Blessing and Cursing our Brothers

Dr. Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, has issued a corrective for Wiley Drake, the California pastor who has called his congregation to pray curses on those who have opposed his combined religious and political activites. Witherington gives us a more appropriate hermeneutic for understanding human curses found in the Bible…

His supposed Biblical precedent for this is the imprecatory psalms of David. I don’t know what seminary this pastor went to, but boy has he misunderstood those psalms. They don’t reveal the will of God in such matters, rather they shed God’s light of truth on what is in the wicked heart of human beings, including in David’s heart, that old murderer and adulterer.

Witherington continued to point out Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings in the New Testament (Matthew 5.44; Romans 12.14) about loving our enemies, blessing them, praying for them, and NOT cursing them.

This is a good reminder to me. I have recently considered the appropriateness of following in the footsteps of Elijah and calling down fire from heaven. Seriously, when my house and my family are threatened, my first inclination—even my second, third, and fourth—is to respond in kind. And I don’t mean kindly, but in the same kind of way, but perhaps worse. After all, I’ve got God on my side, and I could show them what power really is, right? But when the disciples considered doing this, Jesus rebuked them because that was not the right spirit…

When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.”

Luke 9.54-56

One response to the Witherington’s post raised the issue of God’s purposes in OT curses…

What is the best way to view these psalms of cursing? I have been reading Christopher Wright’s book Mission in the OT and as I read the post I was reminded of the Abrahamic promise that God would curse those who curse Abraham’s descendants. I wonder if some of these psalms are outworkings of this promise. Of course, it should always be kept in mind that the central purpose of the covenant with Abraham was to bless the nations with the knowledge of God.

I appreciate Witherington’s follow-up comments, especially since he brings James into the mix…

I think actually Luther had a very good point when he said that in the prophets God speaks to us, but in the psalms we speak to God, and what is in and on our hearts is truly and truthfully revealed. How then are such psalms God’s Word? The answer is not difficult– they show God holding up a mirror to us so we will see our own hearts and what is in them– ranging from praise to cursing. As James once said– blessing and cursing should not be coming out of the same human mouth or heart for that matter.

I love this illustration of God’s word being like a mirror so that we can see our own hearts. The last devotion I gave in the Greek course this week was from 2 Corinthians 3.18…

Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

Even though mirrors normally just show us the reality of what we look like (imperfections and all), when we look at God’s word as a mirror, or when we look at our Lord Jesus as a mirror, God uses the mirror to actually change us. We are transformed so that the glory in the image of Jesus is reflected back into us. We become like Jesus. His desires become our desires.

What is so interesting to me about the comparison between the comments of Jesus and James in Matthew 5.44 and James 3.1-12 is that they both have the spiritual status of the Christ-follower in mind, not primarily that of the enemy. Thus, not only does Jesus say to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in Matthew 5.44, the next clause says, “so that you may become sons of your father in heaven.” While we are urged to pray for our persecutors, the issue in focus in Matthew 5 is our own standing before the Father who acts graciously to both the just and the unjust. I’m surprised that the text doesn’t urge prayer so that ‘your enemies’ can come into relationship with the Father. Instead, it says so that YOU may become sons of your father. Perhaps that’s what Pastor Wiley Drake should be concerned about.

And what about Christians who follow Jesus’ ethics? Has Pastor Drake in some way become our enemy? How should we respond to him and about him? Let’s hope we reflect our Father’s character.

By the way, the follow-up comments to Ben Witherington’s post includes an interesting translation-related question regarding the Arabic name for God, Allah. Arabic Christians and Muslims worship a God named Allah. But the Muslim Allah is the God of jihad and curses, and the Christian Allah is the God of blessing and love for one’s enemies.

Singing Greek Prayers for Greek Learning

‘Kumbaya’ is that old campfire song that has been sung so much that it tends to usher forth groans. But many Papua New Guineans also know the song, at least in the pidgin version. And so we sing it in Greek as a prayer at least a couple times a day to let Jesus know that his presence is welcome in our study of Greek. He is Lord of the beginning, middle and end, just as we started singing from Revelation 1:8 on the first day of class. And so we also invite Jesus to come and be present with us in our study of Greek:

ἔρχου ὧδε κύριε, (3x)
ὦ Ἰησοῦ κύριε

Come here Lord, (3x)
Oh, Jesus Lord.

Having the guitar close by to sing these songs is a good tool for when we need to maintain our focus on learning Greek as a spiritual discipline. It can be easily forgotten when we’re learning to recognize and write a new alphabet, forcing our tongues to make new sound sequences, and trying to distinguish between all those little diacritical marks that we see in the text.

Learning Greek is a Spiritual Discipline

My passion for Greek was ignited in 1998 when I started graduate school at Wheaton College and took classes from Dr. Scott Hafemann. His teaching was a model for academic rigor that is not divorced from a life of faith lived in service for others. His challenge was that the study of Greek not simply be an academic exercise, but a spiritual discipline in which we love God with our minds (cf. Mark 12.30). This was a challenge I needed to hear.

So, this is how I seek to teach my intensive introductory New Testament Greek course to Papua New Guineans this month. One of the things we are doing as we learn Greek is to learn Greek scripture songs.

We started with the alphabet. In Revelation 1.8 we read that “Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the one who was, and is, and is to come, the ruler over all things.” So Jesus used the Greek alphabet to explain his sovereignty. He is ruler of all. And that means he is ruler over this Greek course. An intensive NT Greek course that meets for 6 hours a day for 6 weeks is difficult! But Jesus is ruler of this course as well.

So the first song we learned goes like this:

Alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon,
Zeta, eta, theta, iota,
Kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron,
Pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon,
Phi, chi, psi, omega,
Ἰησοῦς ἐστίν τὸ Ἄλφα καὶ τὸ Ὦ
(Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega)

It sure is pretty powerful to hear a room full of Papua New Guineans belting this out full voice on the first day of class. Although it seems a little bit like 1st grade with the alphabet in big letters up on the wall across the length of the room, it’s not just an academic exercise. Even the foundational lesson on the alphabet is a spiritual discipline of singing praise to Jesus as Lord.