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Senior Pastor Daniel Wee

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Thank you for your patience. Here is the sermon from last weekend.

Pressing into 2018 (COOS Weekend Thanksgiving Service by Senior Pastor Daniel Wee) For other sermons, please check out all of them here . 

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Does the Kingdom of God suffer violence?

Recently a friend asked me concerning a very interesting (and puzzling) verse of the bible found in the gospel according to Matthew, Matt 11:12. It’s a verse that we’ve no doubt read from time to time but if we were careful, we might have detected some difficulty with the flow of the verse – not least because it gets translated differently in different English versions:-
 
NKJV – And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. 
NASB – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.
NIV(2011) – From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,and violent people have been raiding it. 
NRSV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.
NET – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it.
ESV – From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence,4 and the violent take it by force.
 
I remember reading this verse as a young Christian and being rather perplexed by what it could possibly mean. In particular I was curious about who these “violent men” who are taking the kingdom of heaven by force might be. Were they “good” people whom we are to emulate? ie. Should we too take the kingdom by force? Or were they “bad” people that we should be on the lookout for? Either ways, the verse just doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. I mean – how do you even go about taking an invisible kingdom by force?
 
To be sure, this is one of those verses that scholars debate over and translators agonise over. The problem stems from the word βιάζεται (biazetai) which is usually translated as “suffers violence”. The word “biazetai” means “to use force or violence”. The problem is that Greek verbs have different “voices” – the active, passive and what is called the middle voice (sometimes called the “aorist”). In English we are used to the active and passive voices. So “He will be killed.” is a passive form of the verb “kill”. In English, the voice is determined by other parts of speech. In Greek, the voice is determined by the conjugation of the verb, in the same way that the tense in English is conjugated as part of the same word, eg. kill, killed, kills, killing. They’re all one word. So in Greek, you get one word “biazetai” (βιάζεται) and you will need to look at the conjugation to determine the voice, and hence the correct translation.
 
In this case, βιάζεται is the third person, singular, masculine, middle, indicative form. It is masculine because in the Greek, heaven is “masculine” so the verb associated with it is also masculine. It is the third person, for obvious reasons, when referring to the kingdom of heaven. The real problem comes when we get to the voice – the aorist middle voice. Middle voices are neither active nor passive, and is usually reflexive – acting on itself. In English, you might translate this literally as “the kingdom of heaven is violencing itself” – which is how many translators have translated it, more smoothly albeit. That, however, isn’t the only way of translating this. It is also possible to translate the reflexivity as “the kingdom of heaven is operating forcefully” [Rudolf Otto, “The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man”, pg.78], or as “the kingdom of heaven operates through force” [Reza Aslan, “Zealot”, pg.256]. These two translations are, for me, more sensible in the context of the passage.
 
The verse (Mt 11:12) says that since John the Baptist, which isn’t very long before Jesus said those words, the kingdom of heaven has been advancing forcefully, or operating forcefully. (I prefer “spreading powerfully” here.) Some have chosen “suffers violence” in the light of John the Baptist’s beheading by Herod Antipas (or Antipater). If so, the “violent men” are bad people who abuse God’s people. Fortunately for us, we have more than just one gospel. This same verse is reproduced for us in Luke 16:16:-
 
NKJV – The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it.
NASB – The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.
NRSV – The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force.
NET – The law and the prophets were in force until John; since then, the good news of the kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is urged to enter it.
 
Once you consider Lk 16:16, the “violent men” are clearly those who have responded to the preaching of the good news, rather than “bad people” like king Herod. If so, then Mt 11:12 should be translated more towards “advancing forcefully” or “operating with force/strength” as opposed to “suffers violence.” When Luke 16:16 used the same word “biazetai”, the context is that of people pressing into the kingdom of God forcefully, or “urged” as the NET translation puts it.
 
In summary – we have in Mt 11:12 a verse that talks about how since John the Baptist (the last of the OT prophets as implied in v.13-15) a new era has begun and people have been responding to the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God in droves and, as a result, entering the kingdom of God in large numbers. This fits in well with the context of Mt 11:7-11. Jesus was trying to tell them that they have witnessed the fulfilment of the Malachi 4:5 and John had come to usher in a whole new era – the era of the good news of the kingdom of God. It’s not talking about “violent men” but those who are eagerly responding to the gospel described for us in Mt 3:5-6. Matthew, in particular, was trying to show how Jesus’ life fulfilled OT prophecies as the one that Isa 40:3 speaks of (see. Mt 3:1-3).
 
For what it’s worth, my interpretation of Mt 11:12:-
 
“John the Baptist marks the beginning of a new era of the kingdom that is spreading powerfully, through preaching of the good news and people are eagerly responding in droves, and entering the kingdom of heaven.”
The cover photo for this article was taken on the Temple Mount by Pastor Daniel Wee during his first trip to Israel.

The Day The Sun Stood Still

Joshua 10:6-14

Possibly the most notable battle in the conquest of the promised land was the battle to save the Gibeonites from the five Amorite kings that was fought in the valley of Aijalon. What was remarkable about this battle was the miraculous intervention of God in causing the sun and moon to stand still for a day.

“Then Joshua spoke to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, “O sun, stand still at Gibeon, And O moon in the valley of Aijalon.” So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, Until the nation avenged themselves of their enemies. Is it not written in the book of Jashar? And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” (Joshua 10:12-13)

Putting aside discussion about the book of Jashar (which I will try to do in a separate video series), what this particular narrative brings up is the question of how we read biblical texts, or if you like – the question of hermeneutics. The passage above clearly states that the sun and the moon stood still for a whole day. Do we take this reading literally – that is, were the sun and moon arrested in their celestial passage? Well, here’s the problem – even if the sun and moon were stopped dead in their tracks, they would still “rise” and “set” because the rising and setting of these celestial bodies are primarily the result of earth’s rotation. We know this from our current scientific understanding of our solar system.

So, when the writer of the bible said that the sun and the moon stood still, it is highly likely that what actually happened was that the earth stopped rotating. Now, we’re not going to go into the physics of what might happen to the earth’s magnetic core if it stopped rotating but this apparent “conflict” makes a very interesting point about biblical narratives. Very often, biblical narratives are observational records that are not meant to be taken in a literal-scientific sense. Thus even though the bible record clearly says that the sun stood still in the middle of the sky, and this was true observationally, this might not have been a literal scientific description of what actually took place. There was no effort to describe the science that produced the phenomenon observed by Joshua because it was not within the author’s understanding to do so, and by extension it also wasn’t important to God to leave that kind of documentation.

Herein lies the problem when people read the bible as it if were a scientific document – a literal-scientific reading of the bible can often produce messages inconsistent with scientific reality and that goes off on a tangent that the original author never intended. In other words, literal doesn’t always mean more accurate. It can prove to be horribly wrong when we try to make the bible say what it never intended to say.

So did the sun and moon stand still? As far as Joshua could tell – yes. The bible, however, remains quite silent on the science behind this miraculous incident and whilst it could be fun to speculate, it is good to remember that speculation is just that – speculation.

Rev. Daniel Wee is currently serving as the vicar of Church of Our Saviour (Anglican) in Singapore. His interests include OT studies, photography, electronics, statistics and reading (when he has time for them!)

The Altar of Uncut Stones

From the twelve-stones of Gilgal we move to the altar of uncut stones that Joshua erected as a reminder of the people’s covenant with the Lord. After the two object lessons in obedience/disobedience of Jericho and Ai, Joshua got Israel ready to launch their campaign to capture the rest of the promised land. As part of this, Joshua built an altar to the Lord on Mt. Ebal (Josh 8:31). Specifically, Joshua remembered the instructions given concerning how the altar should be built from Ex 20:22:-

“If you make an altar of stone for Me, you shall not build it of cut stones, for if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to My altar, so that your nakedness will not be exposed on it.”

The idea was that cut stones (gazit – גָּזִ֑ית) implied the use of a sword (sometimes translated “tool”), the use of which defiles or profanes the altar. Scholars debate over what exactly it is about the sword/tool that defiles the altar and there isn’t much consensus here. Some suggest that the sword is an instrument of war and is not compatible with an altar to God, while others argue that altars are about sacrifices anyway so swords shouldn’t be a problem. I disagree. I think the key to understanding this lies in going back to the instructions that Moses left to Joshua in Deut 27:1-8:-

“Then Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying, “Keep all the commandments which I command you today. “So it shall be on the day when you cross the Jordan to the land which the LORD your God gives you, that you shall set up for yourself large stones and coat them with lime and write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over, so that you may enter the land which the LORD your God gives you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you. “So it shall be when you cross the Jordan, you shall set up on Mount Ebal, these stones, as I am commanding you today, and you shall coat them with lime. “Moreover, you shall build there an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones; you shall not wield an iron tool on them. “You shall build the altar of the LORD your God of uncut stones, and you shall offer on it burnt offerings to the LORD your God; and you shall sacrifice peace offerings and eat there, and rejoice before the LORD your God. “You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very distinctly.””

Here we begin to get a better picture of what that altar was all about. When they crossed into the land, Joshua was instructed to find large stones and to coat them with chalk. On these stones would be inscribed God’s word – the laws of God. I can’t help but wonder if these large chalk/lime coated stones, with God’s laws inscribed on them, formed part of the altar that was built on Mt. Ebal. The word “uncut” used in v.6 here is more literally translated “whole” or “complete” (shelemot – שְׁלֵמוֹת֙ – from the same root as “shalom”). Putting all these together, it seems to me that:-

  • these stones represented the complete words of God, the laws of God
  • the altar to God and our worship is built on the basis of God’s complete word
  • the “whole” God’s word must be kept, completely (Deut 12:32)
  • we shouldn’t presume to “cut” any of it out, even by accident

The whole passage has one singular focus – that is to accurately and completely keep God’s word. The entire discussion about stones were related to the fact that upon those stones were written the law. For that reason, I believe that the use of “whole” or “complete” stones is related to what those stones represented – the whole word of God. These are God’s instructions to us concerning the kind of worship he wants from us. God did not make requests about our music, or our strength. He did not require beauty and aesthetics, nor did He ask for our feelings. He did, however, make one very very specific demand – adherence to the whole word of God. Without this in place – the rest of what we might do is most likely unacceptable to God. King Saul had to learn this lesson the painful way, 1Sam 15:22:-

“Has the LORD as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.”

Rev. Daniel Wee is currently serving as the vicar of Church of Our Saviour (Anglican) in Singapore. His interests include OT studies, photography, electronics, statistics and reading (when he has time for them!)

Twelve Stones

Even as Joshua’s men crossed over the Jordan on dry ground (Josh 4:1), God had some pretty specific instructions for Joshua to perform. He was to appoint twelve men, one from each of the twelve tribes, and they were to go to the river bed – to the very spot where the feet of the priests bearing the ark were firmly planted – and remove twelve stones to take with them. These stones would be set up in Gilgal as a memorial for future generations, as a sign reminding them that God parted the river Jordan, stopped the water, so that they could enter into the promised land.

The instructions were very specific. These were not just stones from anywhere in the river, but from “the place where the priests’ feet stood firm.” In other words, this was quite literally the place where the priests stood on the promise of God (Josh 3:13). To be sure it wasn’t the first time that God had used twelve stones to represent the tribes for the purpose of a memorial (Ex 28:12) but what is interesting here is the fact that these stones literally formed the foundation of God’s faithfulness and promises upon which they stood.

When Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal and prepared and altar for the Lord, he took twelve stones, each representing one of the twelve tribes, and built the altar on the foundation of those stones (1Kgs 18:31-32). The significance was clear. He was reminding them:-

  1. What God had done in the past in bringing them into the promised land
  2. That what he was about to do was upon the foundation of God’s faithfulness and promise

In the same way, our altars must be built upon nothing less than the foundation of God’s faithfulness and promise. Whereas in Joshua’s and Elijah’s time – they had taken twelve rocks, today we stand on the Rock of Ages (Mat 16:18). Christ has become the foundation of God’s promises and faithfulness to us and upon Yeshua we build our altar to the Lord (Lk 6:48). Somewhere in there is also a reminder for us to make memorials to pass on our experience with God to our children in such a way that would make them ask us more.

Rev. Daniel Wee is currently serving as the vicar of Church of Our Saviour (Anglican) in Singapore. His interests include OT studies, photography, electronics, statistics and reading (when he has time for them!)

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