Was Jesus angry when he turned the tables of the money changers at his Father’s house?

Q. Was Jesus angry when he turned the tables of the money changers at his Father’s house?

Rembrandt, “Christ driving the money-changers from the Temple,” 1626

I believe that Jesus was angry—very angry—at the money changers and merchants for turning his Father’s house into a “den of robbers.” That’s why he drove them out of the Temple—according to John, by making and using a whip of cords! John also records that when Jesus’ disciples saw what he was doing, they thought of the Scripture that says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” “Consumed by zeal” is another way of saying “angry.”

But I don’t believe that Jesus was in an uncontrollable rage. That would have been a sin, and Jesus did not sin.

The Bible says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” This helps us recognize that anger is simply an emotion; it’s what we do with our anger that makes it either sinful or not sinful.

Anger can actually be a positive and constructive force. Because it’s an emotion that fills us with energy, anger can be a great motivator. We can “get good and mad at ourselves” and find the motivation to succeed at something that has defeated us so far or complete a project we’re tired of seeing half-finished. Anger can also motivate us to establish proper boundaries in our lives and to confront injustice. I think that’s what was going on in Jesus’ case: The money changers and merchants were exploiting poor people who wanted to come into the house of God to worship, and Jesus got mad enough to take action against them. (I don’t think he explained to them quietly and gently, “It is written, My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers”!)

But we have to be careful, because anger can also be a very destructive force. If we don’t control it (if we “lose our temper”), all that energy can be released in the verbal, emotional, and even physical abuse of others. This is something that the Bible warns against strongly and repeatedly. James warns, for example, that “human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (meaning out-of-control anger). One of the many proverbs on the subject says that “fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.” Psalm 39 says, “Let go of anger and leave rage behind! Don’t get upset—it will only lead to evil.” And so forth.

Followers of Jesus look to him as their example, and I think that in the case of driving the money changers and the merchants out of the temple, Jesus sets us a good example to follow of being angry but not sinning. Let’s get mad enough about the things that are wrong in our world to do something about them, but let’s not give in to rage and become destructive ourselves.

Did Pharaoh drown with his army?

Q. When God parted the Red Sea for the Israelites to cross, and when God then made the waters sweep back over the pursuing Egyptians, did Pharaoh drown with his army?

This question is much debated by biblical scholars. Many say yes, while others say no. I can only give you my own opinion on the matter, which is that Pharaoh did not drown with his army.

The book of Exodus does say that when the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled . . . he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him to pursue the Israelites. So it seems that Pharaoh did personally accompany the army out into the desert.

However, the further details in the account suggest that he didn’t join the actual pursuit of the Israelites. Rather, Exodus says that all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. It describes God telling Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” And the book then says that “the water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea.”

Pharaoh himself was apparently not included in this group (“the entire army of Pharaoh”), because when Moses and the Israelites  compose and sing a song afterwards to celebrate the event, they say:

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
    he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
    are drowned in the Red Sea.

It seems to me that if Pharaoh, the ruler of all Egypt, had also been killed, the song would have mentioned this as the high point of the victory and not spoken only of his best officers.

I think that in this light, we should understand the statement in Psalm 136 that God swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea to mean that God swept Pharaoh, personified in his army, into the sea. This would be in keeping with the view in the ancient world that the host of a ruler (that is, his army or troops) was an extension of the ruler himself. (In Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days, God is depicted that way, surrounded by the heavenly host emanating from his throne: A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.)

As I said, others might answer the question differently, but this is what the biblical account suggests to me.

“Crossing the Red Sea,” a wall painting from the 1640s in Yaroslavl, Russia

Why did they change the words to “And Can It Be?”

In this post, I’m chiming in on a comment that I read online, rather than answering a question that was specifically asked of me.

[The comment I read:] As a big fan of Wesley’s hymns (he was adamant about singing them “as written”), I’m upset that a modern hymnal changes the line in “And Can it Be” from “emptied himself of all but love and bled for Adam’s helpless race” to “emptied himself (so great his love) and bled for all his chosen race.” This appears to support predestination or a limited atonement. Wesley’s words are more in keeping with Scripture—the promise was to Adam and his descendants (his “race”). Altering “all but love” suggests that Christ retained other elements of his attributes as God even when “emptied.” What other motivation is there for a sacrificial, atoning death on our behalf than love incarnate? This change is very odd.

[My thoughts:]  When I first came to Christ and was introduced to this hymn, these lines spoke to me very powerfully. I was moved by the idea that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love” and “bled” for all of us.  I, too, have encountered the changes that have been introduced to this hymn recently, and I, too, am “upset” about them.

Apparently some hymnal editors have felt that the theology of Charles Wesley, the author of this hymn, needs to be corrected at a couple of points.  For one thing, it’s clear that these editors want the hymn to present the idea of a limited atonement, rather than an unlimited one.  In the original hymn, Jesus dies for the whole human race.  In the modified version, He dies only for his “chosen” ones.

In addition, these editors apparently feel that Wesley has taken the idea of Jesus “emptying” himself a bit too far.  The Bible teaches clearly that He “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.”  But it’s generally understood that while Jesus gave up the so-called non-communicable divine attributes (the ones that humans cannot share with God) such as omniscience and omnipresence, He retained communicable attributes such as holiness.  So, for these editors, saying “all but love” wasn’t strictly true. Love wasn’t the only attribute He retained.

It should be noted that various groups change the words to hymns all the time, to words that they find more suitable.  Or at least they try to.  A few years back, the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. got into the news for leaving out the hymn “In Christ Alone.”  It turns out that its editors wanted to change the ending of the line “till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “the love of God was magnified.”  But the copyright holder wouldn’t grant permission, and the editors didn’t want to include the hymn as it was originally written.

To give a further example, I have an otherwise lovely Christmas CD on which another of Charles Wesley’s hymns is altered.  In “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” the line “offspring of a virgin’s womb” is changed to “offspring of the chosen one.”  Somebody obviously didn’t believe in the virgin birth.

I personally have no problem with the theology that Wesley originally expressed in “And Can It Be?”  I believe in an unlimited atonement, and I think the phrase “all but love” is simply a beautiful poetic overstatement, meaning that Jesus came to save us out of pure love.  Nevertheless, what upsets me most is not that some people are singing different words to the hymn these days, because I know this kind of thing happens.  Rather, I’m more distressed by the way this change has been introduced.

“Bled for all his chosen race” is simply bad English.  It should be either “bled for all of his chosen race,” or “bled for his whole chosen race,” or something like that, some correct expression that would fit the music.  It’s also bad theology.  The “elect” or “chosen” (for those who think in such terms) are not a race, they’re a host.  They’re gathered one by one.  You don’t become one of the elect by being born to people who are elect.

I find that the other change has also been introduced awkwardly.  There’s already an interjection in the stanza: “So free, so infinite his grace!”  If you put in interjections too often, they lose their force, and so they should be used sparingly.  I doubt that a poet of Wesley’s caliber would have introduced another one in the very next line: “So great his love!”  For that matter, the change reflects the mistake of taking a poetic overstatement literally.  It’s like listening to the Hollies sing, “All I need is the air that I breathe, yes, to love you” and asking, “Don’t you need food, too?”

So I have one suggestion for anyone who dislikes these new words, as I do, on theological and literary grounds, and another suggestion for hymnbook editors.

I think that if a hymn gets changed like this, you can legitimately go ahead and sing the original words that you have come to love and admire, even while others in your current church are singing the new words.  I say this as someone who was a pastor for twenty years and always wanted both oneness of spirit and freedom of conscience in worship.

I encountered what I think is a good model for this in the church I served as an associate pastor early in my ministry.  This church would would provide optional words in the bulletin for older hymns that used masculine terms for people in general.  That way people who no longer “heard” these terms as inclusive of women could sing words that were meaningful for them and that also captured the original intention of the hymn (since the original writers did not see the terms as exclusive).  Those who still “heard” the original terms as referring to both men and women, for their part, could sing those words out of the hymnal at the same time.  Different words, but sung with the same meaning and in the same spirit.

To give an example from a different liturgical practice that I think provides a good further analogy, a young Catholic woman once came to the service in one of my churches, as the guest of a friend, and asked me if it would be all right if she took communion with us believing in her own heart (as she knew we didn’t quite) that the bread and wine would become the actual body and blood of Christ.  I said we would love to have her join us on that basis.  After the service she made a point of telling me, perhaps for the sake of her own conscience, that she had indeed taken the communion elements with that understanding.  I think having her join us that way was much better than me forbidding a fellow Christian to share the sacrament with us.  Oneness of spirit and freedom of conscience.

So I think a person could sing the original words to “And Can It Be?” in their own church the same way, respectfully and in a spirit of unity.  (You can bet that if I’m ever in a Christmas service where the phrase “offspring of the chosen one” is substituted in the bulletin or hymnal, I’m going to sing “offspring of a virgin’s womb.”  Respectfully.)

And to hymnbook editors I would say, if there’s a hymn that’s so eloquent and lyrical that you want to sing it even though you disagree with parts of it, please think twice about changing the words.  I feel it’s a shame that in this case Charles Wesley’s magnificent poetry has been turned into, frankly, something average at best.  If you really don’t like what he says in his hymns, why not write your own?

Charles Wesley. Possibly turning over in his grave.

How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 2)

I now return to the series of posts in which I’ve been exploring the possibility that after betraying Jesus, Judas Iscariot may have sincerely repented and been saved.  I considered the gospel narratives in my first post, and then turned to look at all the places where Jesus and the apostles say Scripture was fulfilled in the case of Judas, to see whether this means he was destined to play the role of betrayer and be lost.  In my second post I argued that Scripture being “fulfilled” actually means not that a foreseen future event has come to pass, but that an earlier statement has taken on a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments. And so in the following post, I explained that the phrase in Psalm 41, “He who shared my bread has turned against me,” cited as an example of fulfillment in all four gospels, illuminates the identity and experience of Jesus as the “greater David,” but it does not specifically identify Judas as his betrayer in advance.

In this post I’d now like to look at another place where the New Testament says Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus. I’ve already mentioned it in my second post: It’s the place in the book of Acts where Peter says, “The Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”  Peter then quotes two Scriptures that he sees being fulfilled, citing “the Book of Psalms” as his source: “May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it” and “May another take his place of leadership.

As I explained in that earlier post, these two Scripture citations, which come from what we now know as Psalm 69 and Psalm 109, respectively, are not predictions about the future Messiah, but rather “imprecations,” or calls for judgment on present-day enemies, in two of David’s “psalms of supplication.” Nevertheless, they provide an inspired precedent that help the fledgling community of Jesus’ followers solve what would otherwise be a vexing problem.

They want to honor Jesus’ intention to have twelve apostles, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, who can serve as witnesses of his life and especially his resurrection.  But Judas is now gone. Still, Jesus chose him as an apostle; on what authority can the community choose someone else to replace him?  Peter recognizes that if they do, they will be fulfilling Scripture, and this provides the divine imprimatur they need to bring the number of apostles back up to twelve. In other words, the specific fulfillment here is not that Judas betrayed Jesus and was lost, but that he was replaced.

Once again a parallel is being recognized between the experience of David and that of Jesus, his “greater Son.”  We don’t know what former friend David had in mind in Psalm 109, but he seems to have held some position of trust, because David says, “May another take his place of leadership.”  Judas also held a position of leadership and trust–“he was numbered among us” as an apostle, Peter observes–and in his case, as happens in these fulfillments, this role was escalated from the situation in David’s time.  It was not merely a civic office in the ancient Israelite kingdom, but a foundational office of the kingdom of God breaking into this world. (The book of Revelation envisions the names of the apostles written on the foundations of the New Jerusalem!)

For Judas to lose such a vital place (for it to become “deserted,” as Psalm 69 puts it) was a momentous occurrence in the life of the covenant community, one that Peter sees foreshadowed in an earlier experience of David. Still, this all has to do with Judas’s office–not with his eternal disposition.

Indeed, Peter pointedly does not quote another part of the imprecation in Psalm 69, where David says of his enemies, “Do not let them share in your salvation. May they be blotted out of the book of life!” He apparently does not have this in view as something that applies to Judas, any more than some other phrases in these psalms, such as “when he is tried, let him be found guilty” (Judas was never put on trial for what he did) or “may a creditor seize all he has” (this never happened to Judas, either).  As we saw earlier in the case of Psalm 41, where David was sick because he had sinned, not every detail from these psalms carries over from David’s life into Jesus’ experience.

So we should conclude that the “fulfillment” of Scripture cited by Peter at the beginning of Acts is that Judas forfeited his apostolic office when he betrayed Jesus, and we can consider this a definitive judgment–even if Judas had lived and repented sincerely, he would not have been restored as an apostle.  But we do not have here a prediction in earlier Scripture that Judas also definitively forfeited his soul when he betrayed Jesus, as if there were some sins that were beyond the power or willingness of God to forgive.

The Twelve Apostles, from an Ethiopian Bible manuscript. It was important to have twelve to echo the number of the tribes of Israel. Jesus chose all of the apostles to begin with. When one of them, Judas, forfeited his position, on what authority could the church choose a replacement?

Why did God reject Saul for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon?

Q. Why did God reject Saul as king for offering sacrifices, but not David or Solomon when they offered sacrifices?

Saul was rejected as king not specifically because he offered sacrifices, but because he disobeyed a direct command that God had given him through the prophet Samuel.

Samuel had told Saul, “Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.”  But Saul, worried that his whole army would desert him, offered the sacrifices himself, just before Samuel arrived.

“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel told him. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”  In other words, the penalty for this outright disobedience to a direct command from God was that Saul would not be the founder of a royal dynasty; while he would remain king, his descendants would not rule after him.

Secondarily, however, this disobedience did lead Saul to usurp a privilege of the priesthood.  As I discuss in this post, by offering these sacrifices, Saul was imitating the Canaanite priest-king model instead of respecting the separation between the kingship and the priesthood that was established in the law of Moses.

Saul subsequently disobeyed another direct command from God when he was told, again through the prophet Samuel, to completely destroy the Amalekites.*  Saul instead kept their king, Agag, alive as a trophy of war, and his soldiers kept the best of the cattle to “sacrifice to the Lord”—as part of a grand feast that they would enjoy themselves.  Samuel asked Saul once again, “Why did you not obey the Lord?”  The penalty for outright disobedience this time was that Saul would not even remain king himself for his natural lifetime; he would die early and be succeeded by “one of his neighbors”—not one of his own descendants.

A sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger for a mural depicting Samuel confronting Saul after the battle with the Amalekites

It is true that during a deadly plague, David built an altar to the Lord and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings upon it.  But David actually did this in direct obedience to a command from God, and in any event these were the kind of offerings that any ordinary Israelite could offer.  The author of Psalm 116 says, for example:

What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people. . . .

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord
    in your midst, Jerusalem.

Presumably when the psalmist says “I will sacrifice a thank offering,” this involves the assistance of the priests and Levites at the temple.

I think we should understand in the same way the statement that is made about the dedication of the temple itself in Jerusalem:  “Then the king [Solomon] and all Israel with him offered sacrifices before the Lord.”  The text makes clear that priests and Levites were present, and we should understand that they were the ones who actually offered these sacrifices, but at the initiative and expense of the king and people.

I hope these observations help answer your question.

– – – – –

*Episodes in the Bible like this one, where God commands complete destruction, are very troubling.  Some interpreters, like Philip Jenkins, argue that they never really happened.  Others like Adam Hamilton suggest that the biblical writers or characters were wrong in thinking that God had actually commanded this.  As I say in my review of Jenkins’ book, “I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.”  In this post I describe my own efforts to come to terms with them.

Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

Q. Today in my Quiet Time I read in Genesis about God wrestling with Jacob. I was really puzzled where it says, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him . . .” I don’t understand how God could not overpower a human being. God took on human form, but didn’t He still have the strength God would have? What do you think it means?

Also, I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?

Eugene Delacroix, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”

The so-called “man” in this episode who wrestles with Jacob is just like the “angel of the LORD” who appears in other Old Testament passages, though he’s not specifically called that here. He is a “theophany” or manifestation of God on earth. Jacob recognizes this and says, “I have seen God face to face” (in human form, at least).

It’s clear that this “man” has supernatural powers available to him, because to bring the wrestling match to an end, he’s able to wrench Jacob’s hip out of its socket simply by touching it. But he has apparently chosen not to use these powers over the course of the match, in order to demonstrate something. (This is analogous to the way that Jesus, to provide an example and model for us, “emptied himself” of his divine powers such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in order to live a perfect human life through obedience to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.)

So what was God trying to demonstrate in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers? When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him. (In my Genesis study guide, I show how Jacob was not only reconciled with his brother Esau shortly after this, he also made restitution for much of what he’d stolen from him.)

In his reflections on “The End for Which God Created the World,” the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards observes that since God’s perfections are “in themselves excellent,” it was also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. It seems to me that in the same way, God considers it “an excellent thing” for the character qualities Jacob has developed to become known, and so he arranges (personally!) for a demonstration of them, in the form of this wrestling match. (We might similarly see some of our struggles in life as an opportunity that God is giving us to demonstrate the character we have been developing.)

We can only speculate about how the match ever got started. Perhaps the man blocked the route that Jacob wanted to take and Jacob had to try to wrestle him out of the way. Or perhaps Jacob sensed who he was from the start and grappled with him in order to obtain a blessing (just as he says at the end, “I won’t let you go until you bless me”).

But however the match began, it’s probably more significant to ask exactly what the man means when he tells Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” How can a person “overcome” God? I don’t think it just means, “You wrestled God to a draw when God decided to use only human powers.”

Rather, I think it means that Jacob, in a desire to get back home from exile (something only God could make possible), determinedly worked through everything in his life that would have kept God from letting him to go back. When he was finally heading home, he testified to Laban about the honesty and integrity he had developed: “I bore the loss myself,” he said, if any of Laban’s flocks were torn by wild beasts or stolen. So we might say that Jacob was “wrestling” with God all those 20 years in exile, striving to become the kind of person God could safely send back to Canaan to continue the line of covenant promise. The wrestling match just before he got back home was a dramatic demonstration of what had been going on all along. God took on human form and limited powers in order to make that demonstration.

I’ll answer the second part of your question, about whether the Holy Spirit ever took on human form, in my next post.