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.