Exodus: Exercising Care in Using God’s Name

The third commandment is about much more than careless profanity.

Moses with the tablets of the Law, by Gustave Doré, French, 19th century

Chapter 20 of Exodus gives us the Ten Commandments (as Christians call them) or the Ten Words (as Jews call them). The ten commandments have played a huge role in Christian instruction, such as the many catechisms that theologians have composed to instruct believers in the doctrines and morality of Christian living. 

Those catechisms have provided extensive exposition on the meaning of the commandments and their application to daily living. I do not want to add to that mass of words. My readers can explore that exposition by turning to the many catechisms that they will find in traditional churches, both Catholic and Protestant. 

One of the most popular in my own Presbyterian circle has been the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563. Questions 41-81 of this catechism contain a detailed explanation of each of the commandments. 

Instead, in this posting and the next, I will comment on just two of the commandments—Commandment 3 and Commandment 10*. The first, because a frivolous interpretation of it drains it, in my opinion, of its more serious meaning. The second, because it stands apart from all the others by its focus. 

The third commandment reads: 

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name (Exodus 3:7).

When I was a child, parents and Sunday school teachers drilled into me that this commandment prohibited any kind of profanity. Especially that meant any swear words that used a variation of name of God or of Jesus. For example, we could not say the word Gee (it was regarded as an abbreviated form of Jesus) nor Yikes (it was regarded as an abbreviation for Christ). If we did as children, we found our mouths washed out in soap. 

We find throughout Exodus–and for that matter, the whole Bible–a concern with protecting the good name of God.

For good measure, the prohibition was extended to any other swear words, especially words referring to sex or bowel movements. I grew up in an environment largely free of foul language. It continues to influence my speech to this day.

A Deeper Interpretation

But I’ve come to believe that this interpretation of the commandment distracts us from a more serious violation of the commandment.

We find throughout Exodus–and for that matter, the whole Bible–a concern with protecting the good name of God. Like all of us, the God of the Bible shows a concern with his reputation in the world. His work in liberating Israel is motivated in part by the purpose that God’s name be proclaimed throughout the earth. That is said explicitly in Exodus 9:16, when God tells Moses to say to Pharaoh: 

But this is why I have let you live: to show you my power, and to make my name resound through all the earth.

We find an echo of this thought in Psalm 135. The psalm contains a celebration of what God did to liberate and lead Israel out of Egypt. The psalmist concludes that celebration by saying:

Your name, O Lord, endures forever,

            and your renown, O Lord, throughout all ages. (Psalm 135:13)

Isaiah sees word about what God has done on behalf of Israel as triggering a curiosity or longing to learn more about this God. In Isaiah 2, the prophet foresees a time when all nations will stream to Jerusalem. Why? Because…

Many peoples shall come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,

            and to the house of the God of Jacob,

That he may teach us his ways

            and that we may walk in his paths.’

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

            And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

The word-of-mouth spread of the news of what God has done on behalf of Israel is expected to cause astonishment in other peoples. They will be moved to ask questions about this God. 

Nothing is more inclined to turn people away from God, to reject and despise God, than the linking of God’s name to attitudes and behaviors that misrepresent the character and purposes of God…

In this sense we might say that evangelism will not be a deliberate mission of Israel. Rather it will be a by-product of other people hearing and talking about the story of Israel in what might amount to casual conversation. This happens all the time when we share excitedly with one another some tidbit of news we have heard (“Have you heard that….”).

Advertisers say nothing works so powerfully as word-of-mouth endorsements of a product from family members, friends, and colleagues. We trust such endorsements because we trust the people giving them. The same is true in matters dealing with the spirit. 

Nothing is more inclined to turn people away from God, to reject and despise God, than the linking of God’s name to attitudes and behaviors that misrepresent the character and purposes of God, especially when we link the authority of God to some social or political ideology we espouse. When we cite God’s will as authority for some such ideology, we need to be quite sure we are understanding God’s will correctly.

A Case in Point

A good example of what I mean was reported in a recent issue of The Washington Post.** A columnist was commenting on the oral arguments that went on in the Supreme Court over whether the new Texas law on abortion was constitutional. Many saw this case as a direct challenge to the Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade

Outside the court demonstrators assembled in vocal protest of or in support of abortion. Metal barriers divided opposing sides. The columnist reported that the two sides tried to outshout each other. One woman opposed to abortion used a bullhorn to drown out the others. 

She screamed at those who support abortion in these words (according to the columnist): Maybe some of you should have been aborted, you wicked, nasty, disgusting, ungodly–I don’t even want to call you women! You are bloodthirsty animals! This is what happens when you allow women to emasculate men! God hates you! In the name of Jesus Christ, shut your vile, sick mouth!

I shuddered when I read that. Personally I don’t favor abortion. But to scream at someone who supports abortion that God hates them and that in the name of Jesus Christ, they should shut their vile mouth is a direct violation of the third commandment, as I see it. It is defaming the character of God. In my theology, God does not hate anyone, nor does Jesus order any person to silence their voice. This kind of talk brings disrepute upon the proclamation of the gospel. I recoil in horror at this misuse of the name of God.

The third commandment targets this kind of practice by which we malign the name and character of God when we clothe our misunderstandings and willful purposes in the language of divinity.

A Legacy of Skepticism

I experienced this disrespect for God’s name frequently as a child when I grew up in the church. Many a minister in a sermon thundered from the pulpit about some issue or action which he demanded that we practice because it was God’s will or which he denounced as a violation of God’s will. This is in fact standard content in many sermons. As I grew more mature in my faith, I came to believe that so many of them were dead wrong in their understanding of God. 

… a preacher should feel some sense of fear and trembling when he or she mounts the pulpit and sets out to declare the word of God for the assembled congregation.

This has left me with a deep legacy of skepticism. One who expresses how this unintended consequence happens is the Biblical scholar Terence E. Fretheim. Here is what he says about the third commandment:

A central issue at stake for God is the declaration of this name to the world and the effect the hearing of that name will have on people. Will they be drawn to it or repelled by it or remain indifferent to it? If that name has been besmirched in some way by the manner in which it has been used by the people of God or by the practices with which it has been associated, then the divine intentions may fall short of their realization.***

This is not to say that preachers have no right to claim the authority of God as sanction for some of the things they say. There are some clear indications in the Bible about God’s will, and the Ten Commandments are examples. But it seems to me that a preacher should feel some sense of fear and trembling when he or she mounts the pulpit and sets out to declare the word of God for the assembled congregation. How easily we can unwittingly deceive ourselves and mislead the people of God. 

Jesus, too, is aware of the great danger arising from careless speech about God as well as from our hypocritical actions. After instructing his disciples that they must change and become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, he then goes on to warn them of misleading those who seek to enter the kingdom. He says:

If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! (Matthew 18:6-7)

A Proper Reticence

Another way we can disrespect the name of God is when we use God’s name in empty phrases or in easy religious talk. I often wonder if people are even aware of what they are saying when they spontaneously say “Oh, my God” in a casual conversation. Often it strikes me as nothing more than an empty phrase, although unconsciously they may be acknowledging a divine presence of which they appear unaware in their daily living. 

Another example is the kind of testimony giving that is a common practice in the churches where I grew up. A genuine testimony to God’s action in one’s life can be a powerful experience for a listening congregation. But too many of the testimonies I heard in church as a child struck me as cliched and vacuous. They were often an occasion for people to demonstrate how pious they were. 

Reticence in using the name of God seems to me one way we can honor the Third Commandment.

I recognize that I need to be cautious in making this criticism. People may use cliched language because it is all they have available to express their genuine experience. When that is the case, the genuineness is likely to come through in the tone of the voice. But too many testimonies do not pass the test of genuineness for me. 

As a result, I have become highly reticent in attributing things that happen in my life, good or bad, to God. It is not that I believe God is not at work in the events of my life. Rather it is that I am highly skeptical of my ability to discern what is of God and what is not. The way of wisdom, it seems to me, is to be careful in what I say. 

Reticence in using the name of God seems to me one way we can honor the Third Commandment. Devout Jews set what I regard as an instructive example for many Christians. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the proper name for God is spelled YHWH. Whenever Jews encounter this name in the text, they do not pronounce it. Instead they substitute the word Adonai (My Lord). 

This has been such a long practice that scholars do not know for sure what is the proper pronunciation of the name. They speculate that it is Yahweh. And some English translations adopt that pronunciation. But it remains speculation. No one knows for sure. So reticence is proper.


* Different faith traditions number the commandments in different ways, by separating some and uniting others. I follow the enumeration in my faith tradition, which is Reformed and Presbyterian. 

** Dana Milbank, ‘Roe’ is dead; the Roberts Court’s ‘stench’ will live forever, a column in The Washington Post, December 2, 2021. Page A23.

*** Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation Commentary. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991. Page 228.

Exodus: The Necessary Long Journey

God blocks a short journey to the Promised Land for good reasons.

Moses leading Israelites across the Red Sea, mural from Dura-Europus, 3rd century CE.

If you follow the coast of the Mediterranean, it is roughly 125 miles to travel from the Suez canal to Gaza, one of the ancient Philistine cities in Canaan. This is the shortest route between Egypt and Palestine. 

An ancient road followed this route. Egyptian armies had traveled it many times in their expeditions into Canaan and Syria. If an army had kept to a steady pace of 10 miles a day, it could traverse the distance in only a couple of weeks.  

This gives us a working number for how far the Israelites would have needed to travel once they were cut loose from the Egyptians after the Red Sea crossing. Exodus, however, tells us that God explicitly denied them this route.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. (Exodus 13:17-18)

Instead God leads the Israelites out into the Sinai desert and starts them on a journey that would last 40 years, not two weeks. This raises the question Why?

The Exodus text gives one answer. It attributes God’s rationale to the fact that the ancient road along the coast would have been guarded by Egyptian garrisons. In the skirmishes that would have inevitably resulted, God feared the Israelites would lose heart and give up their journey. The Israelites were too new in their freedom to stand up to armed clashes like those.

The Long Task of Nation-Building

But I think there is a deeper reason why Israel ends up taking 40 years to complete its journey from Egypt to Canaan. It has to do with the important task of forming a nation. 

When the Israelites left Egypt, they left as a disorganized mass of newly freed slaves. They would have had almost no social or spiritual infrastructure to hold this unruly mass together. Conflicts would have inevitably arisen without any justice structure to resolve them. The conflicts would have set various family or partisan groups at each other. The violence would have turned the mass of newly freed slaves into a self-destructive mob.

For the Israelites to find their stability emotionally, socially, politically, and spiritually, they would need:

    • To shed their Egyptian slave mindsets,
    • To develop new structures for organizing their social and political life,
    • To evolve new understandings of what constitutes justice,
    • To experience in trial and error what works and what does not in their new life,
    • To create the traditions that would give them a unique identity,
    • And lastly to understand and live what a relationship with God, their liberator, meant in their new life of freedom.

All this–and much more–was needed if they were to flourish in the new life God had given them. 

All of these tasks are tasks involved in building character, whether the character of an individual or the character of a people. And building character takes time. It does not arise instantaneously. 

Israel faced the task of building its character as a people of God during those long years traveling in the wilderness. It should not surprise us to know that it took 40 years. Theirs was a daunting task to complete, if we can even say that they completed it. In one sense that challenge has remained a challenge through all the succeeding generations of Israelite and Jewish history.

This is one reason why the story of the exodus remains such an inspiration and guide to even peoples outside the Jewish faith. The story highlights the challenges any people face in creating a national identity and constitution (whether written or unwritten). 

It is a very sad fact that many a revolution has only ended up substituting one oppressive regime by another. The French Revolution overthrew the Bourbon regime only ultimately to usher in the Napoleonic empire. The Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov absolutism only to institute the Leninist-Stalinist one. 

… building character takes time. It does not arise instantaneously.

Why does this happen? One good reason, I believe, is that newly freed peoples tend to expect that they will enter into the promised land of their dreams quickly. They have destroyed the structures of the old, but do not realize that they now have to rebuild new ones. 

If those new ones are to fulfill their dreams, they must be constructed wisely to avoid the old oppressive habits of exercising power. People glory in their new rights, but forget that rights also carry responsibilities. They must create new and healthy bonds among themselves. None of that is done quickly. And so people get disillusioned and fall back into old and well-known mindsets of servitude.

The Long Task of Character Building

What I have just said applies not only to the building of new nations, but also to the development of character in individuals. Individual journeys to healthy, flourishing identities also take time. 

It is an odd fact about human beings that human babies do not emerge from the womb able to walk, talk, and function as mini adults like calves born from cows and colts born from horses. It takes a good 20 to 25 years for human babies to reach physical maturity and much longer sometimes to reach emotional and social maturity.

A human character consists of mindsets, commitments, habits, attitudes, bonds with others, customary ways of behavior, and decisions made. All that takes time to develop. In fact, character development never ends. It continues throughout a person’s life. The best thing to say about character development is that it is a journey, a never-ending journey. 

Christlike character is not something we get: we grow into it.

Jonathan R. Bailey

The Long Task of Growing into Spiritual Maturity

The same is true in the development of our spiritual life. One may make a decision to become a Christian (in Evangelical terminology, to be born again), but that decision point is not the end point of the Christian life. It is the beginning point. What lies ahead is a continuing journey into deeper levels of maturity and deeper levels of one’s relationship with God and with others. 

I like the way the author Jonathan R. Bailey expresses this insight:

Shedding vice and securing virtue–becoming like Christ–is not something that automatically happens when we become Christians. Moving from stage to stage happens over a long, frustrating, rewarding, painful, and glorious period of time. Christlike character is not something we get: we grow into it.*

During the medieval period classic writers on this spiritual journey came to discuss this spiritual journey as passing through three stages:

Purgation: the cleansing of all that hinders spiritual maturity, whether sins or ego-centrism, that keeps us from the practice of love,

Illumination: the progressive growth in the understanding and virtues that support spiritual maturity and the practice of love,

Union: the coming of unity with God in which our wills are fully aligned with God’s will, and we reach the full experience of God’s love.

Many of these writers on the spiritual life have seen in the exodus experience of the Israelites the paradigm for this understanding of the spiritual life as a spiritual journey. One good example is The Life of Moses by the 4th century church father Gregory of Nyssa.** Gregory takes the exodus story as an allegory for the experience of a spiritual seeker growing into deeper union with God. 

I find it hard to believe then that when God blocked the Israelites from taking the short route to Canaan, God’s only concern was whether the Israelites would become demoralized in their skirmishes with Egyptian garrisons. Israel needed to experience its life with God as a journey, for in doing so they were setting the pattern for all in the future who would embark upon the same journey. 


* Jonathan R. Bailey, The Eternal Journey: Daily Meditations on the Stages of Transformation. Renovaré, 2020. Page 6.

** Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, translators. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Q&A on My New Study Guide to Galatians

Why I wrote this book and what you can expect from it.

WS_5.5x8.5_templateAs I announced in my last posting, the publishing house Wipf and Stock has released my new book: Charter of Christian Freedom: A Layperson’s Study Guide to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. I offer this short Q&A as a way of explaining why I have written this book and what you may expect to find in it:

Q. Why have you written this book on Galatians?

A. Because it is one of the most influential literary works written in Christian history. It redirected the course of apostolic Christianity. It has sparked many reform movements in the church, including the Protestant Reformation. It gave teeth to campaigns in the twentieth century to ordain women. And it has revolutionized my own spiritual life.

Q. There are many commentaries available on Galatians. Why another?

A.This book started out in response to a request from a minister friend who was teaching a men’s Bible study class. He was frustrated in finding suitable study materials for the class. His men shied away from academic volumes, but also found most Sunday school materials too simplistic. They loved William Barclay, but found him dated. Having read my blog, he challenged me to write something for his men that had substance but avoided academic jargon. This book is written to be just that kind of study resource for laypeople studying the Bible and for working pastors.

Q. How do you approach the Letter to the Galatians?

A. Too many people read the Bible in isolated snippets. I read books of the Bible as literary works, paying attention to the flow of the whole work and its historical, canonical, and literary contexts. The tools I use to read the Bible are ones I first learned in a college class on poetry writing. I discovered in the class that I was not a great poet, but I did learn how to read a literary work closely. I have transferred those tools to reading the Bible, including the Letter to the Galatians.

Q. In a nutshell summary, what is the basic message of Galatians?

A. Galatians is a kind of polemical pamphlet. Paul wrote it to address a controversy roiling the apostolic church. On what basis could Gentiles be accepted into a religious movement that was originally Jewish? Paul says they are to be accepted on the same basis as Jewish Christians: by faith in Jesus Christ. They are free from adopting Jewish identity markers. They can be Christians as Gentiles rather than as Jewish converts.

Q. That sounds as if Galatians is an obsolete tract dealing with an old, by-gone controversy? Why study it today?

A. The way Paul addresses that old controversy has spoken powerfully to Christians ever since. Paul does not see the Christian life as one of following iron rules of morality and religious practice. Instead we are called to sink deep roots into the Holy Spirit. In turn the Holy Spirit will bring about a transformation of our lives. It is a way of living freely. And I find that is a clarifying message we Christians need to hear once again today.

Q. If that’s the case, how has your study of Galatians changed your own life?

A.  I grew up in a legalistic version of Christianity focused on identifying and avoiding sins. It nurtured a joy-killing spirit. I hated it. But when I came to read Galatians and understand the import of what Paul was saying, I realized how wrong I was in the vision of Christianity I carried from my childhood. Galatians truly revolutionized my spiritual life. That’s one reason I wrote this book–to help others discover this same liberating message.

Q. Do you have a favorite passage in Galatians?

A. Yes, it is verse 5:13, which reads: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another.” Paul expresses a fundamental paradox in Christianity. Freedom is experienced in service. Now that turns our normal expectations upside down.

If you would like to explore the Letter to Galatians, you can order the book from Amazon (including an e-book version) or order it directly (including an e-book version) from the publisher’s website below: http://wipfandstock.com/charter-of-christian-freedom.html.


Transmitting Faith to Children: How Can We Do It?

An unexpected Biblical text counsels parents on how to share their faith with their children.

It has been said that the church is only one generation away from extinction. That is certainly true if we talk of local congregations. New churches rise, old ones die all the time. This highlights the importance of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next.

But how do we best do that? Many Christians are asking this urgent question as we watch young people abandon their religious upbringing in droves. Too often we spend enormous resources of volunteer time and money on educating children in our faith only to see them never step into a church again after they graduate from high school.

The American artist Howard Pyle reads to his daughter Phoebe, early 20th century.

Wisdom out of Deuteronomy

So where can we turn for some insight and help? Surprisingly, I think we find a peculiarly succinct and perceptive understanding of the educational challenge in a place we don’t expect–the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.

As a literary conceit, the book of Deuteronomy comes to us as the farewell sermon Moses gives before he dies and before the children of Israel cross the Jordan River to take possession of the Promised Land.

It comes, therefore, at a transition point in Israel’s history. Israel is going to leave behind its 40 years of nomadic wandering in the desert to take up a settled life in Canaan. The generation that left Egypt in the Exodus has died off. A new generation has arisen.

Finally, a change in leadership will accompany this transition. Moses, the towering leader for the last 40 years, will die. Joshua will succeed him. The author asks us to keep all of these transitions in mind as we read the text.

So in the context that the book creates, Israel faces the question of how it can pass on its faith to the next generation. We find “Moses” (the speaker in the text) providing some guidance in Deuteronomy 6:20-25.

When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes; and he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land which he swore to give to our fathers. And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as at this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.’(Revised Standard Version)

You becomes We

As we study this text, notice a fascinating switch that goes on in the first three lines. The passage opens with a youth asking the question: “What is the meaning of the testimonies and statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?”

When I read this, I think Moses must have had some experience raising teen-agers. He knows adolescence is a time of rebellion. Young people often assert their independence by rejecting their parents’ beliefs and values.

I hear just such an adolescent speaking in this text. “Now, Dad, just what is the meaning of these ordinances God commanded you.” Note he says emphatically “you.” It’s as if he were putting himself outside the circle of the family, saying, “This may be your faith, but I’m not sure it’s not mine.”

How does Moses counsel the parent to respond?* You shall say to your son, he says, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.” In effect, the father says, “Son, this is not just your mother’s and my faith. It’s also yours. You, too, are a part of the people of God. We are in this together.”

That’s important to remember when we instruct our youth. In Catholic and most Protestant churches children are baptized into the faith. As such, they are insiders. The challenge is to help them understand and live out the faith to which they already belong.

This means the church community becomes an important setting for Christian education. We’re all familiar with the old African proverb that it takes a whole village to raise one child. Well, it takes a whole church to raise one Christian. And in the Presbyterian church to which I belong, we promise to do that every time we baptize a new child into our fellowship.

The father’s answer also points to the solidarity between the past and the present. When the father says, “We,” he places himself and his child right back there at the Exodus event itself. What happened at the Exodus was not something that happened to our ancestors. It happened to us. We were there, too.

As Christians we do the same thing every time we sing the spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Past and present are not then and now. They are both now, in the life of faith. We need to convey that mindset to our children as we educate them in the fundamentals of our faith.

What is the meaning behind what we do?

The second thing to notice about this child’s question is that it asks about the meaning of the community’s faithful behavior.

Sometimes in Christian education, we so focus on the teachings of Christianity that we overlook the actions that express our faith. Being a faithful Christian is far more than reciting the Apostles’ Creed. It includes actions like worshipping God, baptizing and eating the Lord’s supper, caring for the sick, feeding and housing the homeless, protecting the rights of the vulnerable, and engaging in prayer.

It’s important that children and new believers know the doctrines of our faith. It’s just as important that they know how to live as Christians.

Have you ever noticed how reluctant some church visitors are to make a commitment to church membership until they feel comfortable with the ways of a church? Welcoming visitors and making them feel at home with how we practice Christianity in our church may be the most fruitful way to bring them to a commitment.

Tell me the old, old story

Since we’re noticing interesting shifts in the text, let me point out one more. When the child asks the meaning of the actions he sees the community practices, the father does not respond with a philosophical analysis or a scientific explanation.

He tells a story. He recounts the story of the Exodus. “We were Pharaoh’s slaves, “ he begins, and then he tells how God brought them out of Egypt to this place where they now stand.

I think this is terribly, terribly important. Story lies at the heart of our Christian faith, as it lies at the heart of Israel’s faith. It’s one of the very distinctive features of both religions. The story tells of God’s acts on behalf of his people. It is a story about God taking the initiative to liberate his people…from enslavement to Pharaoh in the Jewish story…from enslavement to sin, death, and the devil in the Christian story.

That’s why I believe instructing our children in the stories of the Bible is fundamental. Those stories are the foundation of everything else we do in Christian education.

I know that from personal experience. When I was a child, my mother read Bible stories from a children’s Bible to my sisters and me before we went to bed. I had to become an adult before I began to understand their deeper meaning, but all of my future theological study was grounded in knowing those stories from my childhood.

This has enormous consequences for how we teach ethics to our children. It is so easy to communicate the idea that we follow the Ten Commandments because that is what will make God happy and motivate him to bless us. Deuteronomy is saying something very different. The meaning of our obedient behavior, Moses says, is that we live ethical lives as a grateful response to what God has done for us.

In our instruction, we must never separate the ethics of the Christian life from the story of gracious love that lies behind them. If we do, we turn the ethics into a tyrannous law that kills rather than enlivens.

The family as the nursery of faith

The last thing notice in the passage is the role of the family as the agent for transmitting faith to the next generation.

It is common today for many Christian families to hand over the task of their children’s religious education to Sunday schools. Sunday schools are very important in our ministry of Christian education. They deserve all the support we can give them. But when parents surrender their own personal responsibility, they make a serious mistake.

The Protestant Reformers believed the most fundamental school for faith is the family itself. For them, families are the chief agents for educating their children in the faith. Sunday schools in fact were not even invented until the 19th century.

Moses shares this same perspective with Luther and Calvin. When it comes to transmitting the faith to the next generation, he places the heaviest responsibility on parents. When a child asks the meaning of the faith, it is the parents who respond.

Parents have the most influence on the rearing of their children. They model the life of faith most directly for their children. How well they do so often determines whether their children retain the faith when they become adults.

If we are a parent, how do we model our faith for our children? Do they see us reading the Bible and praying? Do they see us reaching out in compassion to people in need? Do we talk about faith issues with our children? Are they learning from our example that our Christian faith is central to how we live?

Sometimes parents feel embarrassed to talk religion around their children. They may do so because they are not sure what they believe or because they don’t want to unduly influence their children’s religious development.

Their silence, however, sends a powerful message. It tells their children that religious faith in not important in their parents’ lives and so it need not be important in their children’s lives. That almost certainly ensures that the faith will not be transmitted on.

Difficult though the challenge of Christian education is for churches and for parents, the Deuteronomy text gives us confidence. We know that the Jews did make the generational transition when they entered the Promised Land. The Jews did not die off. They are still alive today, practicing their traditional faith just as generations upon generations of their ancestors have. And the same can be true for Christians.

* I recognize the text reads father and son. It reflects the patriarchal society in which it was written. But in our culture, where fathers and mothers share responsibilities in raising children, what the text counsels applies to both parents.

Check It Out

I launch a newly redesigned website to support my teaching ministry.

Teaching GOrdon

 Times change. And so must I.

Five years ago I joined the digital age in my teaching ministry. I created a personal website to promote the teaching services I provide to churches and community groups. Recently I have been feeling it was becoming dated. So I have redesigned it and re-launched it under a new URL. I invite you to check it out at gordonlindsey.com.

If, after you review it, you want to explore with me how I might provide my teaching service to your church or group, please get in touch with me. You can e-mail at ggrlindsey@earthlink.net or telephone me at the numbers listed on the website.


The Authoritative Voice of Jesus

What must it have been like to hear Jesus speak?

Recently I began re-reading the gospel of Mark. We don’t get far into the gospel before Mark recounts Jesus calling his first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Mark’s account (Mark 1:16-20) is terse. Jesus encounters both sets of brothers along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. All are fishermen. Jesus calls them to follow him, saying “I will make you become fishers of men.” In both cases, Mark says, the brothers leave their nets (and James and John their father) and start to follow Jesus.

Mark says they do this immediately. That detail is likely to arouse curiosity for most readers. Why would these four men abandon everything to follow Jesus upon their first encounter with Jesus–and do so immediately? Had they had some prior contact with Jesus? (The gospel of John suggests that Andrew may have had.)

Mark gives no explanation. He seems unconcerned with the question. His purpose in telling the story is to set it up as a paradigm for Christian discipleship. Here is the essence of discipleship. But Mark may give a subtle answer to our question if we are careful to read between his lines.

Manifesting Authority

In the story that immediately follows (Mark 1:21-28), Mark tells of Jesus’ first healing miracle. In a synagogue in Capernaum, he encounters a man with an unclean spirit. The spirit challenges Jesus. Jesus casts it out to the amazement of the congregation. They comment to themselves, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

As a prelude to the miracle, Mark says that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. The congregation is astonished with his teaching, because “he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” Mark bookends the miracle with public comments about the authority with which Jesus speaks and acts. This places great emphasis on the sense of authority that people perceive when they are around Jesus.

The fact that these allusions to the authoritative impact of Jesus’ voice and presence follow immediately upon the story of the disciples’ call may suggest an answer to why Simon, Andrew, James, and John respond immediately. When Jesus issues his call, he does so with an authority that leaves the four men no other option but to respond immediately.

If that is the case, then hearing the voice of Jesus directly addressing them must have been a profoundly moving experience. Which triggers my curiosity. What was it about Jesus’ voice that conveyed that sense of authority, an authority that commanded a life-changing response? Was there a special quality to the sound of Jesus’ voice?

Mark does not satisfy my curiosity, nor does any other gospel writer. Yet they bear witness to that sense of authority that Jesus conveyed to those he taught and those he called. It seems to have left an imprint on everyone he met, even his enemies. They castigated him for not staying within the lines of accepted religious discourse as hallowed by scribal tradition. He seemed to take a stance authoritatively above it.

The Sources of Jesus’ Sense of Authority

Where did that quality of authority come from? If we stay within the confines of Mark’s gospel alone, Mark must have seen it coming from Jesus being anointed with the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11). We cannot know what that experience was like for Jesus. But it must have been a deeply transforming experience, comparable to the transforming experience of enlightenment that the Buddha experienced under the Bodhi tree. In both cases, Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama were never the same.

One source of Jesus’ authority therefore must be that profoundly transforming spiritual experience (as it was for the Buddha as well). For those of us who have never experienced such a profoundly soul-shaking experience, we can never fully appreciate how utterly transforming such experiences must be. The apostle Paul would be able to, as would also the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. But for the rest of us, most of us know the reality and power of such experiences by the effect it has on people’s lives afterwards.

This experience of Jesus at his baptism must have also transformed Jesus by solidifying his resolve and commitment to seek first the kingship of God above all other things. His life therefore became a perfect realization of what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “But seek first his [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). Jesus could live fully in the present moment because he trusted in the loving kingship of his Father.

That fact about Jesus must also have contributed to the sense of authority that people sensed when they heard Jesus teach. He lived what he preached. There was no inconsistency between what he said and what he did. The authority of his teaching therefore drew some of its power from the integrity of the life he lived. That integrity was sealed by his death.

Talk about authority is generally distasteful for many Americans today. The spirit of our age is anti-authoritarian. We are suspicious of authority, and for good reason. When authority is misused and abused, we have good reason for distrusting it. But if we are to understand the mindset of the New Testament, we must come to re-appreciate the legitimate role of authority. The earliest Christian confession is Jesus is Lord. The one we revere is more than a persuasive teacher. He is also one who authoritatively calls: Follow me.

Oaks of Righteousness

White_Oak_Tree_MarylandWhat does a mature Christian look like?

When I read the Old Testament prophets, their images sometimes arrest me. A case in point: Isaiah 61.

In this passage the prophet addresses an exiled and dispirited Israel. He says that the Spirit of God has commissioned him to “bring good news to the oppressed.” His message, he says, is to give them the “oil of gladness instead of mourning.” He declares to “all who mourn” God’s plan to restore the ruined city of Jerusalem.

Then comes this striking phrase:

They [the returning exiles] will be called oaks of righteousness,

the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:3)

There it is, that image “oaks of righteousness.” The mature oak is a strong, sturdy tree. It sometimes can grow to great height. We have one in our backyard. And it produces a wealth of acorns at this time of year.

All of that sturdy tree is contained in the acorn. But what a contrast that mature tree is to the seed. The acorn is the embryo of a tree. The grown tree is the picture of magnificent maturity. God never intends the acorn to remain an acorn. It is to grow into its intended destiny.

Asking an Important Question

This image raises the question for me: What qualities define a spiritually mature person?

In my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.), our Book of Order has a chapter describing the mission of the church in its educational and pastoral care. The text contains this striking sentence: “The nurture of believers and their children in the Christian community is a process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ” (paragraph W-6.1003). I have highlighted the phrase in italics to call attention to it.

What is this full maturity in Jesus Christ? In fact, what does a mature Christian look like? I consider that an important question because how we understand full maturity will guide the goals and the methods we pursue in our “our process of bringing them to full maturity in Jesus Christ”. I am not sure many Christian educators or pastors have taken time to ask that question of themselves.

It is also an important question to ask because there are millions of Christians in the world today. They live at innumerably different levels of spiritual maturity. Yet their actions and their behaviors, commendable or not, shape how the world at large as well as fellow Christians see our faith.

If we want to challenge some of the immature and discreditable things Christians do and say, do we know on what basis we make our challenge? Are we judging others on the basis of our own inchoate prejudices? Or do we have a clear and thoughtful sense of what a “fully mature” Christian looks like?

It’s not an easy question to answer. For one, the answer may vary from person to person depending upon a person’s unique calling in life. We do not expect the mature fruit of a tomato seed to look exactly like the mature growth of an acorn. And for another, we find several different pictures of maturity in the Biblical texts. It is not easy to unite them into one simple, coherent whole. But let me hazard a few thoughts that come from my own reading in Scripture.

First, maturity is not the same thing as giftedness. A person may have many extraordinary gifts or talents that set him or her apart. But those gifts may say nothing about the emotional maturity or character of the person. History offers many examples. Mozart, for example. There have been few musicians more gifted than Mozart, but that does not say Mozart was a paragon of emotional maturity in his behavior.

Nor is spiritual maturity to be equated with deep piety. One may be deeply committed to a life of piety. That can bear admirable fruit in the character of a Christian, but not necessarily so. We can all think of people who, like the Pharisees in the gospels, are obsessive in their devotional practices, yet in their behavior give Christianity a bad odor in the wider world.

Some Initial Thoughts on an Answer

So what does spiritual maturity look like to me?

I find myself turning to Psalm 1 for one picture of maturity. There we have mature believers, people who meditate day and night on Torah, compared to trees that are planted by streams of water. (Note again the image of the tree.) Because they are so planted, they possess a basic stability. When the gales come, the winds may assault them, but they do not uproot them. In this respect, they contrast with the wicked who are rootless. The wicked blow about in the gales like lightweight chaff.

Also the trees of the righteous prove fruitful. They are productive in their work. They accomplish things.

I find it fascinating that three different psalms (Psalm 1, 52, and 92) all employ the image of the rooted tree as an image of spiritual stability just as does the prophet in Isaiah 61. In Psalms 52 and 92, those trees draw their stability by their being planted in the house of the Lord.

The second passage I draw upon in my understanding of spiritual maturity is Galatians 5:22-23. There the apostle Paul names the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Note that these are not primarily actions. They are traits of character that will express themselves in the believer’s action. Once again note that when the apostle uses the word “fruit,” he is drawing upon the image of a fruit tree.

Although the Galatians passage draws my attention to traits of character, I also think maturity can express itself in particular actions. And here I find myself returning to Jesus’ teaching on the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). The spiritually mature person is able to do two things well. One is to love God with all of his or her being; the other is to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.

There may be much more to say about this question. But they are my initial thoughts. What are yours?


The Bible’s in my blood

It feels as if the Bible has always been a part of my life, almost as if a part of my cellular makeup. At least, I can’t remember a time when it has not.  Given that my parents were devout Christians for whom the Bible was central to their lives, I am sure they were reading the Bible to me even as an infant.

My first conscious memory, however, is of the time when Mother bought a children’s Bible and read a story from it every night as she tucked my sisters and me into bed. I have vivid memories of the book’s end sheets. They showed a picture of rays of sunshine streaming through the clouds. I was never quite sure what the imagery was meant to convey—a vision of the first day of creation or of the new Jerusalem descending out of heaven.

We were Baptists, and so as an elementary-school student, I was taught to use my Bible in Sunday evening sword drills. This is a popular Southern Baptist practice where children line up at the front of a room. An adult yells out a verse of Scripture, like Amos 7:2. Then every child scrambles in his or her Bible to be the first one to find the verse. In Sunday school class we were required to memorize the names of all the books of the Bible in order—all 66 of them.

One thing I admire about this Baptist training is that it teaches a person to navigate the Bible, even if you misunderstand what you find. You don’t need a table of contents to find a particular book or verse. The training has served me in good stead through the years.

The Bible of my childhood was the King James Version. The unspoken assumption was that this translation was divinely inspired. So I duly read my Bible in 17th century English, even if  it didn’t often make sense. All that changed when I was a teenager, and my Dad brought home a new translation of the New Testament. The New English Bible had just come off press. Its goal was to put the Bible’s message in contemporary speech. When I opened this translation and read a few passages, I felt as if I was encountering a brand new book. The message was no longer archaic. It leaped alive. Old, familiar passages spoke with a vividness I had never before experienced. The sword of the Spirit had a sharp, new cutting edge.

I frankly fell in love with the Bible from that moment. And it is the longest love affair of my life (my wife did not arrive until some 25 years later).

I have been reading and studying the Bible ever since with never flagging interest. There have been times in my life when my Christian faith skated on thin ice. There have been times when I have wanted to throw Christianity overboard. So deep was my anger and confusion. But there was always one thing I could never discard: my fascination with the Bible. I keep reading it, trying to understand its mysteries, and being seduced by it. And now I have a lifetime of discoveries and reflections about this amazing book.

I am creating this blog to provide a way to share some of my experiences, thoughts, reflections, and questions that have emerged from this lifetime of being in conversation with the Bible. I hope that this sharing will be meaningful to others. So, if you are a new reader, I invite you to join me in conversation with and about the Bible. It’s a spring that never runs dry.