) victorious athletes.

I will explore the first simile today and the other two tomorrow. Seneca’s approach to this question can help us think through the suffering we encounter. His words aren’t to be taken as Scripture, of course, but he can give us some perspective on what the biblical authors are saying.

 

Disciplined Children

According to Seneca, if Providence (i.e., God) governs the world and cares for humanity, then “evil” should be reinterpreted as divine discipline. This is not discipline in the sense of punishment for human sins, but of training for divine service. God disciplines good people because they are God’s pupils, his legitimate children who seek to imitate their all-glorious Father. Like any good parent, then, God rears his offspring for virtue and fosters character in his sons through suffering.

Therefore, the philosopher continues, rather than God spoiling his children, God parents them with severity so that they may become useful to him. Therefore, one should realize that when good people painfully struggle up a difficult path—while at the same time the wicked coast with pleasure—it is because God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good person.”[3] Rather, “he tests them, hardens them, and fits them for his own service.”

When I read this I was surprised at how similar the argument is to the one in Hebrews 12:

Have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you.” For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them, shall we not submit ourselves to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while, as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share in his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. (vv. 5-10, NET Bible)

Tomorrow, I will explore Seneca’s two other similes for godly people enduring suffering: (2) proven soldiers, and (3) victorious athletes.


[1] Seneca was a contemporary of the apostle Paul. He lived in Rome and, like Paul, died by the hand of Nero. Seneca wrote a number of moral essays and epistles that have some striking similarities to statements in the New Testament. So much was this the case, that years later, someone penned letters as written from Paul and Seneca to invent correspondence between the two writers.

[2] See Seneca’s  essay On Providence.

[3] The quotations of Seneca in this article are from John W. Basore’s translation in Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1 (London: Harvard University Press, reprint 2003).

SupermanMy all time favorite superhero is Superman. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. He can shoot lasers from his eyes, blow tornados from his teeth, and who knows what would happen if he ever got indigestion.

Superman fights the unending battle for truth, justice and the American way. The Man of Steel never seemed to fly as high as when I was a boy. I wanted to be like him. I knew I could never fly or pick up a car; all I could really do was wear my underwear outside my clothes. So I did… (well, at least until Jr. High). When I was a child, I put on my Superman underoos and stood on the couch as I waited for those famous words to blast from our television. “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” Although I never really understood why these first two guys were so excited about seeing a bird or a plane, I waited for my cue. “IT’S SUPERMAN!” Hearing those words, I would jump from the top of the couch and zoom around the room.

Superman JoeySuperman served as my paragon for living a selfless life, of being in the world but not of it, of doing the right thing even when it stirred resentment and criticism from others (cough, cough—Batman!). It is not a surprise, then, that as I grew up and begin to read the Gospels, Superman reminded me a lot of Jesus. Now I know I’m behind the curve when it comes to writing about Superman as a type of Christ; so I want to go the other direction. I want to write about how Matthew presents Jesus as a type of one of Israel’s veritable superheroes: King Solomon.

Typologies of Christ abound in the New Testament. The authors present Jesus as a new Moses, a second Adam, a modern Elisha, a contemporary Melchizedek and so on. You likely know most of these, but you may not be as familiar with the depiction of Christ as a new Solomon.

King Solomon, of course, was the son of David and Bathsheba. He was known as the wisest man that ever lived. His sapience was so remarkable that the Queen of the South traveled to visit and admire this king of the Jews. The Queen did not, however, come empty handed: she brought the son of David precious spices and abundant gold (1 Ki 10.10). And she was not Solomon’s only visitor; rather people from “all the nations” came from every part of the world to hear his wisdom (1 Ki 4.34—5.14).[1]

SolomonDespite his obvious blemishes in the rest of 1 Kings, Jewish wisdom literature and certain intertestamental works often exalt Solomon as their venerable champion. He even develops into a predecessor of Green Lantern. Seriously! In the legendary Jewish work written sometime between the First and Third Century called the Testament of Solomon, God gives the wise king a magic ring by which he subjugates all the demons in and under the world. (You can read it here,[2] I promise it is much better than the movie.)

With this general ennoblement of Solomon in mind, let’s fast forward to the First Gospel. Matthew begins with a genealogy in which he records five women. First, there’s Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. Then there is Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon—the wise heir to Israel’s throne. The woman who follows Bathsheba on the list is Mary, the mother of Christ—the everlasting King of the Jews. Matthew situates the next hint of the typology in the story of the wise men. These royal visitors come from afar; and—similar to the Queen’s gifts to Solomon— they bring Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh.

In case we missed the typology before, Matthew makes it clear in 12:38-42. There, as Jesus castigates the scribes and Pharisees, he reminds them of Solomon and the queen. “She came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom:” and now…drum roll please…”one greater than Solomon is here!” Jesus goes on to place the religious leaders in juxtaposition to the foreigners who, like the queen, will come from the ends of the Earth to pay homage to one greater than their superman. Over against Solomon, Jesus is Wisdom incarnate (11.19), the preeminent philosopher king.

A few years ago, one of my toddlers climbed into my lap, put his head under my chin, and “cuddled.” After a few sweet moments, he broke the silence and said: “Dad, you’re the ‘bestest.’” Similarly—although the debate still rages as to whether Superman or Batman is better (despite the obvious answer!)—this typology of Christ as well as others in the New Testament demonstrate conclusively that above all the champions in history (real or imagined, DC or Marvel) Jesus is the “bestest.” Yesterday, Today, and Forever.

 


[1] (πάντες οἱ λαοὶ /מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים )