What Would Jesus Evade? DDWJWD Part 2

If anyone ever lived out the “What Would Jesus Do” ethic, Justin did. He moved into an abandoned train depot in the bar district of the next town over and took in homeless people. One night I think he baptized nineteen people in the fountain of the big Baptist church a couple of blocks over. His work with the down and out even made the local newspaper. We all wanted to be like Justin. It seemed that out of everyone anyone we knew, this guy was actually living like Christ.

Justin did what we all thought Jesus would do, but that didn’t mean he had been transformed into the image of Christ. He hadn’t. He could preach on the street one night and then get into a fistfight in a frat house the next night. One day I’d find him sitting serenely among his acolytes; the next I’d get a call from him demanding that I bail him out of jail.

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For some reason, Justin was just bad at life. He couldn’t keep down a job. He didn’t know how to navigate his marriage. He had no clue about taking responsibility for his actions. For Justin, itinerancy, singleness, and “martyrdom” offered an easy alternative to tackling his massive growth areas. He could evade life without admitting that he’d failed.

One time, after his wife’s family forced him out of their home, he came to live in our basement. I still remember him staying out to all hours drinking and then complaining that our kids walked around too loudly above his head as he slept until 2PM.

When we went on a short-term mission trip, we left Justin to watch the house. We specifically asked him to make sure the sump pump came on should a heavy rain come through. When we returned, we found our basement flooded and Justin nowhere in sight. He’d been invited last minute to do some outreach to the Rainbow People and decided to just leave the water to sit and the drywall to mold. Eventually, we discovered that he’d raided our five-year-old daughter’s piggy bank for spending money on the trip. When we confronted him over these things, he was unapologetic. Instead, he rebuked us for being too concerned about earthly things!

For Justin, the reproduction of some external details of Christ’s life made him a true Christian regardless of what else he did or did not do. He could wallow in the filth of his own sinfulness while judging every other professing Christian as impostors and Pharisees. Justin called nominal Christians, “Turds with frosting.” Ironically, that epithet could have been applied to him as well. The frosting was just a different flavor.

Justin’s example teaches that external conformity to WWJD accomplishes no more than external conformity to any standard of behavior. Holding up the lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in the Gospels for emulation doesn’t make people like Jesus, it just produces hypocrites of a different type. Whether our confidence before God comes from regular tithing or from selling everything and giving it to the poor, we’re legalists. The only difference is in the law we adhere to.

Not only did attempting to DWJWD fail to develop Christlike character in Justin, I believe that it exacerbated deficiencies which already plagued him. When people struggle to navigate their lives, it can be tempting to escape to someone else’s. That seems to be what drives young people to adopt strange personas such as with the goth or emo phenomena. Finding our authentic selves can be so difficult and risky that we can be easily enticed to abdicate the process and hide behind prefabricated templates. Then, in the dark recesses of our psyche, our souls wither unchallenged and untended. Escape into the Christ persona becomes that much more dangerous since the one who does so will find much internal and external reinforcement of their behavior.

In my own history, I made several attempts at adopting prefabricated personas to compensate for insecurity. I remember in fifth grade, I went through a greaser phase. I figured that if I wanted to be cool, then I couldn’t find a better exemplar than Fonzie. It didn’t work out. As a teenager, I went punk for a brief time. Well, my hair did anyway. Not coincidentally, this phase immediately preceded my conversion to serious Christianity followed by hardcore legalism. When I read about Jesus in the New Testament, I envisioned being him. I wanted to wear a robe and sandals sitting under a tree and laying down wisdom on the masses.

I don’t mean to say that there was nothing sincere in my conversion. I’m just pointing out that insecurity gets often confused for humility and obsessiveness for zeal. I have had times of real healing and insight that I believe have come from the presence of God. At other times, I’ve become inauthentic, judgmental, and self-important while channeling the Nazarene.

When we hold up Jesus’ life depicted in the Gospels as a standard for others to follow, we leave them with a focus on externals that substitutes merit for mercy. Should a person at some point ever perfectly mimic Christ’s life in every detail, they won’t be one whit closer to the actual character of Christ.

As Paul wrote,

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2-3 ESV)

According to Paul, dramatic, self-sacrificial gestures count for precisely zero when borne out of wrong motives.

The attempt to jump into Christ’s sandals often arises from an attempt to escape the slew of the day to day. Love, on the other hand, slogs through the mundane mess over the long haul.

As Paul continues:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6 ESV)

WWJD fosters evasion. Love requires engagement – engagement that carries a cross.
Jesus bore a cross every day of his life. It consisted of hardships specific to his own circumstances and calling. His cross isn’t transferable. That’s why he tells those who aspire to follow him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Living by faith will result in an array of struggles, shame, loss, and pain, but each person will only experience their own configuration which is their cross. Ironically, asking WWJD evades my cross in favor of a wire and foam facsimile of his.

 

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

If we would become like Christ, we must find our cross and take it up.

 

Let me illustrate with some examples of personal crosses available in our contemporary world:

  • A man finds himself stuck halfway up the corporate ladder in a soul-crushing job serving an unreasonable boss. He could walk away from it to serve an overseas mission effort, but without divine orders, that would just be to shirk his cross. Each day at his job, the man experiences powerlessness, pointlessness, and degradation. Taking up his cross will require him to enter those experiences gladly, trusting in God who raises the dead.
  • A woman who has spent her life raising children must face an empty nest. She might busy herself in a women’s ministry, but that could simply be an attempt to continue mothering vicariously. It could be that her cross would be to use her newfound discretionary time on intercessory prayer. Through solitude, she can find authentic, Christ-like love for others free from codependence.
  • An academically gifted high school graduate might combat the fear of leaving his church’s youth group by seeking to become a youth minister. Taking up his cross might require him to enter the hostile environment of a secular university and train to use his gifts among hostile colleagues in a secular profession.
  • A young woman discovers that she’s made a big mistake at work. She might quit, taking the discovery as confirmation of her long-held suspicion that this job wasn’t God’s calling for her anyway. Taking up her cross might require her to come forward to tell the unvarnished truth about the mistake, entrusting her future, either at the job or in unemployment, to God.

The cross as a Christian ethic applies to every individual regardless of the situation, if we learn to apply it. We must imitate Christ as we find him at the cross and not as we find him in the Gospels. The attempt to do that latter often just turns into escapism which keeps misshapen souls from the therapeutic effects of walking under the weight of tailor-made beams.

“What Would Jesus Do” appeals to people who don’t want to face the hardships and drudgery already present in their lives. Christ’s requirement that we take up our cross sends us under that drudgery with a redemptive purpose. The unredeemed of the world, constantly work to minimize the pain and maximize the pleasure of their existence. They resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms to offset misery and monotony. When I take up my cross, I cheerfully accept the full weight of life’s burden relying in faith on the resurrection to restore all that’s been lost. Rather than seeking to evade the unpleasant elements in my day, I relish them for the sake of learning to be more like Jesus.

“WWJD” is evasion.

The cross is full-frontal engagement.

Christ took up his cross and invites us to take up ours to follow him, so we can learn how to master real life. Jesus never evaded. At his cross, he looked life’s one fearful certainty directly in the face and owned that dude.


 

DDWJWD (Don’t Do What Jesus Would Do) – Series Intro

Some kid at Bible camp ran up behind my son, Jadon, and slapped him on the back of the neck. I guess he wanted to take on the biggest guy in the cabin.

Jadon whirled around, narrowed his eyes and growled. The kid, immediately regretting his decision, resorted to playing the Jesus card, “Now, now, man, take it easy…what would Jesus do?”

“Well, I don’t know.” Jadon snarled, cocking his head to the side. “Maybe he’d make a whip out of cords and drive people out of the temple with it.”

“What?!” the kid exclaimed as he scrambled to stay out of reach. Apparently, nobody told him that you’d better come well-armed if you want to use the Bible to manipulate a preacher’s kid.

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This story illustrates (don’t worry Jadon didn’t hurt the kid) the flaws in a method commonly used to guide Christian decisions – the old WWJD.

After reading Charles Sheldon’s book, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do, a youth minister named Janie Tinklenberg ordered 300 friendship bracelets embossed with “WWJD?” for the students in her ministry to wear as a reminder to consider the question when making decisions.¹ What started as an object lesson became a movement, then a marketing goldmine, and then a farce. I guess nobody ever stopped to consider or care that maybe Jesus wouldn’t turn his own example into a flood of kitsch made by political prisoners in China.

The movement has since waned, but the question remains. Maybe that’s because as we fumble around for a consistent Christian ethic, doing what Jesus would do seems like an idea we can take ahold of even if the reality remains perpetually out of reach. The life of Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John holds a powerful allure. The personality that emerges from those pages stands in relief from the sullied characters we meet day by day at our work, in our homes and in our mirrors. Jesus can’t be critiqued. He’s at least “just alright” with everyone.

Christ’s allure drew me the first time I read the book of Matthew. He synergized passion and serenity, acceptance and truth. His piety shamed the most observant Pharisee even while his promiscuous social activities chafed their sensibilities. He called himself the wisest and greatest person to ever live. Then, he invited every burdened soul to come to him because he’s humble and lowly. Somehow, he pulled off the contradiction so well that I hardly noticed it. There he was – acceptance, meaning, purpose, wisdom. He pushed my dreams and drives aside and took up sole ownership of my consciousness. I could only envision myself living as a penniless itinerant, teaching in the open air about the kingdom of God. I thought surely every churchgoer would want to live his way.

But they didn’t.

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Six months’ immersion into church culture morphed my frocked and sandaled avatar into a besuited pulpiteer. The vision didn’t look much like the original, but it seemed more doable. Once I cleared the Bible college hurdle, I could go straight to the pennilessness and teaching ministry of Christ’s life.

I didn’t clear Bible college (more on this later), so I returned to reclaim my hopes of engaging in open-air ministry while attending the state university near my home town. That’s where I met Jamie, the girl who would become my wife. I shared some of my vision of following Christ with her on our first date. She seemed to buy in, but communication doesn’t flow as well as it should across a medium of nerves and hormones. For me, poverty meant homelessness. For her, it meant driving a used car and living in a humble dwelling. We continued to date and in the blissful blindness of young love we never did sync up our expectations.

We soon married and then spent the next ten years grappling with each other over the configuration of our life together. The dissimilarity between our lifestyle and that of Jesus afflicted my conscience. I always wanted to give stuff away or sell it. I wanted to move to deeply impoverished neighborhoods serve and to save the residents. Jamie was not inclined to take such drastic measures.

Because my compulsions felt to me like the will of God, I would demonize her. “How could she even be a Christian when she refuses to sell everything we have and live among the poor?” I would ask myself.

Since big change takes more energy than remaining with the status quo, I would normally just stuff my angst and move on to the next mundane task.

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At this point, you might criticize my lack of resolve but before you do, you need to know that my conviction was mitigated by another conflict roiling within me. Marriage thrust my heart into the center of an ugly custody battle between the New Testament Gospels and the Epistles. I wanted to radically follow Jesus as he appeared in the Gospels, but I was also beholden to the imperatives in the Epistles. The Gospels didn’t talk about marriage except to prohibit divorce and to require that disciples be ready to leave their wives and children to follow Christ. The Epistles prescribed commitment, love, consideration, and financial support for one’s spouse. Since I couldn’t simultaneously obey the Bible and do what Jesus would do, I would vacillate between each set of instructions depending on circumstances and mood.

During one of my Epistles phases, I agreed with Jamie that we should purchase a larger house. We bought an older craftsman house almost three times the size of our previous place. Aside from the discovery of a profuse water leak in the basement, we were delighted with it.

Then, the Gospels began to rebuke my un-Jesus-like decision. I brooded in my guilt and alienation from God. I hated that house and everything that came with it. According to the ream of papers I had signed at closing, the house would hold the title to my freedom for the next thirty years. I raged over every minute wasted on repairs and improvements. A dark shadow lowered across my brow.

Jamie couldn’t help but notice, and she pried from me the reason for my change in demeanor. By his time, she had endured ten years of this struggle, so she took a different tack. She suggested that we let God reveal whether he wanted us to sell the house. We would put the house up for sale until a date which I would set. If it didn’t sell by that time, we would accept that God did not want us to sell the house after all.

Ha! Now I had her. Obviously, God wanted us to sell the house. This would be my chance to finally pull Jamie across the gulf between us. I prayed for guidance over the configuration of the sale. I wanted to ensure that I didn’t derail God’s plan on its way out of the station. After a time of praying and waiting I felt led to list with an agent for a specific dollar figure. In accordance with Jamie’s proposal, I prayed for guidance over the divine deadline. I felt a distinct prompting that it should sell by March 20th which would be ninety days from the day we listed it.

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I passed eighty-nine days in the certainty that God would sell the house. My reasoning was solid. Jesus didn’t have a place to lay his head. He told me to follow him. Surely, homeownership stood between me and doing what Jesus would do. What would Jesus do? Sell the house, that’s what!

As time ran down, my confidence galvanized. Surely, this was just a test of faith and I didn’t plan to fail it. On March 20th, that test intensified into a full-fledged trial. The confidence, hardened over the previous three months, began to crack under the weight of elapsing hours. At the stroke of midnight, my model of Christianity shattered.

My body rose from my bed at four the next morning, an empty shell plodding off to the job I loathed. It required that I spend four-plus early morning hours every day working like a galley slave unloading trailers. Drained of all morale, I pled with God for a reprieve. About twice a year, I got to drive a truck over to the next state to pick up next day delivery packages which the normal distribution network had missed. I asked God to allow me to make that run as a mercy for a broken soul.

I walked under the conveyor belt to get my work assignment for the day. John, my supervisor, shouted out, “Nate, you’re in the unload.”

“Figures.” I thought to myself as I lumbered toward purgatory.

Before I reached the expanded metal platform, my supervisor shouted again, “Nate, forget about the unload. I need you on the returns trailer.”

“Well, at least that’s better.” I thought, half praying.

I’d handled ten packages or so when John changed my assignment yet again, “Brown up,² Nate, you’re going to Tulsa.”

God, it seemed had answered my prayer very specifically, but I wasn’t consoled. I was still angry.

After I’d driven the brown metal box for an hour to the west, I passed a geodesic dome that housed a “health and wealth” church. The marquee out front advertised a guest speaker from Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Disgusted, I confronted God, “You let crap like this go on in your name, but when I try to actually live a sacrificial life, you reject me!” I don’t remember what else I said. I only remember melting into tears and snot, swerving in and out of my lane, as I shouted my pain through the windshield. Somehow, I made it safely to the airport, but I wouldn’t have entirely minded if I hadn’t. I woodenly loaded thirty or so boxes and headed east, eyes glassy and burning from tears.

The rays of first light had just begun to grey the landscape when another church sign stood out in relief. As I neared it, these words came into focus:

“NOT ABANDONED”

I’m sure whoever put those words on the sign had their own meaning in mind, but for me, it seemed like a message straight from God. Though I was no less angry, I did feel less sad.

As I processed this experience, the image of Lucy Van Pelt goading Charlie Brown into kicking a football and then yanking it away kept flashing into my mind. I felt like God had strung me along throughout this process so that I would really run at selling the house and giving everything away. This was finally my big moment to prove myself and I wasn’t about to miss it. Then, “Aaaugh!” His chicanery left me embarrassed and aching, lying flat on my back. But at least I was at rest and looking up.

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I’ve come to understand that for zealots like me, only the dramatic failure of rigid expectations can shatter the Christ complex and make way for real spiritual progress. Apparently, (assuming God exists and responds to prayer) he didn’t want me to do what I thought Jesus would do.


Footnotes:

  1. “What Would Jesus Do? The Rise of a Slogan.” BBC News Magazine. December 8th, 2011. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16068178
  2. In UPS lingo, “Brown up” meant to put on the brown uniform.

 

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

My Pragma Ran Over My Dogma

Back when I was one of approximately four people going to heaven, I used to knock on doors to let others know. I didn’t really care that much if they accepted what I had to say; I just knew that in addition to conforming to every “command, example, and necessary inference”¹ in the Bible, I also had to warn others of their impending doom.

There was just one problem with doing all of that – it wasn’t possible.

I was newly married, had a part time job in the eeaarly mornings, was a full-time student, and spent at least two hours every day knocking doors. All of that was in addition to attending church services three plus times per week. After eighteen months at that pace, I played out. I reached a place where even the fear of hell wasn’t enough to get me off the couch.

I still remember when Uriah called. I took the cordless phone (this was the early nineties) out to the carport, rested my elbow on the washing machine and my ear on the receiver.

“Hey,” he said, “I was reading in Colossians and I got to 1:27 that says, ‘the mystery hidden for the ages is Christ in you.’ That’s it! That’s what it’s all about.”

“Man, I just don’t have the energy to think about that right now,” was my reply.

He responded, “This doesn’t take energy; it gives it! There’s something different about me now, I mean, I can’t drive by someone on the side of the road without stopping to help them.”

“That sounds great,” I dismissed. “Can we talk about this later?”

In a few days, my guilt compounded enough to pry me from the couch and into the seat of Uriah’s 1970-something Mercury Monarch. I still remember sitting in front of Applegate Apartments, paralyzed by dread.

“Man, I don’t think I can do this today,” I confided to my compatriot.

“I’m telling you, the answer is, ‘Christ in you,’” he responded.

I didn’t know what that meant, but there, trapped between hell on earth and hell in… hell, I decided to imagine that Jesus Christ himself did, in fact, inhabit my body. My willingness or ability no longer mattered. My limp hand rose to the door latch and dropped to pull it forward. My elbow swung outward and with it the creaky metal door. I half-fell to my feet, a disoriented newborn unsure of which way to place his first steps.

Just then, a long-haired man who looked as though he’d abused his body in nearly every way possible, came out of his apartment and hobbled toward us. He was probably in his early thirties but looked every sweaty swollen inch in his late forties. We accosted him with some sort of “are you saved” opener.

“I went to hell one time,” he blathered. “It was weird. It’s like all your stuff and your money and stuff…they’re not worth anything…”

He obviously wasn’t in any state to receive our rationalist take on conformity to the rules of the New Testament. Previously, that fact would have moved me on to a more coherent subject, but for some reason, I put my hand on his shoulder. I offered to pray with him. I felt a compassion for this lost cause that I hadn’t felt for others.

As we disengaged with that guy and moved around the apartment complex, our message changed from warnings about neglected New Testament requirements to invitations to a relationship with Jesus. The obligation that had been sapping my strength transformed into an invigorating indulgence in Christ himself.

At one point I remember turning to Uriah and saying, “You know what? Suddenly I don’t care if someone wants to worship God with a piano.”²

“Me neither!” he exclaimed.

When divine mandate failed to budge me out of the car, “Christ in you” put me to dancing in the street. Our relationship with God had been based on dogma gleaned from an ancient text – demanding, demoralizing, dead. Now, we’d sampled a hit of resurrection power. Our “pragma” (that which we learned through practical experience) had begun to run over our dogma.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that we were completely free that day. It was just the beginning of a long journey to the powerful, primitive faith that I now offer to anyone who’ll accept it.

Old dogmas die hard. We didn’t care whether someone wanted to worship with instruments, but we still knew that represented the one true church. We talked less about doctrine and more about Jesus, but then we’d always get back to doctrine. Our minds remained calcified in convictions long set in doctrinal forms, but a living seed had been planted in the dirt between the cracks. It would take time for living experience to displace the hardened legalism that surrounded it.

For now, we channeled our new-found passion into the same old tactics. Once a door opened (literally and figuratively) we set out to delegitimize our victims’ previous religious experience. We’d show them our well-worn proof texts which made abundantly clear that Baptists had been baptized for the wrong reason, and Methodists had been baptized in the wrong way. We argued that if their church had been wrong on something so foundational that it must be the wrong church. They needed to join us in the one true church. After being baptized in the right way and for the right reason, of course.

Not long after having found “Christ in me,” we went door knocking again in the low-income neighborhood around those apartments where it all began. A kindly older lady in a cracker box house invited us in for coffee and condemnation. While we were working on her, a man who looked to be about ten years younger than she came to the door. He was apparently a friend and she invited him in as well. She made introductions all around and then said, “Hey Larry, these guys are here to talk about the Bible. I know you’re into that kind of stuff. Why don’t you talk with them?”

He agreed out of the side of his eyes, and we redirected our barrage at him.

I’ll never forget the serenity on his face as we hammered his claim on salvation.

When we called him to account for his dereliction of duty to the book we regularly violated, Larry would calmly respond, “You guys can say whatever you want. I know that I belong to Jesus.”

We scoffed at his subjective certainty, but we were also shaken by it. He could not measure up to our dogma, but we couldn’t measure up to his faith.

Then there was Shannon, a big guy who lived alone in a messy duplex. As he and I talked, we started comparing notes to discover that our experiences were almost identical. The longer the conversation went on, the more we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences. We had a kinship that I didn’t have with anyone at the one true church, but Shannon insisted on remaining Catholic. I tried to help him bring his dogma in line, but he just didn’t feel the need.

The rift between us stretched through the middle of my worldview. If my experience had been authentically from God and Shannon had the same experience, then none of the doctrinal stuff mattered to God. But that would invalidate my exclusive claim on God. On the other hand, if my doctrinal formulas were correct, Shannon must have been deluded. If he had been deluded, I had no basis for confidence in my experience either. Shannon and I parted ways, but the tension continued to pull on my paradigm.

Eventually, I would discover that the whole problem had nothing to do with the Bible, but with my assumptions about it. Those assumptions had been given to me as axiomatic truth by the group to which I gave credence. The assumptions and not the Bible were my dogma. But that dogma didn’t hunt (southern reference). I mean it didn’t work.

It didn’t work practically. The New Testament when turned into a law is both too amorphous to master and too rigid to serve. The man who baptized me into the Church of Christ once described the Christian life as trying to hold a ball under water. “You push it down here and it pops up over there.”

So, you’re saying that Christianity consists of spending time and effort on a completely futile and frustrating endeavor? Sign me up!!!

At what point does a person chuck the ball out of the pool and say, “This game is stupid!”?

In addition to failing practically, my dogma also failed predictively. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it failed to predict reality. If all those assumptions were true, then God couldn’t accept even one person like Larry or Shannon and yet it seemed that he had.

Before you write me off as a crackpot using his own experience to determine objective truth, could we look together at a biblical example of someone whose pragma ran over his dogma?

Peter was praying on the roof and he had this vision of a great sheet filled with all kinds of critters being lowered down out of heaven.

Then a voice said, “Get up Peter. Kill something and eat it.”

Peter’s response typifies the Biblicist approach to religion, “Not so, Lord, for nothing unclean has ever touched my lips.”

To which the Lord, responded, “Don’t call anything impure which God has made clean.”

For some reason, Peter needed to hear things three times  before he got them, so this cycle was repeated two more times.

A cynical synopsis of this narrative from Acts 10 could read as follows: “Christ appears to Peter and commands him to violate Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.”

As Gentile believers, we might not fully grasp the psychological turmoil into which this vision cast Peter. He whose name means “rock” had never wavered from his resolve to obey the Torah. Now, the Living Word expected him to violate the written word. I don’t know if I can even come up with a modern equivalent from New Testament practice. I suppose it would be like Jesus coming and telling us to replace the wine and bread on the Lord’s Supper table with Monster Energy drinks and churros. Even then, we Gentiles don’t grasp the importance of the food laws to the Jewish identity.

Speaking of Gentiles, Peter, directed by the Spirit, then went to the house of a Roman army officer named Cornelius to tell him the gospel. That, in and of itself, wasn’t scripturally wrong so much as it was a violation of traditional Jewish practice.

While Peter preached about Jesus, Cornelius with all of his friends and family began to speak in other languages and to prophesy by the power of the Holy Spirit. In response, Peter commanded that they all be baptized – that is, that they be visibly accepted into the covenant community.

That posed a problem. Peter allowed the uncircumcised Gentiles into the messianic community even though Genesis 17:9-12 declares that everyone, even foreigners, must be circumcised if they are going to belong to the Abrahamic covenant.

When Peter and his cohort returned to Jerusalem, they were called on the carpet for this action.

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” – Acts 11:1-3

In his defense, Peter recounted the whole story of how he had been called to go to Cornelius’ house to preach the gospel and how God’s pragma had run over his dogma:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:15-18

It would seem from God’s dealing with Peter that he never meant for Scripture to hamper our interaction with him in a dynamic relationship. Christ could command Peter to violate the Torah and then the Holy Spirit could circumvent the covenant requirements he himself put into place.

But why would God do this?

Because no written code, even one given by God, could possibly apply to every circumstance or address every person. Scripture serves a purpose, but it’s very nature also makes it provisional.


Footnotes:

  1. In my strain of the Church of Christ, we used these three phrases to establish New Testament authority.
  2. The Church of Christ is known for shunning the use of instruments in their public assemblies. Here’s an  article for more on the belief.

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

No Yeah-But’s

561789-taekwondo-wallpapers-2500x1667-mobileI had a Taekwondo teacher who used to say that he didn’t want to hear any “yeah-but’s.” If he told a student to do something, he expected them to do it without delay or excuse. He claimed the right to unquestioning obedience by virtue of his superiority in his field.

In the gospel, we see a God who will accept no “yeah-but’s.” By his scandalous arrest, abuse, and execution, Christ declared for all time that the will of the Father must be obeyed. God isn’t just superior to us. He’s transcendent. We can’t speak of him in superlative terms. He’s primary and ultimate. His very essence creates a field of moral gravity calling for the unquestioning surrender which the Bible calls, “fear.” When we fear God, we simply give him his due. When we offer him, “yeah-but’s,” we take in hand to cast for ourselves a lesser god and give it his name.

Selective obedience not only perverts the idea of God in our minds, it also distorts our nature. We were made to fear God, not overthrow him. Our “yeah-but’s” twist our souls into beastly, ghastly, overgrown egos which stomp around this earth, blaming God for the destruction in our wake. Christ became human to restore our humanity by restoring our estimation of God’s holiness.

As believers in Christ, we’re called each day to die with Christ in small ways. We tell the truth when we know it will make us look bad or cost us relationships or opportunities. We don’t respond to the tension to speak truth with, “Yeah, God, but you know that if I do that, I’ll get fired.” Rather we confess that God is more to be feared than any consequence of obeying him.

Through his suffering, Christ demonstrated the fear of God. But he’s more than just our exemplar; he’s our savior. By his resurrection, Christ Jesus announced for all time that such abject trust in God will receive eternal reward. We can go to our own cross both figuratively and literally if necessary because God can be trusted. Not only are “yeah-buts” an affront to the very nature of God, not only do they mutilate our souls, they’re just foolish.

If God calls us to move to a high crime neighborhood and we respond, “Yeah, God, but I’m concerned that my children will come under bad influences or be attacked or even killed,” we forfeit his reward for whatever scraps we can forage and horde through this very short day which we call life.

Far from being the offer of a free ticket to heaven, the gospel calls us heavenward as it demands that we relinquish this earth. Some have suggested that faith in the gospel presents and easy alternative to conformity to a system of legal requirements. Maybe that’s true of a truncated gospel, but not the true one. The message of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming return pulses with unrelenting blessed requirement.

Because of God’s mercy and patience, it might be easy for us to think that’s he’s accepted our “yeah-but’s.” He hasn’t. Every “yeah-but” that we offer God assails his holiness, corrupts our souls, and mires us in a world rolling ever faster toward the conflagration waiting at the end.

The good news is that as long as we have breath we can repent of our “yeah-but’s” and all will be forgiven. Our humanity will be restored. We can long for the coming day of his return.

 

 

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.

What’s in a Name?

My cousin is a Jehovah’s Witness. She and I had a conversation a while back. I asked her, “When Jesus said that he had given his disciples God’s name, what name did he mean?”

“Jehovah.” was her unhesitating response.

Then I asked her where in the Gospels do we find an instance of Jesus ever calling God, “Jehovah.” She didn’t have an answer. Jesus had his own name for God which he taught his disciples to use as well. Know what it is?

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:11)

The Hebrew scriptures speak from time to time of the LORD as being like a father to his people, but no one used, “Holy Father,” in the vocative tense to call on God. Only Jesus, the eternal Son, could so refer to God. That is, until by his death and resurrection, he paid our adoption fee.

The name, “Father,” when applied to God holds tremendous power regardless of the language we speak. Those who call God by this name can count on his protection, provision, guidance and correction. The children of God can live victorious, though persecuted, in the midst of a wicked society.

The name Christ has given us to call God by speaks of relationship. The power comes not from phonemes, but from our access in Christ to the Father by one Spirit (see Ephesians 2:18). If it were any other way, God would be reduced to some sort of impersonal force required to respond to properly pronounced incantation.

When we call God, “Father,” we proclaim gospel theology.

Fathers, especially adoptive ones, initiate the relationship with their children apart from any effort or work on their part. Children can be proud of their father, but they can’t boast in their own merit at achieving a place as his child.

Fathers want to give gifts to their children. We can come boldly to God to ask for small things as well as big things.

Fathers seek the best for their children, but children must trust that this is so in order to benefit from that good will. This is why everything in our relationship with God must come from and operate on faith.

Fathers discipline wayward children for their benefit even though it isn’t pleasant for either party. There is a severe side to God as Father, but always for our good.

Every father’s ultimate goal is to develop mature offspring who reflect their character but also stand as full fledged individuals. God commands us to live free.

These facets of our understanding of God can seem to contradict, but they harmonize completely in God’s nature as Father. By holding all of these dimensions of the name, “Father,” in tension, we will be protected not only from external harm, but also from destructive ideas about God in our own minds. We will truly be kept in his name.

Trouble Shoot

When someone who claims to believe in Christ comes to me with insurmountable problems, I have to wonder whether God has failed them or vice versa.

Actually, I don’t wonder, I know which one it is.

To help us all continue to move towards healing, I thought I’d make a simple decision tree to troubleshoot the real cause of misery in people who profess faith in Christ.

Here it is:

troubleshooter