Thursday, 2 November 2017

On Covering the Head and Speaking in Tongues

I am writing this article due to an urgent need. As a student of theology, I need an answer to a question that on one hands relates to Biblical interpretation and on the other hand relates to a particular style of worship. Bringing this issue to the fore may help me find some answers. 

According to 1 Corinthians, women in the church need to cover their heads, especially when they are praying or prophesying. In the same letter, Paul tells us to only speak in tongues during the service when interpretation is available. Otherwise, we should avoid speaking or praying in tongues. 

The question is this: why do we only follow only one of these teachings in the church while completely ignoring the other?

Both these instructions come from the same epistle, from the same apostle. Yet as Pakistani Christians we only stress on women covering their heads, but when someone speaks in tongues without interpretation, we consider it a sign of the Holy Spirit, even though this contradicts scripture which was written under the guidance of the Spirit. This is a blatant contradiction, which is practically demonstrated in various local Pentecostal churches, and even those churches that under influence of the Charismatic movement have even surpassed the traditional Pentecostal churches in their style of worship.

Before proceeding I must clarify that I am not against Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, and nor do I deny the gifts of the Spirit. In fact, Paul himself doesn't forbid believers from speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39), yet he stipulates the availability of interpretation. But in the churches where believers speak in tongues, they usually ignore this condition, and yet in these same churches, covering the head for women is considered the 11th commandment! Why is this so?

Here are the verses under discussion:

On Covering the Head (11:5-16)
 But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.

On Speaking in Tongues (14:5, 13, 27-28)

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

The plain reading shows that Paul is continuing his argument in chapters 11 through 14 where the issues include the use of charismatic gifts and order during worship. Thus, he is presenting his case in a flow. Yet many of us practically break this flow in our churches. What's completely outrageous is that many Christian women cover their heads while speaking in tongues without interpretation! This is a clear disobedience of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 through 14. 

The churches where this practice is common should tell us their hermeneutical principle through which they are able to literally enforce the covering of the head for women while openly ignoring the need for interpretation when someone is allowed to speak in tongues. And to avoid being a stumbling block to other believers, such churches should publish their hermeneutical principle. 

Now my question can have 3 possible answers. In the interest of fairness, I will briefly discuss these answers as well.

1- These instructions are primarily for the Corinthian Church and secondarily for us. Thus, it is not an imperative that we follow the epistle in all its details

Fair enough. It is a basic rule of interpretation that we should try to understand what a text meant to its first audience, in this case, the Corinthian church. This helps us to understand the original meaning of the text, and then we can apply it in our context. 

But as Pakistani Christians, are we willing to apply this interpretative rule when it comes to head covering for women? If not, why not? If we say that the instructions on covering the head still apply, then so do the instructions for speaking in tongues. 

2- Covering the head is a sign of a woman's submission, which is prominently taught in other parts of Scripture as well (e.g. Ephesians 5:23). However, speaking in tongues is only discussed marginally in the Bible. That is why covering the head is of greater importance than interpretation of tongues

This argument is strong, but there are some limitations. Firstly, the argument itself demonstrates that the NT doesn't give much importance to the speaking and interpretation of tongues. So why should we give so much importance to these gifts? Think about it. 

In fact, Paul regards prophecy to be a greater gift than speaking or interpreting tongues (14:5). And if the listing of gifts in chapter 12 is to be understood in a descending order, then tongues and their interpretation come at the very end, i.e. they are of the least importance in the growth of the church. Yet this is the gift that many local Christians desire the most today.

Secondly, while there is a dearth of NT references in regards to speaking in tongues, yet such references do exist and they reveal a broader understanding of this gift. The broader understanding of the gift of tongues is this: to proclaim the marvels of God in a way that people understand.

The greatest reference in this respect is Acts 2:2-8, the coming of tongues from heaven on the day of Pentecost. This is perhaps the clearest reference of speaking in tongues, but it refers to the languages of this world. This is the plain meaning of the the Greek word "glossa", which has been translated as 'tongues' in the NT. 

In fact, a pretty good case can be made that Paul understood tongues in this very sense (14:21 cf. Isaiah 28:11-12). To sum up, if we want to bring in other passages of the Bible in this discussion, then we will also have to correct our understanding of this charismatic gift.

As far as the submission of women is concerned, essentially there is no difference between man and woman in the eyes of God (11:11-12).

3- If a believer, filled with the Spirit, starts speaking in tongues, what difference does it make if interpretation is not available? Is the Spirit bound by rules?

Absolutely not. The Spirit is dynamic and sovereign, free to work in the church as He pleases. But how can the Holy Spirit contradict himself? Didn't the Spirit himself move Paul to write these instructions?

And if it isn't so, then will we allow women in the church who are moved by Spirit to perform a mystic dance where they don't cover their heads? If not, then we are also restricting the work of the Spirit. If we can't allow women to dance and move in this manner during worship, then we shouldn't also allow the speaking of tongues without interpretation, for the sake of consistency. 

Remember that the dancing of mystics is representative of our local spirituality as Pakistanis, yet the speaking of tongues is clearly an imported spirituality. This was neither the practice of our ancestors who first came to faith, nor the missionaries who brought them to faith. And it certainly wasn't the practice of the Apostles.

As far as I am concerned, there is simply no hermeneutic principle that enables us to force women to cover their heads in the church and yet not object when someone speaks in tongues without anyone interpreting. 

May God enable us to use the gifts of the Spirit appropriately for the growth of the church. Amen!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Need for Reformation

Text of sermon preached at the St. Andrew's Church on 0ctober 29, 2017

All of us want revival in our lives. We long for revival because life is not always exciting and fulfilling. It can be boring and challenging, and for Christians, there can be moments of dryness when we don’t even feel the presence of God in our lives. And this happens in the life of the Church as well. That is why we want God to act in our lives so that we are truly refreshed.

The good news is that Christianity is the religion of revival. Whenever we lose hope in our personal lives or in the life of the church, God breathes a new life in us that gives us more power than we had before.

History testifies to this fact. All major world religions talk about a golden period where their religion flourished, and they want to return to that ideal period. But Christianity has seen revival over and over, especially in the face of persecution. In places where Christians have been persecuted the most are often the same places where the church has flourished, or at least managed to stay true to its faith.

But why are we talking about all this? It is because we are in the month of the reformation. This year, on the 31st of Oct, we celebrate the 500 years of reformation. On 31st October 1517, Martin Luther started what we call  Protestantism by nailing his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany.

This was God’s way of bringing a revival in the church, and this movement pulled not just the church, but the world out of the  dark ages.

The reformers, especially Martin Luther, helped us to understand the basis of our salvation, which is through the grace of God the Father, and belief in Jesus Christ. There is no other way in which people can be saved.

But Luther also helped us to understand the authority of the church. One of the main issues during the reformation, or perhaps ‘the’ main issue, was that of authority.

Authority is a secular term, the modern understanding of which is demonstrated in monarchies as well as governmental and organizational hierarchies. Jesus, however, gave us a hint that the church’s definition of authority should be opposite to that of the world (Matthew 20:25-26).

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”
According to one theologian, the authority of the Church is 

‘its God-given authority to carry on spiritual warfare, proclaim the gospel, and exercise church discipline’[1] 

So as we see, the authority of the church as God’s holy people is quite different from our secular conceptions of authority. But notice how the authority of the church is also the role of the church, even its responsibility. Thus, we can safely conclude that when it comes to the church, authority is synonymous with responsibility. And as in the post-Reformation era, the church corrupts itself when it ignores this axiom.

Jesus Christ himself became the supreme example of humility in authority. He said:

“whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:27-28).
The thing that caused Martin Luther to protest against the church was the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were certificates of forgiveness. If you purchase these certificates, your sins are forgiven. You could have practically purchased your salvation with money in the early 16th century!

This was the emphasis of Martin Luther’s theses, that the Pope and his priests only have the authority to announce the forgiveness of sins. Just like our priests do. But they do not have the authority to pardon the sins on their own. The apostles were given this authority by the Jesus Christ in John 20:23, but the Bible doesn’t suggest that this authority was somehow transferred from the Apostles to their successors. In fact, the Apostles hold a unique position in the church (Acts 5:12-13).

We praise God that the practice of the sale of indulgences has stopped. However, it is sad that this teaching has penetrated protestant churches, especially the so-called “Word of Faith”  movements. Many modern preachers, especially those on TV, ask their audience to ‘sow seed of faith’ which means to make a donation to their ministry. And in return, God will bless them. This is heresy!

Run away from such preachers, and don’t make donations to their ministries and TV channels. The blessings of God are received by faith, not by money. And anyone who tells you that money can somehow guarantee the blessings of God and forgiveness of sins is a false preacher. We need to speak against such false teachings. We also need to protest.

Likewise, we also need to see whether authority is being misused in our churches or not. The Catholic church has learned its lesson. The Pope no longer claims the same kind of authority for himself that he did five centuries ago. Today, the Pope holds no authority apart from his college of bishops.

But the situation has been reversed now. Many churches that call themselves protestants are being run by one man or woman alone. You cannot question their authority, and you can expect any genuine participation in the running of the church in such a set-up. This is both ironic and unfortunate.

The laity, the members of the church also need to check their own attitudes, whether they want greater participation to serve Christ, or to satisfy their egos.

All of us need to understand is that the Church is a priest to the world (1 Peter 2:5). She is the humble servant of the world in service of the Gospel. So take this time for self-reflection, and as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation, commit yourself to the service of the church and the world, to become more humble in the family of God, and to be bold enough to speak against false teachings in the Church.

God bless you.  

[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Jointly published by IVP and Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 887.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

4 Lessons Learned from 2 Years of Seminary

I recently completed my 2nd year at the Church of Pakistan Diocesan seminary. 

I enrolled in 2015 as a non-diocesan student with the impression that this is something I will do alongside my job and other daily activities. Something that will not require much effort. Something that will hardly add anything to what I already know about my faith. Something that will give me a prestigious certificate of theology by doing the bare minimum.

How wrong I was! Going to seminary has changed me completely, and I still have a year to go. Here are 4 valuable lessons that I have learned so far:

#1 Patience is a Virtue

A seminary, like any educational institution, brings together people from all walks of life, and in this case, from all kinds of theological backgrounds. This includes both the teachers and students. 

If you lack patience, you will not be able to survive in seminary, where your prior beliefs and assumptions are questioned at every level, and you have to spend day and night with people who don't share and sometimes even oppose your views. 

You then take this patience on the field, where without any prior training you are asked to assist priests in leading the worship. Wine spills, you forget your prayers, you stand when you are supposed to sit and sit where you are supposed to stand. And all this infront of people who do not hesitate pointing your mistakes behind your back as well as in public. 

On a deeper level, we are to be patient because we don't always understand God's plans. Not all prayers are answered and not all theological issues are settled. We just have to trust God and accept His presence and support. That's what patience really means. 

#2 Know your Denomination

I study at an ecumenical seminary and wholeheartedly agree to the philosophy. But achieving inter and intra-denominational unity depends on knowing the history and beliefs of one's denomination. The church in Pakistan is in a mess, where even cults do not know their theology! 

This leads to great confusion and useless debates that can be resolved or at least toned down if people learn to do theology first in their own faith tradition and then in a broader perspective. 

#3 Know How to Hold Controversial Opinions

Every Christian has a theological opinion that fellow believers deem controversial. Many views although supported by scripture are offensive to the established mindset. 

Seminary has taught me firstly how to evaluate my own views in the light of theological methodology, and secondly how to present them causing little or no offence. One helpful tip is to speak your mind only when someone asks you to!

#4 No One Cares

This follows from point #1. Seminary has been a great lesson in humility for me. Being assistant to half a dozen priests has taught me not to think too highly of myself.

No one cares. People forget your mistakes . They also forget your sermons! The moments of glory are far and few between. On most days, things are just routine. May I say boring?

That is why Christian ministry is about faithfulness, not success. This has also enabled to be not too stress over my mistakes, but improve my skills confidently. 

I am a certified introvert (INTJ), but humility has made me comfortable among people. Seminary has definitely changed me for the better, and I thank God for that...

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Servant of the Lord - Conclusion

Isaiah 52:13-53:12-The Suffering Servant

According to the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, this ‘passage speaks so eloquently of the work of Christ that even the inclusion of his name could add but little more to the extent of its disclosure of him’[1]

It is this song that we will focus in the greatest detail. The verses build up an atmosphere of great excitement as it is a revelation of special significance[2]. We also see a vivid, priestly language in these verses.

This is the longest servant song, which is why we will discuss in 2 sections.

Isaiah 52:13-15

See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

The Hebrew word for ‘act wisely’ is יַשְׂכִּ֖יל which can also mean ‘prosper’. Thus ‘my servant will prosper’, as maintained by the PBS Urdu Bible. Like the first servant song, God is drawing attention to the servant (cf. 42:1).

In verse 14, the Hebrew literally reads ‘appalled at you’ עָלֶ֙יךָ֙. This has been changed to ‘at him’ in line with the Syriac OT and the Targum. Notice the paradox of the servant being exalted and also being appalled at. 

This paradox can only be explained with the reference to the cross of Christ that displayed God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18). Christ’s crucifixion paints a picture of senseless violence, yet was the pathway for the exaltation of God’s son.

The servant is marred beyond human likeness, yet he ‘sprinkles’ יַזֶּה֙ the nations, which refers to atonement (Exodus 29:20-21, Leviticus 16:14-15). Also notice here that this atonement extends beyond Israel to all the nations. In fact, Paul uses this passage to describe his own mission in Romans 15:21[3].

Let us now turn to the second section:

Isaiah 53

An outline will be helpful at this point, since we have the whole chapter in front of us:
·         1-3: Physical affliction
·         4-5: Atonement
·         6: Human ignorance and the deliverance of the Lamb
·         7-10: The Suffering Servant
·         11: Exaltation
·         12: Intercession [4]

Once again, the identity of the servant is debatable in this passage. According to 52:3, it seems that Israel went into slavery for no sin of its own. And indeed it looks plausible, considering the fact that slavery and captivity were a natural phenomena in the ancient world. 

However, even though Israel was oppressed by Babylon, it was by no means sinless. (Isaiah 1:16-18). The servant, on the other hand, suffers not for his own sin (as people mistakenly assume in verse 4), but for the sins of others. In fact, most scholars agree that verse 5 is referring to penal substitution[5].

Who is the “we” in verse 5? If we make the connection with the ‘nations and kinds’ of 52:15, then perhaps this refers to the gentiles.
From verse 7 onwards, we find striking similarities with the Gospel. Jesus Christ, knowing God’s will, remained quiet in front Pilate, Herod, and the High Priest. This is in staunch comparison to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:18-20, 12:1-3).

‘..he was cut off from the land of the living’’ refers to Christ’s death, and then we also find a remarkable prophecy about Christ’s burial in verse 9. The ‘wicked’ and the ‘rich’ are not synonyms. In fact, this is a contrast between how people perceived Christ and how he was vindicated by God through the divine provision of Joseph’s grave (Matthew 27:57-60)[6].

The fact that he will ‘see his offspring’ implies an existence beyond the grave, which is literally fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection. In verse 11, the NIV adds ‘he will see the light of life’ based on the LXX.  It is also interesting to note that ‘by his knowledge’ can also be translated as ‘by knowledge of him’, which means faith in Christ.

Finally, the exaltation of verse 12 reminds us of what Paul wrote in Philippians, that Christ ‘made himself nothing’, which echoes Isaiah 53:12. To sum up, the fact that Isaiah 53 predicts the death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ in such great detail is simply remarkable, and one of the evidences of the divine inspiration of scripture.


The study of the 4 servant songs revealed to us the layers of meaning that we often overlook in our reading of the text and preaching from it. There are at least 5 different layers that we tried to uncover in this paper:

1.      The theological understanding of the text
2.      The characteristics of the servant in each passage
3.      The role of the servant in each passage
4.      The inter-relation of the servant songs
5.      The place of the servant in its historical context, its application to Jesus Christ, and to the church

The writer has genuinely attempted to discuss each servant song from these different angles. The material presented will help us answer 2 criticisms; one against predictive prophecy, and one against the application of these songs to Christ.

The first criticism is put up by those who do not believe in God, or at least a God a who communicates with mankind. In their world-view, there is no such thing as predictive prophecy, and so any such text has to be explained away. 

This is usually done by offering alternative meanings, and most commonly, but ascribing a late date to the writing of the text. In the case of Isaiah, we have seen that all the prophecies were put into writing at least a 100 years before Jesus was born. Also, the clear wording of texts like Isaiah 53 don’t need a revised interpretation that denies the atoning work of Christ.

The second criticism is put by Jews, with some justification. We cannot disregard the Biblical association of the servant with Israel. We also cannot ignore the suffering of  the Jewish nation, especially during World War II during the Holocaust. We all due respect, we need to understand that the servant of the Lord suffers for the sins of others and not of his own. This simply cannot be applied to the nation of Israel historically.

Hence, Christians are justified in applying these passages, not only to Christ, but to the church as well.


Drane, John. Introducing the Old Testament. Revised edition. USA: Lion Hudson plc, 2000.

Gaebelein, Frank. E. ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986.

Harrison, R.K. Introduction to the Old Testament. USA:William B.Eardmans, 1969.

Sultan, Pervaiz. “OT Prophets: Class Notes”. St. Thomas’ Theological College, April-June 2017.

Sultan, Pervaiz. River of God. Karachi: Fact Publications, 2013.

Web, Barry. The Message of Isaiah. Leicester, England: IVP, 1996.

[1] Frank. E Gaebelein, ed. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986), 305.
[2] Ibid, 300.
[3] Ibid, 301.
[4] Class notes.
[5] Gaebelein, 306.
[6] Ibid, 304.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The Servant of the Lord - Part 3

Isaiah 50:4-11: The Servant Uplifts the Weary

The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears; I have not been rebellious, I have not turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other!
Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up. Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God. But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment.

The 3rd servant song reveals more about the character of the servant. He is the man of integrity and sacrifice, and this is one of the major themes of the servant songs. This song has the least direct implications for Christ as such, with the exception of verse 6[1]

But even then it can refer to the prophets and Jews in general because they usually kept beards. This can also refer to Jeremiah (see next section), or perhaps anyone who is persecuted for the Lord.

But of course there are messianic implications, and we have to recognize them. Christ himself declared: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28). The liturgy of the Church of Pakistan (Book of Common Prayer) includes this verse before the absolution.

Anyway, in this song, the servant is a disciple of God. In verse 4, לִמּוּדִ֔ים לְשׁ֣וֹן translated ‘well-instructed tongue’ literally means ‘the tongue of disciples’. The PBS Urdu translation uses the singular noun (شاگِرد ), but captures the literal meaning of the Hebrew.

The servant as the disciple of God is a rare expression. During his lectures, Dr. Sultan stated that this could refer to a spirit of discipleship, i.e. a mindset to learn from anyone. However, in the River of God, he explains: ‘the text of the verse doesn’t mention that the servant has a become a disciple of the Lord in a way that the Lord is his teacher…..this is an indirect relation.[2]’  

An indirect relation means that while the Lord upholds the disciple through His grace and gives him a spirit of discipleship, the servant learns not from God directly but from His word.

The task of the servant expands. He is to give hope to the hopeless through the word of God. Who are the weary?

The weary are the disheartened, who because of deteriorating conditions cannot see any ray of hope that someone will take care of their spiritual and physical needs, everything from the forgiveness of sins to social uplifting[3].   

To help the weary with scripture is also a rare expression. All servants of God should have a scriptural commitment to the uplift of people. This evangelical-social concern needs to be highlighted. This concern goes beyond preaching and quoting the Bible.

It means using Biblical principles to help people solve their problems. This was the fundamental difference between Christ and the Pharisees, and should be an ongoing distinction between the followers of Christ and other religious leaders.

Christ removed all kinds of yokes from people, including those laid upon people by Bible-quoting Pharisees. There is another messianic clue as well. 

The servant is not afraid of persecution. He is confident of the Lord’s will, because he wakes up every morning to discover it. And the servant is also not rebellious, which means he is someone apart from Israel who disobeyed the Lord on a national level time and again.

[1] Ibid.
[2] Sultan, 385.
[3] Ibid, 386.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Servant of the Lord- Part 2

Isaiah 42:1-4: Israel as the Model Servant

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.  He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.  A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness, he will bring forth justice he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.  In his teaching the islands will put their hope.

41:8 explicitly declares Israel as the servant of the Lord. However, how can a captive Israel ‘bring justice to the nations’? Perhaps this is Cyrus, but verse 3 excludes any military activity[1]. What is the identity of the servant? 

Israel is God’s ‘chosen one’ in the Old Testament. Dr. Pervaiz Sultan writes: ‘God calls Israel his servant. He chose Israel from the very beginning, and He delighted in doing so. God singled out Israel from all other nations and chose her for Himself’[2].

However, this divine election came with divine commands of justice and righteousness, and Israel repeatedly failed this criteria. Yet God made Israel a model of the true servant of the Lord who was to come, i.e. Jesus Christ. And Christ’s election includes the election of the church as well[3].

Note that when we say ‘servant of the Lord’, we place equal emphasis on both. In other words, the servant symbolizes the character and will of God.  He reflects God’s attitude because he is His servant.

The servant is anointed by God’s Spirit. If the Spirit is the total self of God, then the servant has a greater anointing than the prophets and kings of Israel[4]. This is the messianic angle of this song. The Spirit of God is the spirit of justice (verse 1). The modern charismatic movement fails to recognize this essential fact.

The servant of the Lord is not a politician, but his main role is justice. It is his vocation. In the book of Isaiah, justice (מִשְׁפָּ֑ט miš·pāṭ) has wide-ranging implications. Justice in Isaiah means to preserve the universal order (40:14), to preserve Israel as God’s holy nation (40:27), and to glorify God among the nations (41:1)[5]. Thus, the task of the servant lies far beyond what Israel achieved historically.

According to 42:2, the ministry of the servant lies beyond Israel (and by implication, the church). If the objectives of God historically surpassed Israel, then they can surpass the church as well[6].

These verses also present the servant as a gentle soul. He is gentle because he his faithful to his calling, and God delights in him. To sum up, the servant of the Lord is gentle, peaceful, righteous, low-profile, and long-lasting[7].

Isaiah 49:1-6: The Servant Restores Israel

Listen to me, you islands, hear this, you distant nations: Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,    in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver. 3 He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.” 4 But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all. Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.” 5 And now the Lord says— he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord  and my God has been my strength—he says: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

As in the previous passages, Israel is God’s servant in the first instance (49:3). However, note that the role shifts from Isaiah to someone else in verse 5. The task of the servant in this song is threefold:

1.      To display God’s splendor
2.      To restore the tribes of Jacob
3.      To be a light to the gentiles

The shift from the servant as Israel to someone who restores Israel is noteworthy. The identity of the servant is still not clear in this passage, but we can recognize him as the true servant and the true Israel[8].

Again, this can refer to Cyrus, who brought Israel back from captivity. But how exactly was Cyrus a light for the nations and the instrument of global salvation?

Perhaps we can say that these verses refer to more than one person, but all of these individuals are designated the servant of YHWH. This also tells us that the servant has both an immediate and a broader role. 

In Luke 2:28-32, Simeon applied these words to the baby Jesus by calling him ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel’. However, the task of proclaiming this salvation to the ‘ends of the earth’ was entrusted by Christ to his church (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1:8). Thus the ministry of the servant still continues.

[1] Barry Web, The Message of Isaiah (Leicester, England: IVP, 1996), 172.
[2] Pervaiz Sultan, River of God (Karachi: Fact Publications, 2013), 373.
[3] Ibid, 374.
[4] Class notes.
[5] Webb, 171.
[6] Class notes.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The Servant of the Lord-Part 1

The book of Isaiah formerly starts the prophetic section of the Old Testament (OT) scripture. Traditionally the 66 chapters of this book are divided into two major sections: chapters 1-39 and then chapters 40-66. Scholars agree that chapter 4 launches a new section of the book of Isaiah, which is theologically connected to, but independent of the first 39 chapters. In fact, the introductory verses of chapter 40 appear to be written 70 years after the preceding chapter[1].

Our interest is in this latter section, because it contains the ‘Servant Songs’. There are 4 servant songs: Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-11, and 52:13-53:12. We will briefly analyze the first 3 songs and then look at the last song (Isaiah 53) in some detail, as this prophetic passage closely resembles the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There are several reasons to study the servant songs:
·         They provide insights into the literary genre of Old Testament prophecy (and Hebrew poetry)
·         They provide a message of hope to those who are weary
·         They provide guidelines on how the church should act as the servant of the Lord today

Perhaps the most crucial reason to study these texts is to uncover the identity of the servant. There is considerable debate as to who this servant is. Israel is explicitly called the servant of the Lord (41:8, 42:1). John Drane writes: ‘This has led many scholars to conclude that when Isaiah talks of the suffering servant, it is simply another way of referring to God’s people, Israel.[2]

But this is not the complete picture. Drane continues: ‘…things are said about the servant which are explicitly denied about Israel[3]’. Examples include:

·         The servant doesn’t rebel (50:5), but Israel constantly disobeyed God
·         The servant doesn’t suffer for his own wrongdoing (53:3-5), unlike Israel
·         Israel needed restoration, but the servant was sent to restore (49:5-6, 53:4-6)[4]

Of course, the New Testament freely applies the servant passages to Christ. In this paper, we will try to look at the historical development of the concept of the Servant and how it narrows down to Jesus and then to the church today.

Literary Context of the Servant Songs

Before we delve into the verses, it is imperative that we study the literary context of the servant songs. As already stated, scholars widely agree that the book of Isaiah has two major divisions which are possibly written by two different ‘Isaiahs’. There are many arguments that support this idea.

To begin with, chapters 40-55 contain no biographical details about the prophet, in contrast to chapter 1-39 where we see many personal details about Isaiah, especially his correspondence with the kings of Judah[5].

There are also stylistic differences between the two sections, but discussing them is beyond the scope of this post. Most significantly, chapters 40-55 assume Babylonian captivity and an imminent return of the exiles to Jerusalem (43:14-15, 47:1-15, 48:20). This also gives us a clue regarding the date of writing of the servant songs (see next section). 

Based on these arguments, the idea of more than one author of this book has been around for a long time. Some refer to the writer of chapters 40-55 as ‘Isaiah of Babylon, Second or Deutero-Isaiah’[6].

The prophet Isaiah had a group of disciples who recorded his messages (8:16), and possibly the writer(s) of the servant songs belong to this group. Perhaps this is why they didn’t create a second book, but added these messages to Isaiah’s corpus, because he is the source of these prophetic messages. This is also why the New Testament always refers to Isaiah as one unit (Matthew 3:3, Luke 4:17 etc.), and the church is justified to refer to the author of the book as Isaiah.

R.K. Harrison comments: ‘Even those scholars who subscribe to divisive theories of authorship can hardly fail to be impressed by the remarkable degree of theological agreement that exists in the early chapters…..and the work of the alleged Deutero-Isaiah’[7].

Before moving on, let us also briefly discuss the text of Isaiah. Our modern Old Testament translations are by and large based on the Masoretic Text (MT), which was scribed centuries after the time of Christ. Can the similarities between the servant of the Lord in Isaiah and Jesus be the result of tampering and corruption of the text by the church?

Not at all. Harrison states: ‘The Hebrew text of Isaiah has, on the whole, been very well preserved….[8]’.  The Qumran scrolls of Isaiah (dated to around 100 B.C.) demonstrate the veracity of the text. Yes, there are variations between the Qumran text and the MT, but ‘the variations are mostly occasioned by considerations of orthography’[9], i.e. punctuation. We will discuss further textual notes when commenting on the songs.

Historical Context of the Servant Songs

Considering the references to the Babylonian captivity, we can imagine that the servant songs were written or compiled some time before 539 B.C.[10] The historical background of these songs, hence, is the rise of Cyrus and his Persian kingdom, and the prophecies describe the imminent fall of Babylon. Isaiah the prophet, however, was alive some 150 years before these events in Jerusalem during the kingships of Ahaz and Hezekiah[11]

With this background, will begin our study of the songs in the next blog post.

[1] Pervaiz Sultan, “OT Prophets: Class Notes”, St. Thomas’ Theological College, April-June 2017.
[2] John Drane, Introducing the Old Testament, revised edition (USA: Lion Hudson plc, 2000), 192.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid, 189.
[6] Ibid.
[7] R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (USA:William B.Eardmans, 1969), 795
[8] Ibid, 798.
[9] Ibid
[10] Drane, 189.
[11] Ibid. 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Christianity and Motherhood

Hello and a Happy Mother’s Day!

Today I will be talking about what Bible says about motherhood, and I will divide this article into 3 points:

1)God is Our Mother

I often notice that on mother’s day, we focus all our attention on our mothers, whereas on father’s day, there is less focus on the father and more on God as our father. However, the Bible teaches not only God is our father, but He is our everything. The Bible talks about God in relational terms. He is our father (Matthew 6:9), husband (Revelation 22:17), sibling (Roman 8:29), shepherd (Psalm 23), and also our mother, and Isaiah 49:15). 

“like an eagle that stirs up its nest     and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them     and carries them aloft. The Lord alone led him;     no foreign god was with him”- Deuteronomy 32:11-12

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
    and have no compassion on the child she has borne?

Though she may forget,
    I will not forget you!” – Isaiah 49:15

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem……how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings….” –Matthew 23:37

In fact, the New Testament teaches that all human relationships emanate from God.

2)  Mary-The Mother of Our Lord

We cannot talk about the message of motherhood in the Bible without discussing the mother of our Lord. In fact, Mother’s Day was originally celebrated to honor Mother Mary.

Mary was a simple Jewish girl from Galilee. She was known for piety during her youth, which is the same time when a messenger from God visited her.  What was the message? 

Mary was supposed to give birth to a son in her young age, even before she was married! And the child to be born was to become the Savior of the world. Hesitant at first, Mary obeyed these commands, putting her life and honor at risk. For this obedience and devotion to the will of God, she was to be blessed by all generations. 

She is even revered in the religion of Islam as the mother of Jesus Christ, and a chaste woman. Her relationship with Jesus was also unique, for although she gave birth to him, He was in fact the savior of the world. She cared for Jesus as His mother, and then gradually recognized His true calling. After Jesus started His ministry, Mary became devoted to the cause as well.

Apart from the troubles of poverty, Mary had to endure the torturous death of her young son on the cross. But even after that, she chose to stay with the disciples He left behind him. The last reference we find of Mary in Bible tells us that she was living with disciples, committed to the cause of Christ (Acts 1:14).

Thus in Mary, we find the example of the ideal women and the ideal mother who accepted her child as a blessing from God and raised him to be perfect in the eyes of God. Jesus loved Mary to the end (John 13:1).

3) The Role of the Christian Mother

Finally, we will discuss the role of the Christian mother. Paul says 1 Timothy 2:15 ‘But women will be saved through childbearing’
On the surface, it seems that Paul is saying that the only job of the Christian woman is to bear children.  Also remember that in Genesis 3:16, child bearing is presented as a curse when God said: ‘I will make your pains in childbearing very severe…………….’

This verse suggests that the severe pain of labor is a reminder to the woman of her sin. We may think that God is being unfair, but we can only understand Genesis 3:16 and 1 Timothy 2:15 if we see their connection.

If there is no childbirth, there is no offspring to crush the head of the serpent, and no salvation, and no end to the curse. What this means is that the curse on the woman is the very key to salvation of the universe!

The woman is saved by enduring the curse she was subjected to. This is what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:15. For Eve, salvation came through childbearing because though her sin was supposed to make her perish, God gave her a new life, and motherhood was the physical demonstration of her salvation.

Mary was also saved through childbirth, not only because she obeyed the word of God, but she also gave birth to the savior of the world. Through her motherhood, God’s plan of a redemption was executed, and a redeemed community came into existence of which Mary was also a part (Acts 1:14).

This redeemed community is then sustained through Christian mothers who raise their children in grace.  A great example of this is found in what Paul says to Timothy ‘I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice’ (2 Timothy 1:5).

We are always thankful to God for Christian mothers in the church 
who despite all their problems bring their children to church with them, a job that is sometimes neglected by fathers. Mothers have an important role in God’s plan of salvation, and that is the privilege Christianity gives to women.

God bless you!