Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Re-thinking "Rewards"...

But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

-Mat 19:30 ESV

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting discussion with a man from my church with whom I meet regularly. As a pastor, it is a rare thing to find a brother in Christ with whom you can share honest and open discussion. Christ’s church is a beautiful lover to the one who has poured out his life for her. But like many a fiery beauty, she can go from clear skies to thunderstorms in a moment, and woe to the servant who catches her when the clouds are building. So I cherish those trustworthy friendships that the Lord provides… because they can be few and far between.

Anyway, our topic on this particular evening as we were walking and talking in the late evening was the subject of salvation and rewards. Now, I fully admit up front that there is much about the subject of rewards that is up for debate. And I think it is probably best left as a grey area. Nonetheless, in light of the discussion, I wanted to investigate the subject a little more thoroughly and put down a few of my own thoughts on the subject.

First, taking a look at the Greek, there are three words typically used for reward as a noun in the New Testament. The first and most common is transliterated ‘misthos’ – “hire, wage, reward”. It is most often rendered ‘reward’ in most Bible translations. However, in some places it is also translated ‘wage’ or ‘pay’ (ex: Rom 4:4, ESV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, NKJV, HCSB). The second word is transliterated ‘antapodosis’ and carries the meaning “reward, recompense or repayment”. It occurs only once in the New Testament at Colossians 3:24. The third form 'misthapodosia' occurs three times and seems to be a contraction of 'misthos' and 'apodidomi' and occurs three times in the New Testament.The verb form of ‘reward’ comes from only one Greek verb, ‘apodidomi’ which occurs only 5 times in the New Testament and has a broader set of meanings including: “to give away”, “to pay off”, “to recompense”, “to give back/return”.

Considering these words, I propose that we allow the concept of reward to include all of the above meanings: wage, reward, something given away or a recompense. Context, of course, must determine the specific meaning – but it seems that the range of conceptual meanings possible is rather broad.

I am particularly interested in the idea of a reward being something “given away”, because I happen to believe that the idea of ‘rewards’ as a positive (pride evoking) or negative (fear evoking) motivator is probably not the best understanding. In fact, I will show my strategy early in the game – I suspect there is good reason to believe that the ‘reward’ discussed throughout the New Testament has nothing to do with the "do good stuff - get a special prize in heaven" mentality. Mind you, this is one man's opinion - so take it as such.

Why do I think it's not the best understanding? Well, let's begin with Jesus' attitude about competition in the area of the Kingdom. Using Kurt Aland's Synopsis of the Four Gospels and borrowing some ideas from Robert Farrar Capon's book Parables of Grace, allow me to reference the following passages that describe what appear plainly to be the same event:

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all." And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."

- Mar 9:33-37

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

- Mat 18:1-4

Following their argument about who will be first (about who will get the greatest rewards), Jesus seems to be saying, "Knock it off... you guys don't get it. It's not about trying to be first or get the most. It's about receiving me and whoever is humble as this child receives me. I'm the only reward you need to worry about." In support of this idea, the passage in Mark has Jesus immediately talking about receiving him - not rewards or status.

Of course, the disciples - being much like you and I - just can't let it go. At the end of Matthew 19, we see Peter responding to Jesus' comment to the rich young man about giving up everything and following him. "Ahem... Jesus," Peter says gently clearing his throat, "...have you noticed that we have given up everything. And... well... we were kind of wondering... what's in it for us?" And of course, Jesus responds... "Everyone who gives up anything will receive many times more, and eternal life. Not only that, I'm going to make sure everyone gets the best seat in the house... but... please understand that many who are first will still be last and vice versa." In other words, Jesus is telling them, "You guys still have your focus wrong, it's not about what you're going to get. In fact, what you're going to get is me... and everything that comes with me (good and bad, by the way)."

And as if to punctuate the point, these comments of Jesus' are followed up with a rather devastating argument against the "rewards" mindset of much of Christianity: The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard:

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, 'You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' So the last will be first, and the first last."

- Mat 20:1-16 ESV

That's about as straightforward as you can get. And it follows right on the heels of Peter's asking "Hey, what do we get for all we gave up?" So, this is clearly addressing the issue of rewards. All I am saying is, let's address any discussion about a "reward" in light of Jesus' own teaching on the matter.

Now let's return to the usage of the word "reward" in the New Testament scriptures. At the beginning here, let me point out that some have suggested - and I believe correctly - that Jesus' purpose was revealed to him only gradually by his Father as he pursued his calling/destiny as Messiah (for an example, see Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus by Robert Farrar Capon - I borrow heavily from him here). If that were the case, then there is reason to believe that Jesus' early sayings, as recorded in the gospels, may be based in a more traditional (from the Jewish perspective) understanding of his role as messiah. As his journey brought him closer to the cross, however, he began to see the perfect fulfillment of his role as savior-messiah in his death and expected resurrection.

Now, I realize that this may go against some views of Jesus' nature/identity, but let me offer two thoughts. First, I offer the Chalcedonian Creed - the creed that established the "orthodox" understanding of the nature of Christ. I will quote only a portion of it:

"...two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence,"

This creed indicates very clearly the belief that Jesus' two natures were in no way confused ("inconfusedly")... or in danger of "being... taken away" (or violated by each other). I believe that we are on fair ground (in my opinion, good ground) to suggest that Jesus' humanity was not compromised by his divinity in the area of his mental/logical processes. In other words, that his "God-nature" had been voluntarily limited by his taking on of human nature, but also that he was no less the essence of God because of it.

The second argument is primarily a theological one. If Jesus were some super hero messiah, he would not have been "one of us", he would not have been able to "sympathize with our weaknesses" as we are told in Hebrews 4:15. More importantly, if Jesus had not been fully human, it is hard to see how his death could have been an effective offering or 'propitiation' for our sin. Physical death would have held no fear or pain for such a super hero messiah - and the display of the cross would have been just a carnival sideshow performance. Jesus was not pretending to be in agony and anguish on the cross... he was in agony and anguish.

What we are saying then, is that Jesus' was fully human. Of course, he was also fully God - but his human-ness was not compromised by his God-ness. He set aside his supernatural abilities as God when he became human. Any supernatural power we see expressed by Jesus should be understood as the power of the Holy Spirit working through him as a human being - in the same way it can work through us. The only difference between us and Jesus - that is, in our mutual human-ness - is that Jesus was born without a sin nature by virture of his virgin birth. In that way he may have been more "transparent" to the power of the Holy Spirit working through him.

If you can handle all of that, then we're in good shape to move to discussion regarding Jesus' usage of the word 'reward'. What's interesting here is that Jesus' usage of the word 'reward' ends around the middle of each of the gospels (except in John, where it's not used at all). In Matthew's gospel, it appears right after the declaration of the beginning of Jesus' teaching about his death and resurrection (Mt 16:21). In Mark and Luke, it appears before both of the parallel declarations (Mk 8:31, Lk 9:22) of this apparently new teaching.

The fact that all discussion regarding the 'rewards-based' mentality ends at precisely the time Jesus realizes and/or starts teaching about this "new" (and rather un-messiah-like) plan - seems rather conspicuous. It is as though Jesus himself stops teaching about rewards because the complete plan is fully dawning on him in his human mind. Let me also add, as further evidence, that the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard referenced above also follows shortly after this pivot point in Jesus messianic message. I think an obvious conclusion would be that as the message becomes clear to Jesus, his teaching changes to more accurately reflect that message.

Perhaps in the beginning Jesus' message was based on an understanding of genuine heart change toward God reflected in obedience, though he apparently had some consciousness of his death prior to this point (Lk 5:35). At this point, however, I believe he realizes with clarity his more complete purpose is to fulfill the law, turning it on itself and overthrowing death itself by his own death and resurrection. So the focus of his message and ministry changes accordingly. The discussion on individual rewards ends as Jesus earns the reward for all humanity, to be received simply by trusting in him.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Breathing life...

...then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

I've always been fascinated by the creation story of Genesis. I'm not sure what it is, but I love reading about and considering the origin of the world. When I think of God creating - out of nothing - everything I see (and don't see) around me... I feel absolute awe at the world and the God who created it. It's a beautiful thing.

Moreover, I find the story of God's creation of Adam particularly interesting because it carries with it a weight and importance beyond that of most portions of scripture. It displays an intimacy with the creator of the heavens as He births the first man out of - oddly enough - dust. Still more beautiful is the description of how God animates this marionette of earth (which is what 'Adam' [adamah] means, "earth/dirt"). He breathes His life into him. This isn't a Polaroid snapshot photo of a child creating figures out of Lego blocks, it is a master painting of the intimacy and communion between man and God Himself. God didn't push a button to make man go. He didn't wind him up or insert batteries. He imparted himself into man in an act that transcends the intimacy even of sexuality. We are, quite literally, his very breath - the emanation of a portion of his essence.

This should tell us something about ourselves. We are not a cosmic accident. We are not the product of a deistic God who simply pressed the "Enter" key and now watches disinterestedly as the chaos ensues. We are his children. We are living brush strokes on the canvas of the heart of God. We are loved. We are of value to Him, because He has expressed himself (literally) through us.

That alone - if you truly understand and believe it - will make your heart sing, will make you want to dive headlong into the mystery of His love. But wait... there's more.

The curse. One tree. One decision. One legacy of corruption and suffering. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

So often I see spiritual leaders, teachers and authors approaching the subject of redemption and the curse in a three point summary similar to what follows:
  • God created the world perfect.
  • Adam and Eve screwed it up.
  • Through Jesus, God fixed it back to the way it was.
Now, I can't say as I blame them too much. Two thousand years of history goes a long way toward setting something into the global Christian conscience. And after all, that's what I believed too until God - for lack of a better way to say it - allowed me to see something very different. But before you start labeling me a false prophet, and it seems like everybody is a false prophet to somebody these days, let me share with you what I mean.

I think most of us can agree on the first of our three summary points, that God created the world perfect. Considering the fact that God declared his creation "very good" (Genesis 1:31), it seems only reasonable to assume that very good to a perfect God would be... well, perfect. See there, we're already 33% in agreement!

However, we run into a little disagreement on the second point. I hear your skepticism creeping in already. Hang in there, it's just a little disagreement after all. Whether or not Adam and Eve screwed up is a matter of perspective. And we'll get right back to that, but the matter of their screwing "it" up depends on what the "it" is. Obviously their actions had some consequences that affected the whole created world. And if the created world is your "it", then we're going to get along just fine. However, if you let God's plan start to creep into your "it", then you and I are going to have some difficulties for the rest of this discussion. But don't worry, we can share a coffee or a game of pool afterward and all will be well again. After all, you and I are family... and that's what matters.

There are at least two problems with God's plan being your "it". First of all, there's that pesky reference in Revelation 13:8:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
(Rev 13:8 KJVA)

We could argue about translation here, but the fact is that either the lamb was slain before the foundation of the world, or our name was written - or not - in the book of life before the foundation of the world. Either way, God's plan for redemption (and I'll have more to say on that in just a bit) has been in place from the "foundation" or, as the word can also be translated, the "conception" of the world.

The second problem is Romans 8:29-30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
(Rom 8:29-30 ESV)

Romans 8:29 tells us that God "foreknew" (literally, "to know in advance") everyone who would turn to Him. You can choose how you want to envision that for yourself. As for me, I imagine God (who is outside of time - not bound by it) sitting down like the builder in Luke 14:28 and considering the cost of what He is about to do. Knowing each and every moment of time to its fullest degree, He chose to create knowing what it would cost - determining in advance that the price was worth paying for the beauty of what He was creating.

And what exactly was it that He was creating? I believe His purpose was to create beings who could give and receive love and had freedom of choice, but chose Him instead of their own independence. And we (humanity as a whole) are participating in the process (from our perspective) of that already finished (from God's eternal perspective) work every moment of our lives.

I could go a lot further with all that but for the purpose of defining our "it", the most important thing is to realize that God knew everything in advance and completed everything from the beginning of time. You and I, from our uniquely limited perspective in time, may perceive a great deal of uncertainty. But there was never a time - not a single moment - when God's plan was in jeopardy, or even complicated. If there was an "it" that was screwed up, "it" was only the created order - and even that was part of God's plan.

All of which brings us to a natural conclusion that makes many people very uncomfortable. Adam and Eve's fall was part of God's plan. That may chafe some people, but it's really the only logical conclusion. Either God is in control and the fall was part of His plan, or it was not part His plan... and that leaves us with an even more uncomfortable situation where God is not in control. And that seems very blatantly to go against scripture and God's whole "God-ness".

I know what you're thinking. "You're telling people God is the creator of Evil. That means God is responsible for all the suffering in the world. How in the world can your God be a good God?"

Let's not put the cart before the horse, shall we? Let's take this one step at a time. Recently in the book The Shack, by William P. Young, I came across an interesting premise, one I had heard before but not really considered very carefully. The premise was this: evil doesn't really exist.

Now your response may well be the same as my own first response, "Then we have one hell of a global hallucination. Let's face it, the world sure looks like an awfully evil place. Murder, rape, incest, torture, death, pain, starvation, war, hatred, corruption, compromise... I could go on - in alphabetical order if you like - but the bottom line is that evil sure appears to exist. It seems a hell of a lot easier to objectively prove evil than to objectively prove God. So don't give me any of this nonsense about evil not existing!"

And then I began to think about it. What is darkness after all? It is the absence of light. What is hatred? It's the absence of love. What is evil? It is the absence of good. You see, we talk about evil as if it has its own essence, as though it is a "thing" in and of itself. It is not. It is the absence, to varying degrees, of good. More specifically, it is the denial of good.

So you see, we can't accuse God of creating evil any more than we can accuse Thomas Edison of creating darkness. I suppose we could try to lay on him the responsibility of "allowing" evil - and that might make us feel justified for a few seconds, until harsh reality rushes in. Remember, God's purpose was to create beings who had freedom of choice. To refuse the possibility of evil would be to deny His creation the ability to choose. Why? Because choice, by nature (as we understand it), requires the option to choose against as well as for. And I think choice (or free will) is part of God's image in us, along with the ability to give and receive love in relationship. More importantly, love can't really be love unless it can choose the object of its affections. God "foreknew" the consequences and price of creating beings who could choose, and he chose to do it anyway.

So, with all that said, did Adam and Eve really screw up at all? That's an interesting question. In a very real sense, they did. And they bore the responsibility of that fall in the consequences of the curse. However, I believe there is a sense in which they couldn't have done anything else except fall. Here's the thing, you can't make a choice unless you know at least something about what you're choosing. And I believe that's why the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the means of taking one's life into one's own hands) was there in the garden in the first place. Adam and Eve had only ever experienced a good relationship with God (but not the perfect relationship, which we will see was to come several thousand years later). Until they were tempted, they had never been exposed to this choice to know good and evil.

My belief is that Satan's actions were known (as are the rest of the works of His creation) to God from the beginning of time. And in that sense, Satan's temptation of mankind was part of God's plan to bring us to the perfect relationship with Him that He intended from the beginning. In my opinion, to believe otherwise is to deny God's all-knowing nature. Likewise, I think it makes little sense to assume that God's plan is to spend all of time trying to get us "back to where we were", which is the message of salvation that is understood by many people and churches (and also the final point in our three point message above).

You see, I think that Adam and Eve's choice of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was also known from the beginning and therefore part of God's plan (not a backup plan, the original plan - God doesn't need backup plans). And His plan didn't start after they ate of the tree, but before. From before the beginning, God wanted to create beings who could choose to love Him. However, to create beings that could choose to love Him meant creating beings who could choose not to love Him. And I am of the opinion that to truly have the ability to choose means that one must have some knowledge of the choices being offered. Once Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they knew it's fruit - both literally and metaphorically. The result of taking one's life and destiny out of God's hands and into one's own hands is death and suffering.

But God's plan didn't end there, nor was there some sort of detour that occurred. God's original plan was that we would all be able to choose Him, and yet He knew that beings with their own unique identity would initially choose themselves. So I believe He set a plan in place that would make it possible for us to choose - of our own free will - to become one with Him (John 17:21). And within our oneness, He is free to choose His will in and through us. And the way that we are made one with Him is by the resurrection of our spirits by His Holy Spirit because of the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Nonetheless, for that choice to be a real choice, we had to know what it meant not to choose Him - and that is what the fall accomplished within God's plan.

"But wait," I hear you saying, "now you are done in by your own words. You have just made God guilty of incorporating evil into His plans."

Yes, that is the natural conclusion of what I'm saying. But let's be very clear on something. Any omniscient, omnipotent God of this current creation in which we find ourselves has to have included evil in His plans. Evil is a part of our world, therefore it has to have been part of His plan. Otherwise He's neither all-knowing nor all-powerful.

And I'll answer your next question before you ask. No, it doesn't make God responsible for evil. And even if He were responsible for it, that wouldn't keep God from being good - if what we call "evil" were a necessary element for the perfect good. But not to worry, I think we'll find that even if we - in our arrogance - were to put Him on trial, we would be hard pressed to find Him guilty of anything.

First of all, remember our earlier discussion. Evil isn't really a thing. It is the absence of (or distance from) a thing - namely goodness - which, by His very nature, God is. Now the question becomes: Is God responsible for being something that His creation can abandon or distance itself from? Or if you would rather have it more personal terms, "Is God wrong for creating beings who can choose their relationship with Him? And further, is He responsible for their choices, since He knew it all in advance and chose to do all this creating anyway?"

I think it's safe to say that none of us would want to be robots. We like our ability to choose, even if we don't like the consequences of our own choices. So, I don't think any of us will be finding God at fault for creating us with freedom. However, it certainly wouldn't bother most of us if He took away the rights of those around us who keep choosing things that cause so much suffering. And therein lies the real problem, God has given us freedom and we don't like what we - and others like us - have done with it. Even natural disasters, it seems, are the result of a choice that our "first parents" (Adam and Eve) made - damaging creation itself.

What we really hate is what we are. And that's a good starting point, but not a good place to finish. Because what we are now is not what we are intended to be. Now we are free to choose. But because of our first choice of independence in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (because all of humanity is somehow bound up together), we are destined to choose only ourselves. That is, until Jesus enters the picture.

Jesus - in his life, death and resurrection - was the perfect sacrifice that restored the relationship with God that was broken in the garden of Eden. As fully human, just like us, he died in our place (again, humanity is somehow all bound up together) and received the consequence of our sin for us. As fully God, he was able to die for all humanity - an infinite sacrifice. And more than that, by sending the Holy Spirit, he fixed our identity and independence problem forever.

And here is where the beauty of creation is made complete. The word for "spirit" is pneuma or "wind/breath." Do you see it? In the death of Jesus Christ, we die. And by His Spirit, God "breathes" life into us again, resurrecting our spirits with His life - making us one with Him. This isn't figurative speech, it is a literal resurrection... a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). As in creation God breathed his life into non-living dust (adam/adamah), He now breathes life into dead dirt (humanity/Adam's descendants) again! We are given a new spirit. In fact, we are a new person.

Moreover, by Christ's resurrection from the dead we are promised that even the death that still clings to us in our 'flesh' - the one thing that ties us to this cursed and dying world - will be resurrected once the flesh has died. And we will be resurrected with new bodies no longer corrupted by the curse of this world. But that's really just the icing on the cake, because who we really are - our spirit - has already been resurrected in the here and now. We are living men and women walking around with bits of dead flesh and bandages clinging to us - the exact of opposite of Jesus' picture of the Pharisees (Mat 23:27-28). And some day that too will be gone and we will be whole as intended from the beginning.

That also answers a question I've had since I was young, "If, in the new creation, we're just going back to the way things were, what will keep us from screwing it up all over again?" And the answer is this: our spirits have been resurrected in oneness with God, in Christ by His Holy Spirit. Apart from this corrupted flesh in which we still find ourselves, we are incapable of choosing sin. That is the meaning of "saint" (hagios) - "sacred, most holy thing" (1 Cor 6:2 - all believers in Jesus are saints). The plan of God is not and has never been to return us to what we were in Eden, but to fully and finally breathe his life - his very self - into us and make us into something complete, and completely new!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Bronze Serpent

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
(Joh 3:14-15 ESV)

I find myself more and more concerned at all the baggage we in the church tend to shove off on those who want to enter the kingdom of God. I'm equally concerned at the burden we drop on people's shoulders after they have entered the kingdom. Read this, pray that, support this, give that. Not that reading, praying, supporting and giving are bad, but it seems like we make them a requirement of faith in Christ. We take the burden of one law off their shoulders, and exchange it for a new law that we ourselves have created - even with the best intentions.

In his song A New Law from the Mockingbird release, Derek Webb writes the following,

"... what’s the use in trading a law you can never keep for one you can that cannot get you anything..."

It seems to me that we barely give people a chance to breathe the fresh air of freedom and grace in Christ before we contaminate it with more rules and regulations. Then we set these rules and regulations up as the measuring stick for faith and growth in Christ. As I recall, both Jesus (Mt 7:1-2, Lk 6:37) and Paul (Ro 2:1-4) had some interesting things to say about our judging each other. But suppose we were able to make the case for evaluating each others' spiritual status (and I have my doubts even about that), it seems that our religious regulations for reading, praying, supporting and giving are the wrong standard.

Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruit of the spirit as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Without some serious reading into the passage, nowhere here is there any reference to regular Bible reading, specific regulations for prayer, agenda supporting or tithing your ten percent. Let me reiterate, those may all be wonderful ways (perhaps with the exception of the agendas) to express our faith. But they are not the only - or even the primary - ways of doing so.

Enough preaching, let's get back to Jesus' remarks about the bronze serpent and what it has to say for those who would enter the kingdom of God (and perhaps for those who are already part of that kingdom).

Jesus is obviously comparing himself to the incident described in Numbers 21:

Then they set out from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to bypass the land of Edom, but the people became impatient because of the journey. The people spoke against God and Moses: "Why have you led us up from Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread or water, and we detest this wretched food!" Then the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died. The people then came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD so that He will take the snakes away from us." And Moses interceded for the people. Then the LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake image and mount it on a pole. When anyone who is bitten looks at it, he will recover. So Moses made a bronze snake and mounted it on a pole. Whenever someone was bitten, and he looked at the bronze snake, he recovered.
(Num 21:4-9 HCSB)

Now, it seems reasonable to conclude that if Jesus bothered to compare himself to the serpent that was lifted up, then he must have seen some significant parallels. The most obvious is the idea of being "lifted up". Maybe that was all Jesus was referring to, that he would be "lifted up" on the cross for all to see, but I am inclined to think there is more in light of the statement, "that whoever believes in him may have eternal life."

Not only was Jesus "lifted up" in the same way as the bronze snake, but the parallel to Israel's "looking on" the snake is our "believing in" Jesus. According to the Bible, all the Israelite people had to do if bitten by a snake was to look at the bronze serpent on the pole. They did not have to do any repentance (as described by actively "turning away" from their sins), penance, good works or any scripture reading, any reconciliation on their part at all. They simply had to voluntarily look at the snake, a symbol of their sin, recognizing God's provision. In the same way, all we are called to do is "look on" Jesus on the cross (a symbol of our sin - and the sacrifice for it) and recognize/believe/accept that he is God's provision.

I know what you want to say, "What about repentance? What about being saved for good works? What about the life change? What about getting involved in God's work?"

My response to you is... What about them?

All those things are not things that we do "for God." They are things that flow out of the one positive response that we can have toward God: loving trust. Repentance cannot come out of ourselves, at least not the kind preached from so many pulpits. I know. I've tried.

It sounds like such a wonderful idea to "turn" from our sins and back to God. The implication is that somehow, once we've accepted Jesus as the gift of God, we need to get about the business of destroying sin in our lives. I can't speak for everyone else in the world... but I tried that so long that my relationship with God became anchored on my performance in the area of "repentance."

You see, in most protestant churches we've finally gotten it into our heads that faith doesn't come from "good works" - things we "do for" God to earn his favor. But in our inherently religious human nature, we've latched onto a salvation that is maintained by what we "don't do." We've backed it up a step or two and labeled it "sanctification" instead of salvation, but in the end it all works out the same. But our relationship with God - now and in the future - is not grown, improved, hindered or broken by either what we do or don't do. It is based entirely on the finished work of Jesus Christ.

"So what motivation do we have to make God-honoring choices? How do we make sure people are not just doing whatever they want and completely ignoring the responsibility of being a Christian?"

You're missing the point. That's not our job! Let me say it again for emphasis. It is not the responsibility of the church to make sure that people don't sin! Honestly, I'm becoming convinced that it's not even our job to "preach against sin", "call sin what it is", or any of those other trite little phrases that are so common in conservative circles. That is the responsibility of the Holy Spirit. And it's about time we quit trying to do his job. More importantly, we need to stop our attempts to force something that God himself has chosen not to force. Yes, we are to lovingly encourage and exhort each other, but it's high time we stopped beating people up with religion and started lifting them up in encouragement and love.

The only "responsibility" God has placed on us is to look to the risen Jesus for his provision and love just as the Hebrew people looked to the snake in the wilderness. Let's make sure that's the only "responsibility" we lay on anyone else. Or perhaps we could all use a reminder of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35).

Monday, August 25, 2008

Two Sides of Justice

I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts.
(Ecc 3:16-18 ESV)

Christian leaders are rarely at a loss for words on the topic of justice. We demand justice. We insist on it. We even pray to God for justice. I'm just not convinced we know what we're talking about. And if we did, I'm relatively certain we wouldn't be praying for it.

Many people like to talk about justice. Prophets, preachers, presidents and paupers... we all like to say we want it. But justice is a coin with two faces, and everybody wants it to land with their side up. Certainly we all want a kind of justice, the kind that works out for us - not against us.

It's important to remember that temporal justice, from God's perspective, is not always in our favor. If you disagree, let me offer you the history of Israel as evidence. Or perhaps we could take a look at our own lives - corrupted and dirty as they are. The last thing we should be looking for is justice.

Maybe you're still not convinced, so consider Jesus. Did justice - from the human perspective - work out in his favor? Yes, yes... from the eternal perspective it worked out for immeasurable glory and perhaps even perfect justice. But from the human perspective? Does what happened to Jesus factor out to justice using our math?

I suppose I can't speak for you, but my opinion is that justice doesn't even begin to describe it. And I'm in good company, because that seems to be a significant reason why so many Jewish people couldn't bring themselves to accept Christ as the messiah. If justice was being served in Jesus on the cross, then it was justice that pretty much knocked him out of the running for the messiah position. In fact, this whole suffering-messiah-sacrificed-for-sinful-humanity gig spits in the face of our kind of justice!

Consider this passage of scripture:

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
(Jas 2:13 ESV)

This verse is all the more powerful because the book of James - given its overall tone - is actually the last place one would expect to find it! It's interesting that the word translated here as "judgment" carries with it the flavor of judgment between right and wrong - judgment according to justice or divine law. It can even be directly translated as "justice." In fact, with little or no liberty taken, the above statement could be translated, "Mercy triumphs over justice." This is God's judgment.

Dirty Harry, vigilante style justice? Oh yeah, you can sign us up in droves! But when it comes down to God's justice... not so much. And why? Because with God's justice, the bad guys don't always get it in the end - and it's a good thing too, 'cause we're all bad guys. Because in God's justice, glory often has to be set aside - at least for a time. And even more uncomfortably, because when considering justice from God's perspective, we may be the ones standing in its way. That might not sit well with our self-righteous sensibilities, but it's a fact.

So the next time you are tempted to comment boldly and unashamedly on the "plain truth of God's justice", remember that you could be the one who ends up on the tails side of that coin. And the next time you're lobbying the cause of justice for your favorite cause, nation, person or self, consider carefully which side of the scale you're on and remember that justice tends to balance those scales. In the final analysis, the Bible indicates that in a match between mercy and justice... mercy is the surest bet.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Apart from the Law

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love...
"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

(Joh 15:10-12 ESV)

In a worship service I attended recently, the speaker made the comment that "salvation demands a change." The idea communicated was that somehow keeping the commandments (the law of Moses) was necessary to be a "true believer." He went on to present 1st John 2:1-6 in support of this idea.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says "I know him" but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
(1Jn 2:3-6 ESV)

Now, I think I know the heart of the individual that made the comment. But this is, I believe, a commonly held - and often communicated - misunderstanding. Examining this thought in light of the following scriptures, I think we may come up with some different conclusions about our relationship to the Law (the law of Moses and commands of the Old Covenant):

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
(Rom 3:28 ESV)

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
(Rom 3:20-22 ESV)

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
(Rom 6:14 ESV)

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
(Rom 7:4-6 ESV)

Over and over in the book of Romans we are told we are not under law. There is not much room for argument here. I've quoted only a few of the more significant verses. And yet, much of what is being taught within our churches is that it is our "duty" to obey the law. But that is simply not true. Christianity is not about morality - not even God's morality. It is about the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

Further, if we look closely at 1 John 2:3-6, we will find that even this passage supports the idea that we are not bound by the law, but by grace. Please note first of all that First John and the Gospel of John are written by the same author, and the passage at hand is a parallel to the words of Jesus in John 15. Also, let's note that the commands to be followed are not "the" commandments, but "his" commandments. And what were the commands of Jesus?

The only command Jesus ever issued in the book of John was "that you love one another as I have loved you," John 15:12. First John confirms this commandment:

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.
(1Jn 3:23 ESV)

And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
(1Jn 4:21 ESV)

This is not the "written code" - the commandments. This is the commandment of Jesus, and it is not about what we traditionally consider morality, or what's right and wrong. This is the commandment of love for one another as those who are the redeemed, the saints, those under the law of grace.

Now, lest I be accused of all manner of liberalism and antinomianism, let me point out that scripture never indicates that we should try to live "in opposition to" or "contrary to" the law. There is a change yielded by the law of grace and it may appear in harmony with the law of Moses. At other times it may not. But that change is not "demanded" of us, it is accomplished within us by the Holy Spirit apart from our own efforts. The gospel, as presented above by Paul, simply
says that we are not under the authority of the law any more. We are to abide by Jesus' commands - which are not the law. Rather, they are the fulfillment of the law in the perfect love of Christ as we express it to each other and, I believe, to the world.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Love and Glory

Crucified. Laid behind a stone. You lived to die, rejected and alone. Like a rose trampled on the ground, you took the fall and thought of me above all.

Above All - Michael W. Smith

You've got to love seminary. It's the one place where all the negatives of academia and religion intersect with all the beauty of Christianity. The results are sometimes wonderful, sometimes hideous and sometimes ridiculous... but always interesting.

I once had a professor in a class on worship who launched into a diatribe about the song Above All by Michael W. Smith because he insisted that it was not doctrinally sound. How, you may ask, did he come to this conclusion? His primary objection was to the line, "you took the fall, and thought of me above all." He claimed that God may have thought of us, but not above all - God's primary concern is always His own glory.

I know, if you're from a reformed background you've probably been taught that God does everything first and foremost for His own glory. Still, I think we need to take a look at what's being taught and whether it actually makes sense. Don't get me wrong, it sounds very pious to talk about God's focus on His glory, and it certainly elevates our feelings about God's holiness and righteousness. But it also makes God sound more like some narcissistic Greek god than the sovereign, holy Father and Lover that He is.

Yes, there are verses pertaining to the glory of God all throughout scripture - and they certainly tell us something about God. Though not, I think, that God is infatuated with himself and his own pride. Instead, I believe they tell us that all glory goes to God... whether we like it or not, whether we even understand it or not.

And yes, there are even stronger verses in the books of the prophets, like Ezekiel 36:22 which says, "It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy name..." But it is important to realize that these passages are written to a wayward people who are continually walking away from God (not unlike ourselves). In retrospect, these verses seem to be reinforcing the same thing that the gospel does: we are not saved because of our own works and selves, but by God's choice in love alone.

So all these verses are very helpful, but they are not saying, "God's primary concern is for His glory alone." If that were the case, Christ would not have come and "for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame." Yes, these things were ultimately for his glory, but if his primary concern was for his glory - he would not have permitted even a moment of shame or suffering for Himself. Moreover, the Son of God would never have taken on a human body and all the humility that goes with it. Shame, suffering and humility in themselves are in no way glorious. Of course, in the end they were the source of immeasurable glory for God. However, if He was - as some insist - first and foremost concerned with His own glory, God - being all-powerful and all-knowing - could have worked this whole thing out in such a way as to never endure even a moment of humility, suffering or shame. In fact, the only logical conclusion is that He would have done exactly that.

So what are we to conclude? In my opinion, God is not concerned in the slightest about His own glory. Glory is just what happens when God is what God is and God does what God does. It does not in anyway detract from God's glory to say that in the cross, He thought of us above all. In fact, it brings perfect glory to His name! If He had been thinking of Himself the whole time, the beauty of the sacrifice becomes tainted with pride and self. But knowing that He was thinking of us - you and me - above His own glory paradoxically draws all glory to himself. He has turned shame, suffering and humility into adoration, joy and praise by renouncing glory itself. Yeah, I know... crazy.

You may disagree with that, or you may just not like the way I stated it, but consider these words of Jesus:

And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed (Joh 17:5 ESV)

God had glory before the "world" and everything we know existed. The glory that Jesus received was simply an attribute that God possesses - and which he already possessed in eternity. God's glory is independent of us, it is simply what He is and what happens whenever He acts. God's glory is no more a concern for him than our humanity and finiteness are for us.

Here are some additional passages indicating glory is part of God's nature:
  • 2Pe 1:17 - For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," (ESV)
  • Jud 1:24 - Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, (ESV)
  • Rev 15:8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished. (ESV)

Let me close by offering the most important thought I have. I've got a sneaking suspicion that glory and love are - from God's standpoint - very much the same. God's glory is a result of the expression of His love (within himself and to his creation). And love is the natural response to who He is. I think that therein lies the message in the sacrifice of Jesus, that self-less love is the greatest glory there is.

And I am inclined to believe that Jesus did not come to be an example to us of the love we should have toward each other, but that he was and is the nature of God. As Hebrews 1:3 tells us, he is "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (ESV). If you want to know how God feels about His glory, take a good look at Jesus. You may come away seeing things a little differently.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Shades of Gray

dog·ma :

1. That which is held as an opinion; a tenet; a doctrine.

The obscure and loose dogmas of early antiquity. -- Whewell.

2. A formally stated and authoritatively settled doctrine; a definite, established, and authoritative tenet.

3. A doctrinal notion asserted without regard to evidence or truth; an arbitrary dictum. Syn: tenet; opinion; proposition; doctrine.
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998

When it comes to Christianity and the Bible, everyone seems to have an opinion - and problems inevitably arise when opinions are held religiously. One of the most significant problems occurs when people confuse doctrine with dogma. By doctrine I mean true teachings based solidly on settled and largely uncontested facts of scripture. Dogma, on the other hand, is really another beast altogether. In the modern usage of the word, dogma is subjective in nature and distills down to mere opinion presented as objective truth.

Unfortunately, much of what is taught in some of our churches and Christian organizations is dogma. Let's face facts, it's a dogma eat dogma world out there. There are as many opinions as there are shades of gray and many of them conflict - certainly with each other, and often with scripture itself. Each one claims authority in its own circles, and each is quick to label opposing opinions as heresy.

For far too long these dogmas have divided the body of Christ. The gospel was never about what to believe about Christ, it was about accepting him in faith - and faith implies a significant measure of not knowing. His primary concern, it seems, was showing love and grace to the world. We would do well to follow that example.

This blog is primarily a place to collect my own thoughts on the message of love and grace in Christ as the Holy Spirit guides. Still, I invite and encourage feedback. I am under no delusions that I have all the answers and I welcome the ideas and constructive thoughts of anyone who might stumble across one of these posts. God be with you.