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.

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

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

I Never Studied Law

I grew up on Warner Bros. cartoons.

I once heard that the older ones weren’t actually created as entertainment for children, but as shorts to precede feature films.

I remember one bit in particular that evaded me as a child. At one point, Elmer Fudd forced Bugs at gun point out to the end of a limb and then sawed off the limb. Once it was cut through, the limb remained aloft and the tree crashed to the ground with Elmer in it. Then, Bugs broke the fourth wall to say, “I know this defies the law of gravity, but I never studied law.”

The six-year-old me knew that the law of gravity and jurisprudence differed from one another, but I couldn’t fully appreciate the humor. I get it now. Through this shtick the geniuses at Warner Bros. invited their audience to laugh at human arrogance. For all of the time, money, and energy our species spends on legislation and litigation, not a bit of it has an ounce of power to affect actual events. We simply do not have that kind of authority.

What if we found evidence of legislated reality? What would be the implications of discovering that nature obeyed a seemingly prescribed limit?

Maybe you’ve heard that time slows and then stops the closer one gets to the speed of light. In a recent study I did, I was surprised to discover why that happens: Speed is a function of space over time. The speed of light is a constant in the universe. When a vessel nears the speed of light, the light inside has the potential to double that speed as it is carried along in the vessel. To ensure that the constant remains constant, time actually dialates. Since light can’t travel faster than 186000 miles/second, the second expands to enforce the speed limit. Clear as mud? Here’s a video to make it clearer.

So, I wonder about that. Why would impersonal universal forces obey a speed limit? Could it be that someone with authority over nature set that limit and prohibits it from being exceeded?

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.

Signs and New Wine

Does it matter what words or names we use to describe things? I would contend that it does. Word meaning is a function of the way society uses them. While we might continue to want to use a word or phrase in a particular way, we don’t get to determine their meaning. Society does that for us and it is our responsibility to conform our usage accordingly if we want to truly communicate. In some cases words or phrases become soiled by the usage of others and we will have to discontinue their use if we want the concepts we’re espousing to remain palatable to our hearers. Words are containers for ideas. To help others understand this concept, I’ve concocted the following parable. I hope you enjoy the story and get the message.

Glass-wine-antique-decanter-with-handle-glassReginald was the steward over The Great House.  His father had been the steward before him and his grandfather before his father.  The Lord of the house was not only wealthy and wise, but generous as well. Every week, he would invite all of his servants and those from the surrounding villages to a great feast. As chief servant over The Great House, Reginald carried the honor of serving the wine.  Promptly at 6 o’clock Reginald would go to the kitchen and fetch the decanter from the cupboard and take it down to the family vintage to fill it up.  As he descended the stairs, Reginald would walk with almost a processional gate.  There was something sacred about this ritual and about the decanter.  For three generations his family had gone through this same routine carrying the same vessel.  As Reginald entered the great dining hall with the decanter, he almost felt as noble as the host of the great feast.  That beautiful container it seemed held more than wine.  It held his rich heritage as a servant to the Lord of the house.

One week, just before dinner, a great commotion broke out in the kitchen.  A new cook had taken on himself to include his own ingredients to the standard soup served before the main course.  The chef was livid.  He began to hurl anything he could get his hands on at the new cook.  Hearing the commotion, Reginald shot into the kitchen just in time to see the chef fling the great decanter at the cook.  The cook ducked and the decanter began its decent. Time seemed to stop as Reginald dove for it. He tipped its fat belly just enough to divert its path from the floor to the wall averting total destruction.  The stopper flew off and shattered and the handle broke – along with Reginald’s heart.  He stood up holding the remainder of the decanter looking down at it.  His body quivered partially out of grief and partially from rage.  Then he looked slowly up at the chef.  Something that sounded partly like a growl and partly like a hiss gushed through Reginald’s bottom lip, “You fool!  A man such as you does not deserve to prepare meals for our Lord.  From now on you will wash dishes while this new cook will take your place as chef starting now!”The chef’s face blushed, then blanched and then darkened. He said nothing but turned and skulked out of the room. The new cook gingerly slid over to the chef’s station and continued final preparations for the great feast.

Reginald, still quivering, cradled the decanter close to his chest as he ambled down the steep stairs to the family vintage. Though, there were other ornate vessels in the household, Reginald entertained no alternative to the sacred decanter. The damage it had sustained did not diminish its worth for him and so just like the week before, he filled it with the best wine the Lord of the house possessed and began his ascent up the stairs. As he trudged upward, his aching heart pulled his shoulders together and his chin downward. The battered decanter would not allow itself to be held forth but now required a closer grip with one hand around the neck and another supporting the bottom. Reginald’s thoughts wandered to his fore-bearers and their illustrious, lifelong careers. Shame and regret joined the grief and anger loitering in his heart. One event. One moment. Decades of glory were tarnished in an instant. How could this be?

As Reginald poured the wine, his pain began to subside. The guests marveled and raved over the exquisite vintage. Reginald comforted himself knowing that the real glory of the decanter had remained through the violence it had suffered. Reginald’s thoughts turned from the legacy left him by his father and grandfather to his own descendants. His furrowed brow smoothed and the corners of his mouth lifted as he thought of how they would tell the story of the chef’s tantrum and how the decanter had survived his assault. As the lamps in the great house were being extinguished and the watchman took his seat, Reginald had almost fully recovered from the trauma he had suffered. That night, his sleep was deep and his dreams were sweet.

The chef, however, could not sleep. The anger which had flared in him toward the new cook and his culinary presumption had dampened into a seething heat in his bones. That flame burned ever hotter as it fed on the memory of how he’d been disregarded, then violated and finally shamed. Over that steady, relentless heat the chef cooked up his revenge to be served quite cold the following week.

Coming into the kitchen late that night while all satisfied souls slept, the chef lit the main lantern and surveyed the filth which the new cook had left for him to relish. And relish it he did. With a giddy spring in his step he gathered two buckets and flew down to the well. He began to whistle a tune as he heated the water and gathered the greasy pots, the bloody knives and the soiled serving wear. When the water was sufficiently warmed, he filled the basin and with great flourish he scrubbed each item to spotless perfection, singing every tavern tune he could recall as he did. When the job was done, the chef took a step back to look at his glorious creation – not the stack of spotless dishes but the basin filled with grimy cess. Never one to let something go to waste, the chef put his concoction to good use. He took the old decanter from its housing and dropped it into the mottled, viscous ooze. Due to its specialized shape it floated for several minutes and then slowly sunk under the surface as the water filled its sacred chamber. At the sight, the chef’s mirth exploded into outright hysteria as a deep laughter erupted from his throat.

By morning, the chef had contained himself and fled the scene leaving only the basin filled with sludge and Reginald’s decanter filled with sludge. The angst and catharsis of the previous day had left Reginald depleted enough to make his normal waking time untenable. The maids could not afford such luxury and so they were the first to find the basin of dirty water.  Two of them lifted the basin and sloshed it out into the yard to dump it. As they did, the decanter tumbled out onto the lawn. It’s lifeless form lay there spilling its contents onto the surrounding lawn. The maids shrieked as if they’d seen a dead body.

The chef, who’d been waiting in his chambers to hear Reginald’s reaction came running to their side. “What has happened?” he asked.

“Our steward’s decanter!” They exclaimed. “Someone has soiled it with all of the filth from last night. Our Lord would never allow a polluted vessel like this to hold his precious wine. What will Reginald say? What will he do? What will happen to him? Surely, this will destroy him!”

“Yes, what will happen to him, indeed?” The chef thought to himself. He had hoped that he would have already known the answer to that question by this time in the morning but perhaps, this series of events might afford an opportunity to inflict such pain on Reginald that he might never recover. After all, his family had served as chief steward for far too long. Perhaps it would be time for a new dynasty in The Great House.

“Ladies,” the chef replied. “Why should your small minds attempt to entertain such large questions? The decanter, as you say, cannot be used for the master’s purposes but that does not mean it has no use whatsoever. I will put it to work on other needful duties in this house. As for Reginald, leave him to me.” And with that, he scooped up the pitiful container, tucked it into his overcoat and walked away.

The maids, however, failed to follow the chef’s advice and concerned themselves a great deal over the decanter. They told every servant in the house about what they had discovered that morning until the entire house was abuzz with the questions they had originally posed. But since no one wanted to bring the news to Reginald and since the chef had offered to handle it, Reginald remained oblivious.

By afternoon, the household servants could no longer stand the suspense over how Reginald would react, so they went to the chef to ask for an update.

“Yes, I told him all about it.” the chef lied. “You know, he took it surprisingly well. ‘No way to unring a bell’ or something like that was his response.  He told me that I could use the old thing for whatever best served the household. When he said that, I figured the best thing to do with it considering its shape would be to use it as a urinal on cold mornings when trips to the outhouse are just downright painful. So, I’m going to keep it here in the broom closet should any of you have a need.”

The servants were shocked. They struggled to believe that such a story could be true. Yet, they also knew that the decanter could no longer fulfill its time-honored purpose so they accepted the chef’s story. After a few days, they also accepted his suggestion. It was very cold outside and the wide mouth and bottom of the decanter did lend themselves splendidly to the other half of humanity’s liquid equation. By the time the week had passed, the vessel had been filled and emptied several times. On the eve of the great feast, the chef took the old decanter out of the broom closet, emptied it, and placed it back into its former place of honor.

Reginald, who continued to be kept in the dark shrouded over him by servants’ fear and by the subterfuge of the chef, went in high spirits to fetch and fill the vessel. The meal had begun with all servants attending the guests as he bounded out of the cellar in great anticipation of serving the glorious wine from this holy pitcher as durable as his family’s legacy. With flourish, Reginald burst into the great hall and held his decanter high. The guests all cheered at the sight of the symbol of the Lord’s generosity. Some of the household servants cringed, others stood with their mouths agape. One of the maids fainted and the butler threw up into a vase in the corner of the room. At this reaction, the guests began nervously to look around and then toward Reginald who stood dumbfounded. The room fell silent until one of the maids shouted, “Sir, please don’t serve the wine! That has been our chamber pot this entire week!”

The words rang in Reginald’s ears, boring their way into his resistant consciousness until their full weight landed with a dull thud on his soul. Reginald became light headed and darkness began to close in toward the center of his vision. With his last shred of awareness, Reginald staggered from the room into the kitchen where he found a stool on which to sit, his head between his legs. While he collect himself, he could hear the guests shuffling out of the room. They had somehow lost their appetites and were each going to their own homes. Under the dull roar, Reginald’s mind raced. How could he recover from this last blow?

Thankfully the Lord of the house had been away this evening. And why had he been away? Because he trusted Reginald to serve his great feast. He trusted Reginald because Reginald had always been perfectly faithful as had his father and his grandfather before him. Reginald thought, “And now it falls to me to decide how to proceed. To lose this great vessel would not only be a loss to me and my family but to the legacy and lore of The Great House.  I will not allow it to be discarded. Everyone knows how careful and faithful I have always been. I will wash the vessel three times and fill it with the best smelling oils for the next several days. Then I will wash it again. It will be ready to resume its regular duties by next week.” And so, after firing the chef, that is just what Reginald did.

The next week, the Lord returned to The Great House and took his place at the head of the table in the great hall where his guests were gathered. As he looked across the enormous table, he noticed a great many empty seats. Many of those whom the Lord had become accustomed to dining with were absent. Of those who had come, most were the lazy and disreputable rabble who were always welcome but who came not for the Lord’s company but for yet another handout. Though the number of guests was diminished, the Lord’s hospitality was not. “You are all most welcome here, dear friends, because whatever our state in life, we are one and so we should be together!”

The feast proceeded like always with salad followed by soup followed by appetizers and then the main course. As the main course landed steaming in the middle of the table, Reginald appeared in the doorway with his precious decanter of wine. The shocked guests, one by one stood up and excused themselves, bowing to the Lord of the house. As they left, many grabbed handfuls of food to stuff in pockets or purses. In his surprise, the Lord scanned the room. Every servant stood trembling (except for the butler who was throwing up into the same vase) and staring at Reginald who stood straight and proud holding forth the decanter. The Lord of the house followed the gaze of his servants to Reginald who was staring past him off into the distance. As soon as the Lord’s face was directed fully toward him, Reginald cleared his throat and offered, “Would you care for some wine, sir?”

Mere Christianity – Chapter 8 – “The Great Sin” – C.S. Lewis

I know a man who is haunted by Matthew 7:21-23. He won’t declare with 100% certainty that he is destined for eternal life and there is nothing anyone can say to assure him. Having read this quote this morning, I wonder if he is not plagued with spiritual pride.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not a bad person or an overtly arrogant man. I just wonder if he like so many others of us has been marinated in religious performance for so long that he has no idea that there is a difference.

My prayer for this man, myself and for you this morning is that all of us would have an encounter with the real and living God which would shatter our every illusion that we could merit his acceptance. That bereft of our relative worth we could come to the confidence that is also known as humility.

How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshiping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

via Mere Christianity – Chapter 8 – “The Great Sin” – C.S. Lewis.