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Meet the Moravians

Two Moravians didn’t volunteer to be slaves for the Gospel—three did. But none of them actually became slaves.

You may have heard a story passed on in many sermons about two Moravians. A former slave comes to the Moravians and tells them that his people are longing to hear the Gospel—but no one has access to them except for slaves. “Fine,” respond the undaunted Moravians. “We will sell ourselves into slavery.”

Then we fade into a shot of the two Moravians on the deck of a slave barge, headed to the West Indies, shouting at their weeping families, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of his suffering!” And that is the last that their flesh and blood ever heard from them.

——

This story has taken on legendary proportions in the modern evangelical church, probably because of Paris Reidhead’s erstwhile viral sermon, “Ten Shekels and a Shirt,” and its reincarnation as the “Revival Hymn.”⁠1 But of the two scenes that pass before your mind’s eye, only one of them is true.

Fortunately for the two Moravians, the second scene is either somewhat mythical, or it is someone else’s story. The two Moravians did go to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas as missionaries, and they did preach the gospel to many slaves, but they did not become slaves themselves. Here it is worthwhile to unpack the full story of these remarkable men. I think you will agree with me that the truth of this story is just as inspiring as the legend—or more so.

Revival

The story starts with a widespread revival in the Moravian community, dated to August 13, 1727.⁠⁠2 There was a great stirring among the immigrants who had sought asylum in Count Zinzendorf’s estate, and many spoke about the claims of Christ in unknown lands.

According to Hutton’s account, many Moravians were longing to spread the Gospel abroad during the years that followed, but without any precedent, they were unsure how to move forward. On February 11, 1728, several of them made a covenant that they would go overseas once the way forward was made clear. No Protestant church was sending its own missionaries at that time, although the Danish government had supported a few in its colonies.⁠⁠3

In 1731, that changed. Antony Ulrich, a former slave from the Danish colony of St. Thomas, visited Copenhagen. He told the Danish king that the residents of the island and its slaves were primed to respond to the Gospel. He especially pleaded on behalf of his family members.

On July 24, 1731, Count Zinzendorf shared Antony’s story with his Moravian brothers. The shocking Macedonian call was passed on from ear to ear among the Moravians. A few were quietly contemplating the possibility of going to St. Thomas, but no one spoke up publicly or immediately.

Volunteers

In time, Johann Leonard Dober brought the matter up with his friend, Tobias Leupold, and they wrote a letter to Zinzendorf, declaring their intent to go. Zinzendorf shared the news of the letter with the congregation, but did not disclose their names.

Antony Ulrich, the Caribbean freedman, was still in Europe, and he followed up with Zinzendorf around this time (in present-day Germany). He spoke to the Moravians in Dutch. When Zinzendorf asked Ulrich about sending two men right away, Ulrich—mistakenly—told him that they could only come as slaves.

Both Leonard Dober and Tobias Leupold repeated without hesitation their willingness to go to St. Thomas, even as slaves. Dober wrote the congregation as he had earlier written their leader. It was a heroic declaration of sacrifice that shocked and stirred the Moravian settlement, and inspired many others to consider a commitment to preach abroad. In the end, though, such a sacrifice of freedom was both inadmissible and unnecessary.

Changed Plans

Eventually, the church decided that only Dober should go.⁠⁠4 Dober then chose another Moravian named David Nitschman to accompany him. Just like Tobias Leupold, whom he replaced, Nitschman fully expected to become a slave for the Gospel. Thus, at that point, three men had publicly and enthusiastically declared that they would be enslaved in exchange for the opportunity to preach to the unreachable.

Hutton describes the two men, waiting outside Zinzendorf’s house in the pre-dawn hours on August 21st, 1732. The Count spent the night in prayer, and then he drove them part of the way to Copenhagen. They received a prayer of blessing, and departed on foot to Denmark to secure their passage to the Caribbean.

They had a few belongings and very little money. Although the idea may have been naive, both of them—Dober and Nitschman—fully intended to sell themselves into slavery.

In the end, however, the Danish king deemed this impossible. Dober and Tobias met with Von Plesz,  the chamberlain of King Frederick VI. Here is the dialogue given in Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church:

Von Plesz, the king’s chamberlain, asked them how they would live.

“We shall work,” replied Nitschman, “as slaves among the slaves.”

“But,” said Von Plesz, “that is impossible. It will not be allowed. No white man ever works as a slave.”

“Very well,” replied Nitschman, “I am a carpenter, and will ply my trade.”

“But what will the potter do?”

“He will help me in my work.”

“If you go on like that,” exclaimed the Chamberlain, “you will stand your ground the wide world over.”⁠⁠5

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1706, King Frederick IV of Denmark had sent the first Protestant missionaries to his colonies. But Dober and Nitschman went without royal support. They were not even offered passage by the Danes.

The Rest of the Story

The ‘tall tale’ of two Moravians says that they never saw their families again.  In fact, Leonard Dober only stayed for about two years, until he was called to Herrnhut to take office as General Elder of the church there. Amazingly, Tobias Leupold—who had been turned down as his companion—broke the news to Dober in person in June 1734.⁠⁠6 This was not the end of the mission, however. The Moravians would send 18 more missionaries to those islands in the next two years.

Dober arrived in Europe February 5th, 1735 and held the office of General Elder for six years, travelling often to Holland and England during the remainder of his life. He spent the last few months of his life in Herrnhut.

David Nitschman only went to St. Thomas as an assistant to Dober in his travels, and so he left St. Thomas after just four months.⁠⁠7 Nitschman later took passage to Georgia in 1736, where he met John Wesley, and spent the later years of his life in the Moravian colony at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Forerunners in Protestant Missions

Today, Moravians are little known in America; we tout them as a missionary powerhouse, but that’s where the story ends—at least at missions conferences. But in the 18th century, many Europeans viewed the Moravians as a cult, an uneducated church for spiritual outcasts and fanatics.

They had strange and unique customs, some gleaned from Zinzendorf’s leadership. The original settlement had a rote discipleship system which would sound today like a drug rehab program. They were passionate, committed, communal, innovative, and evangelistic.

When John and Charles Wesley sailed to Georgia with twenty-six Moravian shipmates, they were greatly impressed by their no-nonsense attitudes and the way they returned blessing for insult. John Wesley feared for his life during day after day of violent Atlantic storms, but he wrote in his journal of the Moravians:

“In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces. … A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, ‘Was you not afraid?’

He answered, ‘I thank God, no.’

I asked, ‘But were not your women and children afraid?’

He replied mildly, ‘No; our women and children are not afraid to die.'”⁠8

The Moravians’ historian takes great pride in the fact that many English Moravians preceded William Carey to the mission field. When they left for St. Thomas, Dober and Nitschman preceded William Carey by sixty years. There is no doubt that they were the first Protestant church, as far as we know, to send missionaries with no worldly or political ties.

Careers

Why, then, does the modern legend transform Nitschman and Dober into slaves? It betrays a deep confusion in modern American missiology. Maybe deep down, we believe that going overseas is pointless unless the sacrifices are tangible, irreversible, and impressive.

But it was not their romantic sacrifice that gave them access to the unreached—it was their flexibility. They did not hang on to some heroic vision of missionary life, but showed that they would undergo any hardship—even pursuing a secular vocation!

“For over one hundred years no missionary in the West Indies received from the Moravian Church one penny of salary for his services. Each man, during all the period, had first to earn his own living.”⁠9

Maybe we should also think about where the legend ends: “They went overseas.” But that is where the preface ends, and we reach page one. Leonard Dober and David Nitschman, in fact, preached the gospel to numerous slaves. They worked hard, maintained careers, baptized disciples, and preached the Gospel in the Caribbean. And their impact outlasted them.

Results

An important point to this story is that these two were not just two among a centuries-long stream of missionaries out of Herrnhut. They were the first. Immediately inspired by their commitment, a trio of Moravians joined Hans Egede in his apostolic work in Greenland.⁠⁠10

Many of the workers that followed our wayfaring pair to the Caribbean died of tropical diseases. After they left, 18 Moravian missionaries began work in St. Croix, and within two years, half of them had died. In fact, Moravian missionaries had to take their own headstone across the Atlantic with them, because the Caribbean islands couldn’t supply them with stones.

By the time Leonard Dober died, there were more than 5,000 former slaves in the Moravian congregations of the West Indies.⁠11 The Moravian Brethren still have disciples in the Caribbean today, and it started with those two young men volunteering.

Takeaways

There are a few things that stick out about this story.

First, they didn’t sell themselves into slavery; they did something much less heroic—they plied their trade. No one wants to share a story of two volunteer missionaries saying: we will do anything to reach people, even manual labor.

Second, volunteering was not enough. After they declared their intent to go to the mission field, they had to find a way to support their work. They had to be sent. The church decided one of them shouldn’t go. When they got there, real life had to happen. Willingness was only one ingredient.

Third, the story didn’t end when their ship weighed anchor from Denmark; then their work had only begun. They only contributed to the work for a couple of years, but they paved the way for the Moravian missionaries that followed them—both in the West Indies, and globally.

In the end, the mythical version says more about our generation than theirs. We would not pass on the story if it did not have a ring of romance to it. The legendary retelling certainly appeals to our heartstrings. But the heroes this generation needs are not going to be those one or two who give it all, forsake their families, and cross the seas to become slaves. We need an army of workers willing to scrap their way, by any means, to the unreached and the inconvenient lost, whether or not they have to use a university degree to do so.

Share the true story and help restore our generation’s understanding of missions. As A. W. Tozer said, you don’t become a missionary by crossing the sea; you become a missionary by seeing the cross.


1 The audio of Reidhead’s famous sermon is available here.

2 You can read about this revival, for example, in John Greenfield’s book, Power from on High, or The History of the Moravians by J. E. Hutton.

3 See, for example:

Helen H. Holcomb, Men of Might in India Missions. 1901.

J. Ferd. Fenger. History of the Tranquebar Mission. 1842. Translated from the Danish in 1863.

Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. 1904.

4 Remarkably, this decision was made using a system of casting lots for Scriptures, a practice that the Moravian Brethren have since given up, for obvious reasons.

5 J. E. Hutton. History of the Moravian Church. Book II, Chapter VI. “The Foreign Missions and Their Influence.”

The story is also told by J. E. Hutton in his History of Moravian Missions. 1922.

6 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 37-38. 1922.

7 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

8 Richard Watson. The Life of John Wesley, p. 43. 1857.

9 J. E. Hutton. A History of Moravian Missions. p. 38-39. 1922.

10 Jesse Page. Amid Greenland Snows: The Early History of Arctic Missions. Ch. 6.

11 “Memoir of Leonard Dober.” Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren Established Among the Heathen, vol. 12. p. 241-246.

On Racing Against Horses

The prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament complains to God that men in his hometown are plotting to kill him. He has had a difficult ministry towards unwilling people. You would think God would say something like, “that’s okay, Jeremiah, just trust in my grace.” Instead God says, in effect, “suck it up. It’s gonna get harder.”

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses?
(God’s word to Jeremiah, Jer. 12:5)

At first, it does not sound encouraging. G. Campbell Morgan points out though, that Jeremiah had raced with men. God didn’t say he failed. He had done well in a ministry that was filled with conflict. He had already preached boldly in a temple to religious people who had missed the entire point of the temple. He had brought some brutal, yet God-sent words. The nation was in danger—not because of karma, but because God couldn’t allow himself to be misrepresented ad infinitum.

And it was going to get harder! Sometimes we expect God to set us up for success and affluence, but he sees all the chess pieces, and he knows what we can handle. He knows that he can ask us to face something that is more difficult. The logical inverse, though, is that God wouldn’t send Jeremiah to race horses when he hadn’t won against men. God knows what’s too hard for us, and the Bible says that he doesn’t ever send his children to a battle that they can’t fight with his help.

In connection with this, I have been asking, is it possible to race horses? The metaphor sounds fantastic, but there are at least two races that have pitted men against horses in long-distance running: one is a 22-mile race in Wales, and one is a 50-mile race in Arizona. In 2004, for the first time a man won the race in Wales. In Arizona, the horses have never lost, but the race is often close. In 2009, the race director said that the first man, Jamil Coury, clocked in just over seven hours for 50 miles of running, and could have beaten the first place horse if he hadn’t gotten off course.

So God’s question—how will you compete with horses? is not only relevant to long-distance runners. A man can’t compete with a horse over short distances. But it is possible for a human to beat a horse, if the human doesn’t quit. Maybe that was really God’s key to facing difficulty in ministry anyway.

As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
(Paul to Timothy, 2 Timothy 4:5)

Books and Bottles

“You have kept count of my tossings [or ‘wanderings’]; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Psalm 56:8, ESV)

In the psalm quoted above, David recounts to God all that his enemies have marshaled against him. They have haunted his steps; injured his cause; plotted against him; oppressed him daily. But God is not unaware of David’s enemies. He keeps the books in heaven. His knowledge is infinite, eternal and all-encompassing, and there will be a day when God settles David’s account.

When we read of books and scribes in Scripture, we must keep in mind that literacy was a specialty, reserved for a privileged few, and still is in some parts of the world. Study was a luxury, and books were priceless. How much more priceless are they when we consider the books that God must keep.

Thou hast a book for my complaints,
A bottle for my tears.

Tears and Tossings

“You put my tears in your bottle.”

In most biblical contexts, a bottle would mean a skin, such as the wineskins Jesus refers to. In this verse, the psalmist is probably referring to a ceramic bottle used in ancient funeral rites. Ornate containers called lachrymatories were commonly added to graves all over the ancient world.

The symbolic act of putting tears in bottles is well-known to historians. Tear-bottles were added permanently to graves, perhaps both as a symbolic goodbye and an honor to the memory of the lost. Museums still hold plenty of examples of these from various centuries as well as regions. They were ceramic in New Testament times; glass was invented later on.

The fact that God puts our tears in his bottle suggests that God shares in our grief with us. The Creator alone knows the innermost self, in its sin, its suffering, and its solace.

Alabaster

“She broke an alabaster jar.”

Bottles were also used in funeral rituals to pour ointment on a body for burial in several ancient cultures. When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus, she truly was proclaiming his death beforehand, preparing him for burial. (Mark 14:8) She understood what the disciples were blind to: Jesus had to face a shameful death. (John 12:7)

If we take Matthew’s estimation, the value of the alabaster jar was about a year’s wages. Alabaster was mined in Egypt and carved into exquisite containers; the rare spice inside, nard, grows at elevations above 12,000 feet, and is only found in the Himalayan Mountains. Why then did Mary have this priceless jar? Was it like a life insurance policy, saved for the day of death? Is it possible that she had been saving it for her deceased brother’s grave? In the light of Lazarus’ resurrection, did she surrender to Jesus the safekeeping that would follow her own death? He who holds the keys knows.

There is no blessing in being comfortable, but “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus himself wept at the grave of Lazarus. He wept not only because of Lazarus and his family, but because death is an enemy, and a result of the curse that our sin has brought to us.

God’s Books

“The books were opened.”

Daniel says in his end-times vision that court was convened, and “the books were opened.” (Dan. 7:10) We think first of the Book of Life, and those who are blotted out. God calls it in some places “my book.” (Rev.) The most important record that God keeps is those who receive his salvation.

There are other books in heaven though. Both Daniel and John mention that God has books. Malachi tells us that one of them includes the records of our fellowship, our faithful prayers, and the results they wrought in lives changed:

“Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” (Malachi 3:16, ESV)

There is a crumb of comfort here for ministers with few visible successes. We struggle to reconcile our experience with the thrilling accounts of missionary biography. We could read of the apostolic triumphs in Uganda, and how Bishop Hannington perished on the forbidden road, and yet a church rose in his wake. We could read about the Palm Beach Five in the jungles of Ecuador, facing death for Christ, but giving life to a marginalized tribe. These sacrifices and successes are what fill our books. These are the ingredients of bestsellers.

But heaven has a different best-seller list. The prophet tells us that God writes it down when two believers sit and talk of him. If Malachi’s words are to be taken seriously, God keeps each of our biographies in heaven, and a page-turner to him is when his people take heed, and fear him, and talk about how they may follow on to know him

What God Values

“The Lord paid attention.”

Books and bottles are both vessels of preservation. They tell us what is precious. Precious tears are preserved in bottles; precious thoughts are preserved in books.

God values our thought life. God noticed those that feared him, and thought upon his name. We could spend our whole lifetime in the library, scouring a thousand volumes on theology, history, religion, and ritual. But one honest moment thinking about his name, dwelling on who he really is, drinking in his character from his revealed Word, would outweigh a whole lifetime of any other study.

God values our fellowship. They “spake often one to another.” Speaking to one another about spiritual topics should not be rare or specialized. One preacher said, “We are not called upon to talk theology, but we are called upon to talk gratitude.”  We need to talk to God and of God long and often.

God values our mourning. We are not the ones who treasure up our tears; God puts them in his own bottle. Our suffering is not taken lightly by God, even when he leads his children into it. One prophet said, “In all their suffering he also suffered”; and another, “He does not willingly afflict the sons of men.” He treasures the pain that we have been through, not for its own sake, but because of the eternal weight of glory that it’s working in us. Shouldn’t we?

Never a sigh of passion or of pity,
Never a wail for weakness or for wrong,
Has not its archive in the angels’ city,
Finds not its echo in the endless song.

Switchbacks

There is really only one way to hike up a mountain:  You must use the switchbacks.  It would seem shorter to walk straight uphill, but you’d have to leave the trail that everyone else has been taking, which is safer, and you would be exhausted a lot faster.  Yes, I am very glad that we stuck to the trail.
It may take longer, but the only way to really walk with God is one step at a time, always uphill, and you will only ever see in front of you as far as the next turn.  That is the path that has been patiently trodden and cleared by those who have walked with God before us, all the way back to Enoch, Abel, and even Adam “in the cool of the day.”  Each of them took the long path but in the end they found it was worth it.
Abraham did not see around the next hairpin.  God told him to get out of his father’s house, “to a land I will show you.”  He did not know many of the consequences that would come, and God left the next page unturned–Abraham had to take the next step, and it wasn’t until after he obeyed that the Lord made a covenant with him, gave him a son, and promised to him the land of Israel.
The Lord required of his son Isaac a similar hike.  Like Abraham he had learned to pray, but had to learn to take a step without seeing ahead; the Lord commanded him, “stay in a land I will tell you about.”
All great men of God, I believe, have learned to walk the trail before them, whether or not they knew how far, how long, until the destination was reached.  Moses didn’t know how he would speak boldly to the Pharaoh, Paul didn’t know the way to Ananias’ house–he was blind!–yet they walked, like Abraham, “not knowing whither he went.”  None of them were concerned primarily with where they were headed, but with Who was walking with them.
The footfall of the saints on the mountain of the Lord has left a trail for us–it is a narrow way, but it is also the only way.   And as one of Abraham’s descendants sang long after him, he who ascends the hill of the Lord will receive “blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
And the path didn’t level out; there were many more switchbacks for Abraham.  Even after Isaac was born they could not see the peak, for the Lord asked him again, “Go to a mountain I will tell you about.”  So the switchbacks continued even after he had walked with God for decades.  But there is always blessing after obedience; and when Abraham set his face to do what the Lord asked of him, there was an unforeseen blessing on him, his family, and even the nations of the earth.  And Abraham never became a king, but after millennia the King of kings came to the same mountain and offered not His son nor an animal, but Himself–and when He rose again indestructible in glory the full blessing brought by His attuned heart of obedience to the Father we have not yet seen–but He saw it from the beginning, and perhaps that was His secret.

[*See also John 10:18, Isaiah 49:4]

Soul Espresso

It was 5:00 a.m. on one of the coldest days of winter. I was a freshman in college. My friend Mitch Mitchell had told me that the first ten people to a local coffee shop got a free drink. I didn’t know what coffee tasted like, but free sounded good.

I ordered a mocha latte. Mitch proceeded to chug four shots of espresso before falling asleep on the opposite side of a chess set.

I have never liked ‘drip’ coffee, and still don’t drink it often—but since that morning I have loved espresso drinks.

Espresso is unique. Invented in Italy, it requires high temperature and high pressure to saturate the water with coffee. Once it is exposed to oxygen, the composition of espresso begins to change, which is why it is usually either combined with water or milk, or drank immediately. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the high-pressure concentration of truth: spiritual espresso. I discovered that potent and concentrated spiritual truth can come in a very small package. Here are three examples:

My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

“Beware of posing as a profound person; God became a Baby.”
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, November 22

This classic devotional has been in print since 1924 in 39 languages. An old friend gave me My Utmost for His Highest as a high school graduation present, and I came to know Christ about two months later. The gift, at first unwanted, was not a waste. I was recently carrying one of Chambers’ books at a conference, and a friend told me “that’s a four-pages-at-a-time book.” I told him, “yeah, I can barely read one subsection before I have to stop and think and pray.” That’s what I mean when I call these writings spiritual espresso.

Oswald Chambers died at 43, but his wife Biddy had transcribed hundreds of his talks verbatim and spent the rest of her life publishing them. He was a YMCA chaplain to British soldiers during World War I in Egypt. He believed in a concept he called “seed thoughts”: simple but true statements about God and life could change your entire way of thinking. He had a bulletin board on which he posted a thought daily. (When the camp flooded, he posted, “Closed during submarine maneuvers.”) While My Utmost shows this tendency, his wife compiled an even briefer devotional called Run Today’s Race which better illustrates Chambers’ tendency for potent, concentrated thought.

George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (compiler)

“The Lord cared neither for isolated truth nor for orphaned deed.”
C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Entry 54

Oswald Chambers said about George MacDonald that it was “a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that [his] books have been so neglected” (Christian Discipline, vol. 1, pp. 44-45). C. S. Lewis compiled MacDonald’s best “seed thoughts” into an anthology, which I facetiously call “C. S. Lewis’ best book.”

Systematic statements take you to a conclusion; once you arrive at that conclusion, you find your thought finished for you. Seed thoughts are different. They live and grow over time, and are not conclusions in themselves. This is one thing Chambers and MacDonald had in common; they asked questions as well as they answered them. The goal here is not to produce in you a thought, but to get you to think.

Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1

A third book that packs a lot of depth in a few words is Knowledge of the Holy. But then, Tozer has an unfair advantage here: if you want to go deep, there is nothing deeper to write about than God Himself. All of these authors are at their best when they take you to the Source of our faith without speculating, arguing or equivocating. “The knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

But there is another connection that I have omitted. Chambers was an avid reader and quoter of poetry. MacDonald wrote volumes of poetry himself, as did C. S Lewis. Tozer compiled his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, stating that his best devotional times were alone with a Bible and a hymnbook. What is there about poetry that relates to the spiritual life?

Distilled Language

One American poet laureate said that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Bad poetry, like bad stories, have a lot of words with little meaning. The best poetry has few words with great meaning. Even Bible expositors often quote hymns or Christian poetry to add something that an exposition can’t. The apostle Paul quotes Greek poetry at least three times in the New Testament. He encouraged the use of song as part of Christian teaching in Colossians 3:16: “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Songs often communicate our deepest thoughts the most simply. They can contain the gospel in a concentrated form, capable of being understood by children.

Embedded in a few of Paul’s letters are extremely concise statements of Gospel which some people think were actually early Christian hymns. Two examples include Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16, quoted below in verse:

God was manifest in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

Most amazing of all, Jesus quotes the ancient hymnbook of his people from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) As today, Jewish hymns were often titled after their first line. (If I shout “amazing grace” in a room full of Christians, a few might erupt, “how sweet the sound!”) So some scholars think Jesus could as well have shouted “Psalm 22” from the cross, pointing the Jews to a song that prophesied nearly a dozen circumstances pertaining to his crucifixion and resurrection. In just four Aramaic words, Jesus communicated great truth about who he is, his own death, his victory over it—and the prophetic power of one ancient worship song written in a heart of affliction.

Swarm Integrity

I was alone, staring at a leaf, trying to figure out if it was maple, oak, or something else. My handbook for the botany merit badge didn’t show any leaves like this one. I stood still for two or three minutes, studying. Then I felt a pinching on my ankles. I batted it off, then looked down and saw what it was.
I had been standing for several minutes in the largest ant bed I had ever seen. It was several feet wide, and I, the Godzilla of ant-world, had crushed half of their great nation while identifying leaves. The ants were staging a retaliation that ranged from my shoes, which were covered, up past my knees. I ran, tossing my shoes off as I entered my troop’s campsite. Other scouts laughed as I quickly pulled my pants off and brushed dozens of ants from my legs. (Luckily, there were no girls at the camp.)

Ant Intelligence
A remarkable discovery about ants and bees is that they are able to make decisions effectively without a leader. With a total absence of central control, ants make decisions based on signals received from other ants about their environment. In this way, they can test the distance of food sources, detect threats, and, in my case, respond to those threats. All of this happens without leadership.
Although National Geographic gave major press to this burgeoning study of “swarm intelligence” in July 2007, Solomon was aware of how ants work thousands of years ago:

Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
— Proverbs 6:6-8, ESV

If you have noticed how in a flock of birds or a school of fish, the entire group seems to turn as one, then you have been aware of “swarm intelligence” as it appears in nature.

New Testament Manuscripts
If we look at my unfortunate encounter with ants, we can learn two things that also apply to the spread of New Testament manuscripts:
1. I had no reason to fight them until I realized they had spread.
2. Once they have spread, there is no central mechanism by which I can control (or destroy) all of them.
I can simplify my two points about the New Testament in another way: in the beginning, there was no motive to change the manuscripts, and later, there was no power to change them.

Earlier, No Motive
Signals can spread through an ant community quickly; likewise, on a human timescale, the spread of New Testament manuscripts would be relatively fast and unnoticed in the beginning. Most importantly, the gospels, Acts and letters spread without central control. At any stage, however early, there would be no means of knowing where every manuscript is or what every manuscript says. Without seeing the future, no opponent of Christianity would know the power that any of the New Testament books would carry, and therefore would have no motive to change them.
People who argue that the Bible has been changed by political heavyweights imagine a world in which Jesus appointed Peter as pope and the two marched triumphantly over the ruins of Roman civilization and religion. But Christianity first spread under a hail of persecution, execution and imprisonment. A few letters from a converted Jewish scholar to the converts of his cult would not have raised the eyebrows of the affluent. Christianity did not look good on resumés. It would have repelled the power-hungry and offended the money-minded. Christianity began as the religion of the little Lamb.

Later, No Power
In the absence of any religious “big brother,” no one could change every manuscript of the New Testament, and even if they changed one, the community would find out easily. (Case in point, 1 John 5:7.) For instance, if someone changed every manuscript in Asia Minor, the community could find out by comparing a copy from Jerusalem; this is actually how the modern science of textual criticism verifies our New Testament’s authenticity. In this sense, the swarm cannot be defeated or manipulated. It grows, spreads and influences. It is self-organizing and self-protecting.
The next time a self-styled scholar tells you that the New Testament has been changed, ask them to provide a year it was changed, a person who changed it, or a manuscript that was corrupted. If they point to 1 John 5:7, Mark’s longer ending or the adulteress of John 8, they have proven themselves wrong; the fact that we have found these additions means that the rest of our manuscripts are authentic, because no one has ever had enough power to change every manuscript in existence.

The Redeemer’s Footprint

There are a few cryptic statements about feet in the Old Testament, which, taken together, have something profound to say about the work of Jesus as Redeemer. The first is one of Job’s prophetic glimmers of hope that shone out of his trial:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
Job 19:25, ESV

There is no mistaking that he is referring to God as his Kinsman-redeemer and Deliverer. Since Job was likely contemporary with Abraham, the Torah’s prescriptions for kinsman-redeemers in Leviticus 25 probably did not yet exist—not to mention, Job isn’t even Jewish (Job 1:1). We could say that Job meant ‘redeemer’ in the broad sense (deliverer, liberator) in which it doesn’t involve land or money (see Isaiah 52:3, for example). However, Job’s parallel statement, (that his Redeemer will stand upon the earth) connects to the Semitic tradition of land redemption, because the feet appear to represent the right of the redeemer to his land.

Identified by Footprint

In December 2013, National Geographic published the first chronicle in a series on Paul Salopek, who is on a seven-year journey from Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego on foot. His purpose is to follow the supposed track of human migration, from Yemen to Kamchatka, then from Alaska to Chile. (This will require two boats—one across the Gulf of Aden and one across the Bering Strait—due to past tectonic shifts.) If he succeeds in his journey, he will have walked 21,000 miles.

Paul writes about the footwear they wear in Ethiopia: millions of men, women, and children wear identical rubber sandals, cheaply produced, and usually lime green in the Afar region he is traveling.

Despite the universality of the sandal, Paul’s Ethiopian assistant stoops down in the dust and examines the various tracks zig-zagging the desert. He then affirms confidently—and correctly—that their friend had passed through and would be waiting for them later. This kind of desert tracking, which can differentiate between the gaits of people who wear identical shoes, is lost to Westerners.

The Feet of Boaz

There may actually be a distant cultural link between the Cushitic Afar tribe and the Jews of Ruth’s day: If modern Afar can identify their friend’s feet in the dust, then this may explain why sandals were exchanged during a transaction of land in the Book of Ruth.

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.
Ruth 4:7, ESV

In his Handbook on Bible Manners on Customs, James Freeman further explains this strange custom:

“It probably originated from the fact the right to tread the soil belonged to only to the owner of it, and hence the transfer of the sandal was a very appropriate representation of the transfer of property.”

There was no harm in trading sandals if they were generic, as they are in the Afar Triangle. The shoe of the former owner, combined with the gait of the buyer, creates a new footprint that would be recognized as the new land-owner. So giving a shoe to Boaz, the redeemer, meant that he could not be mistaken for an intruder: he had the house-master’s shoeprint.

John the Baptist, who was technically Jesus’ cousin, said that he was not worthy to loose Jesus’ sandal. In the vein of the familial redeemer, John could have meant that he would never be worthy to inherit any of Jesus’ family or land rights.

Stand upon the Dust

Job’s statement about his heavenly Redeemer, literally translated, says “at the last, he will stand upon the dust.” Jesus’ footprint will claim the earth: “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zech. 14:4, ESV). Not only that, but in the Jewish understanding of Redeemer, Jesus will stand on the dust as native, lord, and rightful owner—not a trespasser. He will have fully reclaimed his right to the earth.

May Jesus have the same reception when he enters our hearts, lives, and homes. May he set his footprint there as both Friend and Master.

Come then, and added to thy many crowns
Receive yet one, the crown of all the earth,
Thou who alone art worthy! it was thine
By ancient covenant ere Nature’s birth,
And thou hast made it thine by purchase since,
And overpaid its value with thy blood.
Thy saints proclaim thee king; and in their hearts
Thy title is engraven with a pen
Dipped in the fountain of eternal love… .

Come then, and added to thy many crown
Receive yet one, as radiant as the rest,
Due to thy last and most effectual work,
Thy word fulfilled, the conquest of a world.

William Cowper