Sunday, January 13, 2019

Come Follow Me: Matthew 2, Luke 2

Come Follow Me: Matthew 2, Luke 2

For the 2011 Sunday School lessons, I wrote this post on the birth of Christ, and how it tied to Adam and Eve.

Christ and Creation
 
After reading the link, I want to add to the concept of Christ's birth being tied to the Creation.

The Bible has several Creation stories, the most common ones in Genesis 1 and 2. Isaiah, Proverbs and Psalms also mention important issues of Creation, not mentioned in Genesis. Then, for Latter-day Saints, we also have still more versions of Creation in the Books of Moses and Abraham, and in the temple. There are similarities and big differences in these stories, suggesting that while some events (such as Adam and Eve) are historical, some events in the Creation may be parable - a method through which God can teach us about his power and our relationship to Him.

One of the keys of Creation is God's overcoming Chaos, and introducing Order into the World being created. Matter is eternal, and so God did not create things ex nihilo (from nothing). Rather he formed the chaos around him to create the world. In so doing, God fought the Chaos of water and darkness. Darkness was put into abeyance by creating Light, the sun, moon and stars. The waters were tamed by two things, creating land, and conquering the great sea dragon, Leviathan/Rahab (Isaiah 51, Psalms 74), who represented Chaos.  In Revelation, Satan would be described as a sea dragon, inflicting chaos on the world until chained at the Millennium.

How does this tie to Christ? Jesus, born to a mortal woman and being the Son of God, was the pure essence of Order. He would be Emmanuel, "God with us." While the earth laid in apostasy for ages and Satan chained the souls of men to death and hell, Christ came to bring new order. Through his mission, he would heal those suffering from the chaos of illness, injury, hunger, and sin. Through his atonement and resurrection, he would defeat the chaos of death and hell. Satan's claim on the body, spirit and soul of each person ever born, would be denied by the triumphant Christ.

And with the Second Coming, Christ will again return to restore order on a chaotic world. Satan, the god of Chaos, will be bound. All mankind will be resurrected. All but the sons of perdition will obtain a kingdom of glory and order.

Two Birth Stories
 
Scholars differ as to whether the four gospels, as we now have them, were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I believe the gospels were written by these early Church leaders. That said, none were around when Jesus was born, and only John was present at Jesus' baptism. Mark was converted as a young man just prior to Jesus' death, and Luke was a gentile convert of Paul (probably baptized around 50 AD). So, all of the writers must have used at least some oral histories to explain some of the events in their accounts. Luke's account would have been entirely based on oral histories he had heard from others.

So, why two different birth stories? Luke has the angel Gabriel, shepherds, and a chorus of angels. Matthew tells us about the wise men, a star, King Herod's hatred, and escape into Egypt.

Some possibilities are these:
First, two oral histories were passed on to two different areas. Matthew focused his gospel for the Jews. Seeing a battle between magi from Babylon (where many Jews still lived) and wicked Jewish King Herod, sets the stage for his battle between the false kings of the world, and the true King of Israel (remember, in Matthew 1, Jesus' genealogy was already presented as a proof that Christ was the genuine royal article.).

Second, Luke wrote his gospel to the Gentiles. Reading about a few magi seeing a child, would not be as impressive to Greeks and Romans, as would angels proclaiming divine kingship of Jesus, among other miracles.

Each oral history focused on events most important to their listeners. Oral histories sometimes were imperfect, but the concept of historicity was different then, than it is now. The Bible has history in it, but the historicity (factual part of history) sometimes may be adapted by the writer to prove his point, whether it is the Creation story or the birth of Christ. For Christians, the actual historicity of Christ's birth cannot be proven, but it can be believed, because there are various accounts and witnesses, even if they are occasionally in conflict in their stories. There's nothing wrong with a Christmas movie showing both shepherds and wise men, as long as we understand these are actually two separate oral histories provided by two different disciples, possibly decades and a thousand miles apart from one another.

Conclusion

The world does not believe in miracles. It refuses to recognize the virgin birth, believing Jesus was actually born of Joseph, and his disciples later invented the virgin birth to change the narrative. Of course, these same people believe that Jesus faked his own death and resurrection.

The traditional Christian world struggles to remain faithful to the miracles of Jesus' life. Many Christians now only see him as a teacher of righteousness, but not one who would raise the dead and be the Judge of the earth.

For Latter-day Saints, we can see the wisdom in God to provide the Restoration of the Gospel when he did. Joseph Smith was called as a prophet just prior to new concepts that radicals would twist to deny the Christ, miracles, and an after-life.

With the Book of Mormon, we have Nephi's witness of the virgin Mary, symbolized by the Tree of Life, giving birth to the fruit of eternal life, Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon testifies of Jesus' birth, life, death, resurrection, and continued work as Redeemer and Judge of the earth. It testifies of many of the events given in the Gospels of the New Testament. This tells me that I can have faith in the teachings and stories of the Gospels, even if some are given imperfectly, due to oral histories being passed down.

Secondly, the witness of Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon and many others, who have seen Jesus Christ, is a testimony to me that these things, if not perfectly historical, are still true. Because of this, we can believe the writings of the New Testament, because modern prophets quote from them and bear witness of the truth of these things.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Come Follow Me - Matthew 1; Luke 1

Come Follow Me - Matthew 1; Luke 1

Something different we find in this manual than in previous Sunday School manuals, is it asks lots of questions. We need to do ourselves the favor of not skipping over them, These and other questions we bring up ourselves are important in the learning process. It forces us to get out of our comfort zone, to expand our pondering and learning, and increase our faith.

Background

The earliest manuscripts for the Gospels are decades after Jesus' death. Thee earliest fragment for Mark is dated about 80AD, with Matthew, Luke and John fragments appearing in the 2nd century.  The two earliest fragments of Luke are fragmentary and do not include the first two chapters. We do not know if this is because that part of the fragments decayed, or if it wasn't originally included. Meanwhile, Mark does not have a birth story, but begins with Jesus' baptism.

Possible reasons are available for these possible concerns. First, anciently most stories were passed down from generation to generation via oral history. Until Paul wrote his letters, it doesn't seem that early Christians were interested in writing the Christian history. Jesus' baptism was likely the most important beginning event for Christian teaching, as it announced the beginning of his mission and showed us the path to follow Jesus.

Only later, when Gnostic Christianity emerged, do we see the importance of a birth story. Many Gnostic sects believed that Jesus and Christ were two separate beings. Jesus was mortal, and Christ divine. Their belief was that Jesus was a regular person, until at baptism the Holy Ghost placed the divine Christ into him. This led to an interpretation of God's voice in some Luke manuscripts saying, "Thou art my son, today I have begotten thee." Then, upon the cross, Christ leaves Jesus to die alone (My God, why hast thou forsaken me?).

Because of such apostate beliefs, it was necessary for early Christians to write down their oral birth stories of Jesus, to prove he was both human and divine from the very beginning.

We see similar actions like this in the Restoration. In the early years of the Church, the focus was on preaching the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Few ever taught the First Vision, as an official version had not been written down. Earlier written versions, such as the 1832 version, focused more on Joseph Smith's receiving personal forgiveness for sins, and avoided controversial statements (such as seeing God and Jesus) because such had caused him great grief in the past. However, in 1838, there was a need to have an official version of the Vision, to establish the very beginning of the Restoration prior to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Unlike Joseph's earlier version, this one focused on things important to the Church, not just the personal concerns of a teenager.

So, why do we have two different and sometimes conflicting stories in Matthew and Luke? First, remember that neither Matthew nor Luke were present at the birth of Jesus. In fact, Luke was a Gentile convert of Paul, so his story comes to us decades after Jesus' death. Clearly, they both relied on oral tradition to develop their stories. They took the best information available to them, clearly from two different memory sources

In providing genealogies for Jesus, they also sought to establish his right to be King of Israel.  This establishes the case for Jesus to be who he claimed he was as Messiah and Son of God, just as the First Vision establishes Joseph Smith's claim to be a modern day prophet.

What can we learn from Matthew 1 and Luke 1?

The manual sets up some excellent questions and points to consider. Ponder them and write down your impressions.

Elizabeth's barrenness reminds us of similar stories in the Old Testament. The mothers of Samuel and Samson were both elderly women. In giving birth to special children anointed of God for a purpose, they were able to do great things. As Judges, Samson defeated Philistines and Samuel united the kingdoms under Saul and David. From these stories, we see the future roles of Jesus. Samson defeated his enemies, even in his weakness and apparent defeat. With Samuel, we see Jesus as the head of a nation and priesthood. Samuel stood between God and Israel in all things. He was judge, priest and kingmaker.

Jesus, although beaten, wounded and crucified, would overcome the enemies Death and Hell. He is High Priest, Judge and King of Kings.

Mary and Elizabeth were normal women. Neither came from royalty. Both would become widows. For Jesus, mothers and widows held a very special place. We can imagine them being the role models that would have Jesus condemn the Pharisees and Sadducees for stealing the houses of the widows and enriching themselves on the backs of the poor.



Saturday, January 05, 2019

Come Follow Me SS#1, We are Responsible for our Own Learning

 Come Follow Me SS#1, We are Responsible for our Own Learning


I love this as the beginning lesson for the new year in the Come Follow Me program. For anyone who has been a Sunday School teacher in the past, most would surmise that only a handful at best will have read, much less studied, the lesson before each class.

Around 1980, President Spencer W. Kimball asked a stake president how often he prayed each day with his family. The stake president noted that with their busy schedules, the usually only managed once a day. Pres Kimball told him that once a day may be sufficient for that time, but the time would come when praying several times per day with one's family would be required to save them from the world's pull.

I believe that time is now. The prophets are now telling us that we can no longer abide with mild efforts towards building our testimonies. Nor can we depend upon Sunday School teachers to teach us everything we need to know to save ourselves and our families. They are a support, not a crutch.

This means we must start where we are, make a plan, and move forward in learning. Addition and Subtraction are valid and important forms of mathematics. However, if we stopped learning at first grade arithmetic, we would not have the development we have in science, math, business, etc. Learning addition and subtraction are only useful if it is not the destination, but a spot along a path to learning multiplication, geometry, algebra, spreadsheets, satellite trajectories, and technology.

So, it is with the gospel We begin as gospel students on a first grade level. But we cannot stop there. To be a solid convert that God can use in His great work, we must become Gospel Scholars. For each of us, we must make a plan.

First, figure out where you are.
  1.      Do you feel you have a strong testimony? Rate it between 1-10, using others you know to compare. If President Nelson is a 10, where does your conversion fit on the scale?
  2. Rate yourself 1-10  on the following (on both quality and quantity scales), as well:
    1. Personal prayer
    2.  Family prayer
    3. Family Home Evening
    4. Personal scripture study
    5. Family scripture study
    6. Teaching the gospel to family and others
    7. Bearing testimony to others on gospel concepts
    8. Studying the writings of modern prophets and apostles
    9. Temple attendance 
    10. Pondering/meditating
    11. Writing frequently in a spiritual growth/learning journal
    12. The spiritual feeling normally in your home
    13. The spiritual feeling normally in your own life
  3. What do you study?
    1. Scriptures
    2. Modern prophetic writings
    3. Writings from reliable Latter-day Saint sources 
    4. Scholarly, non-LDS writings
  4.  Time spent on Internet and social networks
    1.  What percentage of my time online is devoted to learning/sharing the gospel?
    2. How can I increase the time I use to learn and share the gospel and rduce the time used on less important ME topics?
    3. How often do I fast from social media?
  5. Reading/watching television
    1. How much time do I spend watching/reading for entertainment?
    2. How much time do I spend watching/reading to learn gospel concepts?
    3. For every fiction book/story I read, I read X number of gospel related books/articles. 
  6. What are some other areas you can consider or review to improve your efforts as a gospel student?
  You will note that the new manual has several places to write your promptings and thoughts on pertinent questions. Feel free to obtain a journal to write such things down. It provides more space, and puts all your promptings in one place. In doing so, you will learn to hear the Spirit's promptings at other times in your life. Recognizing and listening to the Spirit is necessary for becoming a spiritual giant.

Many that are new on the path may only be ready to focus their study on the scriptures and the living prophets. For those farther down the path of gospel scholarship, do not be afraid to study reliable resources, knowing these are not doctrine, but guides to better understand scripture. We are benefitted by learning to study from different angles. FoTr example, reading Isaiah is hard for many members. But understanding ancient poetry, including chiasmus, can help us enjoy the teachings in a new literary way.

The Church has mentioned some reliable resources, including the Maxwell Institute, The Interpreter,  FairMormon, and Book of Mormon Central..   There are many other sites that vary on how closely they follow the teachings of modern prophets. Some focus closely on the doctrines, while others may speculate heavily. So use caution on what groups you study with. It would be useful to ask some of your trusted scholarly friends which sites they generally trust and use.  Of course, there is my site here, also. Many have found it very reliable in expanding one's understanding of the gospel, while staying close to the living prophets. I hope you will consider what I share here, but always use the living prophets as your barometer to what is doctrine and what is opinion.