Hang Up; I’m Leaving You a Voicemail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Footnotes:

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

The Bible on the Bible

“Hey, you’re dressed queer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compare Surah 2:2–5 from the Qur’an…

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

…with Luke 1:1–4:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes:

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

Crossing Over

This post isn’t for everyone.

It’s for the people who sense that something is wrong with this world.

It’s for those who grieve over the hurt they see around them and regret their part in it.

You’re right, there is something wrong and you’re a part of the problem.

You also need to know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Bible tells the story of what’s wrong with our society and it tells us how to cross over into a new society governed by trust and love.

First, here’s what went wrong:

Our original ancestors were given the opportunity to live in paradise. In paradise, they enjoyed perfect harmony with their environment and each other in God’s presence. At some point they chose selfish ambition over peace and intimacy.

They would now suffer an existence characterized by alienation from God and from each other.

As these early ancestors reproduced, their brokenness multiplied along with their progeny. In time, hate-filled and violent people would populate the earth.

Noah and His Family Crossed Over

Rather than allow continued degradation, God declared that he would destroy the evil society by means of a massive flood:

So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:7-8)

We’re not told why, but God selected Noah for special treatment while everyone else faced impending doom.

You’re probably familiar with the rest of the story. God instructed Noah to build a massive, water-tight wooden box which would hold male and female representatives of humankind and animals. Then a flood destroyed all life outside of the great wooden box. After the waters receded, all the inhabitants came out and repopulated the earth.

In the ark, Noah crossed over the waters into a new society.

Sadly, selfish ambition came off of the ark in the hearts of Noah and his family.

Abraham Crossed Over

As Noah’s family reproduced, his descendants formed a new evil society which the book of Genesis describes like this:

At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words. As the people migrated to the east, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there.
They began saying to each other, “Let’s make bricks and harden them with fire.” (In this region bricks were used instead of stone, and tar was used for mortar.) Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:1-4 NLT)

These people made selfish ambition a corporate enterprise. They came to realize that they were stronger together and came up with ways to cement their corporate identity. To establish permanence beyond their individual lifespans, they would build a great city. They also planned to memorialize themselves through an impressive achievement, the tower. These monuments to their corporate strength would also maintain it by keeping everyone together.

God disciplined these people for pulling together around selfish ambition. He confused their languages and scattering them to the four corners of the earth.

In the next chapter of Genesis, God calls a man to become the antithesis of Babylon’s arrogance:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3 NLT)

Abram was from a city called Ur which was located in the region of Babylonia. God called him to leave the corrupt society of his nativity to wander in an unknown land. To reach Canaan from Ur, Abraham had to cross over the Euphrates River. From then on, he and his descendants would be know as “Hebrews” which means, “the crossed over.”

Because he trusted God enough to cross over from dependency on humankind, God would give Abraham everything the people of Babylon had attempted to seize for themselves. In addition to that, God would use Abraham as a vehicle to bless everyone on earth.

Moses Crossed Over

After four hundred years, God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a nation came true. The Hebrews, whom God had taken to develop in Egypt, multiplied into the hundreds of thousands. They were now a nation that would be known as Israel.

Fearing a revolt, the Egyptian king put the Hebrews under forced labor. In time, they called out to God who sent Moses to rescue them from slavery.

Through Moses, God inflicted a series of ten plagues on Egypt until the king let Israel leave his country. After they left Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for a couple of weeks finally making camp next to the Red Sea.

Then the king, regretting the loss of his large slave labor force, marshalled his army and pursued them into the wilderness. When he caught up to them, the Israelites were terrified. God told Moses to lift his staff over the Red Sea and it parted. Israel walked through the sea on dry ground, but the Egyptians were all drown as God released the sea upon them in the midst of their pursuit.

From then on, Israel’s old masters had no control over them. They were free to serve the one true God and to depend on him for everything they needed. Moses and Israel crossed over the Red Sea from an evil society to a life of God’s guidance and provision in the wilderness.

Like with Noah’s family, selfish ambition came through the water with Israel. In time, they started to think just like the people of Babylon. They demanded that God give them a human king so they wouldn’t have to trust God to deliver them from their enemies. Throughout their history, they continued to reject God until he finally sent them back to Babylon as prisoners of war.

John the Baptist Crosses Over

Because of his promises to Abraham, God returned Israel to their own land after seventy years in Babylon.

Even though they had been through so much, Israel continued to chase selfish ambition. By the first century C.E., the leaders in Jerusalem had become puppet leaders for the Roman Empire. They talked about following the will of God, but they didn’t do it themselves. When push came to shove, those Israelite (now also known as Jewish) leaders would do anything to protect their grip on power.

At that time, God sent a man named John into the wilderness to speak a message of correction to Israel. He told them that they needed to change their ways because God was getting ready to come to them. The people who listened to John’s message were baptized by him in the Jordan River. This baptism was a crossing over from the compromised and corrupt religion of Jerusalem into a pure devotion to God.

Jesus Crosses Over

Though he was born to a virgin as the Son of God, Jesus lived an ordinary human life until he was around thirty years old. Then he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

At first, John didn’t want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he didn’t have any sin to turn away from. Jesus urged John to comply, because it was God’s will for him to be baptized.

When Jesus came up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven called out, “This is my beloved Son. I’m pleased with him.” At his baptism, Jesus crossed over from carpenter (the trade he learned from his earthly father) to Christ (the calling given to him by his heavenly Father, God).

Jesus Christ went around teaching everyone and performing miracles. He called out the hypocrisy among influential religious people of his day. The respectable people hated him, but the outcasts loved him and followed him everywhere.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the religious leaders felt threatened by him. They schemed to have him executed by the Romans on a cross.

Jesus had told his disciples that this would happen. When Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, heard this prediction, he called Jesus aside and said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus responded harshly to his concerned friend, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:22-23)

At his death, Jesus crossed over in a way that nobody else had until that time. By submitting to a wrongful death, Jesus let go of all selfish ambition and trusted his life fully into God’s hands. He didn’t just cross over through water. He crossed through death.

Because of his obedient trust, his Father resurrected Jesus never to die again.

Jesus’ Followers Cross Over

Fifty days after Jesus rose again, the Holy Spirit came from heaven with a loud rushing wind onto 120 of his followers who were praying in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in languages which they hadn’t studied. People from all over the city gathered to hear them. Since it was a special holiday in Jerusalem, Jews were present from all over the Roman Empire. Everyone heard these followers telling about God’s wonderful deeds in their own native tongues and they were amazed.

Then, Peter stood up and told everyone how God had sent Jesus to be their perfect king, but they and their leaders had rejected him and had him crucified. Peter also told them that God had given proof that Jesus was the Son of God by raising him from death and by pouring out the Holy Spirit.

The people in the audience were crushed by this news and asked what they should do. Peter responded,

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” (Acts 2:38-39, 40b)

Peter called them to cross over, through baptism, from participation in their corrupt society to life led and empowered by God through the Holy Spirit.

This same invitation is open to you today.

Just like Noah and his family or Moses and the Israelites, God wants you to leave behind your way of life and cross through water to a life led and empowered by his Holy Spirit.

Unlike Noah’s family or the Israelites, you must leave your selfish ambition behind, because baptism in Jesus’ name requires that we trust God like Jesus did. That means we “die” to our desires, our dreams, our egos, to ourselves, so that we can live and, if so called, die for the will of God. We become spiritual Hebrews who’ve severed our unhealthy dependencies to wander as strangers in this world, listening only to our God and accepting the blessings he has promised.  

The ultimate among those blessings will be eternal life in a renewed earth filled with goodness and free from pain when Christ returns to judge the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eating According to the Gospel

photo credit: onsizzle.com @somexican

It’s a new year. This time, I’ll lose that excess weight and keep it off!

Right?

Okay, so I haven’t been focusing on my health this year, but I have been attending to it.

I was on my way to meet a friend for tacos yesterday and thinking about whether to get a salad or some other sad taco substitute. Then it occurred to me: Common people in Mexico don’t have weight problems and they subsist on tortillas. I concluded that eating tacos was a Christlike thing to do.

I know. I know. Convenient, isn’t it?

Hear me out.

I’ve struggled my entire Christian life to apply the gospel to my eating. Like many people, I’ve had a few victories in the battle of the bulge, but even more defeats. I just don’t have the resources personally to reach ultimate victory. I need the power of God to save me and that power is the gospel.

But what does the gospel teach regarding the care of our physical bodies?

Jesus had a body, but he doesn’t offer any impetus for concern over the way our bodies look. In fact, we only have this kind of description of his appearance:

…his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness… (Isaiah 52:14b)

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2b)

We live in a culture so egotistical that vanity has become a virtue. We can cut someone down with our words or ignore suffering around us without so much as a tinge of conscience, but we’ll be mortified by a candid photo that reveals our fat rolls.

Yes, the gospel does speak to our physical appearance. It says, “Stop thinking about it.”

I can hear the justifications now: “I’m not worried about how I look. I just want to be healthy.”

Great. According to the gospel, Christ offered his body to be destroyed for the sake of the world. Talk about bad stewardship!

Someone might argue that Jesus’ circumstance was unique and the rest of us should try to be as healthy as we can. Paul didn’t agree:

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:11-12, 16)

I’m not saying that we should all go and seek martyrdom (though it should probably be more common than it is). I’m demonstrating the trouble I’ve had finding motivation from within the gospel to lose weight or eat healthy. Instead, these goals/obsessions run contrary to the message about Christ.

As I discovered on my taco run, though, the gospel does speak to what and how we should eat. Here are some things which the gospel is telling me about food:

  1. Eat cheap, readily available, calorie dense food most of the time. When eating becomes expensive, inconvenient, or complicated it draws resources away from the higher purpose of our life. We take money which we could invest in kingdom causes or give to the poor (who aren’t eating organic) to buy unreasonably expensive items which haven’t even been clinically proven to improve health. We draw our already taxed attention to study diets or plan elaborate menus rather than focusing our mind’s eye on Christ through reading and contemplation. We take time that could be invested in relationship to shop, prep, and cook stuff we don’t even like.
  2. Enjoy good food. Even splurge on occasion. When our kids were smaller, I used to enjoy watching my daughter in the rearview mirror as she watched a movie on the van’s DVD player. Something about seeing her amused face brought me such joy. God is our Father and he loves us way more than I love my daughter. He enjoys our enjoyment. As someone that grew up without a dad, that’s been a hard truth for me to grasp. I always thought of God more as a boss who only valued me when I performed. In more recent years, I’ve come to apply the gospel to my life not only in self-sacrifice but through enjoyment of his good gifts.
  3. Learn to be in want. The gospel teaches that we’re more than our physical bodies. Our bodies sometimes need physical reminders of this fact. Christ told the Pharisees that after he had left the earth his disciples would fast.* Do we? Are we trying to make him look like a liar? When Christ ascended to the heavens, he took our hope with him to keep on deposit. This world in its present form isn’t our home. We long for his return at which time we’ll celebrate in the “Messianic Banquet.”** When we fast, we remind ourselves that we’ve not yet arrived and that our master is Christ, not our stomachs.
  4. Do more than eat when you eat. I’m not talking about eating in front of the television. I’m talking about seeing food as a means to spiritual enrichment. Just as fasting reminds us that the Messianic Banquet is yet to come. Eating with other believers reminds us that it is coming. I’ll be candid on this score: elective dietary restrictions hamper community. When an individual either abstains from table fellowship or forces everyone to abide by their weight loss protocols, that’s a violation of the gospel. Empty yourself and fill up your plate. It’s literally what Jesus did.***
  5. Be thankful, not greedy. The gospel makes us eternal debtors to God. The first instinct of the redeemed should be overflowing gratitude. As redeemed people, we live in a state of grace. In Greek, that’s “charis,” which is also translated, “gift.” Everyone who belongs to Christ moves through a medium of God’s generosity. Thankfulness must be our de facto posture if we are to properly comport ourselves in divine society. Thankfulness and greed can’t cohabit in our hearts. Thankful people assess high value onto what they’ve received. Greedy people discount what they have, in pursuit of what more they want. I’m not overweight because I have a sweet tooth, or because I eat fast food. I’m overweight because I over eat. I over eat because I don’t stop to appreciate my food. We need to do more than give thanks before meals. We need to remain thankful for each bite. Rather than presume on God’s generosity, we need to stop and give thanks when we’ve had enough.

That’s my list of gospel dietary directives. Like the gospel, they’re counter cultural. Like the gospel, they’re paradoxical. That’s as it should be. We mustn’t see our faith as motivation to win at the world’s game. Faith puts us on an entirely different playing field where we’re always more than conquerors.

This new year, I resolve not to worry about losing weight or even getting healthy. I resolve to glorify God in everything including the way I eat.

*Mark 2:20
**Isaiah 25:6-8
***Matthew 11:19

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.

 

Pessoptimism

I’m a bit of a critic. At times I’ve felt guilty for failing to be more positive. After reading Oman this morning, I feel a little less so.

A half and half morality always means a hopeless view of humanity; whereas a view of man as involved in a widely organised and radical corruption, always means a high estimate of his possibilities and a universal sense of the moral significance of life. –Grace and Personality

The gospel teaches that we live in a world infested with evil which permeates the hearts of every person. We were made to reflect the very glory of God, but have chosen instead to make our own destiny to our own destruction. These truths hardly call us to “accentuate the positive.”

That last phrase reminds me of a story which Bani, my friend from Albania, told me about living under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha. Bani said that under communism the least mention of a fault in their society could get a person incarcerated. He spoke of a man who went to the store for potatoes to discover that they had run out. Later, that man met a friend for coffee and mentioned that there had been no potatoes at the store. An informant at the next table reported the man and he was thrown into prison. Apparently, the correct response to the question, “Why didn’t you get potatoes?” was, “I changed my mind.”

There is an optimism which hides corruption and a pessimism which reveals glory.

Most pessimistic of all is the teaching of Jesus. The highest morality turns out to be mere respectability, the purest religion mere formalism, and the insincerity is such that the Prince of this world is the Father of Lies. Nowhere, nevertheless, is the Kingdom so real or so near.

Jesus came to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and a judgement to come. He passed that call on to us (John 16:1-11).

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.

Gospel

In 1 Cor. 15:3-6, Paul recounts his gospel.  Those who would participate in evangelizing the world, do well to consider this passage.  First, notice the brevity of Paul’s statement.  In just 25 words, Paul relates the crucial elements of the gospel – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Notice also the repetition of the phrase, “according to the Scriptures.”  Paul didn’t expect blind faith in his assertions.  He took the trouble to point out the Old Testament allusions and prophecies pointing to Christ.  This approach commends the message as true when compared with other religions.  Take as an example a Muslim friend of mine.  Though he won’t admit it, he has worked hard to convert me.  In response I have challenged him by saying, “I can prove the gospel with only the Old Testament.  Can you prove the truth of the Qur’an with only the New Testament?”  His honest response was, “No, I can’t.”  A God who claims to live above time ought to be able to give us a heads up about what he’s going to do.  Not only so, but if the gospel is true then we ought to find passages in the Old Testament which make no sense apart from the fulfillment in Christ.  Isaiah 53 is such a passage.

Not only did Paul call the Scriptures to testify about his message, he also could point to a contemporary witness of these events – Peter, The Twelve, the 500, and then James.  One might say, “Okay, so that was good for Paul since many of these people were still alive in his day but what about us at the first part of the 21st century?”  The answer can be found in the final witness he listed, “Last of all to me.”  Because Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, we can expect him to continue to express himself in various other ways – changed life stories, healings, dreams, and visions.  Everyone who has encountered the risen Christ has a story to tell.

So, to preach the gospel like Paul we should 1. succintly share the facts, 2. support them with Scripture, and 3. weave our own experience and that of others into an effective gospel presentation.  See my attempt at covering these elements below:

The world is a messed up place.  The Bible says that it’s messed up because people rebelled against their creator and did things that were wrong – they sinned.  God plans to fix the world but he must first deal with sin.  God’s messenger, Isaiah, foretold that God would send his Chosen One to die as punishment for sins, be buried and rise again to turn people away from living sinful lives.  700 years later Jesus Christ came and did what was foretold by dying on a cross for our sin and rising to life again.  I’ve accepted his death as payment for my wrongs. He’s set me free from the guilt and power of sin.  Now I’m looking forward to his return when he’ll fix this broken world where his people will live forever.

Pusher

I just came back from a meeting with my daughter and two of her friends.  They attend a charter school in the area.  I’ve been challenging and equipping them to reach their fellow students with the gospel.  Today they kind of pushed back and told me that their classmates are particularly hostile to people attempting “push their religion” on them.  Vocabulary means everything.  The phrase their friends use reveals a lot about their mindset.  They see Christianity or seemingly any faith system as something which can be thrust upon them.  That’s too bad.  As a follower of Christ I have no desire to make another person accept him.  In fact Jesus seems to have made it hard for people to follow him.  He doesn’t want the unwilling.  So, an authentic relationship with the risen Son of God by definition cannot be pushed on another person.

However, I am driven to do all I can to help as many people as possible come under the kingdom reign of Christ.  What drives me is the inner joy that I have received.  I don’t want to push my religion; I only want to share my joy.  I don’t believe people will suffer for eternity in hell so I have no need to issue a “turn or burn” ultimatum.  I just want to see people be saved, not from eternal damnation but from the brokenness plaguing them in this mortal coil.  Yes, I believe I have received eternal life but the word “eternal” is a qualitative as well as a quantitative modifier.  I’ve received a different way of living that will also never end.  Isn’t that worth sharing with everyone?