Here I lay my Ebenezer

We sang “Come Thou Fount” this morning in church. They skipped the Ebenezer verse. Boo. So, because I’m plagued with a condition called Earworms, I’ve been humming that vacant verse all morning.

Here I raise my ebenezer,
Hither by thy help I’ve come.

Eben-ezer

Before Ebenezer was Scrooge, it was a place. Eben, in Hebrew, means Rock or Stone. Ezer means help. The history behind the location of this helpful rock is found in 1 Samuel 7.

When the Phillistines gathered to attack Israel at Mizpah, Samuel asked the Lord for help in defeating them.  This wasn’t a case of needing an extra hand to finish the job. The Israelites were facing death without help. They didn’t just need assitance in winning the battle. They needed rescuing.

10 While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites.11 The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Kar.

To bear witness to God’s help, Samuel erected a standing stone. Standing stones were common in the ancient world. They marked a place to be remembered. They said to the locals, “Something happened here.” The what would either be remembered through oral tradition, or in the case of Samuel, eventually written down and preserved long after the stone’s spot eroded away.

Stone of help. Here is the place where God rescued us.

Ezer me, please!

It seems when we are in need, we are receptive to God’s presence. The Israelites were terrified of dying at the hand of the Phillistines, and they cried out for Ezer! They recognized they could not go it alone against the foe. They needed rescue.

So did Adam. Although created good, he was not. He was alone. He needed help. Not an assistant. Not a personal aide to prop him up. He needed something more than that. He was in severe danger. Without help, he would fail. He needed ezer: rescuing help.

Genesis 2:20 says, “adam matsa ezer.” The man found not help. Maybe he could find that missing something somewhere in God’s creation? But, among all the animals the man called, the man found not help. Because God had not formed her yet.

For Samuel, God brought ezer in the form of a storm. For man,  ezer was his own form, but stood face-to-face to him (the Hebrew word kenegdo found in verse 18). It was wo-man, God’s rescuing help for man.

 

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Friend of God

Luke 1:3-4

With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

In the years following Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, there was no shortage of written accounts of His time on earth. But, it appears there was a lack of order to them…at least to the organized mind of Dr. Luke. He is acknowledged as the most likely writer of this book, as well as the book of Acts. (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:11)

Luke had two reasons for writing down his investigation of the events surrounding Jesus. He saw confusion in the circulating accounts, and he hoped to clarify what happened from the start to the end. In doing this, he wanted to convince Theophilus it was all true.

Theophilus

Our children’s pastor, Jim Cumbie, told a joke about this fellow at PNWC a few weeks ago. It went like this.

This poor fellow… the hour after he was born, his father walked in to see him for the first time. He held him, pulled the cloth back from his face, and in a gasping voice declared: “This is the awfulest baby I’ve ever seen!” Hence, he was called by his nick name to this day. “Theawfullest”

Har har. Its as good a guess as any historian has given us, because we do not know who this guy is! Here are the best theories.

  • Theo-philus is literally translated friend of God in Greek. For this reason, some believe it is a generic description for any Christian. Note: Abraham was called “theophilus” in James 2:23 because his faith was credited as righteousness.
  • Theophilus is titled with the words “most excellent;” which would be written as a title, like this: Most Excellent Theophilus…similar to Your Royal Highness King Henry. Hence, some believe Theophilus was a titled Roman Official.
  • My favorite theory is that Theophilus was a Jewish Sadducee and High Priest. Perhaps he was even the Theophilus ben Ananus mentioned as the High Priest from 37-41 by Josephus. This would make him the  brother-in-law of Ciaphus, the High Priest who sentenced Jesus. The reason I like this theory is it fits with the choice of detail Luke writes. Luke relates the stories concerning the temple, priestly activities and Sadducean beliefs, perhaps in his attempt to convince Theophilus of the truth of Jesus’ arguments to cease Sadducean persecution of Christians?

 Know for Certain

I’ve been reading Luke on repeat for a year. Partly, because I enjoy his “egalitarian” choice of stories. He rotates tales between men with Jesus and women with Jesus. And partly because of his stated reason for writing: so that I may know the certainty of the things I’ve been taught.

There comes a point in every Christian’s life, especially those raised in a Christian family, when you wonder if it’s all true? Of course, I’ve had those doubts. For me, the answer to doubting is to immerse myself in the historicity of Jesus. I thank Luke for giving that to us all.

Irenaeus

The wizard Simon of Samaria wanted to be powerful and famous. His nickname was “The Great Power of God!” and he had a many fans. When he heard the gospel of Jesus, as preached by Phillip and proved by miraculous signs, he believed. Still a fan of “magic,” Simon coveted the power of Peter and John when they came to Samaria to give the Holy Spirit to the new believers. He was willing to pay for the special knowledge these two friends of Jesus possessed, so that he too could control God’s essence. But his motive was false. He still loved the applause of the crowd and the supernatural control of others. Peter rebuked his bitter spirit and his sin.

Gnosticism

This story, found in Acts 8, is the first spark of the all-too-human quest for power-filled knowledge that found its way into Christianity. Power is having ability to do something. Simon’s desire for the power Jesus gave to Peter and John (imparting the Holy Spirit by laying hands) was not unique. But it is the first time we read of it, and in less than a year after Jesus’ ascension! The quest for power as a means of salvation through secret knowledge became rampant in the early church. These were the Gnostics.

Course Correction

It is hard to imagine pioneering the new sect of Jesus. Today, we have 2000 years of thought and study that has shaped our understanding. To those living in the 1st and 2nd century, they had the word of those who walked with Jesus and the ancient Jewish Scripture. We have the same, but the centuries of debate help us shape our beliefs by taking the shortcuts forged by their hard study and argument.

The ideas of Gnosticism took root and spread before thought was given to the veracity of its foundation and its results. The thinkers of that time, when confronted with the wave of gnostic knowledge seekers, had to ask some hard questions. Does Scripture provide all we need to know God? Is there more we should seek? Can we trust those who witnessed the life of Jesus to give the whole account? How do we know which books to trust? How does salvation come?

Refuting the Gnostic Teaching

This was the life-work of Irenaeus. Irenaeus (2nd century) was born into a Christian family and he studied in Smyrna under Polycarp, who was a disciple of John. He also spent time studying at the school of Justin in Rome. He tackled the teachings of the Gnostics in detail. His books describe the doctrine of the Gnostics of his day and location, and their practices. Many of them believed Jesus colluded with Judas to betray him and taught him things He hid from the others. They believed the physical world was evil, and this led to either asceticism or debauchery.

Irenaeus debated the Gnostics using Old Testament Scripture, four accounts of the apostles, the writings of Paul and the historical record of the unity found in the leaders of the church. Remember, before the “bible” was canonized, there were many writings floating around. Irenaeus’ work helped refine a litmus-test for later scholars compiling the books into the Book. There was also a visible record of the unity of doctrine found in the leaders of the church, traced back to the apostles. Irenaeus contrasted this legacy to the scattered and  varied doctrine of the Gnostics.

Irenaeus used Justin’s teachings to formulate his arguments against the Gnostic concept of Aeons of Gods: that God was many gods of various influence and authority. He stressed the unity and equality of the Godhead, and the full divinity of the Logos, or Christ.

Literal Millennium

Another interesting teaching of Irenaeus is his eschatology. He details and merges Revelation’s prophecy with the weeks of Daniel. He taught that the Time, Times and Half a Times was a literal three and a half years reign of anti-Christ  just prior to the Second Coming of Christ. When Christ returns, all the just will be raised to reign with Jesus in an earthly kingdom. The wicked who are alive will be destroyed. After the millennium, there will be a general resurrection and judgement and the descent of the New Jerusalem.  He believed anyone who taught that the righteous dead were glorified in a spiritual kingdom immediately after death were heretics.

Legacy

Irenaeus did not write his own history, so we know little of his birth date or death. He was a bishop in France, and spent his life with the French church or traveling as a missionary. His volumes reveal a lively conviction of faith. His books have steered the church away from the speculative theories of Gnosticism, and his arguments have been foundational in firming the faith as we understand it today.

How would Irenaeus have answered Simon the sorcerer? Like Peter, Irenaeus stressed the redemptive power of Christ’s atonement. Salvation and forgiveness is not limited to those with certain “abilities” (or power), but to anyone who repents and prays. (Acts 8:20-22)

Justin

Icon by Nicholas Papas.

Justin is the first Christian philosopher. He was born in 100 AD, and was beheaded for his faith in 165.

Truth Seeking Scholar

Justin was Greek, but he was raised in Samaria. He studied various secular philosophies, and had almost settled on following Plato when a mysterious old man convinced him Jesus was the divine incarnate using the Old Testament scriptures. Justin believed, but he refused baptism until he was thoroughly convinced the pagan criticisms of Christianity were false. While in Ephesus, he witnessed the execution of Christians, and this experience convinced him of the truth at last.

He moved to Rome to start his own school of Christian philosophy.

Prolific Author

We know much about Justin because he wrote. A lot. He is known for many works, but only two have survived in entirety; two apologetic works defending the Christian faith to the Roman Emperor and the Senate. Justin’s volumes have shaped and inspired much of church doctrine. Particularly, his exploration of Jesus being the Logos has permeated Christian thought. He calls the first four books of our New Testament, the Memoirs of the Apostles, and is the first to pluralize the term gospel, by lumping the four together as “gospels.”

Courageous Defender

After being converted by the courage and piety of the Christians martyrs, Justin joined their rank himself. He was mayryted in Rome with six companions by the Prefect Rusticus. His death is documented as follows:

The Prefect Rusticus says: Approach and sacrifice, all of you, to the gods.

Justin says: No one in his right mind gives up piety for impiety.

The Prefect Rusticus says: If you do not obey, you will be tortured without mercy.

Justin replies: That is our desire, to be tortured for Our Lord, Jesus Christ, and so to be saved, for that will give us salvation and firm confidence at the more terrible universal tribunal of Our Lord and Savior.

And all the martyrs said: Do as you wish; for we are Christians, and we do not sacrifice to idols.

The Prefect Rusticus read the sentence: Those who do not wish to sacrifice to the gods and to obey the emperor will be scourged and beheaded according to the laws.

The holy martyrs glorifying God betook themselves to the customary place, where they were beheaded and consummated their martyrdom confessing their Saviour.”

I have been following the Catholic Saints calendar this year. Why? Because I’m interested in the stories of the early Christians in the first few centuries. You can too!

Nereus and Achilleus

I have been following the Catholic Saints calendar this year. Why? Because I’m interested in the stories of the early Christians in the first few centuries. I usually ignore the later “saints” from 900 AD on. Today’s saints interested me.

Roman Soldiers

Nereus and Achilleus were Roman soldiers. The story surrounding them is more legendary than historical. They are dated to the end of the 1st century/beginning of the 2nd. All that is known for certain about them is that they resigned their positions once converting to Christianity and were martyred. It is told that they were part of the emperor’s personal guard and were baptized by Peter. Once they resigned, they were exiled to island of Pontia and executed in city of Terracina. It is told that they died by decapitation.

Since their  graves were found in the Lady Domitilla’s estate (the niece of the Emperor Domitian, who was a Christian herself); it is assumed they were her guards, which would have necessitated they be eunuchs. Some say they were brothers.

An epitaph written by Pope Damasus says the following: “Nereus and Achilleus the martyrs joined the army and carried out the cruel orders of the tyrant, obeying his will continually out of fear. Then came a miracle of faith. They suddenly gave up their savagery, they were converted, they fled the camp of their evil leader, throwing away their shields, armor, and bloody spears. Professing the faith of Christ, they are happy to witness to its triumph. From these words of Damasus understand what great deeds can be brought about by Christ’s glory.” (source)

The first mention of their names is on the list of martyrs from the 5th century. An ancient church, built in the 4th century over the tombs of these two “fallen” soldiers, was dedicated to their memory in 595 AD.

“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Luke 11:28

Factoid: Ancient Seeds Sprout

The tree and ancient seeds. Photo: HO

In 2005, Sarah Sallon,  a scientist hoping to discover medicinal uses from the ancient date (fruit from the date palm tree), planted 2,000 year old seeds on a lark. One germinated! Its a little tree today. The scientists who germinated the seeds nicknamed the tree Methuselah after the oldest man named in the Bible.

Buried Seeds

In 1973, archeologist Ehud Netzer found these seeds buried in the rubble at Masada. Masada, a fortress built by Herod the Great, was the last stronghold of the Jewish Zealots in 73 AD. It is assumed the seeds were what was left of the fruit stockpiled against the siege. The ancients seeds were forgotten in a University drawer until 2005, when Sallon decided to see if they would grow. Read the original National Geographic article for the fun details.

CNG coins

Israel’s Date Palm

The Hebrew word for date palm is tamar. The tree is a symbol of grace and beauty. The branches became a symbol of the Judean Kingdom, much like our American flag. The fruit was exported from Israel until Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Sallon, the scientist who had the seeds planted, says:

“The Judean date was used for all kinds of things from fertility, to aphrodisiacs, against infections, against tumors,” she said. “This is all part of the folk story.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judean_date_palm)

The date palm, which provided beauty and income for Israel, became extinct in Israel by 500 AD.

In the Bible, Tamar is a well-known name.

  • Jericho was called the City of the Palm Trees.
  • Tamar was Jacob’s granddaughter-in law, and listed in the genealogy of Jesus.
  • Tamar was King David’s daughter who was raped by her half brother Amnon.

But I guess a 2,000-year-old seed is nothing compared to the 4,000 year old noodles found in China!

Thinking about how we know

I’m a big geek when it comes to Bible history. I spent an hour this morning pouring over genealogies because I wanted a visual representation of how close Moses was to Adam. Of course Adam and Moses are separated by thousands of years, but in terms of people who knew their grandparents, they are separated by 6-8 people.

  • Adam, Methuselah and Noah were the oldest people recorded to live, so their lifetimes span the pre-flood millenia.
  • The flood happened right after Methuselah died.
  • Abraham could have sat at Noah’s tent hearing about the flood and the time before…and then wrote it all down.
  • Did you know that in medieval times, the European “divine right of kings” fell to the families who recorded their lineage back to Noah/Japeth?
  • Did you know that some people speculate the birthright or inheritance that was given to Isaac was the oral record from Noah? And Esau despised it.
  • Just musing on that today.

Here you go……and yes, I realize God could have told Moses everything on Mt. Sinai.