What did Jesus mean by “night is coming, when no one can work”?

Q. In John, when Jesus heals the man born blind, he says that “as long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So, when exactly is “night”? All the time since he left? Is this used to support the idea that we can’t do as many miracles now? Or does night refer to each person’s death? Or something else?

El Greco, “The Healing of the Blind Man”

I believe that in this context Jesus is using the image of “night” to describe his future arrest and execution.  In the gospel of John, just before Jesus comes upon the man born blind, he narrowly escapes from a crowd that wants to stone him.  Jesus knows that healing the blind man will create further notoriety and controversy.  But he’s saying that he can’t let that stop him.  For as long as he is free and alive (“as long as it is day”), he needs to do the works of the Father.

So for each individual follower of Jesus, “night” is the time when we are no longer free or able to be active in ministry.  It can certainly describe our death, but it could also refer to times of persecution, imprisonment, or incapacity due to illness or accidents.  The implication is that we need to make full use of every opportunity while we have it, without letting the risks or dangers involved deter us.

Of course we should be prudent, not reckless.  Jesus himself strategically withdrew from direct confrontation several times in order to prolong his ministry.  And we shouldn’t work so incessantly that we wear ourselves out, bringing on “night” prematurely.

But at the same time, we shouldn’t fail to take advantage of opportunities that are immediately before us, on the premise that “I can always do that later.”  Jesus was telling his disciples that after a certain point, he wouldn’t be able to “do that later,” and by implication, neither would they.  Not because God’s power wouldn’t be just as available after Jesus’ time on earth, but because sooner or later a personal “night” would render each one of them unable to minister actively.

So Jesus’ words are a warning and a call to action to us today:  “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me,” because “night is coming, when no one can work.”

Why did Jesus say we could pick up snakes?

Q.  Why did Jesus say that those who believed in him would be able to “pick up snakes with their hands”?  Some people have tried this and gotten killed.

There’s actually some doubt among biblical scholars whether the longer ending of Mark, in which that statement appears, was originally part of Mark’s gospel.  However, whether or not Jesus really said this or something like it, a person could still get the impression from the Bible that they could and perhaps should try to pick up poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith.

This is because all of the “signs” that Jesus says will accompany those who believe in him (according to the longer ending of Mark) can be found elsewhere in the Scriptures:
• Jesus and the apostles drive out demons throughout the gospels and the book of Acts;
• They also place their hands on the sick and heal them;
• Believers speak in new tongues (languages they have not learned) at several points in Acts;
• Earlier in the Bible, the prophet Elisha and his guests are miraculously protected from poisoning;
• And most directly to our point, in the book of Acts the apostle Paul is bitten by a deadly viper, but he suffers no ill effects.

However, it’s important to recognize that in all of these cases, the people are not doing something daring and dangerous in order to demonstrate their faith in God.  Rather, they are obeying God as they go forth to proclaim and serve, and God is providing the power and protection they need as they do so.

Running a deliberate risk in order to demonstrate God’s protection is precisely what the devil tempted Jesus to do when he said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple.”  Jesus replied, quoting the Scriptures from Deuteronomy, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So the deaths that have resulted from the intentional handling of poisonous snakes are the result of a very unfortunate misunderstanding either of what Jesus said about this, or, if the longer ending of Mark doesn’t record his actual words, what the biblical narrative describes about God’s empowerment and protection.  We’re not supposed to put God to the test deliberately.  But we can count on God’s protection for as long as we still need to be alive and well on earth doing God’s work.

Does Ecclesiastes contradict what Paul says about the attitude “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die?”

Q.  As Paul writes to the Corinthians, he seems to associate a disbelief in the resurrection with a hedonistic attitude towards this life.  He says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” But the book of Ecclesiastes appears to take the very attitude that Paul criticizes.  It seems to deny the afterlife:  “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”  And it seems to praise carefree eating and drinking in that light: “There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil.”  Should we understand the statements in Ecclesiastes as not fully informed, and as corrected in the New Testament?  If so, how can they be inspired Scripture?

I have no problem with the idea that the later biblical writers are in conversation with the earlier ones, and that from their vantage point farther along in redemptive history, the later writers are able to shed light on things that were not so clear earlier, even to inspired biblical authors.

But I don’t think that “the Teacher” in Ecclesiastes is actually speaking of eating and drinking in quite the same way as the cynics Paul is answering in 1 Corinthians.  (Paul is actually quoting a statement preserved in the book of Isaiah that was originally made by the calloused citizens of Jerusalem, who responded to their city’s impending destruction with reckless feasting and drinking rather than with repentance).

The eating and drinking that the Teacher is talking about isn’t a hedonistic assertion that all we have is one short life and so we have to grab all the pleasure we can while it’s available.  Instead, it’s one way he illustrates the principle of not forfeiting the present for the sake of what we expect to happen in the future–but can never be sure of.

This is the bottom line for him:  how do you know what will happen in the future?  How do you even know if “the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”  I don’t see this as a denial of the resurrection or the afterlife, but rather as an insistence that we can’t be absolutely certain of the future, so we should appreciate the present, which we do have, right down to our food and drink.  This explains his similar insistence on enjoying your work while you’re doing it, rather than doing work you don’t enjoy for the sake of uncertain future rewards.

As I say in my study guide to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James:

* * * * *

The Teacher recognized that nothing he’d worked for would last forever, or even for a long time into the future:  “When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless” (Hebrew hebel: fleeting, transient, temporary).  He also observed that even though he had lived well–responsibly and creatively–his life would end, from an earthly perspective, just like the lives of those who had been foolish and wasted their abilities.  Everyone, no matter how they’ve lived, eventually grows old, declines in health, and dies.  And the Teacher also realized, to his horror, that after his death everything he’d worked for would be put in the hands of someone who might be wise, but who might also be foolish and squander his accumulated wealth and tarnish his legacy.

And so the Teacher concluded that it makes no sense to work hard all the time, and not enjoy life in the present, for the sake of what you believe will happen in the future on the earth.  No matter how great your achievements and reputation, you’re going to die in the end; and no matter how long your accomplishments last after you’re gone (and there’s no guarantee they won’t be destroyed in the next generation), ultimately they’ll disappear and you’ll be forgotten.  And so, he says, a person should live instead for what’s happening in the present: they should find work that they will enjoy while they’re doing it.  (This is “incidental pleasure,” not pleasure pursued as an end in itself as the source of meaning in life.)

* * * * *

I agree that Paul’s assertion of the resurrection and its present implications for our life and work are a more definitive word on this issue, but I also think we should face the Teacher’s challenges squarely.  The person who’s working 80-100 hours a week in a job they don’t like because they believe this will set them up for the future may look back over this part of their life with great regret.  As I also say in the study guide, “In a paradoxical way, having this authentic experience of the present is somehow the surest way to know that our lives are also counting for eternity.”

In that light, I think we can all enjoy our Thanksgiving dinners this year.  As an “incidental pleasure.”

Should Psalms 19, 40, and 66 be divided?

Q.  Since The Books of the Bible combines Psalms 9-10 and 42-43, why doesn’t it divide Psalms 19, 40, and 66?  I’ve heard that each of those were originally two separate psalms that were later placed together.

One essential goal of The Books of the Bible is to help people read the Scriptures with greater understanding and enjoyment by presenting whole literary compositions as the Bible’s fundamental units of meaning and authority.  That’s why the edition removes chapter and verse numbers and section headings–they send the wrong message about what those units are.  That’s also why it recombines individual compositions such as Psalms 9-10 and 42-43, as well as longer, more complex compositions such as Luke-Acts.

There’s clear internal evidence that those psalms should be recombined:
–  An acrostic pattern runs all the way through Psalm 9-10, in which pairs of lines begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  (This pattern has become corrupted in the Masoretic Text, but it can be restored by reference to other Hebrew manuscripts and ancient versions.  The NIV translation reflects a restored acrostic pattern.)
– A three-fold repetition of the same refrain ties together Psalm 42-43. (“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”)  This is like the threefold refrain in other psalms, for example, Psalm 80 (“Restore us, O God make your face shine on us, that we may be saved”).

There’s also external evidence, in the manuscript tradition, that Psalms 9-10 and 42-43 are originally unified compositions.  Psalm 9-10 is a single psalm in the Septuagint and Psalm 42-43 is a single psalm in many Hebrew manuscripts.  So they should indeed be recombined.

But it is not similarly the case that Psalms 19, 40, and 66 should be divided.  The argument for dividing them is based what is known as form criticism, the idea that the history of a composition can be determined by identifying the literary genres of its constituent parts.  (There is no manuscript evidence that Psalms 19, 40, or 66 ever circulated in separate parts.)

The case that some scholars make for dividing these psalms is based on the distinctive conventions of the different psalm genres:  supplication (or lament), thanksgiving, and praise.  (I introduce and explore these genres in my study guide to Psalms.)  Some scholars feel that they can discern two different types of psalms living together uneasily under a single number in these cases, and they want to pull them apart.

For example, Psalm 40 appears to contain a fully articulated psalm of thanksgiving, acknowledging God’s deliverance, and then a fully developed psalm of supplication, asking God not to “withhold his mercy.”  These seem to be two separate occasions of composition, and so it appears that two different psalms have been put together here.

However, in his book The Message of the Psalms, Walter Bruggemann demonstrates (quite convincingly, to my mind) that Psalm 40 is not simply a psalm of thanksgiving to which a separate psalm of supplication has become attached.  Rather, the psalm of supplication has been crafted expressly to be added onto the (likely pre-existing) psalm of thanksgiving, resulting in a new integral composition.  The supplication intentionally echoes the specific language of the thanksgiving in several places, for example:

At the end of the thanksgiving it says, “I did not conceal your love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emeth)”;
At the start of the supplication it says, “May your love (hesed) and faithfulness (‘emeth) always protect me.”

In the thanksgiving: “I speak of your . . . saving help (teshua‘)”;
In the supplication:  “may those who long for your saving help (teshua‘) . . .”

In the thanksgiving: God’s deeds are “too many to declare” (they are “beyond numbering”);
In the supplication: “troubles without number [“beyond numbering”] surround me”

These deliberate echoes of the language of the thanksgiving in the supplication show that the psalmist has used the occasion of celebrating one deliverance as an opportunity to pray for rescue from a further trouble.  So Psalm 40, as we know it, is an intentional, integral composition.

Similarly, Psalm 66 is not, as some have argued, a psalm of praise for God’s historical deliverance of the nation at the time of the exodus, to which a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance of the psalmist personally has somehow become attached.  Rather, the whole psalm is a thanksgiving that begins with a “song of victory” that harkens back to the exodus as the archetypal event of deliverance.  (Compare the ending of Psalm 77, a psalm of supplication that similarly invokes the exodus.)  Claus Westermann discusses the role of the “song of victory” found in many psalms of thanksgiving in his book The Psalms: Structure, Content, and Message.

Finally, some scholars consider Psalm 19 to be two psalms of different genres that have been combined, the first a psalm of praise for God’s glories in creation (like Psalm 8) and the second a “poem of the law” that extols the value of meditating on God’s word (like Psalm 1).  It’s possible that the first part of this psalm did once circulate independently.  But as we know it today, it has been intentionally paired with the second part to create a meditation on the “two books” that reveal God: creation and the Scriptures.  It is an integral composition, even if it may incorporate an earlier song, and it would not be proper to pull it apart.

We can witness a similar process of composition at work in our own day as songwriters have take traditional hymns and add their own original material to make new integral compositions, for example, Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” from “Amazing Grace” or David Crowder’s expansion of “All Creatures of our God and King.”  We would not want to pull these songs apart, nor should we pull apart the psalms that have been created by a very similar process.

The initial page of the Leiden St. Louis Psalter, an illuminated manuscript of the book of Psalms. The “B” is the initial letter of Psalm 1 in Latin, “beatus” (blessed).

Does submission mean that the husband gets his way?

Q.  I’m about to be married and I want to follow the Bible’s instructions for wives, including submitting to my husband.  I’ve heard this means that if we can’t agree, I need to let him have his way.  Is that right?

Actually, as I understand the implications of the Bible’s full counsel to husbands and wives, the concept of submission does not apply primarily to decision-making, and it does not mean that the wife must always defer to the husband.

Here’s why I say that.  In the Genesis creation account, God makes one thing after another and declares each one “good.”  At the end, God declares the whole creation “very good.”  But then God finds something that is “not good”:  the man is alone, without the kind of “helper” he needs.  The Hebrew word often translated as “helper” in English Bibles actually refers to a strong ally who comes to someone’s side in times of crisis or need.  It most often refers to God, as in the psalm that begins, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

So if it had really been all right for a man to do whatever he wanted, no matter what his wife thought, there would have been no reason for God to create woman in the first place.  But it is “not good” for a man to be “alone” in this sense.

Other Scriptures support this understanding.  For example, when Paul wanted Philemon to make the important decision about whether to grant freedom to his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul wrote not just to Philemon, but also to his wife Apphia.  Paul wanted Apphia to help influence Philemon to do the right thing, as a full participant in the decision.

What, then, does submission mean?  Here’s how I explain it in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, as I’m discussing Paul’s counsel to husbands and wives in Colossians:

* * * * *

Both here in Colossians and in his very similar teaching in Ephesians, Paul stresses that the new life will be lived out essentially in basic human relationships: between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

These relationships, he explains, have become radically transformed because they’ve been carried into a new realm. People who, from an earthly perspective, are slaves and masters must recognize that together they have become fellow servants of a “Master in heaven.” Husbands and wives have become brothers and sisters in the faith who “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as Paul writes in Ephesians, just before discussing the husband-wife relationship. Children are to obey their parents because this “pleases the Lord,” as Paul writes here in Colossians, and their parents are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord,” as he says in Ephesians. In other words, both children and parents are now accountable to God for how they relate to one another. So the character of these relationships has changed: no longer does one person attempt to dominate the other; rather, the participants show each other respect and consideration before God.

However, the nature of these relationships remains essentially the same. One person in the relationship is still entrusted with leadership responsibility, while the other person respects that leadership and cooperates with it. The coming age has not yet fully arrived, and so these ongoing responsibilities must be honored. A situation described in 1 Timothy illustrates this principle well. Some slaves in first-century Asia Minor who were followers of Jesus thought that the arrival of the coming age meant that they no longer needed to respect their masters. But Paul explains that these slaves should actually “serve them even better,” since they are now “dear to them as fellow believers” and devoted to their welfare.

In other words, relationships of the present age are transformed by the approach of the coming age not by a change in the responsibilities that people have towards one another, but by a change in the spirit in which these responsibilities are carried out. And so Paul tells husbands not to “be harsh” with their wives, he tells parents not to “embitter” their children, and he tells masters to provide their slaves with what is “right and fair.” For their part, he tells children and slaves to “obey” their parents and masters, and he tells wives to “submit” to their husbands.

What Paul says here about obedience and submission is often misunderstood. These concepts don’t describe the process by which it’s decided what the people in a relationship will do. Specifically, they don’t imply that husbands, parents, and employers make decisions all by themselves and that wives, (growing) children, and employees have to follow them without asking any questions or providing any input. As Paul describes these relationships, it’s clear that no one has this kind of arbitrary power. Rather, obedience and submission describe a trusting, respectful attitude that leads to a response of support and cooperation.

Paul uses two different terms here, obedience and submission, and the distinction between them points to an important difference between the husband-wife relationship and the other two relationships he describes. Obedience, which Paul asks of children and slaves, implies a recognized duty to support and cooperate with another person’s leadership, while submission, which Paul asks of wives, suggests a voluntary decision to honor and respect a leader who has been given responsibility for one’s welfare and who is devoted to that task.

* * * * *

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I wish you every happiness in your marriage!

Was Acts really written around 150 AD?

Q.  Recently at our Bible Study someone mentioned that the book of Acts was written much later than the gospel of Luke (like about 150 AD). This was released by the Jesus Seminar — which already has my warning lights blinking. Is there any concrete evidence (like in Church history) to refute this?

Some scholars believe that there are allusions to the book of Acts in the first epistle of Clement, which is generally dated to the 90s AD.  If these are indeed allusions, they would be a “smoking gun” that positively ruled out a date of 150 AD.

Irenaeus of Lyon, who was born around 120 AD, makes definite references to the book of Acts in Against Heresies, which he likely wrote around 180 AD.  In III:12.1, for example, he offers this nearly verbatim quotation from the book: “The Apostle Peter, therefore, after the resurrection of the Lord, and His assumption into the heavens, being desirous of filling up the number of the twelve apostles, and in electing into the place of Judas any substitute who should be chosen by God, thus addressed those who were present: ‘Men and brethren, this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of David, spake before concerning Judas, which was made guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us: … Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein; and, His bishop-rick let another take.'”  This is not definitive proof of a first-century date for Acts, but it’s highly unlikely that Irenaeus would treat Acts as so authoritative if that book had only been around for a few decades.

But I think the main evidence for the date of Acts comes from the ending of the book itself.  It leaves Paul in prison, with the outcome of his trial undetermined.  Certainly if it had been known at the time of writing that Paul had been acquitted and released, Luke would have included this information, since he takes pains throughout the book to demonstrate that Jesus’ followers are good citizens–reasonable, peaceful, and charitable–on good terms with Roman officials.  (Acts is dedicated to Theophilus and Luke addresses him as “most excellent,” using a title customarily reserved for such officials, so they are a primary audience for the book.)

In other words, what is known in historiography as the “criterion of embarrassment” (an author wants to say something, but can’t, or has to explain something difficult) makes the book of Acts itself a piece of historical evidence for its own original composition sometime during the lifetime of Paul, meaning no later than the 60s AD.

Uncial 0189, the oldest surviving parchment manuscript of the New Testament, containing a fragment from the book of Acts, dated to around AD 200

Why would Jesus tell the disciples to bring swords and then rebuke Peter for using one?

Q. Why do you suppose Jesus would tell the disciples to bring swords, and then they do, and then Peter cuts off someone’s ear, and then Jesus clearly thought that was a dumb move, and heals the guy? It seems like a weird sequence of events.

The events you’re describing happen on the last night of Jesus’ life on earth.  At the Last Supper, he predicts Peter’s denial, and then warns the disciples that the circumstances of their lives and witness are going to change.  He asks them, “When I sent you out to preach the Good News and you did not have money, a traveler’s bag, or an extra pair of sandals, did you need anything?”  When they say “no,” he responds, “But now take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

It appears that there are some contexts that will be favorable to the life and witness of the community of Jesus’ followers, and in those contexts, it can count on what appears to be spontaneous support as God actually moves in people’s hearts to respond.  (This happens, for example, when Paul proclaims the good news in Thyatira and a woman named Lydia is listening. Luke, who was traveling with Paul at the time, describes what happened:  “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’”

However, there are other contexts that are very unfavorable, indeed hostile, to the life and witness of the community of Jesus’ followers.  In those contexts, it shouldn’t expect the support of outsiders.  It has to supply its own provisions and it also needs to be prepared to defend and protect its members by reasonable means and precautions.

I think it’s significant that when the disciples reply to Jesus at the Last Supper, “Look, Lord, we have two swords among us,” he answers, “That’s enough.”  Many biblical interpreters believe that Jesus is saying it’s all right for the disciples to have some weapons as a deterrent and basic protection in a hostile environment.

However, in the Garden of Gesthemane, Peter moves from defense to offense by attacking first.  He also does this in a situation where the disciples are outnumbered and much less well armed than their opponents.  Jesus rebukes him and heals the man he injured, in order to prevent a bloodbath.

So it appears that while the community of Jesus’ followers can adopt basic protections and precautions, when it encounters an overwhelming force bent on doing harm, its response must not be to fight to the last one standing, but to be willing to accept suffering as the means of continuing its witness.

Dirck van Baburen, “The Arrest of Christ,” depicting the episode in which Peter strikes with his sword.