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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (7)

Hands up if you’ve figured out Marshall Brain’s agenda.

First clue: he’s plugging a book entitled God is Imaginary. Second: a lengthy post asking “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”

Yeah, I thought so too. But what interests me is the passage of scripture from which Brain starts his anti-God ramble, because there’s no logical way to get from there to where he ends up.

Mountain, Meet Sea

Brain’s jumping-off point to atheism is Jesus’s famous pronouncement in Matthew 21, “If you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.” So Brain asks his readers, “Why can’t YOU move mountains?” (Abbreviated version of the argument that follows: You can’t; ergo, God doesn’t exist.)

Fair enough question for Christians, I suppose.

My short answer: Because I’m not an apostle of the Lord Jesus in the days just prior to the Jewish Diaspora.

No, really. That’s my answer.

THIS Mountain

Brain, like many Christian preachers I’ve heard make a hash of this passage, misses the obvious. In every single English translation of verse 21 to be found, there’s an article in front of the word “mountain”. It’s the word “this”, and it faithfully translates the Greek word toutō.

The Lord wasn’t addressing Christians generally to tell them they can move any old mountain anywhere on a whim provided they believe hard enough that it will happen — which seems to be Brain’s take on the passage. No, Jesus was addressing his own small circle of Jewish apostles — men who would later establish his church and spread his name throughout the world against incredible odds — at a specific time and place. Moreover, he was talking about a very particular mountain. (I also think he was speaking figuratively, as he often did, and I’ll make an effort to establish that shortly.)

Coming from Bethany on their way to the temple, if scholars have it right, the Lord and his disciples would have had to descend the east slope of the Mount of Olives into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, then ascend the west side of Moriah. Much of that time Mount Zion itself would have been visible, though in the years since David captured the Jebusite citadel atop Mount Zion, the word “Zion” had come to be used to describe the entire area around Jerusalem and beyond, including the Temple Mount. We don’t know precisely where the fig tree was that started the conversation, but the Lord and his disciples were either standing on the Temple Mount or staring at it. Zion was all around them.

With Jesus having just prophesied for a third time of his own imminent death, and in immediate danger of arrest, the Lord’s words seem calculated to reassure his disciples that despite all appearances, Heaven has their backs.

Figurative or Literal?

But is it reasonable to assume the Lord was speaking figuratively rather than literally? Is it fair to suggest he was being enigmatic rather than straightforward?

Sure it is. The Lord did both with great regularity.

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was standing in the temple having just driven out the money-changers. But he meant his own body, not the engineered structure around him. Again, “This is my body, which is given for you.” He was holding freshly broken bread. “From now on you will be catching men.” Not in nets, and not for eating, of course. But it’s all figurative. I suspect the Lord allegorized more than he spoke directly. And many times his meaning was not instantly obvious, even to his disciples.

Further, the immediate context of the Lord’s statement about the mountain being thrown into the sea is a chapter that ends with a declaration to the Jewish authorities that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits,” and the statement about the mountain follows directly the account of the withering of the fig tree, the Lord’s lone destructive miracle and another symbol of his fruitless nation and its coming judgment.

So in my books, figurative it is. Let’s consider that a little.

Mount Zion and its Associations

Jewish blessings are all associated with Zion. No, it’s stronger than that: by metonymy, Zion is Jerusalem and Jerusalem is Judah as a whole. Frankly, in Christ’s day, Judah was all that remained of Israel. The term “Judea” included the dwellings and descendants of many from other tribes who had at one time or another found refuge in Judah. And Mount Zion summed up the hopes of all. It symbolized the kingdom of God in its day.

Here is what the prophets and psalmists say about Mount Zion:
Let Mount Zion be glad! Let the daughters of Judah rejoice because of your judgments!”

“So shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion.”

“He chose the tribe of Judah, Mount Zion, which he loves.”

Zion hears and is glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice.”
And so on, and so on. The psalmist speaks of the “fortunes of Zion” and of those who “hate Zion”; and Isaiah says Zion will be redeemed.

Glad Mountains

It should be obvious that mountains do not literally “hear” anything. Neither can one fight against a big rock, nor a geographic protuberance “be glad”. The mountain is a symbol for the kingdom and God’s promises to it. It is the metaphorical dwelling of God and the locus of his blessings.

Further, it is very well understood symbol. I suppose it’s possible that the disciples missed the intended meaning of “this mountain”; any number of momentous things the Lord said slid right by them. But at least he could use the term in front of them without Zion’s well-established symbolic significance being the least bit obscure to any of the devout who were paying attention.

The Dead Sea is just barely visible from the Temple Mount if you are high enough and it’s not a hazy day. It’s more than thirty kilometers distant. Now, I have no doubt that God could pitch Mount Zion (or Mount Moriah, or any of the other hilltops in the area) into the Dead Sea in answer to the prayers of his disciples without breaking a metaphorical sweat, but I don’t believe the Lord was suggesting his followers should expect regular occurrences of that nature in answer to their prayers.

No, when the Lord spoke of “this mountain”, it seems far more likely to me that he was referring to the kingdom symbolized by Mount Zion than to the rocks themselves.

Tumultuous Waves in History

But if “this mountain” is symbolic, it’s a fairly safe bet “the sea” is too. And in fact we find plenty of allegorical references throughout scripture to big water:
  • Jeremiah says, “The sea has come up on Babylon; she is covered with its tumultuous waves.” He’s referring to the Medo-Persian armies of Cyrus.
  • Ezekiel, to the king of Tyre: “Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves.”
  • The Lord Jesus: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind.” That one’s kind of obvious to Christians.
  • John in Revelation: “I saw a beast rising out of the sea.” Later, the angel’s explanation: “The waters that you saw ... are peoples and multitudes and nations and languages.”
From One End of the Earth to the Other

So the sea symbolizes peoples, multitudes, nations and languages, and “this mountain” stands for the earthly people of God, overdue to experience the judgment promised in the Law of Moses, dispersal among the nations:
“And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other, and there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known.”
I ask you, can you think of a more vivid and biblically well-attested image to describe the forcible Jewish dispersion that followed the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in AD70 than a mountain being hurled into the sea?

Praying for Judgment?

But wait … why would a faithful Jew pray for God’s judgment on his people? Good question.

FIRST, it’s evident the great movements of history which occur in accordance with the sovereignty of God may be set in motion by the fervent prayer of a single individual. Daniel, reading the word of God, perceived that seventy years of desolations must pass for Jerusalem, and recognizing those years were coming to an end, he began to pray for the restoration of his people, which began to be realized within his lifetime.

SECOND, the ultimate restoration of Israel requires this disciplinary judgment and temporary exclusion from God’s blessing. And, the Church, of which we are a part, has been inordinately blessed as a result of it:
“If [Israel’s] trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!”
THIRD, the Lord doesn’t say his disciples SHOULD pray for such a thing. He says they COULD, and that the Lord would answer such a prayer. Why? Because it could be prayed in faith. Such a request would be firmly based on the prophecies of the Old Testament and the Law of God.

Considering that he expected to leave them shortly, it sounds to me like the Lord is giving his disciples a little bit of reassurance in view of the intensified hostility they were encountering in Jerusalem from the scribes, Pharisees and rulers of the Jews. If I can be colloquial, he’s saying something like, “Don’t you guys understand the sort of clout you have with my Father? If you were to seriously ask him to wind up the present, flawed earthly expression of the kingdom of heaven tomorrow, my Father would surely deliver it in response to your prayers.” Sounds like a pretty amazing safety net for a fearful group of men ... though their flight in the Garden and Peter’s triple denial of the Lord Jesus strongly suggest the message did not sink in immediately.

The Prayer of Faith

I can’t move mountains. Neither can you, and it’s probably not because you lack faith. We’re not apostles in the first century, tasked with giving the final word from God to a nation under imminent judgment. (And of course the next 2,000 years or more of God’s plans do not hinge on our willingness to live out what we have been taught.)

God certainly answers prayers of faith today, even the very big ones — as the Lord goes on to say in the very next verse. But faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ, as the apostle Paul says in Romans. It is impossible to formulate a true prayer of faith without having a genuine promise of God to base it on. And by “genuine”, I mean clearly stated and correctly understood. A promise misunderstood is not a promise, right?

So by all means pray. One may pray for all sorts of things, and some of them may even come about. But we cannot be confident of praying in faith unless we are asking for things God in his word has made clear are in keeping with his will and purposes.

I see no license in the Lord’s promise here to venture beyond that.

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