Just Like a Woman, But What Is a Woman?

feminineIn the first and second posts in this series, I drew our gaze to a problem that is growing in attention and concern for Reformed and other church members, and then I offered some general direction for thinking through what a solution should look like. In that second post, I made the suggestion – no doubt unexpected, even strange – that a remedy for improved health includes some close and patient reflection on one of the most curious features of Levitical law: the relationship of a menstruating woman to sancta. More fully understanding the Levitical woman, I suggest, means having in place a widely clarifying and organizing biblical reality. This feature of the Levitical woman, in relation to the rest of the canon to which it belongs, illumines the “why” of so much of the biblical “what” concerning the responsibilities of headship and the special concern in Scripture for the feminine among us.

Today I would like to nudge us gently further down that path, and it would seem a useful service to orient us more concretely to the big picture at the outset. Giving away the ending at the beginning is bad story writing, but it is good theology. What is that ending? In short, it is that the statutes and ordinances of the Law, the narratives, a wide range of biblical types and figures, the wisdom literature, and the New Testament Gospels and Writings all commend to us a vision of the unique theo-ontology of a woman as a kind of sacred space who exists as such in relation to her husband who is her head, himself a kind of priest charged to protect, nurture, and cultivate that sacred space. This unique ontology of woman as created is conveyed beautifully in, among other forms, a range of biblical homologies as well as explicit links (both negative and positive) between the woman and the promised land/city. And the true “end” of the story of the biblical ontology of the feminine is an eschatology of the feminine, an eschatology figured forth and directly taught in the biblical preoccupation with the widows, mothers, and daughters of Israel, and ultimately of course in the redemptive love of Christ the groom-head for his Bride, the Church. Ultimately, the eschatological ontology of woman as a distinct creature from the man is an eschatology of the Lord himself. So says the Gospel.

Ten Observations

But we are gesturing now too far into generalities, so note the following ten brief observations, each of which will be taken up and explored in the course of this series of posts. Don’t worry: they will never be confused with Luther’s 95 Theses, but perhaps they will help the reader plot some of the various points in this constellation of ideas. (I will leave out the myriad of biblical (and other) references at this point in order simply to get the ideas out there for reflection, and we will pause over them in time, d.v.)

1. The Apostle Paul teaches us that the woman is the glory of the man. This is a provocative teaching on his part in his context, yet it is utterly unsurprising against the backdrop of the preceding biblical tradition. Paul’s words, however, give a special focus to the idea, and in context they have the precise function of correcting errors regarding the ontology and eschatology of the feminine.

2. The same Apostle points us to the significance, often overlooked, of the fact that the woman was created from and after man. The LORD could have created man and woman at the same time, but he did not, and the creation of woman second, rather than being a sign of inferiority to the first, is in Scripture an eschatological marker: the second is the glory of the first. She is created to be his eschatological glory. Instead of reducing her, it elevates her.

3. The significance of this eschatological marker (second, and from man, as his glory) is developed by Paul in the direction of its implications for understanding the nature of Adam’s and Eve’s Edenic transgressions, as well as the special class of temptations that belong to women as glory creatures.

4. However, Paul is not inventing this reading any more than John does, who teaches the same. It is the way Leviticus “reads” Genesis. Or, better, it is how Genesis was always supposed to be read, with Leviticus, and there are many indicators within both texts that this is the case. For Christians, we must remember, there is no such thing as Genesis as such but only, and from the very beginning, the Genesis given with and of a piece with the Torah and specifically Leviticus, and ultimately the Christian canon as a whole. The canonical environment for any text is not a later add-on; if we believe what the Scriptures say about themselves, the canonical environment is the natural environment of any text. Separated from canon, a text is an unrecognizable orphan. In our case, the temple/sanctuary world of Eden is a specifically Levitical world, and remembering this helps sensitize us to the nature of the roles, commands, and sins of Genesis 1-3.

5. To gain a basic appreciation of the biblical teaching regarding the “eschatological ultimacy” of the feminine, rightly conceived, we need only note that in the inspired Scriptures Eve is created from Adam, her head, as his glory; the land, the people Israel, and the city Jerusalem are feminine realities; Christ has redeemed his people who are conceived of as a feminine reality, the Bride of Christ; and Revelation 21-22 teaches us that the eternal mode of the Church’s glorified existence is properly conceived of as a feminine mode: the consummated and glorified new Jerusalem-Bride. The biblical Lady Jerusalem and Mother Jerusalem are not figures in the sense that they are somehow less real and less relevant to how we think of the feminine; to the contrary, she is most real and most relevant. To ask, then, about the why of biblical teaching regarding men and women in relationship, marriage and its bliss or burdens, and the forms of faithful ecclesiastical order and life is to ask what is the significance of this prominent and consistent biblical motif.

6. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the most familiar and classic OT text concerning divorce legislation, the series of steps in the argument resolve finally in the “why” of verse 4, which is that Israel must not bring sin upon the land that the LORD is giving as an inheritance. But why does the husband’s maltreatment of his wife (as per Daniel Block, this is what is in view in vv. 1-4a) have anything to do with the defilement of the land? Few scholars seem to ask this question, though books innumerable have been devoted to the rest of the unit. We will point to the biblical homology of woman and land to illuminate the Genesis-Levitical connection assumed in the text. When we do so, we discover the links between this divorce text and all the other OT ones, including the otherwise curious command by God to Israel in Ezra to divorce their foreign wives, a command beautifully reversed in 1 Cor. 7 because of what the Church is now as the Body of Christ.

7. As a sexual creature who embodies, in her sexual physiology, the degrees of sancta, biblical texts regarding the maltreatment of woman use the vocabulary of sexual violence and transgression not only for adultery and rape, but also for other forms of serious neglect, oppression, and the like. (Older Reformed writers were remarkably sensitive to this in their ethical manuals.) The biblical range of actions and destructive modes of relating are expressive of the primitive and universal sinful propensity, since the Fall, for men to fail to act with priestly care and concern for sancta, and which is captured in the language of mashal in Gen. 3:16 (“he will rule over you”). Mashal in Gen. 3:16 is, I will argue, not a reference to the (continuing, not new) fact of the husband’s headship. It is instead a reference to what is new with the Fall: oppressive rule in the form of an exploitative misuse of the real and continuing fact of the husband’s or authoritative figure’s headship into a tool of harm. The Gen. 3:16 mashal specifically is an etiology for the wide range of those abuses of power throughout the OT and NT and in our own experience, whether political, social-communal, marital, or otherwise. By nature we sin, and we sin often in abusing positions of relative strength or power. (“No poison or sword ought to terrify you as much as the lust for domination.” ~ Bernard of Clairvaux to his pupil, Pope Eugene. And as a friend of mine noted to me recently, “some guy named Tolkien wrote a story about this.”) As D. Block has demonstrated, the second iteration of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy already indicates this concern to restrain mashal in the ways it differs from the Decalogue in Exodus, clarifying the tenth commandment through reorganization especially in order to restrain exploitation of the Exodus form of it. Judges is a book-length narrative depiction of Israel’s devolution into Canaanitism precisely in the form of Canaanite-like mashal abuse of women: wives, concubines, and daughters. And so on.

8. Instead of the woman’s eschatological “location” in relation to man serving as some kind of warrant for her independence from him, biblically it works in precisely the opposite direction. Indeed, the unique temptation the woman faces in life is the unique temptation of the “glorious ones” in Scripture: to confuse her glorious status with the notion that she no longer needs the one whose glory she in fact is. This is the principle at work in Paul’s remark about Eve in 1 Timothy 2, against the backdrop not only of Genesis 1-3 but also Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 14, and reflected again later in the climactic letter to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3).

9. These observations bear directly on how we understand what is going on in a wide range of Scriptural places. For instance, the Proverbs 31 woman, we will see, is chiastically described so that her central “virtue” is the way her husband is glorified by her beauty. The glory of the royal man of the Song of Songs is – and at one point especially dramatically – his approaching bride. We add to these what is happening in Ezekiel 16, Hosea, Jeremiah 3, Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Abigail, the spurned concubine in Ex. 21, Tamar, Dinah, Rahab, the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus, Joseph’s righteousness in relation to an apparently adulterous Mary, the healing of the woman with the “issue of blood,” the meaning of porneia in Matthew’s “exception clause” divorce passages, Lydia who is the Proverbs 31 woman of Acts, the household codes in the NT epistles, the women in Corinth, the holy children and unbelieving spouse in relation to the believing spouse in 1 Cor. 7, the washing and glorification of the Revelation Bride, and on and on and on.

10. If the Scriptures revel and exude in these ways regarding the significance of what makes a woman different from a man, and vice versa, then the tragedy of the homosexualist agenda and of family or ecclesiastical maltreatment of women is clearer. In the homosexualist agenda, the push for a distortion of equality as uniformity, of practical undifferentiated sexuality, of sexuality as mere cultural more, we lose what makes us meaningful. We lose, too, what makes a woman uniquely special. The homosexuality agenda is thus a great oppression of women. In family or ecclesiastical maltreatment of women, the urgency of the biblical proscriptions is lost on us if we ignore the motif of the feminine as a kind of sacred space which is violated in the failure to protect, nurture, provide for, and love – a violation which, in marital form, can be so severe that it ruptures the one-flesh reality.

That Levitical Woman

What, then, about that Levitical woman? I will begin in the next post to outline what is happening in Leviticus, but – after tipping my hat in this direction already in the notes above – here is a brief window into her significance for our question. The Levitical woman is impure for 7 days during menstruation and 40 days following parturition (Lev. 15:19-24; 12:2-4). However, over against the assumptions of countless critical readers of Leviticus, feminist and otherwise, this is not reflective of an alleged biblical misogyny and a lower-than-male ontology for women. Quite to the contrary, in fact. Leviticus develops a rich, even captivating homologous relationship between the woman and the distinct regions or areas of the wilderness sanctuary.

As we shall discover with the help of some very useful scholarship on the question, in her unique sexual ontology and physiology, focused particularly on her reproductive cycle (the “mother of life”), the woman is conceived of as embodying the degrees of nearness to tabernacle sancta: there is a strict corresponding relationship of (1) the stages of relative purity in the sanctuary set-up (outside in the wilderness in the region of death, then within the boundaries but not at the center in sacred space, and then at the center) to (2) the relative condition of the woman (first described as with a pathological blood flow, then with a normal monthly blood flow, then without the blood flow). What transpires in her physiology is a microcosm of the biblical accounts of the creation and flood, as well as of the glorious temple itself. And this, we shall see, informs and in some cases directly shapes the biblical legislation regarding the urgency of proper protection of, care, and love of a woman. It also, in its variety of biblical reverse images, identifies the tragic and dark forms of the failure to properly do so.

To be sure, the woman as glorious, and its intimate connection to the notion of sacred space, has been tragically and idolatrously distorted into the worship of woman from time immemorial. But this distortion – whether in ancient Greek form or contemporary radical feminist form – is a distortion of the Creator’s design, of his purpose, and thus of something we would do well to remember. It is also worth reminding ourselves that Christians don’t do pendulum theology. Orthodoxy on the feminine, as elsewhere, is defined by the teaching of Scripture, not by the furthest possible point away from either feminist or patriarchal distortions.

There is much more to say, of course, but we may gain something of a footing for the path to come if we keep these things in mind. Stay tuned.

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We Have a Solution (But Do We Want It?)

woman-with-an-issue-of-bloodIn a recent post I asked us to acknowledge that we have a problem. The reaction to that post suggests that simply saying so touched an exposed, raw nerve. Many are agreeing that we do indeed have a problem, and that their own experience bears this out.

Today I would like to begin to point to the solution. The solution is the biblical gospel, and more particularly a fresh appreciation for the place of the feminine within the biblical and real world of that gospel.

Yes, I understand that this sounds trite. It may even upset some readers for its apparent thinness. But if properly, patiently understood, the biblical gospel considered in these terms not only corrects misconceptions, exposes abuses, heals, and restores. It also discloses who we are and what we are for precisely as male and female human beings, and the answer to those questions – I suggest – is not what many expect. And yet it could hardly be more pertinent to the agonizing questions being asked in and outside the Church in our day.

Consider, for instance, the bitter irony of the Church’s response in the 20th century to cultural pressure to recognize male-female equality as it has cascaded, over time, into a weakened grasp of the theological importance of what makes us different. As the literature amply demonstrates, confused speech of meaningful difference alongside meaningful equality has put us in a dramatically impoverished position in relation to fresh cultural pressure to favor homosexual practice. The homosexuality platform is, after all, only the end-point of a distorted notion of gender equality which I suggest the Church has often unknowingly imbibed and commended in a low-level form. In some popular reactions to the challenges of nonbelieving feminism on the one hand and the rise of the homosexual agenda on the other, the Church has imbibed the poison of the world’s most fundamental assumptions regarding gender ontology and ethics. And so we often miss how the radical feminist distortion is the same in root as the homosexuality one, and how the world of Scripture severs that root and not only the fruit.

I must ask us, then, that as we reflect upon the Gospel solution to the plight of women and girls in our churches that we consider the obvious key to this whole picture: menstruation in Leviticus.

Ah, I see I’ve lost you. Bear with me, please. My own journey through the topic began many years ago at the very start of my ministerial labors in another city. It began with the question of the relationship of spousal abuse to the biblical grounds of divorce. I thought and read and prayed and, though I only learned it later on, I came to the wrong conclusion. The session looked to me for guidance, and I failed to deliver. I gave the wrong guidance, and a family suffered greatly. The memory continues to haunt – and prod – me. Neither does it comfort me greatly to learn that I am not the only one.

The journey which began with that ostensibly narrow and specific question quickly pushed me to consider other, necessarily related ones. These have included the nature of “nonphysical” (again, a terrible misnomer) violence or abuse within a biblical anthropology of personhood, the significance of the communal and individual spheres of horror within Scripture, the meaning and scope of “willful desertion” in the Westminster Confession of Faith (XXIV.6), the role of “gender” distinctions in biblical eschatology, the rationale at work in the various divorce laws in Scripture, and the place of memory in biblical teaching on forgiveness, repentance, and healing, both communally and individually. (Yes, I am indeed beginning to gesture in the direction of the Supper in relation to the Church’s care for the weak and vulnerable.)

And so, yes, at some point along the way, the surprisingly critical importance of the meaning of the menstruation laws in Leviticus forced itself upon me. Of course, Christians are not the only ones disturbed at some level by those laws. I write these lines within only a few minutes of discovering – in an extraordinary providence – a passionate article at CNN’s website by a young woman complaining of her Indian culture’s embrace of what we recognize as the Leviticus mandate: the exclusion of the menstruating women from the temple precincts because of concerns over defilement. She regards the custom as morally and obviously absurd (one can almost hear the apparently awful and recently renewed accusation of being “medieval” to think such things), and Christian readers can’t help but agree and yet… disagree, given those odd Leviticus words. So what about those Levitical laws? Do they really demote and exclude women?

As a thread in an extraordinarily captivating tapestry, I discovered for myself what others in the history of exegesis had intuited: these laws may be embarrassing for many, but we ignore them to our peril. There is gold here. In my experience, the gold is not limited to a series of very many “aha” moments, but also to the important task of a Christian father (yes, a father too) in helping his young daughters understand and appreciate what is happening to them when they reach that magical age. And perhaps our modern discomfort with these passages, and our resulting neglect of them, has something to do with our current malaise. At least this is what I will suggest is part of our problem. Even more ironically, the far more appealing (and marketable) portraits of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, and the less familiar yet irresistibly fascinating woman of the Song of Songs, are in many respects unintelligible apart from that Levitical woman and her plight.

Are you still there, or have I truly lost you? Do bear with me, as I would like to invite you into the biblical solution for a grievous problem – the principled maltreatment of women in culture and too often in the Church – by way of a most intriguing and theologically rich biblical motif: the eschatological ultimacy of the feminine as a kind of sacred space, on account of which a wide range of otherwise strange and confusing biblical themes come beautifully together.

Yes, this has everything to do with our concern with our mothers, wives, widows, and daughters, and arguably even more so with our fathers, husbands, and sons. We may prefer a solution that simply vents angry frustration with men, or spins a series of horrific anecdotes about abused women, or strings together a list of verses about care for the weak and oppressed. But that is not the way. The way is more complicated than that, and it may challenge the oppressed and not only the oppressor. It is, at least in how I am asking us to approach it, a wet and bloody and uncomfortable way, but then this is what we should expect as the way of the cross and the empty tomb. So before you shove me out the door into the world of radical egalitarianism or unbelieving feminism, hold tight. It’s not what you think; it’s much better than that.

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Greystone Inaugural Course on “Reformed Catholicity” with Audit Option


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“Reformed Catholicity” class with Greystone Theological Institute

Greystone-logo-rd3AThe Greystone Theological Institute is a major initiative providing opportunities in advanced biblical, theological, and ethical study in the mode of Reformed catholicity. The Institute has been formed to serve students, ministers, interns, and other interested parties. Courses are held at the advanced Master’s level and are well-suited for Th.M. or preparatory Ph.D. study, and are complementary to standard M.A. and M.Div. programs. The inaugural class for Greystone will be held at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS) (Pittsburgh, PA) this Spring. Future courses will be held at various regional locations until the Greystone property is ready.

Dr. Mark A. Garcia, adjunct professor for Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, London), Trinity School for Ministry (Ambridge, PA), and RPTS, and President and Fellow of Scripture and Theology for the Greystone Institute, will teach this course on “Reformed Catholicity” on Thursday evenings. This course is accepted for RPTS credit. (Contact the RPTS Registrar for details.)

Course description: “A biblical, theological, and historical exploration of the relationship of Scripture and tradition, confession and doxology, unity and diversity, retrieval and proposal. Topics include canon and hermeneutics, the patristic rule of faith, catholicity and the Westminster Assembly, and historic and contemporary models of Reformed catholicity.”

Tuition for this course is at a special inaugural rate of $825. Auditors pay a discounted rate. Please contact Dr. Garcia asap if you are interested in registering: magarcia338@gmail.com. Further information will be forthcoming for those who register.

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We Have a Problem

women abuseI returned recently from teaching a course in London on the theological ontology of woman in relationship to the biblical divorce texts, with a special interest in the nature of abuse and of ecclesiastical responsibilities in difficult cases. To be sure, my own pastoral experience in the last decade has driven me to appreciate the urgency of these questions. But it is not my experience alone.

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there is an enormous elephant in the room of church sessions, presbyteries, and denominations. There is much talk of church planting, missions, doctrinal orthodoxy, and the rosiest versions of a given denominational history. Meanwhile men are harming their wives and calling it an exercise of their headship. Women, in those few times they can, are crying for help. And too often the church says nothing or says the wrong thing, strengthening the arms of the oppressor, and women are destroyed. Men may be told to lighten up and take it easy, but are not held accountable for destructively distorting the privilege of headship. Women, at least those who have enough stamina left to get this far, are being told they aren’t submitting enough or it’s really not that bad. There’s precious little evidence in church leaders of the unflinching prophetic, messianic, and apostolic invective against the oppressor. There are good church leaders doing good work on this front, but it appears they are too few. And in places where they aren’t too few, perhaps they are too quiet.

For the past several years, I’ve received many e-mails and phone calls telling me versions of this alarmingly common story. Surprisingly to me, many of the contacts come from people I’ve never met or heard of. They are ministers pleading for help in dealing with a rogue elder or two, sometimes facing the prospect of a congregational split; sessions unsure of how to handle the misconduct of a presbytery or member; women at their wit’s – and even faith’s – end. And then there are the students who tell me their own dark stories, stories made far darker by the failure of church leaders to protect the vulnerable. Add to this the invariably personal dimension to anyone’s exploration of the topic: we all know someone close to us, and usually in our family, who has a story like this.

Last year I was in a first conversation with a new friend, a seminary professor in the area specializing in pastoral theology. We were in many ways opposites of each other, theologically and ecclesiastically, yet she was clearly a thoughtful and experienced servant who had seen many, many things over the years. After an hour or so of warm fellowship over a quality pint at a popular pub in the area, conversation turned to problems in churches and in pastoral ministry, and a range of hypothetical scenarios as well as some she had dealt with personally. Eventually I proposed – hypothetically and obliquely – a scenario in which an abusive but publicly magnanimous husband might be supported by church leaders and several misled members of the congregation while the wife unravels more and more behind the scenes. I said nothing more than this, and in fact the profile fit several situations I have heard about and seen over the years. This woman leaned in and said, “And I’ll bet they wanted to make him an elder, didn’t they?” She visibly hoped she was wrong, and I said nothing in reply as we shifted to a new hypothetical scenario. But of course, in every one of the examples I could think of, she was right.

The contacts, questions, and requests for help have continued, and the more I learn about the significance of the problem within Scripture itself (as Daniel Block has demonstrated, Judges is the story of this type of devolution), the more it grieves me. In 2014, several evangelical writers published a book-length apology, confessing the church’s public failings on a range of issues. One of them is “Sins Against Women.” None of the authors identifies with a confessional Reformed communion, yet they seem a step ahead.

A sense of proportion is of course in order, and it is easy to overreach. Yet I’m learning I’m not the only one mourning this state of affairs. We seem to rush toward debates over the Mosaic administration, the extent of acceptable activities on the Lord’s Day, the most faithful preaching method, and how much the prophets knew when they spoke at the direction of the Spirit. All interesting and useful questions, certainly. But how many hours of stimulating, edifying, smoke-filled, stout-drenched conversations on back porches among confessional presbyterians – for which we are well known, or ridiculed as the case may be – are spent lamenting the stories of the church’s women and girls? Perhaps my experience is the exception, but I haven’t had many.

Truly, Genesis 3:16 and its mashal principle is the pivot for a long horror story of human relations. That the Spirit reverses this principle in the household of faith must be a paramount feature of the Good News. It’s why the apostles gave the church the so-called haustafeln or household codes in their Epistles (Eph. 5:22-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1; 1 Pet. 2:18-3:12), in which some tend to be interested, practically, only to the extent that it applies to unruly women and children. But the gospel will sound like good news to the extent that we face up to the bad news. In that spirit, if we attend more closely to this topic we might discover how much we’ve missed along the way.

More on all this to come. But the concern today is simple.

We have a problem.

(The post has been edited to ensure privacy.)

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Reconciliation and the Upturned World

chainsDo you want to see reconciliation? Luke locates it in the seam of a double quaking.

In Acts 16:25, Luke places us, his readers, in the darkness of the midnight hour, in the “inner” prison in Philippi, with Paul and Silas, fastened in the stocks. Their crime was the intolerable one of disturbing the peace of the city and advocating customs “good Romans” don’t tolerate. In reality, though, they were in prison because of their role in the deliverance of a slave girl from an unholy spirit and, more proximately, her abusive owners. This Cosette-figure, this Tess of the D’Urbervilles, this Ophelia of Acts 16 has been liberated from the tyrannical exploitation of greedy men, and the serpent bites back. Luke pulls no punches: Paul and Silas are in prison, beaten and bleeding, because these abusers lost “much gain,” and their “hope” of further gain, was now gone (vv. 16, 19). Touch the enemy’s pocket and all pretense of patience ends.

While we are there, in the darkness with these two servants of Christ, we are confronted by yet another marker in Acts of the kingdom that has come in Jesus of Nazareth, the kingdom which is in so many ways manifestly not of this world, the kingdom to which Paul and Silas belong as eager slaves. It is the kingdom which, in its unflinching though largely hidden reality, alone explains the mysterious zeal of these two bleeding men. The marker of its presence is in the form not of a sight but of a sound. Amid the clanging of the stocks and the sighs and groans of prisoners, we hear the distinct notes of that most unexpected, most counter-cultural and revolutionary phenomenon of resurrection life in a fallen world: a song and a prayer. Songs and prayers to God, songs and prayers which cut through the darkness and push it back, which transform the suffocating despair of the absence of light and hope into a paradoxical cloak of comfort and a cross gladly borne. These are likely the regular, daily psalms and prayers in which the earliest Christians were typically engaged, as Acts itself bears witness. Luke’s words suggest they had been singing and praying regularly, frequently, and in the hearing of all around them. They would be known as the singing and praying ones. The darkness of the inner prison would not dislodge these servants of the King of the faithful practices and rhythms of the people of God. Where do they think they are? Tertullian once said of this scene: “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.”

Of course, we should pause to remember how easily that sentiment can be misunderstood. It does not mean that a real Christian feels no pain, no sorrow, no loss, but it does mean at least that the Christian does not know only pain, or final sorrow, or end in loss. Instead, as so often in Acts, once again a time of hardship or crisis provokes prayer from the saints (see 1:4; 4:23-31; 6:4; 7;60; 9:11). But this doesn’t make sense in terms of life as we think we know it. We shouldn’t hear song and prayer here. And yet it’s strangely familiar. In the scene of Paul and Silas in the midnight darkness of the inner prison, the reader is drawn back to an older scene of three men mysteriously alive and whole though in a fiery oven (Daniel 3:24).

It is here, in that very darkness, that we encounter the double quaking. First, the ground quakes; then, the jailer’s heart quakes.

Earthquakes are still common in this region. But clearly this is no ordinary earthquake. This one is providentially timed to move the stone from the entrance of this tomb-like prison. The doors open and the fetters break free from the walls. Morning of a sort has come in the deepest darkness, and with a shout. As in Exodus and the Psalms, the quaking is the arrival of God in judgment and vindication, upturning the unjust, dark world.

The jailer is roused from his sleep. He has been derelict in duty, and he sees the doors open. He knows the urgency of his instructions: put these men in prison, no, wait, in the “inner” prison. And he assumes these prisoners have done what prisoners with free legs and open doors do: escape. The penalty for his negligence would be death, so he quickly decides to end his life himself rather than come under the disgraceful sword of the state. He fears his superiors, or does he fear the gods of these singing, praying prisoners?

Presumably Paul can see him through the darkness and the rubble, because Luke tells us he calls out to the jailer. Stop! He assures him, in terms reminiscent of Daniel to anxious King Darius in the lions’ den the morning after, “It’s okay. I’m here.” It is well; we are all here. The prisoners have not fled; there is no need for the jailer to panic and end his life. Paul and Silas have stayed, and persuaded the other prisoners to stay too. Of course, at other times Paul will indeed flee when he is in danger; but sometimes the circumstances call for one to stay put and trust the Father’s care.

When the jailer steps over the rubble and squints his eyes to see through the dust and debris, sure enough, they are all there. And he is overcome. In a flash he has moved from death to life. His life has been spared by this most mysterious act of these strange men. He falls at their feet, collapses in humility and reverence, undone, folded over himself in gratitude and awe. The second quake.

“What must I do to be saved?” he asks, as he brings them out of the cell, perhaps to his guard station or quarters, where he had been sleeping. He’s never asked a question so earnestly. And so Paul, capturing the sweetness of the simplicity of the Gospel in just a few, mercifully brief words: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Believe, that is, in a person, not just an idea. A person who is, not merely who was. Believe in one who lives, and saves Gentile prison guards. Believe, and you will be (future) saved from the greater quaking to come, both you and your house, because you – the Gentile prison guard – belong by faith to Abraham’s house. You will be his seed by faith, and so your house will come within the sphere of sancta.

The jailer asks, then, to share in their deliverance, and he is given the Deliverer himself. In v. 32, we read that this simple Gospel is appropriately explained to him, as it always must be. Luke reminds us, then, that “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” or the “sinner’s prayer” is not a Christian “open sesame” or magic formula. And as the jailer takes water to wash the wounds of their beatings, they take that same water and wash away his sins in baptism.

But linger a moment longer. This story isn’t over. The next scene should not be missed. If we have listened well to the book of Acts, this next scene is both predictable and yet remarkable: the jailer, we read, takes Paul and Silas to his home to feed them – hospitality – and with household and hospitality grace all around, there is rejoicing (v. 34). In other words, while it is still the middle of the night (perhaps 2 a.m. by now), the jailer is now also hymning in the darkness, bringing the extended scene full circle to where it began with Paul and Silas hymning in the darkness.

And yet, don’t rush away. Linger only one moment more. We know what the Gospel is in Acts 16 – believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But do we see what the Gospel does? If we miss this, we miss the point. It is reconciliation erupting from another world, another order.

As one has put it, “joy loses track of time.” And so it has here, deep in the night. Here, at a table of new fellowship, the metal bonds of prison fetters have given way ironically to the tighter, stronger bonds of Christian familial fellowship. Here, at this table in this man’s home, the relationship of the jailer to his prisoners is simply no more. It doesn’t exist. It has vanished. In its place, all of a sudden it seems, is the relationship of brotherhood. He represented and enforced the powers of this present evil age, the forces of opposition, but he has been upturned. Enemies are brought together; the separated are now one; the faith, waters, and bread of the Gospel are reconciling the world in the microcosm of a Gentile jailer’s home.

The Gospel and reconciliation go hand in hand. Yes, the Gospel divides: Christ is the Cornerstone who is also the stone of stumbling; Christ is the odor of life to some and the odor of death to others. But the Gospel also unites. This is why we are so “foolish” to keep turning the cheek, the first cheek and then again the second. We simply don’t know: the striker may, in divine grace and mercy, become our brother. Saul may become Paul.

It is also why we are willing, even joyfully, to be bruised and beaten for the saints, and for Christ, by enemies in any form. It is not weakness but strength, the strength of these new bonds, these unbreakable bonds forged by the quaking rather than loosened by them, forged by God in Christ by the Spirit, who makes even enemies into brothers. It’s what the Gospel does.


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