The Apocrypha in Lent – 30 March (Good Friday)

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

30 March 2018. Daniel chapter 14

Like the story of Susannah on which I wrote earlier this week, this chapter, known as “Bel and the dragon”, is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features in the three short stories that it comprises, all of which share the theme of the defeat of idolatry.  The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”.

In the first of the short stories, King Cyrus – mentioned elsewhere in the Bible and undoubtedly a historical person – is portrayed as worshiping the idol called Bel or Marduk which appears to eat a large amount of food (including sacrificed sheep). Daniel is no under illusion – he knows that the idol is only a bronze -covered clay statue, and tells the king that their must be trickery.  Cyrus is at least willing to investigate the truth, but the priests of Bel are confident their secret trap door (by which they go in to eat the idol’s food at night) will not be discovered. Daniel uses a simple built of forensic investigation by scattering ashes on the floor to expose the footprints of the people who come in at night, and thus persuades the king to stop worshiping the idol.

In the second story, the king is now worshiping a living creature – a “dragon” (we cannot know what sort of animal this really was). He believes it to be immortal, but Daniel very simply chokes it to death with balls of hair, grease and pitch.  In this way he persuades the king to drop the practice of idolatry.  But that is not the end of the story – for the second time (if the stories in the book are in chronological order) Daniel is fed to the lions, yet survives by God’s miraculous intervention.

Is there any relevance to this story for Christians?  Yes, very much so! Today is Good Friday, when Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate.  Pilate found himself in the same position as Cyrus did – faced with a believer in God who had been upsetting the religious systems of their day, yet willing to be persuaded that the believer in question was not only harmless to society, but maybe even right in representing a different form of religion.

Yet in both cases, the priests of the established religion – the servants of Bel, or the priests of the Jerusalem temple who professed to worship the true God, the God of Abraham (and for that matter Daniel) – were so afraid of losing their influence and their income that they threatened to riot. Just as the priests of Bel “pressed [Cyrus] so hard that the king found himself forced to hand Daniel over to them to throw Daniel into the lion pit” (14:30-31), so Pilate was pressed so hard by the Jews to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, that he did the same.

What can we learn from these stories – true or not? It seems impossible to modern people that an intelligent person such a Cyrus could believe in a statue actually being a god, but then it seems impossible for many people that an intelligent person can believe in an unseen god.  The deity of Bel and the Dragon could be disproven; the existence of God can neither be disproven, nor proved by scientific experiment.  Daniel, if these stories are true (and the Bible has many examples of people being miraculously preserved from death) could point to the evidence in his life of a saving power, and so can many people today.  Belief in God requires faith, but a faith for which there is evidence.

It is not surprising that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was taunted to save himself and come down from the cross.  He had healed people of all kinds of illness and disability, even raised people from the dead. But it appeared he could not save himself. Where was the God who rescued Daniel from the lions, Joseph from the pit in which his brothers had thrown him, or the three young men of chapter 3 from the furnace, when his own son was dying?  The miracle of Good Friday is in fact in the fact that Jesus was not saved from physical death. For he had to undergo it in order to be raised to life, without which his saving work for all of humanity would not be complete.  Daniel’s life was saved as a reward for defeating the power of idolatry and destroying the terrifying dragon, but Jesus on the cross faced down the greater enemy, the unseen power of the Devil.  He paid the price for that with his life, but was rewarded with the everlasting life that he also offers to us.

Happy Easter!

Here ends the book of Daniel, and with it my survey of the whole Bible (including the apocryphal bits) over the last 15 months.

 

The Bible in a Year – 25 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 November. Ephesians chapters 1-3

Paul addresses this letter to a Christian congregation which, as he makes very clear, consists of Gentiles (non-Jews). For those of us in a 21st century democracy, the distinction does not seem so great.  We are used to the idea of religious diversity, of tolerance of different views, of the freedom of the individual to accept or reject the faith into which their families brought them up – or indeed any other.  Or not to be religious at all.  While some religions (especially Islam and Christianity) do claim to have the “final revelation” of God and to be the only way to him, the boundaries are still fluid – some people born into Christian families convert to Islam, or declare themselves atheists, and vice versa.

For Jews in the time of Jesus and Paul, that was not so. The Jews (in their own view) were the chosen people, the only ones blessed by the God of the universe.  Not only were the Roman and Greek gods false ones whose worship would be punished by God as idolatry, but there could be no forgiveness, no salvation for them.  Therefore the Jews separated themselves from other people, regarded them as ritually unclean, would not even share a meal with them.  I’m not talking about today’s Jews of course, but those of Bible times.

Then came the Resurrection of Jesus, the giving of the Holy Spirit, and revelations to several of the apostles including Paul himself.  Out of these grew the conviction that the Jews had got it wrong, they had misunderstood their own scriptures, they had failed to hear the true message of the prophets.  God was actually calling the whole world to be reconciled to himself. The role of the Jewish people as his chosen race was not to set themselves against the rest of the world but to be the channel through which God’s grace and favour could flow.

Thus, Paul realised that his mission was not so much to the Jews to tell them about Jesus, as to spread the message as far as possible into what others would regard as hostile territory, pagan peoples.  This was a total about-turn from what he had preached previously as a Pharisee, so it is not surprising that the Christians initially received him with suspicion.

Just look at some of the things Pauls writes in Ephesians 2:11-22:  “you were … aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, … without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. …He has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. … He came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”

There can therefore be no excuse for any Christian group to view the whole Christian church, let alone one denomination of it, as having exclusive access to God or being the only ones to receive his favour. Our religion is a world one, not only in its geographical spread, but in its target audience. Whoever lives on this earth is a child of God, to be called back to him by the reconciling love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Bible in a Year – 4 October

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

4 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 30-32

Today we read of the triumphs (at least the religious ones) of king Hezekiah. Since the reign of Azariah in chapter 22 there has been a fundamental rift between the northern and southern kingdoms.  In chapter 30 Hezekiah attempts to heal this, not politically but religiously, as he encourages all the tribes once again to celebrate the Passover together as in days of old.  But apart from a few individuals, the northerners in Israel scoff at his messengers and fail to come to the feast.  Maybe that was in Jesus’ mind when he told the parable of a banquet to which those who were invited refused to come (Luke 14: I will be preaching on that at our Harvest Festival this Sunday).

Nevertheless, for those who do come, and for the people of Judah, this is a great feast – held a month late, but for two weeks instead of the usual one.  Many of those who attend have not carried out the required rituals of preparation, but Hezekiah wisely allows them to participate: “The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” (30:19).  That echoes the frequent debates heard in churches about who should be admitted to Holy Communion – only those baptised or confirmed as adults, or anyone baptised (even as an infant), or anyone who says they believe in Jesus?  Hezekiah would have been with the inclusive churches.

Many seem to have been ‘converted’ (or had their faith ‘refreshed’) at this Passover. Afterwards, they are inspired to go home and tear down the ‘high places’ – the remaining pagan shrines in their territory – and to make generous donations of animals and produce to the Temple.   It does tend to be at large gatherings, when religious fervour is stirred up, that people are moved to go and take action, change their lives, repent of practices they are now convinced are wrong, or share their faith with others.  The call to give sacrificially to the cause also tends to get a good response in such gatherings.

That is why ‘revivals’ are based on well advertised meetings in large venues with well known speakers or ‘miracle workers’, while quieter forms of evangelism are carried on week by week in small groups and one-to-one conversations.  Both are equally valid, and which one will “work” for an individual will depend as much on their own personality type as anything.  The only caution is that sometimes the religious fervour of the newly converted can spill over into insensitive pressurising of others to commit to the faith, something that really should be an unpressurised decision.

This religious triumph is followed in chapter 32 by a military challenge: the Assyrians under Sennacherib attack Judean towns and threaten Jerusalem itself.   But a combination of fervent prayer for deliverance led by the prophet Isaiah, and the wise tactical step of cutting off the invading army’ water supply, sends Sennacherib packing back to his homeland and to his death.  So with the country of Judah in the grip of a religious revival, and deliverance from the enemy, Hezekiah earns his places as one of the greatest kings of Judah.

The Bible in a Year – 18 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

18 March. Judges chapters 1-2

The next book of the Bible that I am reading is that which covers the days of the ‘judges’ who despite the name used in translation were actually still more like military leaders than lawyers. They did however have the responsibility for upholding the religious/civil law as well.

 

These first two chapters are a bit confused.  Some material is repeated from the book of Joshua (e.g. the marriage of Othniel and Aksah). In chapter 1 Joshua is clearly already dead and the tribe of Judah is said to have captured and set fire to Jerusalem. But chapter 2 describes events in Joshua’s lifetime, and the Benjamites (in whose territory Jerusalem lay) fail to capture Jerusalem.  So maybe these two chapters got put in the wrong order somewhere along the line.

 

The lesson for us today, however, does not depend on resolving that.  It concerns the angel who appears to remind the people of the importance of obeying God. But even that, on top of Joshua’s exhortations and the people’s promise witnessed by the stone at Shechem (Joshua 24:26-27), fails to stop them reverting to idolatry within a generation.  God says he will continue to provide judges to point his people in the right direction, but even so he knows that most of the people will not listen to them and will bring judgement on themselves.

 

That reminds me of two sayings. The first is that of Jesus – “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  (Luke 16:31). One cannot rely on a mass response at a rally, or even a dramatic miracle, to convince everyone who is there to make a real change in their lives.  True conversion happens on an individual basis and is built on many encounters with God and his people.

 

The second is one often heard today in the Church – “the church is always one generation from extinction”.  If we do not pass on a living faith in some form to the young people of our day, the Church of Jesus Christ (in its widest form) will cease to exist.