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

Te Quiero

I have a friend who wants to help me fix my car. Yes, I made a bad decision and purchased a lemon. No, I don’t have the money or skill to fix my situation. But, that’s not his main motivation to help me. He also wants to spend a week working side by side with me on it. That’s God’s kind of love.

That’s the love demonstrated in Romans 1:6-7:

And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

We’re called to belong to Jesus Christ. God loves us and called us to be his holy people – that is, his own possession.

Jesus didn’t come to die, rise, and return just because we’re pathetic. He went to all of that trouble because he wants us. He did it for us and he did it for himself. The author of the letter to the Hebrews said that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. What was that joy? It was you and me.

The good news that Paul preached isn’t just “good” to us. It’s “good” to God. We’re restored from waking death and God gets his children back. Then, we all celebrate together!

In some ways the Spanish language conveys the concepts of the gospel in every day life better than English. “I love you” in Spanish translated literally is, “te amo.” That’s not how it’s said in daily speech, though. If you want to express love like a person might have for their spouse, you say, “te quiero,” literally, “I want you.” This isn’t sexual. It’s an expression of the value placed on the other. It says, “You are my treasure.”

Recuerde hoy, Jesu Cristo te quiere.

 

A Little Peace

Why do Christian leaders tell people that they should tithe?  I don’t have the definitive answer but I do believe that I know something true about tithing.  Tithing is not for the generous but for the stingy.  Generous people need only hear of the need and they will meet it.  They do not need a minimum compulsory amount.  Church leaders feel the need to teach on tithing because they are leading a group of selfish people.  Take the selfishness one step further and tell the “givers” that God will return even more to them if they do tithe.

There was a time for tithing.  God assumed selfishness in the unredeemed people of Israel and made provision for it.  For those who have been implanted with the love of God, tithing has become obsolete.  The saddest aspect of tithing teaching is when we presume selfishness from the redeemed,  they begin to be selfish.

Here’s what Paul said about a general legalistic approach, which would include tithing.

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… (1 Timothy 1:5-9a)

Prison Bars…

I used to correspond through the mail with an inmate named Lowell.  I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered a more biblically literate person.  Perhaps this was because he had come to know his desperate need for God and was given plenty of time to find him in solitary confinement.  As a former member of a white supremacist prison gang, he had been placed in solitary for violent acts (I don’t know what) against blacks in the prison.  Of course this was just the last in a long list of crimes committed by this relatively young man.

As his story unfolded through our year or so of correspondence, the most shocking revelation dawned on me – Lowell and I were not all that different.  Had I encountered the same life circumstances which he had, I probably would have ended up in the same place.  My heart reflected the selfishness, malice, and prejudice which landed Lowell in solitary.  Conversely, he demonstrated genuine remorse and a desire for redemption.  The last vestiges of my childish notion that humanity can be divided into “good guys” and “bad guys” melted as I figuratively gazed into the mirror of Lowell’s heart.

As a human being at the bottom of society’s dumpster, Lowell sits upon an anthropological dilemma.  Should Lowell not have to “pay” for what he did?  If so, who determines when the debt is paid?  If not, what of his victims?  During our correspondence, Lowell petitioned to be released from solitary after he had spent a year there.  He was denied.  The prospect of another year cut off from human contact in the name of justice nearly destroyed this man who had made so many positive changes.

So, how can we maintain the worth of an individual yet decry his evil deeds?  Is such a thing even possible?  The answer is yes and no.  Humans will never solve this dilemma because we are incapable of separating the essence of a person from their behavior.  We will never have instrumentation that precise.  God, however, does have an implement which can do the job.  The cross of Christ in one moment categorically condemns human evil (including mine and Lowell’s) and unequivocally declares human worth.  From the cross, God in voice clear and loud declares, “I hate your murder, theft, prejudice, selfishness, and lust and I love you more than words can say.”

Lowell is probably still in prison but Lowell has found a freedom while incarcerated that he never had before.  Lowell continues to suffer the consequences of his past actions but he is not defined by them.  God’s scalpel, the cross has removed the sin which was entangled around the heart of a man created after the divine image.  Praise God for the wonderful, horrible, crucial cross!

Man of Sorrow {Guest Post}

Another amazing, Bible-inspired poem from Zane Gilley, which I trust will focus your thoughts on the gospel of Christ this Good Friday.

   Man of Sorrow
 
   The Son of God was born on earth to die,
   To rule not over sinful world below.
   The Son of Man is lifted up on high.
 
   The zealots lusted Rome to occupy;
   But Jesus knew his blood would freely flow
   The Son of God was born on earth to die.
 
   Peter, James, and John, saw with weary eye
   Jesus speaking in clouds with face aglow.
   The Son of Man is lifted up on high.
 
   The masses followed, their king to glorify.
   Singing ‘Hosanna!’, yet they did not know
   The Son of God was born on earth to die.
 
   He suffered greatly giving no outcry.
   With bleeding twisted thorns on broken brow,
   The Son of Man is lifted up on high.
 
   He sacrificed, our sins to purify.
   He spilt his blood and did to heaven go.
   The Son of God was born on earth to die.
   The Son of Man is lifted up on high.

Out of the way and into The Way

God seems to talk to me while I’m in the shower.  That’s probably too much information but it’s true and the detail is important to my story.  Today, he reminded me that living for him is something which he does.  Walking in The Way means getting out of the way and letting the Son of God walk the earth in our shoes.  The watershed moment in my life occurred when Colossians 1:27 dawned on my consciousness.  Here is the NIV rendition of that verse: “To them (beings on the spiritual plane) God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  The message resident in that verse forever shifted my perspective and expectations.  This morning, God reminded me of it.

When I got to the office today, I realized that I had not changed over my superfluous desktop calendar.  After ripping off last week at the perforation and placing it back on my desk, I looked and read the verse at the bottom: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Be blessed today.  God through his grace has not only taken your past in hand, he also will handle your present and your future.  Praise him!

Psalm 1 {Guest Post}

A new friend, Zane Gilley, who now ironically is an atheist has sent me a couple of poetic adaptations of the Psalms which it is my pleasure to post here at the savant spot.  Enjoy!

Psalm I
Blessed be the man who doeth these things three:
Walketh not in the ungodly counsel,
Standeth not in the way of sinner’s feet,
Sitteth not in the seat of the scornful.
But he places his devoted delight
In the holiest laws of Jehovah.
He, all through the day and throughout the night,
Reverently meditates on the law.
He is like a tree planted by rivers
Of the liquid life giving sustenance.
He beareth fruit in season and offers
Lasting shade for those who under him chance.
Whatever he sets forth to do prospers
Giving the life of his neighbors enhance.
With the ungodly these things are not so,
For they are likened unto the dry chaff
That the winnowing wind that God dost blow
Carries away from the godly with wrath.
Therefore these men ungodly shall not stand
During the final day of God’s judging,
Nor shall these unholy ones have a hand
In holy righteous saints’ congregating.
For the mind of Jehovah Almighty
Knoweth the blessed way of the righteous,
But the accursed way of the ungodly
Will with gnashing of teeth ever perish.

 

Religious Unbelief

The Bible warns against unbelief but not against atheism per se.  How could the writers of the Scriptures have warned against atheism?  There weren’t any atheists.  I’ve heard commentators on a local Christian radio station aim Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”) at atheists.  Of course the implication becomes, “Atheists are fools.”  However, should you have met the 10th century B.C.E. Jewish citizen to which the psalmist referred, he would have confessed to a belief in the existence of God.  The psalmist was not saying that avowed atheists are fools.  He was saying that fools secretly (in their hearts) suppress their awareness of God.

So who are the fools?  The rest of Psalm 14 describes these religious unbelievers as those who elevate themselves by pushing others down.  Such people by their actions deny God as their source.  They may claim to believe that God exists, but they do not trust him to supply them with security, sustenance or self-worth.  They maneuver and manipulate to get for themselves what others have or might acquire.  Such people pray and attend religious services but they do not expect God to respond to their petitions.  Instead, they engage in these activities to further establish their superiority.

As a case in point, consider Jesus’ very telling question addressed to the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 NIV)  These men who stood at the peak of the religious establishment of their day were unbelievers according to Jesus.  From their lofty perch they congratulated each other on their moral superiority and derided everyone else.  They traded genuine engagement with the Basis of their being for the illusion of relative worth.  Rather than find the favor of God, they fed on the “failures” of those whom they defamed.  “They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.” (Ps. 14:4b NIV)

Faith, real faith, is a foreign concept.  People will seek any alternative to humble reliance on God.  Each alternative counterfeits the genuine treasure of our existence.  The most dangerous counterfeits most closely resemble the genuine article.  Those who accept religious achievement as heavenly currency are among the most desperately deceived.  Beware religious unbelief.

King of Pain

Remember the song, “Doctor My Eyes” by Jackson Browne? For you younger folks, here is a link to his performance of it:

http://youtu.be/pCTYxIsLThA

I believe this song accurately describes life in a fallen kingdom.

I’ve been thinking today about our amazing capacity for denial. Somehow we’re able to hurt, be hurt, or see hurt and just go on with life. Maybe we do this because grieving takes too much time. Or perhaps we fear that should be begin to mourn we will never stop. So, we “pinch it off.” We justify harmful actions, minimize them, or just ignore them. We do this but not without cost. When we bury hurt or regret, a part us gets suffocated. The shell which protects our vulnerability also imprisons our sympathy. We find that when we want to cry or at least should cry, we can’t.

Sadly, the one negative emotion which continues to seep out is anger. Because we’ve buried the hurt itself, the anger which seeps out manifests itself in ways which are disassociated from the original event. Subtle digs on others, quiet disdain, and outright abuse all perpetuate pain as anger widens its influence through others who will then deny their hurt. Can we really believe that the prevalence and predictability of this dynamic is attributable solely to psychological factors? I would like to suggest an alternate theory.

I believe that a malevolent spiritual entity insinuated pain into the stream of human society and that through denial he continues to proliferate it. Why? Because he exerts control through extortion and blackmail. To borrow now from an eighties’ song, Satan is the “King of Pain.” Every repressed hurt becomes a handle by which the devil and his agents can lead people around. By participating in denial, people unwittingly submit to Satan’s control in their lives.

For support of this idea, consider Jesus’ words from John 14:30 regarding Satan’s influence, “I will not speak with you much longer, for the prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me (literally, he has nothing in me).” Jesus never sinned therefore he had no secret shame or repressed guilt. When wronged, Jesus readily confronted and/or forgave therefore he carried no repressed offense. The life of Jesus was the “in-breaking” of the kingdom of God.

So how do we check out of the kingdom of pain and into the kingdom of the Son once we’ve yielded to our enemy? In the second sentence of his great sermon on the nature of his kingdom, Jesus spoke these words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” With all of the pain in our fallen world, there is a danger that mourning could consume us. We don’t have to be afraid. Jesus promises comfort. We can talk with him and each other about the ways we’ve been hurt and caused hurt. In this way, will we overcome the King of Pain.