Archive for January, 2011

The February 1, 2011 issue of the Watchtower includes an article that asks, “Are You Prepared for the Most Important Day of the Year?” (21-22). This article deals with the Memorial, the annual observance by Jehovah’s Witnesses of the Lord’s Supper (what they often call “the Lord’s evening meal”). The article focuses on explaining why Jehovah’s Witnesses observe this rite only once a year and on Nisan 14, the Hebrew calendar date they accept as the correct date for the Passover. This year, Nisan 14 falls on April 17.

An Annual Observance?

The Watchtower article reasons that since Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper on Passover and since the Passover was an annual festival, the Memorial also ought to be observed once a year (21). This seems plausible enough on the surface, and we should acknowledge that the Lord’s Supper does indeed have a function parallel to (and in some ways built on) the Passover, which commemorated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in the Exodus. Craig Keener points out, “As the Passover annually commemorated (and allowed new generations to share the experience of) the first redemption…so the Lord’s Supper regularly did the same for the climactic redemption” through Christ’s death (Craig Keener, 1-2 Corinthians, New Cambridge Bible Commentary [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005], 98-99).

However, Jesus did not actually specify that the Lord’s Supper was to be observed once a year. Luke and Paul both report that Jesus told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24), but Jesus apparently said nothing about how often they were to do so.

Paul, however, provides some indications that Christians observed the Lord’s Supper more than once a year. Paul also quotes Jesus saying with regard to the drinking of the cup, “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25, emphasis added). He follows this quotation by saying, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26, emphasis added). The Greek words hosakis ean, which may be translated “as often as” or “whenever,” express the sense of the action being done at “indefinite and multiple points of time” (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. [New York: United Bible Societies, 1989], 67.36; see also any of the other standard lexicons). Anthony Thiselton cautions against understanding “as often as” to express any specific “frequency or regularity” and emphasizes the indefiniteness of the expression in Greek (Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], 886). In other words, the expression indicates that the rite was observed many times but without specifying how often or even that it was done on a regular schedule.

Paul’s wording in 1 Corinthians 11:25-26 is difficult to explain if the Corinthians observed the Lord’s Supper only once a year. Correlating the data from 1 and 2 Corinthians with the narrative in Acts 18-20, it appears that Paul left Corinth late in the year 51 and wrote 1 Corinthians early in the year 55. (See, for example, the articles on “Chronology of Paul” and “Corinthians, Letters to the” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993], 115-23, 164-79.) This leaves at most three occasions after Paul’s departure for the Corinthians to have observed an annual Lord’s Supper on Passover, if that had been the Christian practice.

We can be reasonably sure that the Corinthians observed the Lord’s Supper far more often than once a year from the context in which Paul discusses it in 1 Corinthians 11. The Corinthians were making a mockery of the Lord’s Supper, which took place within the context of a church fellowship meal, because some were eating their own food while letting others go hungry, and some were actually getting drunk (1 Cor. 11:20-22). These things happened, Paul tells the Corinthians, “when you come together as a church” (v. 18), which suggests that the abuses were occurring repeatedly at church gatherings. “They treat the Lord’s meal like any association’s banquet, which means that, despite the Greek and biblical ideals of equality, their seating and treatment highlighted their social stratification” (Keener, 1-2 Corinthians, 96).

In this context, Paul states, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (vv. 20-21 ESV). When he says, “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat,” Paul does not mean that the Lord’s Supper was not supposed to be observed at these gatherings but that their divisive, class-conscious behavior negated the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. In effect, they were failing to observe the Lord’s Supper because they were acting as if the rich among them were the hosts, rather than acknowledging that the Lord himself was the host. “Is it the Lord’s [own] Supper which is being held, or that of the host and his most favored guests? Who is the focus of attention? For whose benefit is it being held? Indeed, to put it most sharply: Who, indeed, is ‘hosting’ this meal?” (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 862, emphasis in original).

As historians commonly recognize, in Corinth and likely elsewhere during the first decades of the Christian movement, the Lord’s Supper was a rite of remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial death that took place whenever the church gathered corporately for fellowship around a meal. In fact, it is probably correct to say that in 1 Corinthians “the name ‘Lord’s Supper’ embraces the entire event, including the main meal, together with the concluding rite of the bread and wine” (Hans-Josef Klauck, “Lord’s Supper,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman [New York: Doubleday, 1992], 4:363). This simply could not have been the case had apostles such as Paul regarded the Lord’s Supper as strictly an annual observance.

Given the lack of any definite instruction or commandment in the New Testament on the question, and the evidence from 1 Corinthians 11 of the association of the Lord’s Supper with church fellowship meals, we should resist any dogmatic teaching that the Lord’s Supper must be observed according to any specific schedule. Observing it once a year on Passover is one option, but it is not a biblically normative rule, nor was it the first-century church’s practice.

An Evening Meal?

The Watchtower article also asserts that Jehovah’s Witnesses observe the Lord’s Supper on Passover evening after sunset “because according to the Bible, this is to be an ‘evening meal.’ (1 Corinthians 11:25)” (22). 1 Corinthians 11:25 does not, however, say that the rite is to be an evening meal. In that verse, Paul simply reports that Jesus instituted the rite of the bread and wine “after supper.” The word “supper” here translates an infinitive verb form, to deipnesai, “supping” or “dining,” and is related to the noun deipnon, “supper” or “dinner,” in verse 20. Thiselton comments that deipnon “usually designates the main meal of the day in the Graeco-Roman world. Like the English dinner, it usually denotes an evening meal in formal circles, but as in the case of the English phrase ‘Christmas dinner’ the emphasis concerns the major event rather than the specific timing. It need not always be an evening meal, although in practice it usually was” (Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 863-64). Thus, the rendering “evening meal” in the New World Translation at 1 Corinthians 11:20, 25 is an overtranslation that makes the timing of the meal specific in a way that the Greek wording does not (cf. Mark 6:21; 12:39; Luke 14:12-24; 17:8; Rev. 3:20).

There is no basis, then, for dogmatically claiming that the Lord’s Supper ought to be observed in the evening. Doing so made sense in the first-century context when it was commonly (though not universally) observed as part of a church fellowship meal. Once the rite was separated in practice from such church meals, it was natural for the rite to be observed at whatever time the church met for corporate worship. Again, Paul’s terminology in 1 Corinthians 11 is not time-specific, and no New Testament text legislates a time of the day when the rite is to be observed.

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The cover article of the January 15, 2011 issue of the Watchtower is entitled “Take Refuge in the Name of Jehovah” (3-6). The title is based on Zephaniah 3:12, which the article announces is “the yeartext for 2011” (6), that is, the theme verse for all Jehovah’s Witnesses for this year.

The article repeats some of the stock Jehovah’s Witness claims regarding the divine name Jehovah. It accuses “apostate Christendom” of “manifest hatred of God’s name” (4). Religious leaders have “hidden the identity of the true God from millions upon millions of worshippers” (5). By contrast, “Jehovah’s Witnesses honor and glorify the divine name” (5). This remains part of the mythology of Jehovah’s Witness religion in its demonization of practically every aspect of traditional Christianity. Anyone who has spent much time in evangelical churches, for example, knows this is a myth. The name Jehovah and such Old Testament (OT) compound forms as Jehovah-jireh are part of evangelical piety and hymnody (even in contemporary choruses). The American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901 used Jehovah throughout its OT, and the Holman Christian Standard Bible, one of the newest evangelical English versions of the Bible, uses Yahweh in its OT.

Quoting Romans 10:13 in the New World Translation (NWT), “Everyone who calls on the name of Jehovah will be saved,” the article comments, “There is a connection between calling on Jehovah’s name and the resulting salvation by him” (4). What the article does not mention, and Jehovah’s Witnesses will not acknowledge, is that the original Greek text of Romans 10:13 certainly said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord [Greek, kurios] will be saved.” The libraries and museums of the world house hundreds of manuscript copies of Romans in Greek, hundreds if not thousands more manuscript copies of Romans in other ancient languages (such as Latin), and none of them use any form of the Hebrew name YHWH; all of them say “Lord” in this verse. One of the earliest and most important of all New Testament (NT) manuscripts, the Chester Beatty papyrus (P46), dated about AD 200, contains Romans 10, and it has kurios just as do all of the other copies of that passage. The Greek NT consistently uses kurios (or occasionally theos, “God”), never YHWH in any form, when quoting OT texts that have YHWH in Hebrew. In context, Jesus is identified as this “Lord” (compare Romans 10:13 with Romans 10:9-12). Probably the main reason why the Watchtower uses “Jehovah” selectively in the NT portion of its NWT is to obscure the fact that in passages like this one Jesus is identified as the Lord Jehovah.

Ironically, despite its citation of Romans 10:13, nowhere in the article is anything said about faith in Jesus Christ or what he did for salvation. Of course, Jehovah’s Witnesses do affirm (elsewhere) that they believe in Christ, but the omission is telling. The main point of Romans 10 is that faith in Jesus as Lord is the way to salvation that unbelieving Jews in Paul’s day missed. While belief in Jesus (or at least beliefs about Jesus) is in some sense part of the Jehovah’s Witness religion, salvation is essentially found by “calling on the name of Jehovah,” engaging in the “true worship” of Jehovah separate from that of “apostate Christendom,” and “serving as his Witnesses.” To serve as his Witnesses means “to preach the good news of the Kingdom” and “share with others the correct understanding of God’s Kingdom and how it will sanctify his name” (3-6). In short, one’s salvation is the result of being a practicing, active Jehovah’s Witness. This is “salvation” by religion.

The omission of any reference to faith in Christ or to what he has done for our salvation is all the more significant when one considers how the NT understands what it means to “seek refuge in the name of Jehovah.” The NT does not directly quote Zephaniah 3:12, but it has much to say that echoes what Zephaniah says about how people must respond to Jehovah. In particular, language and themes regarding Jehovah found in Zephaniah and other OT prophets are applied in the NT to Jesus Christ. This is sometimes less clear in the NWT because of its use of “Jehovah” in the OT and its selective use of that name in the NT, as is the case in Romans 10:9-13. However, the connections are often clear enough even in the NWT or in any other version:

(1) Zephaniah’s message is “the word of the LORD” (Jehovah, 1:1; 2:5). The message of the apostles was “the word of the Lord” Jesus (see Acts 8:25; 13:44, 48-49; 15:35-36; 16:32; 19:10; see also 1 Thess. 1:8; 4:15, cf. 4:16-17; 2 Thess. 3:1).

(2) Zephaniah, like the prophets Joel (1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14) and Isaiah (13:6, 9), spoke repeatedly of “the day of the LORD” (Zeph. 1:7, 14), a day of his wrath and anger against the wicked (1:18; 2:2). Paul understands this prophetic motif to speak of “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:14), “the day of (Jesus) Christ” (Phil. 1:6, 10; 2:16). This is what he understands to be “the day of the Lord” (see also 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:1-2).

(3) Zephaniah’s message was that God’s people could be saved from that Day of Judgment by turning to the Lord in faith: they “shall all call upon the name of the LORD” and “shall not be put to shame” (Zeph. 3:9, 11). These statements also echo the prophecies of Joel and Isaiah. Joel had prophesied, “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD [Jehovah] will be saved” (Joel 2:32), the very verse that Paul quotes in reference to Jesus in Romans 10:13 (see also Acts 2:21). Paul also describes Christians as those “who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). Isaiah had written that God was laying a foundation or cornerstone in Zion, “and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (Is. 28:16). Paul also applies this statement to the Lord Jesus (Rom. 9:33; 10:11; see also 1 Peter 2:6-7).

These three points show us that from a NT perspective, we are to interpret the message of Zephaniah in the light of Jesus Christ, as pointing forward quite specifically to him as the ultimate, eternal Savior and Judge. This is, of course, what we should expect based on Jesus’ explicit teaching that the whole OT pointed forward to him and finds its fulfillment in him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47). Yet Christ is at most tangential to the Watchtower’s interpretation of the message of Zephaniah. Yes, judgment is coming, on those who are really apostates (who have abandoned faith in Christ) and on the whole unbelieving world. Deliverance from that judgment is to be found, however, in appealing to the Lord Jesus, calling on him for salvation, and trusting in his mercy. He is indeed the Lord on whose name we must call, the Lord in whom we must take refuge. To miss this is, according to the NT, to miss what the book of Zephaniah and the rest of the OT are really all about.

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In an essay on IRR’s website, “Did Not Our Heart Burn within Us: Luke 24:32 and the Mormon Testimony,” I have argued that the “burning” of the disciples’ hearts was not the means by which the disciples became convinced of the truth of the gospel. Rather, they had experienced that “burning” feeling while still in a state of disbelief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What convinced them that Jesus had risen from the dead was God’s gracious “opening” of their eyes to recognize that it was Jesus who had physically appeared to them, talked with them, and broken bread with them (Luke 24:30-31, 35). They knew because they saw—and they saw because God graciously allowed them to see what was right in front of their eyes.

This explanation of Luke 24 receives interesting confirmation and support from a new article by Dane C. Ortlund, a Bible editor at Crossway Books. The article, “‘And Their Eyes Were Opened, and They Knew’: An Inter-canonical Note on Luke 24:31,” appears in the new issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Vol. 53, No. 4, Dec. 2010), pages 717-28. Ortlund shows that the quoted statement by Luke alludes to Genesis 3:7, where the same statement is made about Adam and Eve’s eyes being “opened” when they ate of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Ortund’s conclusion is worth quoting:

“The first eye-opening with its attendant knowledge ushered humanity into a new moral universe of darkness, exile, sin, and death. The second eye-opening with its attendant knowledge pulled back the eschatological curtain to allow Jesus’ distraught disciples to perceive that he himself had inaugurated the long-awaited new world of hope, resurrection, restoration, and new creation” (728).

Christians know that the gospel is true, not because they have a “burning” feeling in their hearts (something they may or may not experience), but because they perceive the truth that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.

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A new feature of this blog will be periodic essays responding to articles in the Watchtower (and occasionally Awake!), the official magazine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A regular review of this magazine’s articles is in order: the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society claims that it prints over 42 million copies of each issue of the Watchtower in 185 languages. Even if nine-tenths of these copies never get read, that is still a hefty circulation for any publication, let alone a religious magazine.

First up is an article in the January 1, 2011 issue of the Watchtower entitled “Did God Know that Adam and Eve Would Sin?” (13-15). The article answers its question in the negative. According to Jehovah’s Witness theology, God has the “capacity” to know everything ahead of time, including Adam and Eve’s sin, but “does not have to use this capacity” and “wisely uses his ability of foreknowledge selectively…when it makes sense to do so and fits the circumstances.” God’s ability to foreknow some things and to refrain from foreknowing other things is likened to a sports fan choosing to watch a prerecorded game from the beginning instead of jumping forward to see the end (14).

We agree with the theological premises to which the Watchtower appeals in making its case for this doctrine of selective foreknowledge. Specifically, we agree that God made everything good, that Adam and Eve before the Fall had the ability not to commit sin, that the first humans were not “preprogrammed to please God” (13), that God does not tempt people to try to get them to sin, that God is not to blame for Adam and Eve’s sin (14), that God is love, and that Satan “initiated the rebellion in Eden” (15). However, from these biblically correct premises it simply does not follow that God did not know that Adam and Eve would sin.

For example, from the premise that Adam and Eve had the ability not to sin it does not follow that God did not know they would sin. The truth is that Adam and Eve had the ability not to sin or to sin—that is, they had the ability to choose either path. Suppose that instead of choosing to sin, Adam and Eve had chosen not to sin. Would God knowing that ahead of time somehow rob them of their responsibility for making the right choice? Of course not. God could know what they were going to do without compromising their responsibility in doing it. Likewise, God could foreknow the fact that they were going to sin without causing their sin.

The Watchtower article reasons that it would have been “hypocritical for God to warn them against a specific sin while already knowing the bad outcome” (13-14). Assuming God is omniscient, however, the real injustice would have been for God not to have warned them ahead of time against committing the sin. God’s justice required that he give Adam and Eve fair warning of the consequences of disobeying him. It makes no sense to claim that he needed to be ignorant of the outcome in order to be righteous in issuing the warning!

The article asks if it would “make sense for a wise God” to make creatures that “he knew were bound to fail” if other creatures (the angels) were watching (14). This rhetorical question suggests that God would be restrained, as it were, by public opinion. God has the absolute right to make whatever world he chooses, even if he knows that some of his creatures in that world will abuse their God-given abilities.

Virtually the entire article consists of this sort of a priori reasoning about what would make sense for God to do or know. The one supposed example it cites of God not knowing something falls short of proving any such ignorance. The article points out (14) that after Abraham demonstrated his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, God said, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Gen. 22:12). Yet years earlier God had told Abraham, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years,” after which they would escape “with many possessions,” but that Abraham himself would be “buried at a good old age” (Gen. 15:13-15). How could God know all these things about Abraham and his descendants and not know whether Abraham would pass the test that was coming? Those future events depended on Abraham being the patriarch of promise. The traditional and best understanding of a statement like Genesis 22:12 is that God was accommodating himself to human language by speaking as a human parent would to his child.

The Watchtower’s notion of selective foreknowledge is completely unbiblical. The concept as explained in the article presupposes that it would always be immoral for God to know ahead of time about any specific acts of sin by his creatures. Yet the Bible is full of references to God knowing ahead of time that various individuals and nations would do all sorts of bad things. God knew that Abraham’s descendants would be enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years (Gen. 15:13-14), that Pharaoh would resist letting Israel go (Exod. 3:19-20; 4:21; 7:3-5; etc.; cf. Rom. 9:17-18), and that Israel would become corrupt after Moses’ death (Deut. 31:16-21, 27-29). Jesus knew that people would hate his disciples (Matt. 10:22; 24:9; etc.), that the authorities in Jerusalem would put him to death (Matt. 16:21; 20:18-19; etc.), and that Judas would betray him (Matt. 26:21-25). These are just some of the more prominent examples out of the dozens of such statements throughout the Bible.

Jesus’ foreknowledge of Judas’s betrayal is an especially interesting and important case study. Jesus chose Judas to be one of his apostles, knowing from the start that Judas would end up betraying him (John 6:70-71; 13:10-11, 18-26). Had Jesus not chosen Judas to be an apostle, Judas would not have had the opportunity to commit the infamous act of betrayal for which he will forever be remembered. Yet Jesus chose Judas, knowing what he would do. This example, which is associated with the core events of the gospel, refutes the pious reasoning that God would never put someone in a position to do evil if he knew the person would make that choice.

Selective foreknowledge is not only unbiblical, it is unworkable. If God did not foreknow that Adam and Eve would sin, then he could not have foreknown any of the subsequent events in world history, because that whole history is shaped by their act. The whole history of human conflict and struggle, of villainy and heroism, of sin and redemption, of death and resurrection—all of it presupposes the first sin of Adam and Eve. If God didn’t know that event would happen, he didn’t know anything else that would happen in human history. God’s “selective foreknowledge” would be limited to knowing the future movements of astronomical bodies and the times of sunrise and sunset for the rest of earth’s history.

The argument that it would be immoral for God to know about sin ahead of time has things backwards. Suppose God could have known, but chose not to know, that Adam and Eve would sin. Would God not have been negligent to blind himself to what was about to happen? We are not talking about a sports fan avoiding hearing the final score of a football game so he can enjoy the action. We are talking about the Creator of the universe supposedly avoiding knowing what would happen in the creation for which he was responsible.

The New Testament teaches that God knew that his Son, Jesus Christ, would die as a sacrifice for sins before the first sin was committed. Christ, as the “unblemished and spotless lamb” by whose blood we have been redeemed, “was foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:18-20). God also knew before the foundation of the world that he would redeem his people in Christ. God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). The names of believers in Christ have been “written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8; 17:8; see also Matt. 25:34). The expression “the foundation of the world” in these passages refers to the creation of the world and thus to a time prior to the first sin (see Job 38:4; John 17:24; Heb. 1:10; 4:3). Obviously, for God to foreknow the sacrificial death of his Son for our sins, he needed to foreknow that sins were going to be committed.

We may confidently conclude, then, that God knew that Adam and Eve would disobey him and plunge the whole human race into sin. He knew, because he already had a plan in place for dealing with sin—a plan that would bring good out of evil (compare Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28) and bring glory to him because of his grace (Eph. 1:4-6). It is because God knows all things ahead of time that he is never caught by surprise and his plans for his creation can never be finally thwarted.

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