Prophets that Profit

Those who insist that we use the Bible as a set of religious and moral imperatives often support their view with passages like 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Let’s take a fresh look at that one for a moment:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

When we read, “…useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” we tend to understand that to mean that if we want to know about God and live pleasing to him, we need to read and obey the Bible. A more faithful treatment of this text would be to understand it to say that if we want to know about God and live pleasing to him, we need to read and obey the Old Testament¹, but that’s hardly something Paul would say. In his letter to the Galatians he declares that attempting to follow the Torah doesn’t make a person righteous, it cuts him or her off from Christ.

Paul had a high view of Scripture, but he was careful not to allow a literal interpretation of it to become essential to a relationship with God. A key word in 2 Timothy 3:16 is “useful.” Scripture is a tool to assist in the fulfillment of something else. It’s a hammer; not the building. It’s a car; not the destination or even the journey. We need to make this distinction. If we don’t, we’ll begin to equate the performance of written rules with the achieving of God’s will.

Obeying the Bible isn’t the object nor is the Bible itself the subject. As a tool, the Scriptures don’t teach, rebuke, correct or train anyone. The “servant of God” fulfills these functions and the Scriptures help him to be thoroughly equipped for that work. The Scriptures don’t create these “servants of God.” Paul doesn’t intimate that the Scriptures were supposed to provide an ethic for Timothy, but rather they were to equip him for ministry to others. 2 Timothy 3:10-15 reveals the actual ethic that Timothy was supposed to follow:

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s message and example were Timothy’s ethic. Paul taught Timothy how to live saved by faith in Christ. The Holy Scriptures made Timothy wise to accept that way of salvation; they were not themselves the way of salvation. The Scriptures were a tool to convey Timothy to Christ and Timothy in turn was to use the same Scriptures to point others to Christ as well.

Just like any other tool, the Scriptures cause harm when they are used improperly. Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus in the first place to keep people from doing just that:

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:5-11)

Every tool has as a purpose or goal. According to Paul, the goal of the command is love from a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. A person who manifests and maintains those inner virtues is authentically righteous.

In Ephesus, there apparently were some for whom that ethic seemed too simple or “easy.” In their dissatisfaction, they went on to bind the more specific injunctions of Scripture on others. This approach defeats itself, though, since an external code can’t make immoral people authentically moral. It can only teach them hypocrisy or rebellion.

While a written moral code can’t make an immoral person moral, it can make a moral person immoral. Let’s suppose, for instance, that a man dearly loves his wife and couldn’t imagine betraying her. Then he encounters the Torah command not to commit adultery. The prohibition suggests to him that this something he’s inclined to do but needs to restrain himself from. Love for his wife becomes replaced by obligation to her and by fear of punishment. Over time, he begins to resent the obligation to his wife and to fantasize about the feeling of freedom that a new romance would bring. At this point, even if he never acts on his elicit desires, he’s worse off than he would have been had he never encountered the seventh commandment.

People forget that the Decalogue wasn’t given to individuals, but to a nation as a part of their charter. Nations need laws to ensure the social order and common good. At a national level, it makes little difference whether the citizenry conforms out of fear of punishment or from an internal moral imperative. Since government can do very little to shape character, it must resort to prohibition and punishment. Laws are necessary on the level of public policy, but toxic when applied to personal spirituality or to interpersonal relationships.

I remember once when I was sorting boxes at UPS across from a guy named Cullen, he described some Hollywood starlet as, “Worth leaving your wife and children for.” His words visibly took me aback. He noticed and said, “What, haven’t you ever heard that saying before?”

I answered that I hadn’t, and I told him that no woman could be that attractive. Then, I explained to him why.

Later that day I relayed to Jamie, my wife, what he’d said and how I’d told him that no woman could be that attractive.

“And why’s that?” she asked.

I answered, “I told him that nobody’s worth going to hell over.”

Wrong answer!

Fear of hell might keep a man at home, but no wife wants a man who’s only staying home out of the fear of hell or because he wants to please God or because he wants to maintain his witness. She wants him there because he loves her – really loves her from his heart.

None of this means that law is bad or that it serves no purpose. Paul said that the law is good when used properly. Law won’t make us love God or others, but it can show us just how much we’ve been forgiven, and Christ taught that a person who’s been forgiven much loves much.

Law can’t give us a good conscience, but it can convict our conscience to the point that we stop rationalizing and justifying long enough to appeal to God for good conscience sprinkled with the blood of Christ.

Paul told the Galatians that the law doesn’t operate on faith since those who attempt to earn merit through it count on their own efforts. Those failed efforts, though, can eventually evoke the desperate plea, “Who will save me from this body of death?” To which the glorious answer returns, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Pure love, a good conscience, and sincere faith – to those already in pursuit of those values, the regulations of the Mosaic law could only serve as obstacles. In the light of Christ’s work, the Hebrew Scriptures could no longer be thought of as the essence of God’s covenant with his people. They no longer could be thought of as essential, but they were still “useful.” They still are useful to convict evil people over their wrong actions and thought patterns. They also help believers in Christ to see their Lord better as in a mirror and be conformed to his image like 2 Corinthians 3 affirms.

That Paul would describe the Scriptures as useful rather than essential should hardly come as a surprise. What need would there be for a written law when according to him, all things are lawful? Consider the paradigm shifting message of 1 Corinthians 10:23:

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. (NASB)

I’ve cited here from the older, more literal NASB, because the NIV translators were apparently squeamish over the implications of this verse in its unvarnished form. Here’s the NIV rendering for comparison:

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

I can’t possibly know the thoughts that went into the decision to insert, “you say,” into this passage, but it looks like they struggled to comprehend how the venerated Apostle Paul would have declared everything lawful. The preacher who baptized me (the second time) once expounded the meaning of this verse, “All lawful things are lawful.”

Say what now?

The idea that all things are lawful should be good news, but it scares the “Be Jesus” out of us. I’m not trying to be sacrilegious of flippant. “Be Jesus” doesn’t sound like a concrete enough ethic and so we ditch that one for something more declarative. A life led by grace and one led by written moral directives can’t inhabit the same person. To have the latter, we must jettison the former. This sad transaction has become so common that most Christians have no idea they’ve made it. Our faith simply stops working and we don’t even know why. We can once again live by grace when we by faith accept afresh the law free gospel preached by Paul.

To pave the road to recovery, we can take some of the scariness out of 1 Corinthians 10:23 by emphasizing for me in the text. Paul didn’t mean that all actions were universally lawful but that he had undergone a change which made law obsolete for him and for all who had likewise been changed.

Regarding those who insisted that Gentile believers conform to the Genesis 17 circumcision requirement Paul wrote:

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:14-16)

Faithful performance of our side of the new covenant requires adherence to one “rule” – the new creation. Written requirements have been done away in favor of authentic response to the promptings of a new spirit within each redeemed individual. Therefore, Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 1:9 that the law wasn’t made for a righteous person. Those who’ve put their faith in Christ have been made righteous. They aren’t just considered by God to be righteous; they have been made righteous people from within. Christians who don’t sense that inner inclination toward righteous actions usually have had the flow of grace squelched through external moral obligation. Their lusts then become enflamed by the prohibitions and they come to know themselves as animals in need of restraint. Legalists need law because legalism makes them inwardly unrighteous.

My understanding of Paul’s gospel might seem naïve to some who’ve seen the frontiers of the human capacity for evil. I assure you that I’m fully aware of the dangers of preaching a law free gospel. Telling people that everything is lawful for them certainly poses real risks.

Several passages of the New Testament address a problematic sect or sects within the church that taught a libertine aberration of the gospel. A large portion of 2 Peter combats that perversion of gospel liberty and mentions that the ones propagating it cited Paul’s own letters in support of their view:

So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. (2 Peter 3:14-17)

By the writing of 2 Peter, Paul’s letters had begun to be received as Scripture. I’m not sure if Peter would have treated them as tantamount to the Torah, but they were “writings” which carried a weight of authority in the early church. As with Paul and 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Peter could not have meant the entire New Testament canon since, some of the twenty-seven books, including 2 Peter, had yet to be completed. The entire collection wouldn’t actually be officially treated as Scripture by the church for another three hundred years.

Christians believe we need to invest final authority in Scripture in a effort to keep from heresy or immorality, but that belief doesn’t align with reality. The false teachers against whom Peter argues used Pauline Scriptures to sow division and reap fleshly indulgence.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the words of Paul. They are water to my soul. I’ve often found myself praising God with hands lifted to heaven while alone in my study just contemplating those precious words. Paul’s letters encourage the heart and feed the soul because they point away from themselves to something worthy of praise. When someone treats the epistles like a moral code or ecclesiastical manual, the living water drains away leaving a broken cistern.

Peter understood the role of Scripture in relation to the living message preached throughout the world. He correctly called Paul’s letters Scripture, but for him that didn’t mean that either he or Paul had authored the new testament. Earlier in 2 Peter, he speaks of another message which his readers had already received and which was enough for their every need:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Peter 1:3-4)

For Peter, a knowledge of Jesus was “everything we need” both for this life and the one to come. The inspired writings which predate and postdate this new testament in his shed blood help us to understand and apply that pivotal event, but the story of his passion gives us everything we need.

We’ve misattributed the title, “New Testament,” to mean a collection of twenty-seven inspired texts. None of the men who penned those texts authored the new testament. Jesus did that with flesh and blood, pen and ink. On the night Jesus was betrayed he told his disciples to drink the cup which he called the new covenant in his blood. With the shedding of his blood, he made the new testament (agreement) with his people and by his resurrection it was ratified by God.

When Christians treat the second installment of Scriptures as foundational, we make the very same mistake that Israel did when they failed to recognize the image of Jesus within their text. We become so blind that we easily use Scripture to mandate un-Christ-like behavior (cough…Religious Right…cough). For instance, the gospel has shattered all distinctions between people, but many in the church used Scripture to condone racism and slavery. To this very day 11 AM on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week. Christ cleansed every substance, but the church led the temperance movement and the war on drugs, both of which were utter failures.

Since Luther nailed his theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, the teaching that Scripture ought to be the final authority for the church in all matters of faith and life has spawned thousands of Christian denominations. Some might blame other factors for all the division, but that’s a hard sell given that Luther himself couldn’t even agree with one other independently minded expositor of the Bible, Ulrich Zwingli. The gospel requires that we accept each other on the basis of faith in the finished work of Christ, but Luther also required agreement on interpretation of the New Testament.

The Scriptures are inspired by God and profitable, but only if we use them correctly. Otherwise, they cause destruction. The message of the Bible isn’t, “Obey the Bible;” it’s, “Follow Jesus.”

But, don’t we need the Gospels, so we can do what Jesus would do?

No.


Footnotes:
1. The Old Testament was the only scripture in existence during Timothy’s upbringing.

Hang Up; I’m Leaving You a Voicemail

Nobody obeys the Bible because nobody possesses a 100% accurate understanding of its requirements. The Bible, like every other written text in the world, requires human interpretation. Anything that requires human interpretation will eventually come under human control. Christians, Muslims, Jews all follow religious systems manufactured by human leaders from sacred texts.

When adherents give themselves without question to their religious systems, they come under the control, not of God, but of other people who will never be worthy of such allegiance. Dogmas require complete loyalty, but they can never be trusted.

The Apostle Paul held up his experience as case in point:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:13-14)

As Saul of Tarsus, Paul had participated in the imprisonment and death of many innocent people under the auspices of performing God’s will. Looking remorsefully back, he named the context of his actions, “Judaism.” He used the term not to describe faithful adherence to the Torah, but rather to “the traditions of my fathers.”

Once dogma has become equated with the will of God revealed in Scripture, it’s almost impossible to escape. It becomes the lens through which we interpret all new information. Paul describes this type of blindness as a veil over the heart in 2 Corinthians 3:15, “Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their (unbelieving Jews’) hearts.”

Refusal to relinquish their assumptions about the written code veiled the understanding of the Jews:

We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. (2 Cor. 3:13-14)

Israel didn’t want to believe that their way of life and history as a nation had been provisional. They were “Bible based believers” who couldn’t accept that their Bible pointed away from itself to an unwritten covenant with God open to all people.

Paul knew the mind of the unbelieving Jew because he had been one until on that fateful day on the road to Damascus Christ’s pragma ran over Paul’s dogma.

I can’t help but to hear autobiographical overtones in 2 Corinthians 3 especially at the end of the chapter:

But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:16-18)

Through the mystery of inspiration, God encoded images of Christ beneath the script. A superficial focus on meeting the requirements obscured the face of Christ from the Jews of Paul’s day. Once a person accepted Christ as Lord, those external requirements would be swept away to reveal the picture which had been hidden behind them all along. Far from obsolescence, the Scriptures take on a new relevance as they reveal the glory of the Lord.

Back when humans used cell phones to make and receive calls, I would occasionally play a little game with folks while leaving them a voicemail. I’d get a notification that they, having seen my missed call on their caller ID, were trying to call me back. I’d answer and say, “Hey, I’m leaving you a voicemail. Could you please hang up, so I can finish?” Sometimes they’d pause and then laugh. Other times they’d groan. One time, a lady said, “Oh, okay,” and she hung up!

Holy writ, like voicemail, was a device to aid communication between two disconnected parties. Once personal contact had been made, it would have been silly to resume the old communication method. The former aid to communication would become a hindrance to it.

Silly as that analogy may sound, it’s almost an exact description of what the Jews of Jesus’ day did when he entered their community.

Christ had superintended Israel throughout their history as the mysterious figure often referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as “The Angel of the Lord.”¹ Jews in the first century would have been very familiar with the stories of this being who appeared as a human to wrestle with Jacob, to give marching orders to Joshua, or to talk up Gideon.

How grievous that Israel failed to recognize their divine guardian when he finally came as one of them! Listen to his lament/rebuke from John 5:39-40:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Scripture fulfills its ultimate purpose when we use it as an instrument to point to Christ. When we treat the text like a legal code, it will always obstruct our view of the One who is The Truth.

This applies to the edition that we call “The New Testament” as much as it does to the Hebrew Scriptures. Christ died to remove the previous media, not to replace it with an upgraded one, but so that our connection with God could be immediate (i.e. without media). According to Paul, everyone who puts their faith in the death of Christ dies to obligation to the law, so they can then go on to live for God. In Romans 7:1-6, he likens this transition to the severing of a marriage covenant by death thereby freeing one to marry another. The identity of that second spouse seems to have been lost on many who would treat the New Testament like a rule book. Notice in vs. 4-6 of Romans 7, that we didn’t die to the law to be married to the New Testament or to the teachings of the apostles. We died with Christ so that we can be married to him:

So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (emphasis mine NAW)

Christ died to liberate his people from obligation to the Mosaic Law not because it was Mosaic but because it was law. This passage contrasts obligation to the law against union with Christ and “the old way of the written code” with “the new way of the Spirit.”

We call the Hebrew Scriptures “The Old Testament” because those thirty-nine books have become “old” when considered next to the later written revelation contained in twenty-seven books which we call “The New Testament.”

Paul never spoke of the law and the prophets as “The Old Testament.” He simply referred to the Hebrew Scriptures as “the law” or “the Scriptures,” because he had no concept of a second authoritative book. For Paul and his contemporaries, the new covenant consisted of something alive within the heart of each believer which outmoded the whole concept of religion based on an inspired text as well as everything that goes with it.

How ironic that even today, we’re so enamored with Paul’s own writings as a normative standard for faith and life that they have become the veil on our hearts keeping us from a living relationship with Christ. Paul didn’t replace the law of Moses with his own words; his words announced that it had already been replaced with grace through faith.² We struggle to understand how such ethereal things could constitute the new covenant, so we canonize Paul’s words into a new law.

By grace through faith, we’ve been brought into direct connection with God in Jesus Christ. In order to maintain that connection, we must give up our dependence on the previous media. No matter what anyone says, we mustn’t hang up to check voicemail.


Footnotes:

  1. I first encountered this idea in David Murray’s book,  Jesus on Every Page. Thomas Nelson Publishers. P. 77-82
  2. Romans 6:14, Galatians 3:21-24

The Bible on the Bible

“Hey, you’re dressed queer.”

I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-70s I’d guess. He is tall and thin and is wearing of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the Forties.
“You’re dressed queer,” he snarls. “Why you dressed so queer.” I have on my usual fringes, and, for good measure, have worn some sandals and am carrying a knotty maple walking stick I’d bought on the Internet for $25.
“I’m trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The 10 commandments, stoning adulterers…”
“You’re stoning adulterers?”
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer.”
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?”
“If I could, yes, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you in the face. I’ll send you to the cemetery.”
He is serious. This isn’t a cutesy grumpy old man. This is an angry old man. This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him.
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket.
“I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say. “Just these little guys.”
I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then chucking it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I hadn’t expected this elderly man to make the first move. But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye.
I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser,” he say.
“Well, you really shouldn’t commit adultery,” I say.
We stare at each other. My heart is racing.
Yes, he is a septuagenarian. Yes, he had just threatened me using corny Honeymooners dialogue. But you could tell: This man has a strong dark side.
Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.

This little vignette from A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, hilariously highlights the impracticality of attempting to obey the Bible in our contemporary world.

As my own, less funny, experience with shutting down a church and trying to stay within the confines of the speed limit attest, following the letter of the New Testament isn’t any more tenable.

Following all the Bible’s instructions isn’t possible, but that’s okay because the Bible doesn’t expect us to.

While it contains rules, they weren’t written specifically to us. Yet, for some reason we’ve come to believe they were.

Our generalization of commands written to other people can be subjective and arbitrary too.

As a for instance, would you include, eating only meat that had first been drained of blood on a list of rules Christians should observe?

No?

What about Acts 15:29 which says, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things”?

In context, these instructions are very clearly from a letter written as a specific response to a specific situation affecting a specific group of Christians living in a specific region of the world. Having the benefit of the backstory with the letter situated in a larger narrative, we instinctively know that those instructions weren’t given to us.

And yet, when we look at the greeting just a few verses earlier, it reads a whole lot like the other epistles to which we feel beholden, “The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.”

If it’s an authoritative epistle written by a council of the Lord’s apostles, why don’t we afford it the same treatment as the other epistles? The only difference seems to be situational. Should this letter have survived outside the book of Acts and been collected with the others, I have no doubt that it would have been dubbed, “The Epistle to the Syrians,” or just “Syrians.” I also have no doubt that Christians would have been arguing throughout the past sixteen centuries as to just how much blood might be acceptable in a piece of meat.¹

While the epistles contain a trove of wonderful wisdom and commentary on the gospel, we must keep in mind that they are other people’s mail.

The authors of those letters indicate no inkling that they thought they were writing volume two of God’s book. Paul seems least of all aware that anyone would later compile his letters to include them in a canon of holy writ. Near the end of his life, he put his hope in the transferability of his simple message and manner of life rather than in the codification of his writings. In 2 Timothy 2:2 he wrote to his beloved protégé, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Not coincidentally, this also seems to have been Jesus’ method for perpetuating truth.²

To be fair, Peter does call the writings of Paul Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16. But what does that mean?

Let’s look at the designation in context to get an idea:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15–16)

There it is. I agree that the writings we find in Matthew through Revelation are inspired, so I have no problem agreeing with Peter that the letters of Paul are Scripture. Under grace, “Scripture,” comes to fulfill a purpose different from the one it served under law. Whether we find it in the New Testament or the Old, Scripture provides wisdom. Paul proclaimed that regenerated people were under no obligation to follow the letter of the Torah, while also encouraging them to find Jesus in it. In the same way, we needn’t follow the letter of the New Testament, but must seek Jesus there.³

By including Paul’s writings along with “the other Scriptures,” Peter classifies them along with the books of the Old Testament like Deuteronomy. I’ve never been inclined to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk, but should the need arise, I am free to do so without pang of conscience. I can also pray with a hat on.

Under grace, we must treat all Scripture as wisdom literature.

Why? Because everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial. Isn’t that what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23?

Consider what Paul wrote about the value of the Hebrew Scriptures:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17 emphasis mine NAW)

Just because the Torah no longer bound believers with the condemning power of a legal code didn’t mean it no longer had value. By the way, Paul didn’t pen these words in reference to any portion of the twenty-seven books we call the New Testament. In encouraging him to attend to the Scriptures he’d been raised on, Paul didn’t mean for Timothy’s conscience to be bound to its procedural dictates.

When we, as Peter did, acknowledge Paul’s writings as Scripture, we must treat them like Paul treated the Scripture he had in hand. To do anything else would be to violate Paul’s own intent since he himself said:

For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.(Galatians 2:18–21 ESV)

Had Paul meant for his writings to enslave those set free by the gospel, he would have been a transgressor according to his own words.

I don’t know what kind of awareness might be granted to those who’ve passed on, but if Paul knows that his words have been turned into a new law, he must be fuming. What’s more, those who handle Matthew through Revelation that way come under Peter’s indictment as those who’ve twisted the Scriptures.

Treating the Scriptures as a trove of divine wisdom actually will make us value them more. If we see the New Testament as a book of laws, all it can do is condemn us and divide us. From my previous experience, I know that people don’t go looking for more rules than the ones they’re already keeping. If we see it as a book of wisdom, we’ll pore over it time and again mining all of its beneficial insights.

On the other side of the coin, if we read something in the New Testament that our gospel-renewed minds know would not benefit our spiritual family or the cause of Christ in our day, then we’re beholden by the gospel to violate that instruction. While laws can be arbitrary, wisdom must stand the test of experience. Let that sink in a minute.

The church I serve with comes from a tradition which held very closely to the prohibitions against women speaking in the assembly of believers. Pauline passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 seem to prohibit female participation in the public gathering of the church. While those passages might be interpreted otherwise, it takes a bit of work. Certainly, there might have been extenuating circumstances to which we’re not privy. That’s most likely the case, but even if Paul meant for all churches to silence their women until Christ returns, should we observe that restriction?

I don’t think so.

The intent of this sort of instruction seems to have been to provide procedural order in the churches to maximize mutual encouragement and to expedite the spread of the gospel. If we really are under a covenant of spirit and not the letter, then faithful treatment of these texts would require us to violate their particulars when they become discouraging and counterproductive.

We’re free to make that call because Matthew through Revelation isn’t our covenant. God wants us to obey the gospel. That’s why Jesus could hold up a cup at his last Passover and say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” A bunch of letters collected and bound together over three hundred years later mustn’t be allowed to supersede the mandates implicit in the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. We’re beholden to the gospel and the consequences for disobedience are dire.

You might be wondering how we can obey the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and future return. I urge you to reread Paul’s epistles with a view toward taking note of places where he bases his instructions on the implications of the gospel. The gospel reveals the nature of things. It then becomes incumbent upon us to live accordingly.

Since we’ve been talking about it, let’s take a minute to apply gospel wisdom to gender roles in the church:

Proposition 1: Christ died for men and women alike.
Proposition 2: Women receive the same Holy Spirit as men.
Propositions 3: Our bodies are vessels for the one treasure inside everyone.
Proposition 4: Believers in Christ gather to encourage one another as the various gifts given through the Holy Spirit operate to distribute grace to every member.
Conclusion: Women and men alike should exercise their gifts for the building up of the church.

In addition to pragmatic concerns, the gospel mandates that we make no distinction between people. Paul himself expounded this truth in Galatians 3:28. The gospel ethic teaches equal treatment and opportunity for everyone, doesn’t it?

In a time when women serve as CEO’s and senators, following the letter of Paul’s letters has relegated the church to the cultural sidelines in a zone not unlike the one inhabited by the Amish. The living gospel must push through calcified notions even if they’re found in our own traditions because it’s alive.

Our human nature wants God to write an infallible book which will perfectly reveal his will to humanity.

Like Adam and Eve, we want to ingest something that will provide us the knowledge of good and evil. We’ve appointed the Bible to fill that role, but the Bible doesn’t exactly play along. The Bible speaks equivocally in both human and divine voice.

I believe the Qur’an was written to fill this human longing which the Bible left unmet.

Compare Surah 2:2–5 from the Qur’an…

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.

…with Luke 1:1–4:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

I know that the Bible contains sections which claim inspiration directly from God such as in the Old Testament prophets and the Revelation, but none of them endorse all sixty-six books. They don’t even seem to be aware of all of the other books in our canon.

Nothing within the biblical canon endorses or even acknowledges the canon. On the other hand, the Qur’an commends itself in its entirety as the revelation of God from the very beginning. The Bible might make similar claims of inspiration over various books or sections, but never will you find the equivalent of Surah 2:2–5 in the Bible. Nor will you find anything like Luke 1:1–4 in the Qur’an for that matter.

The Bible resists our expectations not because it cannot conform to them but because it means to change them.

The gospel that Paul preached from the Scriptures immediately liberated people from the code of law found in those same Scriptures. This just didn’t compute for many of his Jewish contemporaries and they tried to shut him up.

Some came into one of the first churches Paul had founded to teach that anyone who claims to be in covenant with the Jewish God must keep the law of Moses. They had, it seemed, the endorsement of Scripture on their side. That is, until Paul went further back to the very basis of God’s covenant with Israel, the call of Abraham:

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6–9)

The Bible tells of a person who had a relationship with God but didn’t have a Bible. What’s more, that person is held up as the archetype for those who will come to God when the promised blessings come to pass. Paul wanted the Galatian believers to know that the time of prescriptive rules written in a text and predicated on punishment had been provisional.

We often see Abraham’s relationship with God as basic, with later revelation adding on that base. That’s not how Paul saw it, though. For him, that relationship was exemplary with later revelation being provisional until more people could experience an Abrahamic relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

God had called Paul to bring in the Gentiles through faith in Christ. For that to happen, they would need a relationship with God as simple and profound as Abraham’s was. The early church had no access to a copy of the Scriptures. They certainly couldn’t take one home to labor over using the inductive study method. What they knew of God, they learned not primarily from the Scriptures, but from what the writers of the New Testament called, “the word of God.”

Time and again throughout the book of Acts, Luke tells of how the word of God spread among a wide variety of people throughout the Roman Empire.⁴ But what was the word of God? Luke couldn’t have meant the contents of the Old Testament because that had already spread through the known world in the Jewish synagogues. It couldn’t have been the contents of the book we call the New Testament because that book resulted from the activity recorded in Acts. The “word of God” that spread over the known world over the span of about a generation was the proclamation about Jesus the Messiah.

That proclamation is the power of God to salvation⁵ which we experience by faith.


Notes:

  1. The New Testament was canonized in the middle fourth century.
  2. Acts 1:8
  3. Romans 3:31; 15:4; 2 Corinthians 3:12–18; 2 Timothy 3:14–17
  4. Acts 4:4, 29–31; 6:2–7; 8:14–25; 10:36–44; 11:1, 19; 12:24; 13:5–7, 44–49; 14:25; 15:7, 35–36; 16:32; 17:11–13; 18:5, 11; 19:10, 20
  5. Romans 1:16

Hard to Get

At a hearing which could also be described as a near death experience, Martin Luther stood before representatives of God and of men to give an account. Before him were piled copies of his writings made abundant by Gutenberg’s good work. Within those documents smoldered the embers of revolution threatening to ignite a continent drained dry by papal greed. To suppress the coming conflagration, the church offered Luther a choice, face a literal flame or utter a simple word— “revoco,” in English, “I recant.”

Surely quivering, Luther’s voice rang out,

I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.

Those words marked a watershed in Western history. Though many factors had led up to their utterance, they stand (at least for Protestants) as a clear transfer of ultimate authority from church hierarchy to the Bible.

Also, since that time we have fractured into thousands of denominations sects, cults, and subgroups. I think five hundred years is a long enough time to conclude that people will never understand the Bible alike. Actually, it’s more like two thousand.

Christians lament the existence of religions like Islam and Mormonism, but those religions emerged to address rampant division between people who claimed to obey the Bible.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the Roman church hadn’t yet seized the absolute power she enjoyed during Luther’s day. In the early seventh century, the religious landscape on the Arabian peninsula was littered with pluralism and syncretism. Into that confusing religious circus, the Qur’an spoke:

From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a covenant, but they forgot a good part of the message that was sent them: so we estranged them, with enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the day of judgment. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done. O people of the Book! There hath come to you our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary). There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book,(Surah 5:14–15, Al-Qur’an [English Edition] Complete and Unabridged. Islamic Studies Press. Kindle Edition.)

Twelve hundred years later, a man born of a new world would claim an eerily similar status as divinely ordained arbiter. In reflecting back on his call from God, Joseph Smith wrote:

My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong) and which I should join.
 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Pearl of Great Price, History of Joseph Smith verses 18,19)

Muslims and Mormons both hold that God revealed his will through their inspired text given through his ultimate prophet to clarify revelation, given in the Bible, but subsequently mishandled by those to whom it was given. It’s not hard to trace their line of thought from a belief that God gave the twenty-seven books which we call “The New Testament” to serve as Torah 2.0. If we needed a 2.0, then why not a 3.0 or 4.0?

Of course, no text no matter how precise or correct can possibly produce anything but division. Islam split in two at Muhammad’s death. Since then, multiple schools of Islam have proliferated over disparate interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadiths. The framers of Mormonism took leveraged their latter day status by correcting previous errors. They accomplished unity (for the most part) by reversing the Reformation and returning ultimate authority to the church.

Those of us who’ve not been called by a supernatural being to birth a new religion soldier on through glaring inconsistencies hoping somehow to credibly witness to Christ. He prayed that we’d be one so that the world would know God sent him. From the looks of things, that prayer still awaits an answer, and the world is still unsure about Christ. I don’t think it’s because God has failed. I think it’s partially because we’ve been divided for so long that we think it’s normal.

My fellow members at the Church of Christ used to say that if two people disagree on the interpretation of scripture one of them can be right and the other wrong or they could both be wrong, but they can’t both be right. Translation: “We’re the only ones who are right.” While I no longer sing that disharmonious tune, the logic still holds water. Out of hundreds of Christian denominations, either just one of them is right or none of them are. Most people would agree that none of them are, but everyone still claims to obey the Bible.

Let’s face it, the Bible is a big, complicated book written thousands of years ago over hundreds of years by people with their own ideas, problems, and interests. It is composed of multiple genres and written in archaic languages. None of the words were written to anyone living in the 21st century in the New World. To suggest that an average, uninformed American could start reading at Genesis 1:1 and gain any sort of cohesive insight into the will of God borders on delusion. That may be a difficult pill to swallow, but the existence of Bible colleges, seminaries, Sunday schools, or even Sunday sermons for that matter, testify to the truth of what I’m saying. Even the Gideons hand out primarily New Testaments rather than the whole enchilada.

Because the Bible is so vast and diverse, it’s message easily falls prey to the whim of those who would use it to legitimize their own wants or their claim to power. For instance, most pastors would readily explain that under Christ we no longer follow the law of Moses, but most churches have retained the practice of tithing. The New Testament does not enjoin tithing on believers in Christ not even once. It does speak of the early disciples collecting money, but those were special circumstances and almost always for the sake of alleviating poverty among their members or supporting fulltime ministers of the gospel. How could people who are trained and commissioned to expound the meaning of the Bible perpetuate such a glaring misinterpretation of it?

I have a hypothesis as to why. Institutions need predictable income to operate. When the church becomes an institution, it gladly trades grace-based generosity for an obligatory ten percent. Now, we just need some Bible verses to get everyone on board. Oh look, it’s Malachi 3:8–12. How convenient!

And then, we have the audacity to call the prosperity gospel a heresy! (Go read the passage in Malachi to see what I mean.)

Church leaders aren’t the only ones to blame; individual Christians have their own agenda as well. We might acknowledge that the New Testament doesn’t command tithing, but then go on to ignore passages which speak of divesting ourselves of material wealth and giving sacrificially to help our spiritual brothers and sisters in times of distress. I wonder whether many Christians haven’t been complicit in the tithing deception just because 10% is cheaper than generosity inspired by the love of Christ.

Tragically, our self-deception doesn’t fool those looking at us from outside of our fishbowl. When we consistently, persistently, and insistently mishandle the very book which we hold up as our standard, we deceive only ourselves and repel our sincere critics. No wonder unbelievers see Christianity as just a way for people to make themselves feel better.

We will discover and demonstrate that it is far more when we stop claiming to obey the Bible.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not discounting the Bible. I believe it to be inspired. In John 6, Jesus said that his words are spirit and they are life. The writer of Hebrews famously declared, “For the word of God is alive and active.” These words electrify me, but none of them indicate that we’re supposed to rifle through the Bible for rules on how to live. For all the wonderful things that the Bible says about itself, it tends to take itself far less seriously than we want it to.

Love Your Opponent

I read a story today that made me weep tears of joy.

Kenda Creasy Dean in her book Almost Christian, urges the church to reclaim the unmixed gospel as the basis for teen discipleship. Why? Because of an ESPN article on high school football, that’s why!

Grapevine, Texas—one of Money Magazine’s top 100 “best places to live” in 20072—is almost 90% white, has a $90,000 median family income, and award-winning schools like Faith Christian School. Like most towns in Texas, Grapevine takes its high school football seriously. Faith’s football team, for example, has seventy players, eleven coaches, the latest equipment, and hordes of involved parents. In November 2008, the Faith Lions were 7–2 going into the game with the Gainesville State Tornados.

Gainesville State, on the other hand, headed into the game 0–8, having scored only two touchdowns all year. Gainesville’s fourteen players wore seven-year-old pads and dilapidated helmets and were escorted by twelve security guards who took off the players’ handcuffs before the game. Gainesville State, a maximum security prison north of Dallas, gets its students by court order. Many Tornados have convictions for drugs, assaults, and robberies. Many of their families have disowned them. They play every game on the road.

Before the game, Faith’s head coach Kris Hogan had an idea. What if, just for one night, half of the Faith fans cheered for the kids on the opposing team? “Here is the message I want you to send,” Hogan wrote in an email to Faith’s faithful. “You are just as valuable as any other person on Planet Earth.” The Faith fans agreed.

When the Gainesville Tornados took the field, they crashed through a banner made by Faith fans that read “Go Tornados!” The Gainesville players were surprised to find themselves running through a forty-foot spirit line made up of cheering fans. From their benches at the side of the field, the Gainesville team heard two hundred fans on the bleachers behind them, cheering for them by name, led by real cheerleaders (Hogan had recruited the JV squad to cheer for the opposing team). “I thought maybe they were confused,” said Alex, a Gainesville lineman. Another lineman, Gerald, said: “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games. . . . But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!” Gainesville’s quarterback and middle linebacker Isaiah shook his head in disbelief. “I never thought I’d hear people cheering for us to hit their kids. . . . But they wanted us to!”

At the end of the game (Faith won, 33–14), the losing team practically danced off the field with their fingers pointing #1 in the air. They gave Gainesville’s head coach Mark Williams what ESPN sportswriter Rick Reilly described as the first Gatorade bath in history for a 0–9 coach. When the teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray, Isaiah surprised everybody by asking to lead. (“We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” remembers Coach Hogan.) This was Isaiah’s prayer: “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank You, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”

As guards escorted the Tornados back to their bus, each player received a bag filled with burgers, fries, candy, a Bible, and an encouraging letter from a Faith player. Before he stepped onto the bus, Williams turned and grabbed Hogan hard by the shoulders: “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know.” The Gainesville players crowded onto one side of the bus, peering out the windows at an unbelievable sight—people they had never met before smiling at them, waving goodbye, as the bus drove into the night.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (pp. 85-87). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Our younger son, Jadon, is on a football team with a public junior high in “the hood.” I read the story to him and his sister this morning. As I read about the Gainesville team, he said, “That sounds familiar.”

I choked up as I read about the families from Faith Christian giving out the goody bags. Then, I looked up at Jadon and Lydia to say, “That’s the gospel. That’s the new thing that Jesus brought to the earth.”

On the way to school, Jadon told me that his “sketchy” friend Brandon got kicked off the team for lashing out at the opposing team after last week’s game. Jadon had previously told me some about Brandon’s home life. His dad’s out of the picture and his mother at least appears to be a meth addict. One time, when Brandon’s mom pulled to the curb to pick him up after practice, Jadon and some of his friends yelled after him, “We love you, Brandon!”

Brandon’s mom pointed at him through the car window and yelled, “Ha! I knew you were a f@ggot!”

It’s little wonder why Brandon flew off the handle last week.

I told Jadon that we should pray for Brandon and look for ways to remind him that he matters to God. By his quick agreement, I could tell that Jadon’s mind had already arrived there.

As believers in Christ, we’re called to live out the gospel. That simple story about how the Son of God came to live among us, die for our sins, rise again, and ascend to heaven to reign until his coming in judgment is pregnant with practical significance for every facet of human existence.

As a former legalist, I’ve learned that following a list of external rules, even an inspired one, leads to the fractured and frustrated disposition which the Bible calls, “death.” God didn’t nail the Torah requirements to the cross just to give us new written code in Matthew through Revelation. If he did, that would suggest that he had given Israel something faulty previously. The problem wasn’t with the specific commands, but with the very idea that commands could restore fallen rebels to a loving relationship with God and other people.

In Galatians 3:23-24, Paul speaks of the Mosaic law as a schoolmaster which superintended God’s people until the coming of “this faith.” Whatever “this faith” is, it made law obsolete. “This faith” can’t refer simply to belief in invisible realities since people living under the law possessed faith of that generic sort. “This faith” must be of such a quality that it can serve to direct human behavior in a way that the law prescribed but couldn’t accomplish in our rebellious hearts. So, what is “this faith”? Paul tells us several verses earlier:

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by (the faith of -NAW) the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)

I’ve changed the phrase in the parenthetical to more accurately reflect the original Greek from the NIV’s translation “faith in.” Paul’s original intent seems to be to convey that Christ’s faith by which he offered himself on the cross had been transferred to Paul through that very act. Because Christ died for Paul, Paul was now beholden live by the faith of Christ.

On the cross, Jesus fully revealed both the heart of God and the obligation of every human. Now, we look to the gospel to know in any situation how we should live. By faith we perceive the instructions of the gospel. By faith we obey them. This, and only this, is the Christian life.

The gospel proclaims the intrinsic worth of even the most vile offender. On that evening in Grapevine, TX, Coach Kris and the families of Faith Christian School obeyed the gospel. As my kids go to school and encounter punks, freaks, geeks, jocks, and goths, the gospel will tell them what to do. I pray they will listen and obey.

As we go into this week, we’ll run into people that we’d rather ignore. Will we live by some minimum standard or will we live by the faith of Christ?

 

 

Black Light

I used to have a recurring nightmare. I’d enter a dark room where I sensed a malevolent 6e3b4bf860a2bf56c7e062a7d3325637--black-lights-bulbspresence. Instinctively, I’d flip the switch on the wall, but the light wouldn’t respond. Fear would grip my heart as I vainly repeated my attempts to shed light on whoever or whatever approached me in the darkness. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had that dream, but it still haunts me whenever I read Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 6:22-23.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Can you imagine walking into a dark room and flipping the switch only to discover that the bulb emitted darkness? That image might be hard to visualize (no pun intended), but we need to grasp the reality behind Jesus’ metaphor because it illustrates a living nightmare from which many will never awaken.

To understand the reality behind Jesus’ figurative language here, we need to look at the broader context. In both this passage and the parallel one in Luke 11:33-36, this warning comes embedded between a rebuke of Pharisaic hypocrisy and exhortation to disciples regarding their treatment of money. The Pharisees knew the Torah, but rather than shedding light on them, it further darkened their hearts. Rather than see Christ in their scriptures, they used them as rationale to reject Christ. How terrifying!

Two people can encounter the same light, but one will be illumined and the other darkened. What accounts for this difference? Someone might say that the Pharisees were blinded by hypocrisy, but I disagree. I would say, rather, that hypocrisy is blindness the cause of which lies in something more apparent.

In both the Luke and Matthew passages, the word translated “healthy” referring to our eyes literally means, “generous” in the original language. The word translated, “unhealthy” means, “stingy.” Could it be that generous people come at divine revelation without the same bias that stingy people do? Could it be that stingy religious people come to interpret scripture in ways that alleviate their obligation to the poor?

In the very next verse of Matthew 6, Jesus says this:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Stingy people want to keep what they have and they also want what God gives. So, they tell themselves that they can have both in spite of the teaching of the book they claim to revere. This self deception colors all future revelation in dark hues of greed so that when a penniless itinerant rabbi calls them out, they have no trouble putting him to death on a cross. Or at least putting him on a distant crucifix hung in their lavish dwellings.

Justice, mercy, and compassion comprise the soul of religion. Without those, religion devolves into self-referential ritual and incantation offered to appease the whim of a deity just as self-interested as his worshipers. Prohibition and prescription become the essence of a soulless shell. Those who violate the crucial minutia must pay for the religious leaders’ justifications.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day embodied wicked religion. The passage directly following Luke’s telling of the illustration of eye health goes like this:

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:37-41)

While the Pharisees have gone down in infamy, they hardly hold a monopoly.

Why do the people who seem most up in arms about prayer in the schools or the imposition of “biblical values” on society seem to almost always advocate against programs designed to alleviate the suffering of the poor?

Amazing grace is truly a sweet sound, but it strikes a sour note in the mouth of the stingy. Without generosity, “grace” clangs and bongs in the ears of a lost world. Greedy religious people deceive themselves most of all and, so, ever deepening darkness falls over their eyes. For, nobody can truly believe themselves a saved wretch, lost now found, and remain a lover of money. Those who count grace God’s indescribable gift no longer regard material things with a covetous eye.

They were blind,

but now they see.

Body Life Part 1 – United

When Jesus set out to make disciples, he gathered committed people around him and did life with them. Yes, he taught the multitudes, but it doesn’t seem that those people became champions of the kingdom after his death. Perhaps many of them were actually among the throngs demanding that Pilate crucify him. His teaching seems to have been an invitation to join the small group of committed people who shared life with him.

After his death and resurrection, he left his disciples with each other and the Holy Spirit.

He didn’t leave them a book or even a DVD series on how to live in the kingdom. They had no building, no programs, and no parachurch ministries – for crying out loud, they didn’t even have a place to drop their kids!

Those things belong to institutions, but Christ had made them his body. Bodies grow as life flows through to all of their members. Bodies perform work as each member receives direction from the head.

All of these functions are natural. They just happen in healthy bodies.

In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul describes the healthy function of Christ’s body.

The Healthy Body of Christ Sticks Together

I know a guy who cut off the end of his middle finger with a circular saw. He took it to the emergency room, but they didn’t have a vascular surgeon on staff and the only one in the area wouldn’t be back in town for two days. So, they literally taped it back on! I’ve gotta tell you, I didn’t have much hope that he’d be able to keep the finger when I saw it. Two days later, the blackish purple appendage got reattached. It took, and he still has the finger. Unfortunately, he can’t bend it, so he inadvertently offends people once in a while.

Apart from the body, my friend’s finger was dying. His body also suffered the loss of that finger’s full function. That’s what happens when just one member of Christ’s body becomes separated from the rest. The body of Christ can suffer far greater damage when disgruntled factions defect at once. Can you imagine the trauma to a physical body if one third of its mass was suddenly cut away?

We didn’t make our bodies, but we know we need to keep them in tact.

According to the apostle Paul, it’s the same way with the body of Christ.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

We don’t create the body of Christ. We don’t even join the body. We’re members of the body because we share one Spirit. The Spirit unifies all those whom he indwells into one. From the moment we’re born again, we become united to every other regenerated person. We are one body because we’ve received life from Christ.

We can’t produce the unity of the Spirit, but we can undermine it. In the same way that abuse or neglect of the physical body will jeopardize it’s health, so we need to “Make every effort to keep (or maintain) the unity of the Spirit.” We keep what we’ve been given by considering one another and tolerating each other. Who wouldn’t want to be in a community where everyone worked to be pleasant company and to keep loving each other even when they weren’t so pleasant?  In this way, we will begin to fulfill our calling.

What calling is that, you ask?

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,  according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:6,10-11)

God means to hold up the church before all heavenly beings as an expression of his ability to bring all kinds of people together into one new humanity. It our job to get in step with this plan.

In an age of megachurch, it might seem strange to advocate for unity among believers. Someone might say, “Hey, we’ve got 20,000 people coming to this campus every Sunday. How much more unified can you get?”

A lot.

Here’s the problem. People go to megachurch to receive spiritual goods and services for themselves. If they don’t receive the type or quality of spiritual goods and services they’re looking for, they just go to another church that promises better products to meet their demands. Their relationship with the church isn’t with the other members but with the institution, and it’s a tenuous, codependent relationship.

It’s easy to go to a place where I can drop off my kids to be entertained, get a free cup of coffee, listen to a concert in a padded seat, and get an inspirational message all while being told that I’m following Jesus. And best of all, since it’s such a large group, I can sit or stand all alone in a crowd. (Unless that junior pastor makes everyone turn to shake hands.)

I’m not against worshiping through song, or hearing a message from the Bible. I’m just saying that those things can’t possibly be what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 4 because they don’t require us to “Make every effort.” If we’re going to put for effort into church, shouldn’t it be to build loyal, loving relationships with other believers who are different from us in every other way?

If the life of Christ within us isn’t enough to knit us together across every other cultural divide, then God has failed. He never fails, so we need to make every effort to cross the seat back partitions between us and share life. We need to eat together, travel together, work together, play together. That’s church. Nothing else will grow us into the likeness of Christ.

Strange Fire

The religious group that I came up in was built on the notion that God gave the New Testament to humanity as a blueprint for the way he wanted them to live and worship him. We believed that in the letters of Paul God had prescribed exactly how he wanted collective worship to be performed and that any deviation from that prescription would incur divine judgment.

For those of you who’ve always wondered, that’s why Churches of Christ “don’t have music” – the New Testament prescribes singing and so “playing” is forbidden.

To illustrate the gravity of any sort of innovation, we’d point to the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3. These two sons of Aaron offered “strange fire” before God which he had not authorized. In response to their sacrilege, fire flared up from the presence of the LORD and killed them. God required that anyone who came near him treat him as holy.

God hasn’t changed. We mustn’t despise him in any way. Worship has changed, though. When asked by the Samaritan woman about the proper location to worship God, Jesus divulged a secret:

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)

The redemptive work of Christ would transition worship from physical rituals and sacrifices to spiritual practices and offerings (Spirit). He would reveal the reality (truth) represented by the temple and priesthood which had been shadows cast on a wall awaiting the full light of Christ’s presence.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced exclusion from the temple service in retribution for their “blasphemous” proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The author of that letter wrote to assure them that they would suffer no loss whatsoever since worship under the superior priesthood of Christ could never be withheld from anyone. Why not? Because we worship “outside the camp” in the wilds of our daily lives and not within sacred spaces or under the auspices of any human authority. Consider the glory of vulgar worship that pleases God:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.”

 So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?”

 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 12:28-13:16 emphasis mine NAW)

This section is bookended with the idea of pleasing worship to God. Everything in the middle describes that pleasing worship. God has not changed since the days of Nadab and Abihu. He’s a consuming fire today just like he was then. On the day Christ fulfilled our obligations to God, the curtain of the temple ripped from top to bottom. The divine presence has been released, imposing holiness on every aspect of human existence.

Now, we worship when we mow our brother’s yard, take our sister a meal, or pray for a brother in prison. We encounter the transcendent and pure when we have sex with our spouse. We pay homage to God when we follow our leaders into the abandonment of material gain and goods because of faith in his provision. Consuming a ceremonial meal does nothing for our hearts because grace keeps us ever partaking and always filled. Instead of making an animal pay for our devotion to God, we offer the more costly gifts of unashamed confession of his name and sacrificial service and giving.

In light of that description of worship, the rituals and ceremonies which the church offers smell like strange fire.

We don’t gather weekly to worship. The early church didn’t model their meetings on the worship at the temple but on the gatherings at synagogue. God never called upon Israel to gather every Sabbath to worship him. He gave no direction whatsoever regarding the procedure or structure of synagogue service. Jews which had been scattered after the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, spontaneously began coming together (the literal meaning of the word “synagogue”) for mutual encouragement and learning.

Jesus never told his people when, how, or why to meet. He made them a called out people of the resurrection and disbursed them among a hostile world. Having risen out of Judaism, they knew that meeting once a week for mutual encouragement and learning was critical to the maintenance of their distinct identity and spiritual vigor. In structure and procedure, early church gatherings were almost identical to synagogue service.

Here’s the kicker, just as synagogue grew out of necessity and was shaped by human thinking, so church gatherings, governance, and their liturgy have no connection with divine mandate. God gave the gift of wisdom to Paul and the other apostles who ministered to their generation, but they appointed elders in every church because every synagogue was presided over by elders, not because Jesus told them that churches should be elder led. Paul prohibited women from ministering in the gatherings of some of the churches, but women couldn’t even attend synagogue.

If we’re going to regard Paul, then we’ll need to respect his declaration that we no longer serve God under a covenant based on written rules but one which expresses God’s purposes in Christ. When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t specify how often they were to eat it. He only required that as often as they did partake that they remember him. Communion is for us. Through that remembrance, we come back to the wellspring of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke of divine discipline carried out on those who ate unworthily, but the sacrilegious actions had nothing to do with mishandling emblems; it consisted of mistreating the people of God.

We meet to encourage one another – that is the spirit of Paul’s letters. When we attempt to strain out every doctrinal gnat of church procedure, we always end up swallowing the camel of dead legalism.

Because we meet for mutual encouragement, we need to stop asking, “What did the early church do?” or even, “What does the Bible say about how we should meet?” and start asking, “What will encourage everyone to go out into the world and really worship?”

 

 

 

A Faith that Works – Chapter 2 Excerpt

A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.

I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”

Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?

Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.

Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)

● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.

Rods Wielded by Men

Just yesterday, I presented a message on the end of Luke 18 where Jesus heals a blind man along the road just outside of Jericho. The man had heard the commotion of Jesus’ entourage and asked as to the reason for the uproar. Some at the front of the procession inform him that it’s because Jesus of Nazareth was passing that way. In response, he begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Israeli_blue_Star_of_David

What was it that made this beggar associate Jesus with David?

Jewish people in the first century were awaiting the coming of a great king that would be the true successor to David according to a promise made in 2 Samuel 7:12-16:

When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever. – 2 Samuel 7:12-16

As we continue through the narrative, it would be easy to conclude that Solomon and his gilded reign were the fulfillment of this promise, but the Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t see it that way mostly because they were no longer a sovereign kingdom ruled by a Davidic monarch. What about that whole, “establish forever” thing?

Christians believe that the blind man in Luke 18 was correct about Jesus’ identity. Let’s consider each of the traits of the Son of David from this promise in an attempt to see what he saw:

  • He would be “raised up” after the death of David.

According to 1 Kings 1:43-48, David himself made Solomon king on his throne while David was still alive. The successive descendants of David obviously came to power after David’s death, but none of them could be said to have been “raised up,” since they all started at the top.

Isaiah predicted that Messiah would grow up before God like a shoot out of dry ground (Is. 53:2).

According to the gospels, Jesus rose from and earthy existence in a blue collar backwater to divinely endorsed rabbi. Then, he rose from corpse to king.

  • He will be David’s physical descendant.

Solomon and all the others including Jesus met this criteria. This part of the promised coupled with the previous part begs the question, “From David’s vantage point, why would his physical descendant need to be raised up?” It would need to happen after the chain of earthly succession had been broken.

The Son of David must be a physical descendant born after Israel’s defeat and captivity.

  • I will establish his kingdom forever.

We might understand this to mean that the one to come would always have descendants on his throne, but wouldn’t that be superfluous? With Solomon excluded as the fulfillment, why would David care which as yet unborn descendant sat on his throne or to which other random descendant it was passed next?

The one to come will not have to relinquish the kingdom because he will never die. His throne will be established because he won’t ever have to vacate it.

solomonsTemple

  • He is the one to build a house for my name.

Yes, Solomon built the temple, but we’ve already excluded him as the ultimate fulfillment of this promise. If the promised descendant isn’t Solomon, then the house to be built isn’t the temple.

Jesus told his disciples, “I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) We think of church as a building, so Jesus’ words don’t sound strange to us, but the word for “church” literally means, ” a called out group of people.” Jesus intentionally wove two images together to express the sort of house he came to build for God. In the context of Matthew 16, Jesus told Peter that he would be the first stone in an edifice made up of called out people.

Peter perpetuated the imagery he received from Christ as he wrote to those who like him had been installed in God’s house,

As you come to him, the living Stone —rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. – 1 Peter 2:4-5

  • The relationship between the one to come and God will be son to father – that is, one of loving discipline and unconditional love.

This one always struck a sour note with me. “When he does wrong”? Has Jesus done wrong? Does he need discipline for his own affronts to God or offenses against people?

Medical-Aspects-of-the-Crucifixion-of-Jesus-Christ-Part-III-w1

It struck me (no pun intended) today that this promise speaks to the union we have with Christ. At his passion, he was literally struck with “a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands.” We know that wasn’t because of wrongs he himself had done, but wrongs for which he took the blame. Christ has so committed himself to his own people that their sins have become his wrongs. But, this fatherly chastisement didn’t end with the cross.

When Jesus appears to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Rd., he asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). The author of the letter to the Hebrews encourages them to face persecution because through the hands of men God disciplines them like a father (Hebrews 12:7-11).

In Christ, the promises to David convey to us. We are the sons of David. We have come into God’s kingdom not as subjects, but as sons – co regents and co heirs with Christ. In our enduring hardships, God continues to fulfill his promise to train his son, the son of David. Persecution is as much our birthright as is a seat at God’s table or our future possession of all creation. Unlike Christ at his passion, we never suffer alone because he continues to be persecuted with his church. Why must we suffer persecution? Because we continue to do wrong. We’ll never be condemned for those wrongs, but we must learn to desist from them.

Peter describes the blessed fruit of suffering with Christ in these words,

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. – 1 Peter 4:1-2

God’s promise through Samuel can only be fulfilled through one person who has ever lived. Because of what he suffered, he can include all people in that promise since his suffering was for their wrongs. In Christ, we are sons of God and sons of David. Our suffering on his behalf certifies our claim on the throne.

Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. -Romans 8:17