Sunday, August 13, 2017


Hi all -

I'm doing some maintenance on the site, some possibly big changes. It might be a bit.

So for now I've taken down most of the posts over the years, only leaving up a few of the more popular ones while I figure out what I do moving forward.

Thanks for your patience.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Breaking the Code to Madden 17 Scouting

One of my most popular posts ever is actually not about apply my mind to Christianity or politics or philosophy...but to Madden NFL video games. Oh well, I'm not complaining about readers, so let's update it for Madden 17!

What's Changed

For Madden 17, scouting has gotten much tougher in several ways. They are onto us! They changed four major things that make it harder...although not impossible. :-)

  1. Instead of spending 5 scouting points for the first attribute, now you have to spend 15. That makes initial inquiries eat up your scouting points REALLY fast.
  2. The Combine is no longer exact:  the combine has perhaps 10% variation built in, so someone who runs a 4.24 instead of being 99 speed is somewhere between 91-99 speed. This makes it more difficult to rely exactly on the Combine.
  3. There are more players in the pool, giving you more people to scout (and therefore, a lower overall percentage of players can be scouted).
  4. The number of "stud" players is much less. In an average draft, I'm seeing about 33 players who are above 78 overall, with only 12 of those having "superstar" or "quick" development traits. Only about 11 players in an average draft are 80+ overall. So it's much tougher to get a great draft.

But never fear...I do believe I've cracked the code again. And to be honest I think that the changes make it more realistic, more challenging and more fun. So I'm fully behind it.

Overall Strategies Recommended

  1. Start with the coach type who has the Expert Scouting Package. You're going to need all the points you can get.
  2. Scout every week. Otherwise you lose half that week's points--they don't all carry forward.
  3. Only scout players you actually want to know more about. If you are stacked at HB, don't waste points on HBs.
  4. Never spend points on FB, K, or P.
  5. Follow my guide below exactly. :-)
  6. Use your WATCH LIST to capture players who "pass" all the Scouting trials below. That way on Draft Day you can simply sort by "Watch List" and you have all your players.

Specific Details

For the specifics, you can download the entire guide here, or you can just bookmark this page (photos embedded below). 


Because we have to be picky on Scouting Points this year, we will wait on scouting certain positions until the Combine, using the 'free info' we get from it to help us sort out people. (If you get everything below done for the positions you want before the Combine, feel free to move forward to the "After Combine" section.)

For best results, follow the below order exactly, only deviating to "skip" positions of strength.

If someone fails to meet the criteria of the first bullet point, DO NOT WASTE ANY MORE POINTS. Move on to the next person.

1.  Quarterbacks
  • Throwing Power A- or higher
  • Minimum score B- or higher
  • At least Accuracy score (Acc Short, Mid, or Deep) should be a B
  • Don't get excited about:  Throwing on Run (only 2% of overall score)

2. Offensive Linemen
  • At least one B
  • Minimum score B-
  • For left tackles I strongly recommend a Pass Block of B or higher 
  • Don't get excited about:  Speed or Agility combine drills (all < 6% of overall score added together)

3. Free Safeties (I've rarely found 78+ FSs, so this is based on a very small sample size; just be aware it's a bit riskier)
  • Zone coverage B
  • Minimum score B-
  • Don't get excited about:  Hit Power (only 3% of overall score)
4. Halfbacks
  • Carrying B+ or higher
  • At least one B in:  Elusiveness, Trucking, or Ball Carrier Vision
  • Minimum score:  B-
  • Don't get excited about:  Stiff Arm (only 2% of overall score)
5. Defensive End
  • At least one B+
  • Power or Finesse Moves B-
  • Don't get excited about:  Hit Power (only 1% of overall score)
6. Outside Linebackers
  • Block shedding B+
  • Minimum score B
  • Don't get excited about:  Hit Power (only 2% of overall score)
7. Middle Linebackers
  • Tackle B+
  • Block Shedding B-
  • Minimum score C+
  • Don't get excited about:  Power or Finesse Moves (only 2% of overall score each)
8. Strong Safety
  • At least one B from the following:  Tackle, Zone Coverage, or Play Recognition
  • Minimum score:  B-
  • Don't get excited about:  Hit Power (only 4% of overall score)


The first thing we do after getting scouting combine results is to REMOVE people from our watch list. Some of those above qualify until we see their measurable combine ratings, and now should be removed.

9.  Offensive Linemen
  • Remove anyone from your Watch List with less than 32 reps on the bench press. (This correlates to their Strength score.)

10.  Free Safety
  • Remove anyone from your watch list with a 40 yard dash slower than 4.60 seconds. (Speed)
  • Remove anyone from your watch list with a vertical jump less than 30". (Jumping)

11.  Halfbacks
  • You don't have to remove anyone here, but look at the 40 yard dash 3Cone, and Shuttle times.  Anyone who is very fast at all of these, and made it to your Watch List in step 4, is going to be very good.
  • (3Cone + Shuttle are the predictors for Agility and Acceleration).

12.  Defensive Ends
  • Add together 3Cone + Shuttle times.  If it is over 12.04, remove the player from your watch list; if below, they will have good enough Agility and Acceleration.

13.  Outside Linebackers
  • Remove anyone with 3Cone + Shuttle score over 12.04. You want them to be agile.

14.  Strong Safeties
  • Remove anyone slower than 4.76 in the 40 yard dash
  • Remove anyone with vertical jump < 30"


As a final step (if you have any points left!) we will look at those who we have not yet scouted.

15.  Cornerbacks
  • 40 yard dash must be faster than 4.60 seconds
  • 3Cone + Shuttle time added together must be less than 11.32
  • Man Coverage B-
  • Zone Coverage B-
  • Minimum score C+
  • Don't get excited about:  Press (only 3% of overall score)

16.  Defensive Tackle
  • Minimum weight:  300 pounds. (NOTE:  I don't think this matters....but so far I've not found a really good DT less than this. Could be coincidence, but I'm using this as a factor.)
  • Bench press must be greater than 32 reps
  • Block shedding B- or better
  • Minimum score C+ or better
  • Don't get excited about:  Pursuit (only 2% of overall score)

17.  Wide Receivers
  • 40 yard dash must be better than 4.60
  • 3Cone + Shuttle must be better than 10.80
  • Minimum score B-
  • Don't get excited about:  Spectacular Catch (it is only half as important as Release or CIT, and one third as important as Catching or Route Running)

18.  Tight Ends (Along with the Safety positions, this is the hardest to predict in my model)
  • 40 yard dash must be faster than 4.68 seconds
  • 3Cone + Shuttle time added together must be less than 11.56
  • At least one B in a catching skill (Catch, CIT, Route Running, etc.)
  • Minimum score C+
  • Don't get excited about:  Release (only 2% of overall score)


So on draft day, if you have two players in the same round or at the same position and can't decide, what do you do?

What I do is look at the heatmap below that I made, which pulls together how each position is calculated. I pick the one who, based on the info I have, I think will be best at the most key skills:


I hope that this is helpful for you guys! If you don't like it, remember that you didn't pay anything for it so get over it... ;-)

If you do like it, I would love for you to do the following things for me:

  1. Comment. Tell me that you like it.
  2. Post elsewhere about it. Reddit forums, Madden forums...let others know!
  3. Read other things on my site! I have a...unique way of looking at the world, which has given me tremendous spiritual peace and helps me avoid a lot of the stresses of this world, particularly politically, etc. I apply this same level of nerdity not only to Madden, but to how I live my life as well...and maybe you can benefit from it, too. If so, that makes me happy. :)

Happy drafting!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Breaking the Code to Madden 16 Scouting (Update 27 Nov 2015)

NOTE:  For the Madden 17 version, go here:

Updated 27 November 2015

A recently released patch for Madden 16 altered some of the scouting rules, so I redid the analysis. So far it has held up pretty well--a few positions got harder to project, a few got easier.

Three notes before we start. just for information:

  1. One of my specialties as an engineer is measurement systems. Anyone in this field will tell you that the hard part is balancing "false alarms" versus "false acceptances." Take the smoke detector in your house, for example: make it too sensitive and you'll never miss a fire but you also will get a false alarm every time you burn the dinner; make it not sensitive enough and you'll have no false alarms but you might have false acceptances, where you say everything is ok when really there is a fire.

    I'm dealing with the same issue here. If I make it perfect on predictive power (so that everyone you draft is a 78 or higher player), then you will "miss" a lot of good players; if I make it so you don't miss any good players, then you will falsely accept bad players. I've tweaked it to my preference, but if you want to tweak it differently, then do some experiments and see what fits you best.

    Below, the term Predictive Power means, "how likely it is someone that this list says is good will be 78 or higher overall". The term Missed Opportunities means "how many 78+ level players this list will not identify."
  2. Pay attention to the "player types" in your Coach Settings. I run a 4-3, and recently drafted a 4-3 OLB who during the draft it said was an 86...yet when I see him on my roster he is only a 71! The reason is that I had the OLB set up as a pass rusher type, and he is a Cover-2 type. So I went into Coach Settings and changed player type for the OLB to be Cover-2 and all is well.

    One good strategy is to make one OLB a Cover-2 and one a speed rusher. Make one WR a speed guy, one a possession guy, one a red zone threat. Make each offensive line position and defensive line position a different specialty. Then when you draft a player, you can simply adjust the roster to put him in the position on your team that matches. If you make all your OLB preferences the same, then only certain types of OLB will work for you.
  3. If you enjoy this - please read other things on my site! I apply the same level of nerdy thoroughness to my approaches to religion and politics and philosophy, and I think / hope you will find it useful and thought-provoking!

Without further ado, here are the new rules. (Read the original post if you need more detail and for some other general hints such as how to use the Watch List appropriately.)

Predictive Power:  86%
Missed Opportunities:  22%
  • Throwing power:  A- or higher.
  • Top 3 skills:  All must be B or higher

Predictive Power:  90%
Missed Opportunities:  8%
  • Top 3 skills:  All must be above B+
  • Combine results:  7.5 overall or higher

Predictive Power:  50%
Missed Opportunities:  14%
  • Do not scout receivers until last, because you will want to use the Combine to help cull out players and not waste scouting points.
  • Top 3 skills:  all B- or better
  • Catching:  B or better
  • Combine Results:  3 Cone score 6.75 or better (lower)
Predictive Power:  67%
Missed Opportunities:  25%
  • Like receivers, this one is very tough to pick.
  • Top 3 skills need to average B-
  • Combine Results:  40 yard dash time must be 4.65 or better

Predictive Power:  83%
Missed Opportunities:  28%
  • At least one skill should be a B+, all all skills should average a "B" overall
  • Combine Results:  Bench press score should be 32 or higher 

Predictive Power:  50%
Missed Opportunities:  40%
  • This one it seems that I'm being overly critical here; a missed opportunity of 40% means I could probably adjust this to be better. But frankly I have just not had much luck here so I'm not trying much more. I just rely on Free Agency for this role, or get OLB and DT and then change their position!
  • Top 3 skills should all be B or better
  • Combine Results:  Bench press score should be 32 or higher

Predictive Power:  83%
Missed Opportunities:  5%
  • Along with HB and CB, this one is a star of my analysis system. I'm always stacked here and can often use them for DE.
  • Block shedding:  B or better
  • Top 3 skills:  All B- or better
  • Combine Results:  Bench press score should be 32 or higher

Predictive Power:  57%
Missed Opportunities:  0%
  • The lower predictive power here is because often you end up with C+ as the third score but you aren't sure if Finesse Moves is also C+, making it hard to know what to do.
  • Hit power:  B- or better
  • Finesse moves:  C+ or better

Predictive Power:  75%
Missed Opportunities:  5%
  • Top 3 average:  B+ or better
  • Tackle must be B+ or better

Predictive Power:  95%
Missed Opportunities:  11%
  • Man Coverage:  B or better
  • Zone Coverage: B or better
  • Press Coverage:  B- or better

Predictive Power:  90%
Missed Opportunities:  11%
  • Hit Power:  B+ or better
  • Pursuit:  B or better
  • Zone Coverage:  B- or better

Predictive Power:  43%
Missed Opportunities:  30%
  • Hit Power:  B- or better
  • Play Recognition:  C+ or better
  • Combine Results:  7.0 overall or higher

  • Don't waste your draft picks.
  • Draft extra HB or TE and convert them to FB
  • Get K and P through free agency 

  • Here was my draft from a few minutes ago:
  1. 1st round:  ROLB, 86 overall
  2. 2nd round:  HB, 79 overall
  3. 3rd round:  WR, 77 overall
  4. 4th round:  HB, 80 overall
  5. 5th round:  LT, 76 overall (passed all tests except bench press, so kept him on as a value pick this late)
  6. 6th round:  MLB, 66 overall (no one on my list was still available so I just took whoever)
  7. 7th round:  CB, 68 overall (no one on my list was still available so I just too whoever)
Within 5-6 seasons of this, your team will be absolutely stacked as well as very deep, and cheap since so many starters will still be on your rookie contract.



Original post (04 Sept 2015)

Now, for something a bit different...

I am a huge, huge HUGE Madden franchise fan. It is the one video game I cannot wait to have each year, and it is fantastic. I especially love (because I'm a loser/nerd/whatever) to build franchises.

The key to a successful franchise, long-term, is scouting properly. Through the draft you can add depth and some starters far cheaper than you can through the free agent market; plus they will be in their peak years when you have them, rather than aging as high paid veterans. Filling your team with recently-drafted players also means that you have more cap space to sign the stud free agents or lock up high performers to long-term deals.

The problem is that scouting is often hard to do at a high level of accuracy. Madden 16 is particularly clever and has the best scouting method in any of the games thus far--and the hardest to "crack" and thereby find hidden gems late in the draft.

Lucky for you...I'm a huge nerd, and I've already cracked the code.

What follows is a system which--though not full proof--is far better than anything else you will find online.

I tested this against other online advice and found that this system is between 29% and 95% better, statistically, than other systems.

How did I do it? That is partly proprietary, partly embarrassing. Basically, I unlocked every attribute for every player by recording the values in a spreadsheet and then restarting without saving, thus allowing me to have a full spreadsheet of the entire draft. Then I had it autodraft, and added in the output to my spreadsheet. Then I put my engineering statistics to work, doing a multiple linear regression model for each position to predict the outcome. This allowed me to narrow down and create the following "rules" for scouting.

Follow these rules, you succeed. Period. For example, in my most recent draft a few minutes ago, I was able to get: 1st rd: WR 79 overall; 2nd: C 81 overall; 3rd: DT 79 overall; 4th: DT 75 overall; 5th: CB 78 overall; 6th CB 78 overall; 7th FS 66 overall. The only player who wasn't worthy of starting by year two was my 7th round pick.

So enjoy!


  1. Scout each week, don't wait until year end.  In Madden 16, you lose half your scouting points each week. If you spend them each week and have the 'scouting' upgrade package as a coach, this means you have roughly 4000 scouting points to spend each year. If you wait until the season if over you will only have about 300 to spend. Obviously this is a 93% advantage to doing it weekly.
  2. Use the Watch List. As you go through the following positions, any time a player is "draftable" or "passes" the tests below, you should hit triangle (on PS4 version) to add them to your Watch List. That way during the draft you can simply hold L2 and toggle to your Watched players, and then you'll always have your list of passing players. It will make tracking them much easier.
  3. Projected Round and Overall Grades are USELESS--ignore them.  My linear regression analysis showed generally an R-sq value of less than 10% for both projected round and overall grade--meaning that there is a TON of variability within those guidelines. The only value is that the "undrafted" projection is accurate--my analysis showed that there is less than a 1% chance that a player ranked as "projected round: undrafted" will be of a quality worth making your team. It's not worth spending even 1 scouting point. So in each of the below, I consider a position "fully scouted" when you have scouted every player who has a projected round above from 1-7; I ignore the undrafted players completely. Other than this, though, the grade and round are weakly valuable at best (exceptions noted below). (I love this because it mimics the uncertainty of real scouting in football).
  4. Quarterbacks (TEST:  TPwr >A-, Top3Avg > B+).  Start with the QB position. For QBs, you want at least a throwing power of A- and if you average the three attributes together they must be at least a B+. So for example, if you are unlocking a player and you get throwing power of B+, you should stop immediately. Do not waste any more points on him. He failed the test. Also if you are unlocking players and you get TPwr A- and then unlock the second one and it is Short Accuracy C+, you can go ahead and stop. A- and C+ will never average to be a B+ or better. You want something like A-,B+,B to be the top three scores.  Probability of good pick: 98%.
  5. Offensive Linemen (TEST:  Run Blk B+, Pass Blk B-).  After fully scouting QB position, go to your offensive linemen. You want to see a run block score of at least B+ and pass block of at least B-. Pass blocking will have the biggest impact on overall ability, but is more rare. If you can't get at least a B+ in run blocking he will not stand out from the crowd. Probability of good pick: 61%.
  6. Tight Ends (TEST:  At least one catching skills is a B, Top3Avg > B-).  When you have scouted all five offensive line positions, you can move to tight ends. With tight ends, you should ignore anyone who does not have at least a B in one of the three catching attributes (Catch, Catch In Traffic, Spectacular Catch). If he passes that test, then go ahead and unlock all the other attributes. His top 3 should average a B-. (So for example: B-, B-, C+ fails--the average is below B-). Probability of good pick: 72%.
  7. Defensive Tackle (TEST:  Top3Avg > B-).  Next up, begin scouting the defensive tackles, who are generally the most likely to have a deep draft on this list, but also it is rare to get a true stud (79 or higher). The problem is that those who are studs are statistically impossible to predict compared to the solid picks (73-78). But if you make sure their top 3 average is B- or higher, then you always know you have value at the position. Probability of good pick: 77%.
  8. Linebackers (TEST:  Top3Avg > B).  Linebacker will eat up a lot of your scouting points but it is worth it. Anyone who averages a B or higher overall is worth rostering. However, LB is one of the hardest positions to predict with the scouting in Madden 16. Choosing at random or using other online systems will give you a good LB pick about 30% of the time; our system increases that nearly double, but there are still going to be a lot of misses. Probability of good pick: 55%.
  9. Free Safety (TEST:  Pursuit >C+, Top3Avg > B-).  After fully scouting all linebackers you are probably in the second half of your season. Now let's move to FS. For free safety, scout until you can find out the Pursuit score. If Pursuit is at least C+ or higher, keep going. You should 'watch' the player if their top 3 average is at least a B- and their pursuit is C+. Probability of good pick: 69%.
  10. Strong Safety (TEST:  Power >B-, Top3Avg > B-).  Strong safety is the hardest to project. My system is not significantly better than any others; the linear regression could find no statistically significant predictors. It is slightly better to follow the advice here than flipping a coin, but not much better. Hit power above B- and top 3 average above B- is the best I can advise. Probability of good pick: 28%.
  11. Cornerback (TEST:  Combine score > 7.0, MCov > B, Top3Avg > B).  As you get to cornerback you are near the end of your season. Start unlocking them, only "watching" players with Man Coverage of B or higher and the top 3 average together for B or higher. Then after the season, when you get the combine results, come back and check these. Make sure and "unwatch" any player who was a B overall but ended up with a combine worse than 7.0. Probability of good pick: 95%.
  12. Wide Receiver (TEST:  Combine score > 6.7, Top3Avg > B-, Grade 1).  The wide receiver position is one of the rare ones where the overall grade is valuable. You only want to consider players here who have grades of 1 and whose top 3 attributes average to be a B- or better. In addition, when the combine results are in, you should eliminate any player who has a combine score below 6.7. Probability of good pick: 88%.
  13. Defensive Ends (TEST:  Bench > 28 reps, Shed Block > B+).  By now, you are definitely in the offseason, probably in the last 2-3 weeks. Check the combine results and only show interest in players of 28 reps or higher. For those, only 'watch' players with block shedding above B+. Probability of good pick: 51%.
  14. Running Backs (TEST:  40 yd dash < 4.60, Grade 2).  Finally, it's time to scout the running backs. You don't want to bother wasting points on anyone who has a speed worse than a 4.60. After that, unlock all three attributes and anyone of Grade 2 or better has a high likelihood of being a good player.  Probability of good pick: 64%.
  15. FB/K/P...NOPE.  And no I didn't analyze fullbacks, kickers, or punters because they are basically worthless from a draft standpoint. There are always serviceable players at these positions for cheap on the waiver wires. Don't waste a pick on these.

One final note:  I know some of you are thinking..."51% defensive end probability...might as well flip a coin! Why bother following this?" Remember that I'm saying there is a 51% probability that the player you pick will be equal to or greater than 75 overall. There are maybe 2 defensive ends in any given draft of that talent, out of around 25 choices...meaning that by random chance you are only 8% likely to get the right one. The online suggestions I'm seeing suggested generally give you about a 25-30% chance. So a 51% chance that any DE you pick will be better than 75 is actually really, really good. Even the SS position--my worst predictor--is three times better than random chance and twice as good as most online systems.

So there you go. I'm sure approximately 0 people have read this far. But least I have it for my future reference in case I lose the spreadsheet. And now I can open it in a browser on my phone. So totally worth it. :)

(Even if my wife did just roll her eyes so hard when she saw this that they nearly came out of her head.)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sermon Audio: God Speaks, and God Transforms

Last month our church did a series on the doctrines of Grace Church: the core essentials we believe all Christians must accept.

I had the last sermon in the series, on the ordinances of baptism and communion, and it is here:

My earlier sermon, on how God speaks to us through Word and Nature, is here:

Friday, November 1, 2013

The scariest verses in the Bible

I was once asked on Twitter what the scariest verses in the Bible were. To me, it is a slam-dunk:

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of the Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from Me, you evildoers!' " --Matt 7:21-23, NIV

People just love to explain away this verse, but Jesus was very specific here: these people thought they were getting into heaven. They thought it with such certainty that they argued with the Lord during judgment, reminding Him of all the great things they did in His name. And they did great things in His name--they did miraculous things that they told their friends, "That was a God thing." They were certain that, as they looked back at their lives, they had evidence that the Lord blessed them and their ministries and their works.

And yet...they were wrong. They weren't getting into heaven.

If that doesn't scare you, then I don't think you understand the passage. Because I would be willing to bet that none of you believers had achieved what they had achieved, and I doubt that any of your senses of security are any stronger than theirs were.

So how can you be sure that you will not be one of them? How can you be sure that you won't stand there on the day of judgment, saying, "Lord, Lord, didn't I go to church each week? Didn't I convert others to your Kingdom? Didn't I tithe and give sacrificially? Didn't I do things that couldn't be explained under my own power?"

Each denomination has its answer for how to avoid being in that group--how to be sure you will not be one of them.

  • Catholics say that you can avoid that result by joining their denomination, because they received their authority from a secure link of each Pope back to Peter. (No such link exists, btw, but we will discuss that at another time.)
  • Orthodox Christians say much the same, that theirs is the one true Church and therefore, if you are in alignment with the sacraments then you will be fine, again through a link back from Patriarchs to the apostles.
  • Charismatics say that such evidence comes through miraculous gifts.
  • Evangelicals say that it comes through a single emotional experience followed by a life time of feelings.
  • Reformed Protestants say it comes through intellectual commitment to the creeds and theology.
I say none of those protects you from the risk of thinking you are saved when in reality you are lost. And I think anyone who is honest would agree.

So how can we know? I don't have a litmus test for you, nor do I think such a thing exists. But I will give you five questions to ask yourself which might help:

  1. Do you believe in Jesus and the Resurrection? That is, do you actually really think Jesus was an historical person who actually died and actually rose from the dead? Do you accept the words of the Apostle's Creed? That was the primary method used by most early Christians to see if you were really on track.
  2. Do you change your politics, your science, and your other philosophies to match Christianity, or do you change your Christianity/Bible to match your previously-held politics, science, and other philosophies?  If your view of the world and of human philosophies/politics are the same as they were before becoming a Christian, then there is a risk that you are not really taking your thoughts captive under Christ and making Him Lord. There are a lot of people whose political views are a lot more difficult to change than their Biblical interpretations.
  3. Are you giving generously to those in need, in practical ways?  When addressing similar issues in Mt 25:31-46, Jesus specifically calls out our help of those who cannot help themselves.
  4. Are you protecting those who have no protection? When discussing the same issue, James (Jesus' brother) says that pure and accepted religion is that which leads people to care for those who cannot help themselves: the elderly and the orphan.
  5. Would someone describe you using the fruits of the Spirit, or of the world? Those who work with you, live with you, hang out with you...if I asked them, what words would they use to describe you? Would they use words like gentle, kind, patient, and loving? Or would they use words like short-tempered, selfish, and always looking to get what is 'rightfully' yours?

Take a good, hard look at yourself. You can be a very successful minister without doing any of the above. You could be one of those who does good things for the church, but doesn't actually believe Jesus was anything other than a good moral storyteller. Or you could be one of those who was a die hard conservative or liberal or libertarian before being saved, and now just conveniently think that the Bible matches up almost perfectly with the party you already agreed with. Or you could be one of those people who does not give to the poor because they might misuse your gift, or only give to the poor if they also get a gospel tract along with the food. Or you could be one of those who does not defend the defenseless, and sees foster parents as trying to get a free ride or the elderly without a job as the State's problem. Or you could be someone who claims to care about others more than yourself but will berate a customer service rep or try to cheat to get a few free things.

It's not a litmus test, and none of the above (except #1) will get you saved. But I think if you can ask yourself those questions and admit to good, hard, honest self-assessed answers, you will have a good idea of whether you are in danger of being among those who only say "Lord, Lord" but never really put Him in charge of your life.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Roman Government and the Trial of Jesus

For many, the trial of Jesus seems strange and confusing. Jesus is bounced from the Sanhedrin to Pilate to Herod like a ping-pong ball, and no one seems to want to make a decision. This leads many to tell a narrative something like this: the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus dead, Herod couldn't care less, and Pilate didn't want to kill Him but shrugged his shoulders and did so anyway. The result of such a narrative generally is the feeling that the Sanhedrin was running the show, and that Herod and Pilate just kind of went along for the ride, or had no strong feelings either way.

The problem with this narrative is that it is based upon an ignorance of the socio-political forces at play, and thus much of the Gospel accounts are misunderstood or lost in translation here.

So today, let us begin by trying to picture how the practical governmental politics at the time of Jesus worked, and then we can wrap it up by discussing what happened on the night when He was killed.

The Province of Iudaea and the Tetrarchy of Herod

Before the Roman Empire expanded into Palestine, the land of Israel and some surrounding lands were all ruled by Herod the Great, who died between 4-1 BC. Herod served the Roman Emperor as a vassal king: the Roman Emperor was a suzerain king, providing power and defense in return for the promised fealty of the region.

When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four sections, called a Tetrarchy, and divided among his heirs Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, Salome I, and Herod Phillip II. The suzerain arrangement with Rome continued, with the divided kingdom.

However, shortly before Jesus' ministry (29 AD), Rome began to take a more active role in the region--due largely to the incompetence of Herod Archelaus.

So the Roman Emperor declared the land of Archelaus--that is, Judah plus Samaria plus Edom--as an imperial province (Iudaea--note that it is not the historical lands of Judea, but rather Judah+Samaria+Edom). Unlike the senatorial provinces, Imperial provinces were seen as needing direct authority by the Emperor himself, due to the lack of stability in the region.

Meanwhile the rest of the Tetrarchy remained client-king states. Herod Antipas ran Galilee and Peraea. The Decapolis was a collection of ten independent cities and a constant source of unrest in the region.

Political Authorities

So there were, at the time of Jesus, two primary political authorities in His region:

  • Herod Antipas:  Herod Antipas was King of Galilee and Peraea, having been appointed by Augustus Caesar when his father, Herod the Great, died. His capital was the Galilean city of Tiberius, on the sea of Galilee. 
  • Pontius Pilate:  The ruler of the province of Iudaea was technically Caesar, but of course he could not manage the day-to-day operations from Rome. His prefect in Iudaea was a member of the Equestrian class named Pontius Pilate. Like other prefects, Pilate would have previously demonstrated success in business, politics, and military command.
There were no other political authorities at the time of Christ in Palestine. There were no separation of powers under Rome: the ruling authority had complete power (legislative, executive, and judicial). So in Iudaea, Pilate had massive authority and, in Galilee/Peraea King Herod had similar authority.

The Sanhedrin

The Sanhedrin is often thought by modern Christians to be a political power as well, but this is a mistake.

In ancient (pre-Rome) Israel, a Sanhedrin was any council of judges who served as the judiciary of a region of Israel. Each city could have a lesser Sanhedrin, and Jerusalem's greater Sanhedrin served as Israel's supreme court. 

However, by the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin had been stripped of its political power by Rome. The Sanhedrin was allowed to continue to meet, but only as a religious body: they were more like the Vatican's College of Cardinals than a court system. The only laws they were allowed to pass were laws for the Jewish religion: if a person was willing to leave Judaism, then the Sanhedrin no longer held any authority whatsoever over them.

The Sanhedrin was allowed by the Roman rulers (Pilate and Antipas) to serve as judges of the Law of long as they did not break any Roman laws in the process. For example, the Mosaic Law sometimes calls for the death penalty, but Roman law forbade anyone but the Emperor's prefect from sentencing people to death. For the most part, the Sanhedrin was filled with Jewish aristocrats, mostly of the Sadduccee sect of Judaism. It was a position of spiritual authority but not one of political power.

The Trial of Jesus

Now that you understand the political situation a bit better, perhaps this can help clear up some of the confusion about the trial of Jesus. (Note: the below is a composite of all four Gospels, so I will not be citing each individual statement.)

Jesus had been growing in popularity in the region, reaching a new height of influence when He raised Lazarus from the dead just outside of Jerusalem. Seeing how popular this made him, the Jewish religious leaders decided to kill Jesus. Convincing His friend Judas to betray Him, they arrest Jesus and drag Him to the Sanhedrin council.

Now remember that the Sanhedrin has no political power. The only punishments they can legally dole out are for religious violations of the Law, and even then only lesser punishments which will stay out of the Roman spotlight. But they are incensed by Jesus' growing popularity and His claims to be the Son of God, which they consider blasphemy.

The priests mock and beat Jesus, and eventually He boldly admits that He is the Son of God before the high priest, Caiaphas. The Sanhedrin finds Him guilty of blasphemy, which carries a sentence of death.

Or it did...back when the Sanhedrin had political authority. They have no such power now, so to enact the death penalty they have to find a way to have the Roman rulers find Jesus guilty of a Roman capital crime.

The Sanhedrin take Jesus to the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. They know that Pilate, being a Roman, will care little about a claim of blasphemy. Therefore, they accuse Him of the one thing Pilate fears most: being a seditionist. They focus on Jesus' claim to be Messiah, knowing that Pilate will assume Jesus is yet another would-be-Messiah of the Zealot sects of Judaism. These groups were famous for trying to overthrow Roman power in the region, so announcing Jesus as "King of the Jews" would be seen as an attempted uprising against the Roman Empire, which was a serious crime in Rome.

Essentially, the Sanhedrin--knowing they had no power to actually do anything about Jesus--plays suck-up here. They take Jesus to Pilate and are essentially saying, "Look what good friends of Rome we are! We found one of our guys claiming to be Messiah, and you know how much trouble that has caused in the past. So straightaway we brought Him to you to try and kill!"

Pilate begins to question Jesus, in the process discovering that Jesus is a Galilean. Recall that Israel was split at this time: Galilee is part of the kingdom of Herod Antipas, not Iudaea (where Pilate reigned). Because of the coming Passover feast, Herod happened to be in Jerusalem at the time. Not wishing to overstep the jurisdiction of Herod, Pilate sends Jesus over to his palace.

This was more, though, than just a question of jurisdiction: had Pilate wanted, it was within his legal right to condemn Jesus since the crime was committed in his region. However, Pilate and Herod had long been on shaky political ground: Iudaea had previously been part of Herod's father's kingdom, and the balance of power was constantly unstable. Luke tells us that Pilate's deference to Herod in the case of Jesus--the sign of respect of refusing to sentence a Galilean without Herod's input--was the first step to the two becoming allies.

So Pilate sends Jesus over in an attempt to show Herod the respect of his position: it is not unlike a modern extradition, where one country refuses to sentence the citizen of another country. Since Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate decides to "extradite" Him to Galilee's king, just so happens that due to the feast, Herod was staying down the road instead of 100 miles to the north.

Herod had been looking forward to seeing Jesus perform miracles, but Jesus refused to do so. Herod mocks Jesus, he does not find him guilty and worthy of death under any Roman law which he is allowed to enact. He returns the favor of showing Pilate honor by sending Jesus back to Pilate: essentially, it is Herod's way of saying, "I find this Galilean subject of mine innocent, but if He offended you in your region, His life is yours."

This is often misread by people as Herod trying to pass the buck...far from it. Neither Pilate nor Herod showed very much hesitation about executions--even prophets. (Recall how quickly Herod agreed to behead John the Baptist!) Rather, the passing back and forth of Jesus between them was the beginning of them showing political respect and cooperation to each other.

When Jesus returns to Pilate, then, He has been found innocent by the Galilean king, but the people of Pilate's province (Iudaea) are still incensed about the prophet. The Sanhedrin this time lays three charges against Jesus: (1) corrupting the nation, (2) forbidding payment of taxes; and (3) rebellion against the Roman Empire. The only one of concern to Pilate was the latter charge. He asks Jesus if He is king of the Jews, and Jesus does not deny it. Still, Pilate sees through the thin charges and declares the man innocent. He was clever enough to know that if Antipas had no issue with it, and Jesus is so blase about the whole thing, then this is not a legitimate set of charges.

But this puts Pilate in a rough situation. The worst thing which can happen--both for his safety and his career--is for yet another rebellion to break out in this region. Iudaea was famous for uprisings and Pilate appears to make the political calculation that agreeing to the Sanhedrin's desires is better than dealing with the consequences. Pilate had to feel that he was in a rough spot:  if Jesus was an anti-Rome rebel and is released then Pilate's entire career could fold; yet if he finds Jesus innocent, it is possible that the Sanhedrin will rebel or--worse--the next would-be-Messiah from the Zealot sect will feel it is okay to rebel against Rome and see Pilate as weak.

Thus, Pilate allows Jesus to be crucified, though he washes his hands publicly of the action he could have stopped. Like any good politician, he gets the dirty work done to keep the peace, while publicly denying any involvement.


As you can see, the political situation at the time of Jesus was far more complex than you might originally think.

In summary:

  • The Roman Empire is the only political power--the executive, legislative, and judicial branches all rolled into one.
  • Rome has two main rulers in the area:  the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate rules in Iudaea (Judah, Samaria, and Edom); King Herod Antipas rules in Galilee and Peraea.
  • The Sanhedrin, a former political power, is now only a religious institution--but by raising the right trumped-up charges, they are able to get Jesus put on trial before the Romans.
  • Antipas and Pilate, during the trial of Jesus, each had a claim to serve as Jesus' judge: Antipas because Jesus was Galilean by birth, and Pilate because the alleged crimes happened in Iudaea. 
  • Antipas and Pilate show each other great respect during the trial of Jesus, going out of their way to ensure that the proper jurisdictions are maintained. Their sending Jesus back and forth is not an act of cowardice, but of political savvy as they attempt to build an alliance.
  • Ultimately, Herod ruled that Jesus was innocent and was willing to deny the Sanhedrin (as he had done many times before, including building cities on mass graveyards that the Jews found unclean). Pilate also found Jesus innocent, and had no desire to execute Him. The frequent Messianic uprisings do worry Pilate, though, and when Jesus refuses to deny that He is the Messiah (King of Jews), Pilate agrees to the demands of the Sanhedrin and executes Jesus.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Jeremiah 29:11 and the Myth of the One

 “Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it?
Or just let it slip?”
--Eminem, Lose Yourself

We live in a culture today which relentlessly preaches something I call the “Myth of the One.” We believe that life comes down to a very small number of pivotal moments, which—if missed—throw everything else off track. I’m not sure where this started—maybe it goes back to Freud and early psychiatrists, who attempted to describe everything in our lives in cause/effect relationship to formative moments. Or maybe they simply were reflecting the general society at large’s acceptance of this Myth of the One.

While the origins may be uncertain, the reality certainly is not:
  •          We believe that there is one perfect major for us.
  •          We believe that there is one perfect college to attend.
  •          We believe that there is one perfect job to take, and one perfect career path.
  •          We believe there is one soulmate for everyone to find happiness.
  •          We believe that there is one “right time” to have kids to maximize happiness.

To put it in Christian terms…we tend to believe that there is one “perfect will” of God for our lives, and every detail of it is mapped out and planned. Because of this, we are forced to either believe that God will make that happen for our lives regardless of our will/desires (Calvinism) or that we are capable of screwing up God’s plan for our lives (Arminianism).

But let’s pretend for a minute that you’re a skeptical Christian. Let’s pretend that—as a reader of this blog—you actually want to base your life on the Scriptures and not the Christian culture we’ve created today. So you decide to look into it. Where can you find verses saying that God will help you find this One perfect major/college/job/soulmate/car/house/etc?

Well many, many books have been written on the topic, by people from Charles Stanley to Rick Warren. They must be filled with such Scriptures! So let’s start there. Here are the verses they commonly site:

  •  Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
  • And…um…nope, that’s basically it.

There will be a few other verses thrown in from time to time, but even these authors don’t use these as Scriptural proofs, but rather as examples of how to achieve this One Path He has for you. For example some will quote Psalm 119:105, which says that His word is a light for our path. Others will quote Hebrews 12:1, which says that we should run with endurance in God’s race. Or they might reference Proverbs 16:9, which says that humans plan courses but God interrupts to move them other places.

Okay, so there isn’t a whole lot of Scripture there to back up this idea that God has one perfect plan or will for your life. But the Jeremiah 29:11 verse is still pretty-spot on, right? After all, most people think is the second most read Bible verse in Scripture by Christians today. So clearly, this is meant to give us hope in our search for spouses and jobs and such, right?


Context is key, so let’s find out what this verse is about.

After Babylon razed Jerusalem and carried off the Jews into captivity in the 6th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah smuggled a letter into their elders. This letter is recorded in Jeremiah 29:4-23, and says:
  •          The Jews should build houses and settle down
  •          Get into ordinary life – marrying and having daughters and getting to a routine
  •          Seek peace with their new owners, not being trouble-makers
  •          God has not forsaken them during their enslavement. After a cleansing period of 70 years, God will return and lead them back out of captivity (NOTE: This is the section containing v.11.)
  •          God will punish those who abandoned them and fled from exile

That’s what the passage is about, guys and gals. When I think about the 31,000 plus verses in the Bible, it is hard to believe that a prophet's command from 2,600 years ago not to rebel against your slave-masters and instead wait patiently on God to free you is really the second-most relevant verse.

Stop and think for a minute and try and reboot your mind. What our modern American Christian culture has done is so mind-blowing that it borders on violating commands of adding to the Scripture. We have taken a portion of a letter written in the Bronze Age, which was intended to encourage the Jews in slavery to know that God had not broken the Mosaic Covenant…and we have turned that into a theology that says “God has a perfect plan for YOUR INDIVIDUAL life and nothing bad will happen to you unless it’s part of that plan.”

Do you see how, well, arrogant that is? How disrespectful to God and His word?

Misuse of this passage out of context is one of my biggest pet peeves in modern Christendom. This verse is written to a very specific context in the ancient world. IF it has ANY connection in the modern world (and it is not necessary that it does), then it would be to gain encouragement to those in slavery, that God will one day lead them free and back to “Jerusalem.”

To make it about me and my job and my love life and my finances and my car choice and me me me me is just so very selfish and so very wrong.

And worse, it plays into the going narrative in our society that history is all about a series of inflection points, pivotal moments that must be captured or your life is ruined. The Myth of the One, that if I don’t hit that one moment, that one opportunity, then I will ruin God’s plan for my life.

So what is God’s plan for your life?

This is not to say, however, that God has no plan for us. Far from it! God has a very specific plan for your life. It’s just not what Hollywood—or modern American culture—wants it to be.

You see, we have been told that God’s plan for us is a specific path, a “preferred decision” at every moment (no matter how small), and that He helps us achieve it. It is a path that brings us comfort and wealth and happiness and health. It is a path that will please Him and, if we deviate from it, we fail. Oh, maybe we have some latitude here and there, but there are a few key moments that we must pass through.

(Doctor Who fans:  We tend to think that it is just like the Doctor’s “Fixed Points in Time” comment—that history can be rewritten except for a few key fixed points in time, which cannot be altered or messed with.)

But God’s plan for your life is—paradoxically—both more intimate and less you-centered; both more beautiful and less grand.

God’s plan for each of us is to live in our lives as new creatures. To allow Jesus to transform our hearts, wherever we are, and to thereby transform everything around us. Our God is not a God of grand stages and worldwide press, but a God-of-the-moments, a God who is in the dust and muck with us.

With a very few exceptions (Paul, David, John the Baptist…you know, exceptions rare enough to warrant including in the Bible!), God does not have this grand and detailed step-by-step plan which leads you to Great Glory and Wonderful Achievement.

His plan for you is simply this:  to allow Christ to transform who you are so that, whoever you are, you are now an Heir-of-Christ in your environment. If you are a farmer, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like farmer. If you are an engineer, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like engineer. If you are a journalist, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like journalist. If you are a parent, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like parent. If you are single, God’s plan for you is to be a Christ-like single.

Your “path” is one of spiritual growth and holiness…not of achievements and works.

To put it simply:  God wants you to make wise decisions, to love God, and to love others. That is His plan.

This makes some of us uncomfortable. We (being so individualistic) hate the idea that this sounds so impersonal. We should each have an exact God-plan for us individually, not just collectively as a group! But you see, that’s wrong. Because when we become Christians, we do in fact precisely this: we die to ourselves and become part of One Body, the Church. Its plan becomes our plan. The Kingdom, not our personal satisfaction, becomes our goal.

Some of you now, as you read this, revolt against it. You want God to have a specific plan for you, John Q. Public, a specific plan that tells whether you should buy this car or not and how that affects your overall story arc. You want, in other words, to be the main character in your story.

You see, that’s the problem. Hollywood has taught us that we are all stars in the picture…when in reality, we are the supporting cast. We are an ensemble. The leading man is the Triune God, and this is His story, not ours. We have roles to play, and those roles are to be wise, love God, and love others. This is the message of the entire Bible, cover to cover. Every Scripture plays into this role, and every Scripture supports this view of our lives.

God loves us, God saved us. Therefore…His plan for you is:  Live wisely. Love God. Love others.

What is God’s plan for your marriage? Choose a partner wisely. Love God by upholding the oaths you make on your wedding day. Love your spouse even during hard times.

What is God’s plan for your college/major? Choose a college and major wisely. Love God through your obedience. Love others during your time there.

What is God’s plan for your career right now? Is He wanting you to accept/reject such and such job? His plan—make a wise choice. Love God and give Him praise that you have such options. Love others in your career so that they can see Him through you.

What is God’s plan for your car choice? Choose a car wisely. Love God and represent Him well. Love those you encounter during the experience, living as a child of the light.

Do you begin to see the point?

God does have a plan for your life. But it is not the Myth of the One, that there is some perfect set of steps which, if not followed, ruin this great glorious tapestry He has woven to bring you fame and fortune.

No, God has a plan which is far more beautiful, far more powerful, far more intimate, and far more awe-inspiring. He wants YOU to become His light in the world around you. To reflect His glory and be one of His candles holding back the darkness of our age.

Stop this silly search for “God’s perfect plan” for you. Just be wise, love God, and love others. Be His light in your life, whatever it brings you. And look forward to the coming Kingdom, where all will be remade.