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!