Book Excerpt: The River of Life

The word “gospel” means “good news.” Jesus says his message is good news—not to the prosperous, but to the poor. Not to the happy, but to the brokenhearted. Not to the slave owner, but to the captive. Not to the seeing, but to the blind. Jesus himself says the reason he came was to “preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Do you know what the “acceptable year of the Lord” is? Many translations read “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Does that help explain it?

This special year, often called the Jubilee, occurs every fifty years in the Old Testament. It is the year in which debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and property is returned to its original owner. It is a law that had fallen into disfavor, and it’s anybody’s guess whether anyone at all observed the Jubilee year anymore by Jesus’ time. Having read these words about the Jubilee, Jesus tells the crowd, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Let’s be clear, here. Jesus is not talking about proclaiming the good news of a future resurrection. His gospel is not about heaven at all. Jesus is talking about bringing relief for the desperate and freedom for the oppressed, and this he calls the gospel. His message is very this-worldly, and his gospel is directed to the commoner. The same message is repeated a couple chapters later: “Blessed are you who are poor.” Not “poor in spirit,” but just plain “poor.” Why? Because, says Jesus, the Kingdom of God has arrived on earth, and now things will be different.

You may be more familiar with Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount than Luke’s version, sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain. Both are basically the same scene, drawn from the same source. But in Luke’s version, the sayings are very down to earth, not meant in a spiritual way at all. Let’s look closer at the beatitudes. In Luke, we’re not dealing with the poor in spirit, we’re dealing with the poor. We’re not dealing with those who hunger after justice, but with those who are truly hungry. It’s not about those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, but simply all who are persecuted. Luke is not about spiritual needs, but about stark reality. In Luke, Jesus is concerned about those with empty stomachs, the real have-nots, the people who are weeping now.

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Book Excerpt: Life After Death, Powerful Evidence You Will Never Die

by Stephen Hawley Martin

How do we believe?

I reviewed this book a couple days ago, and obtained permission to print the following excerpt. Its relevance to religion, and life after death in particular, should be recognizable.

pp 140-141

For years, Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory University, has been studying how people think, particularly in the area of politics. … In experiments using MRI scans, Westen has demonstrated that persons with partisan preferences believe what they want to believe regardless of the facts. Not only that, they unconsciously congratulate themselves–the reward centers of their brains light up–when they reject new information that does not square with their predetermined views.

In one test, subjects were presented with contradictory statements made by George Bush and John Kerry. Republicans judged Kerry’s flip-flop harshly, while letting Bush off the hook for his. Democrats did the reverse. Interestingly, brain scans showed that the parts of the brain accounting for emotion were far more active during the experiment than the reasoning parts.

Anyone who follows politics will not be surprised by this. The truth is, Westen’s research does not relate anything new. Solzhenitsyn characterized this phenomenon as “the desire not to know.” …

Results such as this might help explain why some debates never seem to end. People are invested in the positions they take. So, as Westen puts it, they have a tendency to weigh not just the facts but also, “what they would feel if they came to one conclusion or another, and they often come to the conclusion that would make them feel better, no matter what the facts are.”

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Book Excerpt: Revelation: The Way It Happened

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. –Revelation chapter 6

Cataclysmic events accompany this seal, mimicking the books of Isaiah and Ezekiel. The sun and moon darken, and stars fall from the sky. Isaiah 34:4—All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree. See also Mark 13:24–27 and the other synoptic Gospels. Picture your “snow globe” universe shaken until the stars fall like figs, and then the empty dome overhead gets rolled up and put away.

This imagery probably evolved from an ancient hymn to the storm god, Baal, describing his advance into combat:

The heavens roll up like a scroll,

And all their hosts languish

As a vine leaf withers

As the fig droops.

Such images may sound bizarre to us today, but they had grown into common symbolism long before Revelation appeared. They denote the final wrapping up of a nation, such as Babylon (as told by Isaiah) and Egypt (by Ezekiel). In this case, the imagery signifies the end of the Jewish state, which would not be restored again for 1,900 years!

–Revelation: The Way It Happened, 2010, pp. 21, by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

I find that many liberal Christian authors avoid the topic of prayer, not knowing quite how to handle it or explain it, so let me tell you what works for me. I pray not to the creator/Father, nor to God’s incarnational version, the human/Son, but to the third part of the Trinity … that elusive, mysterious Spirit. In the Bible, the Spirit is the carrier of our prayers to God, interceding for us even when we know not how to pray. I find it easiest if I do not try to personify the Spirit. With this focus, I feel silly praying selfish petitions—a universal Spirit somehow transcends my selfish ambitions—so my prayer naturally steers toward renewing my purpose to contribute to the Kingdom of God. The words of the Lord’s Prayer are a perfect utterance, so we’ll talk more about this simple prayer shortly.

I close my eyes in shallow meditation until I feel the Spirit breathing in and around me, like Wind. I breathe God in and out, for breath is merely Wind inside me. Breathing in hope, breathing out love, adding my breath to the Wind, I share in the chorus of the Spirit. Then I open my eyes to see the leaves rustling, the grass bending, the living creation responding.

Your own connection to the Divine will surely differ.

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Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

“‘Without wine there is no joy,’” Matthew quoted a rabbinic saying. He still stared over the wall. “Your tale speaks truly, if it is meant as a parable of today’s age. Remember what Isaiah prophesied? ‘The new wine dries up and the vine withers; all the merrymakers groan.’ And do you know why, John? You know why, Ruth?” When neither spoke, Matthew answered his own question. “‘The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.’”

“But Matthew …” John lifted a hand, palm outward.

“‘The ruined city lies desolate; the entrance to every house is barred,’” Matthew’s voice fell to a sad whisper as he continued to quote the prophet Isaiah. “I have seen the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled, John! I have been to Jerusalem and seen the desolation! There is no messiah coming!” A bug scurried along the rock wall, and Matthew squished it with his thumb, as efficiently as God squished his Holy City.

“You’re right about Jerusalem, Matthew, but—”

Turning around, Matthew rumbled over the weaker man’s voice, his peacekeeping objective already faltering. “‘In the streets they cry out for wine; all joy turns to gloom, all gaiety is banished from the earth. The city is left in ruins, its gate is battered to pieces.’”

“And so did Israel feel while yet Jesus walked the earth, Matthew! Even before the war! We have been pinned under Roman oppression for a hundred years! We have suffered under self-serving and irreverent priests even longer! Yes, the Great War was terrible, but our people felt the desperation of Israel for a long time before that.”

Matthew shut up, his point made. But John would not let the matter drop. “Do you remember what Isaiah promised immediately after that prophecy, Matthew?”

Matthew pursed his lips. Ruth could sense him holding back, trying to rein in his crankiness, so she spoke for him: “‘The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine.’”

“Right,” John agreed, impressed by Ruth’s command of the Jewish scriptures. “And that’s the story I have to tell. Now, may I continue?”

–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

In the Bible, the Spirit is associated with creation. In Genesis 1:2, the wind/spirit/breath-of-God blows across the deep. Thus the wind provides an excellent picture of the Spirit, roaming the earth. Breath is merely wind inside us. To be “born of the Spirit” means to be created anew, embracing the meaning of life intended by God. It is God breathing new life into a person. In both Hebrew and Greek, there is only one word for both “wind” and “spirit.” The tendency of the churches of today to conceptualize and personify this spirit costs it much of the meaning. It is wind all around and inside us, cosmic breath, the invisible, spectral life-force.

Try to picture the moment Jesus rose from his baptism in the Jordan waters and felt the Spirit descend upon him. Have you had such moments? For many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, impossible to forget. The moment arrives in transcendental form, and we feel bathed in a foreign substance.

In such moments, it’s common to be overwhelmed by an indescribable feeling of joy, peace, and love.

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

The apostle Paul is particularly excited about the Spirit in his letters. He writes to the Galatians that they are no longer under the law (the prior age) but under the Spirit’s direction (the new age). The Spirit produces new fruit in our lives, he said: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance. In too many verses for me to quote, Paul indicates that we are a new creation, infused with the promised Spirit, and thus the age has begun.

Paul had a phrase that he liked to use: brotherly love. One of the distinguishing marks of early Christianity was its propensity for treating one another as “brethren,” greatly beloved. This phrase is so common to us today that we may forget what it really means. “Brotherly,” in the original Greek, is disturbingly literal. It might be more correctly interpreted, “from the same womb.” How are we to understand this? It confused Nicodemus as well: “Can a man enter into the womb and be born again?” To which Jesus retorted: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Born again of the Spirit, we enter into the age of God’s rule.

The word translated into “love” here is the Greek word philia—meaning a fondness, a close companionship. Thus when the author of Hebrews asks us to “let brotherly love continue,” he is saying “let there be a deep and enduring fondness between all who have followed Christ into the new age.”

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

In my mind, the nature of Christ’s second coming is inextricably intertwined with the nature of his resurrection. Resurrection is key, as every Christian agrees. If there were no resurrection, there would be no Christianity.

So what is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection? Did he simply disappear from this earth, never to be seen again, as the Gospel of Mark reports? Did he rise bodily alongside many others as part of a general resurrection, and promise to remain “until the end of the age,” as many readers understand the Gospel of Matthew? Perhaps Matthew meant to depict the resurrected Jesus (and all the rest of the resurrected saints that day) as spiritual, not physical? Sometime when you’re in a contemplative mood, read the final chapter of Matthew. Jesus’ resurrection seems presented as physical, since the disciples “hold Jesus by his feet.” Yet the final verse of Matthew depicts a spiritual Jesus who will remain with us through the age of God’s rule. Try therefore to discern the point where Jesus slides from a physical to a spiritual body. Then try to imagine whatever happened to all the saints who resurrected that day and appeared “to many” in Jerusalem, if indeed Matthew meant to imply a physical resurrection. Did they crawl back in their graves? Who sealed up the tombs again?

Or do we trust Luke’s report, where Jesus climbs out of the tomb, presents himself in a physical body, remains on earth 40 days, and then ascends into heaven?

Should we instead dig clear back to our first New Testament writer? Paul saw the resurrected Jesus not in a physical body but as a light from heaven, and considered his Jesus-sighting to be as authentic as any other. When he writes of those who saw the resurrected Jesus, he makes no distinction between how Jesus appeared to him and to others. “Am I not an apostle?” Paul writes indignantly in that same letter to the Corinthians, insisting that he is as qualified to be an apostle as any other person who saw the risen Jesus. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”

Were all of the Jesus sightings visionary experiences, then, like a light from heaven?

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

With heaven and hell relegated to a minor role, what are we supposed to look forward to? One important difference between liberal and conservative theology is the manner in which the two sides view Jesus’ second coming. Conservatives can hardly be criticized for being future-minded. They imagine a glorious day in which Jesus will descend back to earth, slaughter two hundred million people, raise the dead to life, and then fly away with all the good guys to an eternal existence beyond the clouds. Perhaps somewhere in this timeline Jesus remains on earth for a 1,000 year reign and perhaps not.

Liberal Christians and critical Bible scholars, however, often have a hard time with this picture. While it’s true the majority of the New Testament writers expected Jesus to come back, they also wrote with an intense urgency, placing all the excitement squarely in the first century … not two thousand years later. How can the second coming still be in our future? The following promises are all made by Jesus:

When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

And he said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the Kingdom of God present with power.”

Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

Was Jesus wrong about this?

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

Now as [Jesus] was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit [aionios] life?”

This man isn’t asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is inaugurating through the life of Jesus, and how he can be a part of it. Jesus tells him to sell what he has and give to the poor—this will help bring about the messianic age—after which Jesus makes a bold and confusing promise: “and you shall have treasure in heaven.”

It’s confusing because we have somehow come to believe we must go to heaven to obtain this treasure! As Bible scholar N. T. Wright would say, if my wife tells me she has a cake in the oven for me, it doesn’t mean I have to crawl in the oven to eat it. That God has special treasures in a storehouse in heaven for us hardly means they will be sitting idle up there until we die.

No, “eternal life” is not about heaven.

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

Some Christians today imagine the Kingdom of Heaven as a place that exists up above the clouds, but it is not. Only in the gospel of Matthew will you see this phrase used. Out of respect for the name of God this one Bible writer merely substituted the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” for “Kingdom of God.” But in every reference in the Bible, the Kingdom of God exists not up in the sky, but down here on earth. It refers to the age of God’s rule on earth—an age promised by the prophets of old, that was to be inaugurated by the arrival of the Messiah.

Christians in the first century believed that this Messiah was Jesus. Indeed, the most pointed difference between Christianity and other Judaic sects was merely this: Christians claimed the Messiah had come. Christians were Messianists. They were perceived as a messianic sect, venerating a messianic figure. You can see why the title “Christian” was at first considered derogatory; how laughable to think that the failed coup Jesus attempted could earn him the status of the Jewish Messiah!

But that is precisely what Christians were saying. Somehow, they insisted, in a manner quite unlike what traditional Judaism thought their Messiah would do, Jesus did set the world on the right course. The age of God’s rule did begin. Jesus, they insisted, began the transformation of the world from disorder and chaos into righteousness and justice.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray not that they would go to heaven, but that the Kingdom of God would come down from heaven and infiltrate the earth. The Kingdom of Heaven refers to the Kingdom of God from heaven. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” Jesus instructed them to pray.

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

In our Bibles, there are four Greek words that are commonly translated into the word “hell”. These words are Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, and each is described briefly in Lee Harmon’s new book, The River of Life. The following is an excerpt from this book describing one of the four.

Hades – This may be thought of as the Greek version of Sheol. By the time the New Testament was written, Sheol had morphed into Hades, which is much more colorful than its Hebrew counterpart. The Greeks had many legends about this land under the earth, and actually did imagine it to be a place of eternal existence after death. Portions of Hades were pleasant and portions were not so pleasant. The most famous reference to Hades in the Bible is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In this parable, told by Jesus, both descend to Hades after they die, but Lazarus gets stationed in a pleasant place across a chasm from the rich man, who is in torment. They call to one another across the uncrossable chasm.

Did Jesus really present this story as an accurate picture of life after death? Few Bible scholars think so anymore. The story bears an uncanny resemblance to Greek, Jewish and Egyptian stories known by all in Jesus’ day. Scholars have discovered many such similar parables. A doctoral dissertation at the University of Amsterdam identified seven versions of the parable circulating in the first century.

For example, stories of the dead “carried by angels” into “Abraham’s bosom” can be found in the Talmud, as can the idea of communicating across the gulf between Paradise and the place of torment. Jesus is not revealing any new secrets about hell, here. Bible scholar Craig Blomberg writes that “Jesus may have simply adopted well-known imagery but then adapted it in a new and surprising way.”* Jesus is merely drawing on a common legend to make a point about the justice of God in the age of God’s rule on earth. The poor and the rich trade places.

Hundreds of years ago, it was common to interpret this parable literally, but this line of thought has largely been abandoned by Bible scholars. Hades is not meant by Jesus to be a literal description of any form of an afterlife.


* Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 1987, p. 22-23

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Chapter 1: Heaven and Hell

It may seem strange that I begin my book at the end. Isn’t the afterlife more of a destination than a starting point?

Well, I’m not really starting here. I’m dismissing the topic up front as being of little importance to Jesus. Let’s get it out of the way.

What I hope to uncover in these pages is the kernel; the real gist of the gospel; the core message that Jesus taught. I think this core should be the focus of our Christian doctrine. When we put Jesus back in his first-century Judaic setting, the Bible reads very differently, and it’s this authentic picture that I hope to convey. The gospel is not about coercing people into heaven or rescuing them from hell. It is not about reward or punishment. It is about the arrival of a different kind of messiah, with an unexpected message.

For hundreds of years before Christ, Jews had dreamed of a rescuing messiah, someone to set the world right again. Someone with the authority and backing of God, who would introduce an era of righteous rule, and who would lift the burden of oppression the Jews had felt off and on for centuries. In this glorious new age, God would come down from heaven and dwell again with mankind. God’s Spirit—which had gone missing for hundreds of years—would again permeate the earth.

According to Christians, the anticipated Messiah came in the first century. The gospel is the good news of the Messiah’s long-awaited arrival two thousand years ago, and how everything—the whole world—would now be transformed under the rule of God. Heaven and hell are confusing, obscure topics that miss the point, and if we can’t set them aside, we’ll miss the point too.

The River of Life, by Lee Harmon

Copyright 2014, Energion Publications

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Book Excerpt: The River of Life

Imagine a tree which divides into two grafted-in branches. The root and original trunk of the tree is the words of the Bible and the life of a long-ago man who inspires us still today. This trunk reflects the Jesus movement which began 2,000 years ago, though two millennia of bitter theological argument has obscured its original character. We no longer know with any precision what the tree was first like—perhaps it was a fig tree—but we all have our opinions, projecting upon Jesus the image which best fits our own treasured church atmosphere.

One branch grafted onto this trunk became a mighty red maple, built atop Jesus and the Bible, stretching ever upward toward heaven. Let’s call this branch the conservatives. The other branch of the tree grew into a willow, drawing strength from the same Jesus and the same Bible, but bending to reach back down to earth. It is less a religion than a philosophy. Let’s call this branch the liberals.

The leaves of this odd tree intermingle, but they look and act very differently. They view each other with suspicion. They all draw life from the Son-light, but seem to be stretching in opposite directions, as if they reach for the Son in different locations. They trust in the strength of their roots, but against such diverse winds that one wonders if they really share the same foundation.

Is there hope for reconciliation? Will the maple leaves ever convince the willow leaves to lift their eyes heavenward? Will the willow leaves ever persuade the maple leaves to reach out to their brothers and sisters down here on earth? Curiously, both sides echo the same frustrated chorus: “Blast it, man, how can you call yourself a real Christian if you ignore what Jesus said?”

This book, then, is an attempt to uncover the roots, and in so doing to explain Jesus and the New Testament from a liberal perspective so that perhaps we can at least respectfully appreciate our differences. Perhaps someday we can even join hands in a common purpose, if not common beliefs.

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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My New Book: The River of Life

My latest book has been published by Energion Publications, and copies are on their way to me from the printer! Anyone who would like review copies should contact me or Henry Neufeld at Energion.

This book is less scholarly than my previous books, much more personal and much shorter. It is an easy read, helping readers to understand the focus and beliefs of liberal Christians. Here’s a sneak preview of the opening paragraphs:

*********

I am an agnostic Christian.

For the sake of full disclosure, perhaps I should define what I mean by agnostic. I believe in God; I just don’t think we know squat about him. I sense that we are linked by something mysterious, that we are more than matter. I am not agnostic in general, I am merely agnostic toward the Christian depiction of God, or any other personal god, feeling that inadequate evidence exists for one caricature to rise above the rest. Arguing about whether it is Shiva or Allah who is the Truth is a little like bickering over the color of Cinderella’s eyes. Yet I believe, because I have both seen and felt God. I have sat in the churches of various denominations and seen strong people reduced to emotional puddles and then lifted into radiance. I have seen kidneys given to complete strangers. I marvel at Mother Teresa’s mission of kindness in the name of God, though she herself felt estranged from the God of her church.

I am a Christian in search of God. Christian, because Jesus is my inspiration and Christianity is my heritage.

Life is a mystery. How do we explain our universe, life’s origins, and human consciousness? In the Christian Trinity, we have the Son (the mystery of incarnation, or God-in-us); we have the Father (the mystery of our creation and creator); and we have the Spirit (that “something mysterious,” the wave of meaning and purpose which links us). All three are astounding, beautiful, awesome. We Christians tend to combine these three mysteries into one, and then personify their union, though we have no evidential reason for doing so. Nevertheless, I am happy uniting all three under the heading of God so that a common ground exists for discussion.

I am also a liberal Christian, living in a conservative world. Most of my family and friends are conservative Christians. Conservatives consider apostolic tradition of utmost importance, meaning they seek to emulate the first-century church as best they know how. This is a noble goal, but it can lead to stringent intolerance for diluted beliefs. It’s the right way or the highway. Liberal Christians, on the other hand, find the creedal requirements which develop from such strictness stifling and contrary to observation and experience. We see God in many people and places, not just in Christian circles. This can lead liberals to a violent condemnation of narrow doctrine. Intolerance is intolerable.

And round and round we go. As a liberal Christian, I have both stooped to verbal aggression and felt the sting of attack. Both sides care so dang much that we can’t help squabbling, but this hardly puts a good face on Christianity. If the two sides could merely take one step backward, digging back to the Jesus we both adore, perhaps there could be a unity of purpose. Even though there can never be agreement about religious belief, the Kingdom could nevertheless advance. That is my hope in writing this book.

–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

“Isn’t that Jesus?”

“Where?”

“There.” The man pointed. “At the back of the synagogue. Standing at the head of that band of strangers.”

“I see him.” The president smiled, an old man, shoulders bowed and smallish, face crafted over the years into wrinkly, gentle jolliness. “Yes, it’s Jesus, son of Joseph! Let’s ask him to be our reader today.”

The Teacher, noting the conversation at the front of the synagogue, stepped forward without waiting for an invitation. He expected this, the appropriate honor for his visit back to his tiny homeland of Nazareth, and he had prepared carefully. The chosen topic today was in the writings of Isaiah. But as the president handed him an open scroll for reading, he immediately unrolled it to another location.

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,” Jesus began, his voice low but authoritative.

Taken aback, the old synagogue leader stepped up to the podium, pointing at the scroll. This was not the appointed reading!

Jesus held up a hand, palm out, and the smaller man paused. Jesus’ voice grew louder as he continued to read. “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind!”

A murmur rustled through the crowd, perhaps two hundred people. They knew the rumors, how Jesus forsook the heritage of his father and turned from carpentry to healing. But those were merely stories that found their way from the Sea of Galilee. The man had never returned here to display his talents. The last news heard in Nazareth was that Jesus had taken up with a man called the Baptizer.

“To release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!” Jesus continued.

“The Lord’s favor?” a man in front sputtered. “This is not the year of the Jubilee.”

Jesus rerolled the scroll and handed it back to the president, the chosen passage still unread. In a gentler voice, he proclaimed, “Today is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.” Then he stepped down from the small platform and strode to the back of the synagogue.

–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: Revelation: The Way It Happened

To the north, outside the city, an army of wooden crosses clamored mutely for Josiah’s attention, every one of them displaying a crucified captive. Most of the victims now were dead, although some still contorted painfully with each attempt to tease air into their lungs. When the Romans needed crosses, they yanked the carcasses down and tossed them in heaps for the dogs to scavenge. Crucifixion filled the Roman need for intimidation, and now, few dared to venture outside the walls of the city to gather herbs. Josiah watched another escape attempt, a young man no older than he. He saw the Roman guards catch the man and strip him naked, then brutally whip him with thongs beaded with iron balls and sharpened bone, just large enough to tear the skin, until they bludgeoned all of the fight out of him, and his screams turned hoarse—a familiar sight. The Romans then spread the young man on a cross, driving spikes through his hands and feet. They raised the cross and dropped it into a prepared hole, steadied it in the ground, and left him there to die. Some victims died in hours, while others struggled for days, wishing for death. But all of them departed this world the way Jesus led, sharing in his agony outside the walls of God’s holy city.

Josiah’s stomach churned; he could watch no more of this suffering. He turned away from the wall and made his way back to the other side of the courtyard, minutely preferring the dismal scene inside the city. Below, starving hordes of people made civil law impossible. Uprooted from their tent sites in the north of the city, the visitors now did their best to survive in the streets of Old Town to the south, still unable to return home. Vacant eyes stared back up at Josiah, devoid of life even before death arrived. Our skin was black as an oven, because of terrible famine, the prophet Jeremiah had written. Josiah watched as a young family trudged up the stairs to the courtyard and, ignoring the Temple, stumbled instead over to the cattle pens, where the priests kept animals for sacrifice. There, they began to gather dung to eat—some put in containers to carry out; some eaten before they left the pens.

(Editor’s note: Yes, this war of 70 AD really happened and is recorded in history. This is the destruction, the gehenna (translated in many Bibles as “hell”) that Jesus warned Jerusalem about.)

–Revelation: The Way It Happened, 2010, pp. 21, by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

Nathanael calls Jesus the Son of God (the chosen king), but Jesus immediately ups the ante to Son of Man (the anticipated Messiah).

“Son of God” is not a new title at all. This identification with God grew common in Hermetic literature and among Hellenistic thinkers, even among Jews, but always in metaphor and always in ambiguity.

Romulus, the founder of Rome, was the Son of God, as was Alexander the Great. Roman emperors were labeled sons of God, a tribute to their deified fathers. Philosophers reserved the title for particularly wise men. Even in Judaic tradition, the title never literally meant divine offspring. It applied to those who belonged to God and in time came to mean a righteous man in general. Some argue that by Jesus’ day, the title implied messianic fulfillment in the Davidic lineage, a “mighty God” who would rule forever (Isaiah 9:6–7), but it is applied to people in the Old Testament in a number of less dramatic ways. It refers to any of the children of Israel; to a lawful or holy Jew; to a messenger or mediator sent by God; to the coming Messiah; or to an angelic being. It never implies physical sonship.

The king of Israel also boasted the title Son of God, not in the sense of Roman emperors but as a representative of Yahweh. “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” (Psalms 2:7, echoed in Hebrews 1:5). Thus, on the day of his anointing, each king became a “son” to Yahweh, going back to Solomon in 2 Samuel 7:14, and this appears to be Nathanael’s insinuation here in John’s Gospel.

But irony is a favorite tool of John, and surely he intends Nathanael’s assertion as an understatement. How, then, does John mean for the phrase “Son of God” to be interpreted? John’s usage throughout his Gospel seems to speak of the Son of God as a “sent one” by the Father. It might make the most sense to consider Jesus as one who comes in the name of the Father. We are familiar with the way Matthew carried the title “Son of God” to extremes, telling the story of how God stepped down to earth and impregnated a human woman, who then bore a half-human/half-divine offspring. This theme proliferated in legends about demigods and heroes, but among New Testament writers, the biological claim is unique to Matthew’s Gospel—not even Luke shares such a literal understanding (see Luke 1:35)—and John’s Gospel has no use for these birth stories, his preexistent version of Jesus is far more encompassing. When John writes of the Son of God, we can certainly discard the romantic idea of a literal offspring of God and a human. Instead, John twice points out that Jesus is the child of Joseph (1:45, 6:42). John nowhere betrays any knowledge of or interest in the doctrine of the virgin birth. In fact, the idea of a miraculous conception contradicts the Johannine teaching of a preexistent Logos. For John, Jesus proved worthy of far greater praise than the overused birth stories put forth to honor kings and heroes in his day.

Yet the title “Son of God” quickly grew pregnant with meaning within Christian circles, where it began to carry intimate and eschatological overtones. God hid himself from Moses, the greatest of Hebrew heroes, yet Jesus claimed a blasphemously close relationship with God, even calling him “Abba” (presumably a term of affection like “daddy”), such that “son of God” came to refer primarily to one’s relationship with God. Jews understood that in the final days, God himself would come back down to earth and dwell with his people, making himself personally known, bringing back the intimacy shared with Adam in the garden of Eden. In the golden age, all Christians would be called sons and daughters of God!

For now, let’s merely embrace the mysticism inherent in the phrase and the intimate union with God that it implies. Perhaps John will make his meaning more clear.

–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: Revelation: The Way It Happened

In 70 CE, the Romans overpowered Jerusalem in a war that would set the stage for Christianity to emerge from the ashes of Judaism.

Josiah stood atop Mount Zion, the Temple mount, gazing out over the city of Jerusalem. A skyrocketing population in the weeks before the Passover feast had transformed two months later into a rising death toll; fewer and fewer Jews could be seen in the streets south of the Temple. The northern half of the city had fallen to the Romans, and only a single wall, running east to west through the middle of the city, separated the legionnaires from the hapless citizens and visitors.

For two months Josiah had been battling the Roman legions in Jerusalem, and the Jewish army had eventually been forced to retreat back to the Temple mount. Titus, the son of Caesar, now paraded his legions below, doing his best to demoralize the remaining Jews. Yet Josiah much preferred fighting the Romans to the lawlessness of the preceding civil war. Zealot factions had been killing other Jews for three years, filling the streets with piled bodies. Most families died slowly of hunger or disease, choosing at sword point to relinquish their food and possessions to the Zealots, who responded by isolating the young men of the family and skewering those unwilling to join in the war effort. They lay unburied as a deterrent to the disobedience of others; no one was allowed to remove them for burial under threat of the same punishment. Josiah knew what the scriptures said: At that time, friends shall make war on friends like enemies. Portions of the city began to stink so badly that people avoided many of the streets.

Josiah dug another piece of dried fish out of his pouch and began chewing on it. He glanced up at the Temple where the priests performed ritual sacrifices, even while the war continued. Many of the Jewish citizens still trudged up the south stairs that led to where Josiah stood on the 35-acre Temple courtyard and then up another flight of stairs to the great Temple itself. One of these travelers had been kind enough to share his meat, or Josiah would have gone hungry today.

He plodded over to the east side of the courtyard and peeked over the city wall to where the Roman encampments once sprawled outside Jerusalem. The city’s vineyards lay trampled. Most of the Romans had relocated inside the walls, but Jerusalem remained surrounded, leaving no escape. Catapults still hurled stones as big as Josiah’s torso over the Temple fortifications.

–Revelation: The Way It Happened, 2010, pp. 21, by Lee Harmon

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Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Jesus mashed his eyes shut, trying to expel words that had burned into his brain. Those were John the Baptizer’s words, bellowed invectives Jesus heard over and over from the day he became a follower.

“Come, you sinful nation, cross the Jordan with me. As your ancestors crossed this river into the promised land, so cross with me, and be clean! Be purged of your sins! Enter Adonai’s holy land again, through these cleansing waters, and prepare yourself for his Messiah!”

Jesus rolled onto his back, listening to the snores of the others. Night had fallen several hours ago. He tried to craft a plan for their trip to the Galilee, but his concentration failed. The experience of a few days ago, with the Baptizer, still gripped him.

The prophet John had stood in the center of the river, still sporting the camel-hair coat that had become his trademark. A Jerusalem crowd filed by from the east as, one at a time, he dipped them in the Jordan and steered them on across to the Jerusalem side. “Make straight the path for the Messiah,” he rumbled, pausing only to suck air or dip another convert. “His sword will strike swiftly, the unclean slaughtered in heaps upon the ground. Do not be numbered with the sinful! Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees; every tree that bears no fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire! FIRE! Do not find yourself on the side of the sinful when your Messiah arrives!”

The Messiah. Always, the Messiah. John’s fiery message never wavered. “‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me,’” John shouted. “That’s what the prophet Malachi promised. Well, I am he! The Lord’s messenger! And what did Malachi say? ‘Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his Temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.’”

Of course, it didn’t happen, no matter how loudly John bellowed. Word of the Lord’s appearance never arrived from the Temple. No triumphant Messiah, no fiery bloodbath. Yet Jesus had followed John, allowed himself to be immersed in the river Jordan with the rest of John’s followers, because he was learning from this strange teacher, learning the words of the prophets, and then … then …

Then the epiphany occurred, as soon as he came up out of the water. Epiphany? No, more like a transformation, like a foreign spirit invading his body and buoying him up. There, standing waist deep in the Jordan River, Jesus lifted his hands and face skyward. He praised God above and then waded through the water to the shoreline and strode west—into the desert, where he would spend a time in deep contemplation.

–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon

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