It’s funny to me how some people will trip over themselves to prove they are the most dedicated Bible believing, scripture quoting people and yet carve out significant chunks of the Bible that they believe no longer applies to them. In reality, what they are is the most selective Bible believing, scripture quoting people around.
I have in mind 1/10, that is, 10% of the 10 Commandments – “You shall remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”
“Oh, but that does not apply to us today, because we are New Testament Christians, and that only applied to the Old Law.”
It’s pretty hard to say you follow the teachings of the Bible if you only start with a 90% standard of completion to begin with. Or, make the less that 50% if you remove the entire Old Testament. Who want to boast about following 40% of the Bible? “Yes, I’m a 40% Christian.” Sounds kind of lukewarm to me.
Speaking only of the United States, but I believe we have to be the most neurotic, psychotic, and paranoid culture to have ever lived – or at the very least we are in a tie with a long lost civilization.
We rush, push, hurry, manipulate, worry, fret, drink, consume volumes of pharmaceuticals, drive ourselves to ulcers and destroy our mental and physical bodies in a 24/7/365 cycle of narcissism and compulsion. All for what result? More money, more prestige, more opportunities to regret doing what was most important to begin with.
And way back yonder on Mount Sinai God told Moses, “Rest one day in seven – oh, you can do your chores – milk the cows and feed the chickens, but take the day off. Rest. Sleep. Play with the kids. Let your servants rest and sleep and play with their kids. Call off the planting and the harvesting and the committee meetings and the hustle and the bustle. If you have nothing to do for 24 hours you can think about Me. Think about creation and how I take care of the whole world and yet I found time to take a day off for some rest and relaxation. Now, if I, your God, can take a day off and things work out okay then certainly you can take a day off and let the world run itself for a while.”
But we refuse to take God’s word for it. Why, if we stopped worrying and fussing and having our committee meetings and working 24/7/365 then the whole world would just go spinning off its axis into the great abyss.
I’m exhausted. I am just mentally and physically fried. I can remember being this spent only one other time in my life. It was not pretty. But God did not put me in this place. My supervisors did not put me in this place. My family or my friends did not put me in this place. I put myself in this place. I have not practiced Sabbath in a long, long time. The human body is just not designed for this kind of wear and tear. I’m not a doctor nor a psychiatrist, but I read the Bible. God designed me and he said “Sabbath – that is what my people need, Sabbath.”
Rest. Relax. Recreate. Refocus on God. Watch the world go around and realize that it will continue to go around whether I meet my next deadline or not.
I want to restore that 10% of my Bible that I have been cutting out for far too long.
The Sabbath was God’s gift to his people, not a law to bind and trap them into legalism.
I want to claim that gift. I want my Sabbath back.
My thoughts turn today to a conversation between Peter and Jesus. It is a loaded conversation, and deserves far more than this little space can give it. Maybe I will return to this conversation another time.
The conversation is found in Luke 22. I quote it here from the Revised Standard Version (If the RSV was good enough for St. Neil Lightfoot of Abilene, then it is certainly good enough for me.)
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren. Luke 22:31-32
Have you ever read that passage carefully? Meditatively? Have you ever stopped to consider the time references that Jesus incorporates into that one little sentence? And, of the profound theological implications of what Jesus told Peter?
First, Jesus was telling Peter that there was a great cosmic fight over Peter! Satan and Jesus, fighting it out over some run-of-the-mill fisherman from Galilee. Of what possible use could some salty sea-dog be to Satan? Who knows, but we all know (because we know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say) how important Peter was to Jesus.
I do not want to make a “one-to-one” comparison here. Not all of us can be a Peter – or a Mary sister of Martha for that matter. That is an hermeneutical shipwreck that destroys a lot of really important passages. We are not all Jeremiah’s in the sense that God does not call each and every one of us from our mother’s womb. We are not all Job’s in the sense that God and Satan duke it out when we have a severe medical crisis. Putting ourselves in the sandals of our biblical heroes is theologically suspect, and psychologically destructive as well. Let us focus on who we are and learn from these characters without trying to duplicate them.
That having been said, I do believe that we can learn something from this passage about our worth, both to God and Jesus and to the great deceiver. Is it possible that Satan wants you, not because that you would be of any particular value to him, but because you could be of so much greater value to Jesus? Just as not everyone has it in themselves to be another Peter of Galilee, very, very few of us have it within us to be another Adolf Hitler. But, Satan does not need us to be another Adolf Hitler. All he needs us to do is to minimize Jesus and his church in our life. His perverted will is thereby accomplished, and to the world around us we can still be “good, moral” people.
Second, Jesus prayed for Peter, but he knew that Peter was going to fail Him, and thus in one sense his prayer was NOT going to be answered. Peter’s faith did fail, at least momentarily, and in a profound way. Not, mind you, to the degree that Judas’ faith failed him. But Peter had three chances to confess Jesus, and despite being specifically warned what was going to happen, Peter denied Jesus anyway.
Now, you may argue that Jesus, knowing Peter would deny him, just prayed that Peter would eventually return. But that is not the way I read that text. Jesus’ prayer was that Peter’s faith would not fail. Pete’s denial could hardly be described as a stellar display of faithfulness. That is why I said, “in one sense” Jesus prayer was not answered. Certainly Peter ultimately returned to Jesus, and so that aspect of Jesus’ prayer was answered. But let us not gloss over the significance of the totality of what Jesus is saying.
Many people have the concept that, “if I pray for it, in full faith, God has to give me what I want.” Did not Jesus tell us the same? Yet, why were some of Jesus’ most fervent prayers not answered? Why did Peter deny him in the courtyard? Why did Pilate not release him? Why did Judas betray him? Why did he have to drink that “bitter cup?” I wish I had the answers to all those questions. But, I would rather live in the reality of the mystery of God than try to create and live in the falseness of a human idol. The fact is that Jesus prayed for his disciples, and they let him down repeatedly. We pray for our children, and they fail us. We pray for our sick parents, and they die. Not every prayer is automatically granted. If we could control God with a few selfish whims He certainly would not be a God worthy of worship.
But, third, Jesus told Peter, “when you have turned again.” Jesus did know the “rest of the story.” More than that, he was instilling within Peter the belief that Peter was ultimately a worthy disciple. I just wonder how much those words would meant to Peter in the first few days following the crucifixion, and in those first few days following Pentecost. They had to be amazing words for Peter to remember and to take comfort in.
I don’t remember much about my football career. Mostly because it was over my freshman year in high school (the Minnesota Vikings never knew what they missed!) But I remember one practice with such crystal clarity that it might as well have happened yesterday.
We were working on a drill we affectionately called “hamburger.” Two players faced each other, then lay down on the ground with about a yard separating their two helmets. On the coach’s whistle the players were to jump to their feet and try to get past the other player in any way they could. Four posts marked a very small “battle zone” so there was no running around a bigger opponent (my preferred method of “winning.”) Well, one day it turned out that I stood against Bubba Baker, who was to be my opponent. Now, Bubba was our first string full-back. The coach placed me as the fourth string full-back simply because we only had four full-backs and he had no other place to put me. So, I mostly stood on the sideline, safe in the knowledge that it was a statistical impossibility for the three guys in front of me to all get hurt in the same game.
So, anyway, back to my story – here we were, our very big and very hard hitting first string full-back was staring at me and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – I really don’t want to hurt the little guy.” I was staring at Bubba and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – listen to Bubba!!” The coach, having that sixth sense that most coaches have, looked at both of us and said, “what are you two guys waiting for – get down!” And then he uttered the only four words that I can remember from that entire season - “Smith can do it.”
I honestly remember very little of what happened next. I remember the whistle, and I kind of remember jumping to my feet, and then I remember hearing the loudest bang and feeling the most incredible pain I have ever experienced shooting down my neck through my shoulder and all the way down to my finger-tips. I never lost consciousness, but I sure felt weird the rest of the day. I can pretty confidently say that I did not win that battle, but those four words were absolutely etched into my psyche. If coach White said that “Smith can do it” I would have run into a brick wall thinking that I could knock it down. To his great credit, Bubba apologized for knocking me into the middle of the next week, but he was doing his job the best he knew how.
So, in a very small way, I kind of know what Peter must have felt when Jesus spoke to him by the sea when he asked him three times, “do you love me?” And then Peter could remember those five words Jesus spoke to him, “when you have turned again…” Then Peter the denier became Peter the preacher, and eventually, Peter the martyr.
What an amazing couple of verses. What an amazing story. What an amazing Lord and Savior we have.
I have been thinking on a universal theme the past day or so. Literally – the universe.
The author of Psalm 8 did not have the advantage of looking at images from the Hubble telescope. All he could do was look up on a dark night and contemplate on the moon and stars. His penetrating question still has no answer:
What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? (Ps. 8:4, RSV)
Our earth is just one tiny little speck of dust floating in amongst billions of other little specks of galactic dust – and that is just in our galaxy. Multiply that times hundreds of galaxies that our super-telescopes have been able to see. Our little home gets smaller and smaller the further out into space we go. We measure distances in space by light years, the distance that light can travel in an entire year. And then those numbers are followed by a whole host of zeros. That just does not boggle the mind – it stupefies it.
And yet our earth is so perfectly balanced for us to live here. Just the right amount of land and water, just the perfect mixture of oxygen, the right amount of sunshine, all the food we need to sustain far more people than are alive today.
In all the incredible, unfathomable vastness of the universe – why are we so well taken care of? Evolution? Just mere chance? A few billion random accidents happening in the one perfect sequence to create just one amino acid, and then every other building block of life requiring a similar number of random accidents? And then all those building blocks randomly lining up in a perfect sequence to create one living organism? How many billions of random accidents are we talking about here? And for how many billions of years? And with how many billions of failed accidents leading to disastrous results?
No, there has to be more. I can’t explain why this little speck of dust should be any more blessed than any of the other countless billions of specks of dust in our galaxy. If the inspired psalmist cannot answer that question then I should not even attempt to try. But I can praise God and worship him that we do have this home, that He has created us just a little lower than his angels, that He has given us dominion over the rest of this earthly creation.
Understand, no. Believe, yes. Worship, absolutely.
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:9, RSV)
Turn to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, because I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, God’s Word Translation)
I was following along today in my daily Bible reading schedule and this verse caught my attention. A question came to my mind – “Why do we read Scripture?” It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.
This is a personal confession, but for me the vast majority of my Bible reading is academic, professional, or related to debate and confrontation. That is to say, I read to find out what a passage “means,” I read to find out how to present the message to others, or I read in order to make my point or to refute the arguments of others.
In rather stark terms, I totally misread Scripture. Not always, but far too frequently. And, I might add, with disappointing results.
Scripture, the very word of God, was not written to be used as a billy club, an instrument of terror and abuse. It was not written to be a forensic textbook, a guide to win arguments and destroy enemies.
God spoke to his prophets, servants and apostles in order to win people back to Him. God’s messages were always personal, even if delivered to a large crowd, or even an entire nation. God’s messages were written in first person singular – “I.” The object was almost always “you,” although on occasion it could be “them.” The prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament never spoke about, or taught about, or tried to explain God. They simply spoke for God. Theirs was the message, “Thus says the LORD God…” This is a critical point to grasp, because we (speaking generically) do not read our text this way.
Everything changed when the Greek philosophical mindset overcame the Hebraic worldview. Even before the coming of Jesus the Greeks had a history of trying to figure out the question of deity and how the gods related to man. And so, as Christianity spread from its Judaic cradle the discussion ceased to be, “What did God say?” and became “What is a god?” or “What is a man?” We can document this in the early debates and struggles of the church. In the first few decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus the message was simple – “come back to God through the blood of Christ.” But, that did not last for long. Soon people started to ask questions like, “How could Jesus be God?” and “How could a god become man, anyway?” So, academics replaced evangelism, ontology replaced faith, and we have never really rid ourselves of that Greek desire to figure out the “how” instead of simply answering the “what” question: what are you going to do with the message of Jesus?
The bottom line is that I do not believe Scripture was written so that I can explain God. Quite simply, God does not need to be explained. Either we believe in Him or we do not. We can’t explain him anyway – Plato and Aristotle’s noble attempts notwithstanding.
Scripture was written so God could win us back to Him. The divine “I” still speaks to the human “you.” Sometimes that word is painfully personal. Sometimes it is national, or even universal, in scope. But, it was not written to be an academic treatise, a manual for succeeding in public debate, or as a introductory text in biology and physics.
I still fall back into my old habits, but I am learning. I hope that I will be able to get better as I learn to read deeper. And I hope you will too.
When you read broadly in the religious world today you begin to identify certain trends. Some of these trends are ostensibly about the direction the church is moving. Some of these trends are about what the trendy authors think the church is moving. I think it could be argued that the church is not moving at all, that its own lethargy and inertia is what is killing it. But that is a point for people far more schooled in trends within the church to figure out. I just read what they write.
However, I have identified one facet, or quirk, or “trend” if that is what you want to call it, that I find both significant and troubling at the same time. That trend has two opposite, and actually totally conflicting components.
The first is this: one group of analysts points out that the church has, over the past 50 years or so (if not much longer) become entirely consumeristic. We have identified a “target” audience, tailored a message to reach that audience, created an atmosphere that would attract that audience and put everything into motion in order to please that audience. So, we have whiz-bang youth ministries, tremendous toddler teachers, mothers day outs, senior Tuesdays – a ministry for every “niche” group there is from the bassinet all the way to the retirement home. The problem with this compartmentalization is that it cheapens the gospel. The church was never intended to be a shopping mall or a cafeteria, where you could walk down an aisle and say, “Well, I’ll take a helping of Tuesday morning moms day out, a side of young married’s class, two or three helpings of Super Teen night, and, while we’re at it, how about a helping of mind-bending worship service for dessert!” When a church fails to meet each and every demand from each and every socio-economic group in their “church,” the offended party simply goes shopping for a “church” that offers something to meet their perceived “needs.”
The second, and diametrically opposed component is this: another group of analysts have noticed that an increasing number of people, mostly young, are leaving the church and have proposed any number of “fixes” to get them to either stay, or to come back. Those fixes include making the worship experience more “experiential” – meaning more theatrics, more video, more “sensory” type experiences, as well as adding more “experiential” type activities so that a generation that has been raised with high definition TVs and complicated computer games will not be “bored” with an “old-timey” worship service.
Did you see the contradiction here? On the one hand we have become too consumeristic, we have bowed the knee to King Choice, we have completely given up on making the demands of discipleship plain, and on the other hand we need to create an entirely new set of consumeristic options in order to repair the leaky back doors on our church buildings.
Sometimes I wonder if these analysts even read what each other are writing. But it is enough to give the rest of us whiplash.
Personally, I am “all in” with the first group. As I look back on my teenage years I realize how the church bent over backwards to make sure I was a happy, contented, and active teen in the youth group. We had retreats and lock-ins and pizza parties and ski trips and I don’t know what else – and we even had a fairly large dose of teaching and service opportunities. But I really do not remember ever having a serious discussion of what discipleship was all about, and what it might ultimately cost me. Everything that was done was done with me and my age group as the main concern. In my most humble and beyond question correct opinion, that approach has failed miserably and we are reaping the fruit of the failure of that experiment.
And so, when I read or hear some 20 or early 30 something speak or write that the way to reverse the current exodus in the teen to young married age group is to bend even further toward the consumeristic side of the aisle I get pretty churlish. We have done everything under the sun to make people happy, to “meet their needs” to make the worship service “meaningful” (whatever that could possibly mean) and what has happened? More and more young people are leaving because every time we work to reach the bar, they just raise the bar a little higher. Instead of one screen with a simple PowerPoint presentation, we need three screens with multiple images and “surround sound” audio. We need incense so that we can have an olfactory experience. We need bells – literally, we need bells – to help our ears tingle. We need a blue-light special on aisle six. One song leader is just so twentieth century. Now we need a Praise Team to lead us so that our worship will be exciting and vibrant and, well, so today.
I say hogwash and balderdash. What we need to do is to return to a sane, healthy and challenging theology that exalts God as the creator and returns us to the position of created being. We need to return to the image of the book of Revelation where Christ is an awe-inspiring manifestation of strength and power instead of our best buddy. The church grew when it realized that God was God and not the local super-mall manager.
I look at the young people who are chasing their tails and I wonder what will happen when they turn 40 or 45 and observe that their children and grandchildren examine all their “perfect solutions” to the church and simply sniff and walk away. At some point (hopefully) these twenty-somethings will come to realize that the mere externals of what they are attempting to change means not one little bit if the internal commitment to Jesus and His church is not there. The fact is we have been trying to find the “perfect solution” for over a generation now and the answer is pretty clear – if you try to market the church, someone is always going to have a flashier preacher, a better sound system, a louder praise band, a flashier video projector. Trying to “out consumer” the king of this world is simply not going to work.
I have an idea – let’s try teaching discipleship: self-sacrifice, dying to self so that others might see Christ, giving instead of getting, blessing instead of searching for endless ways to be blessed, worshipping the King of kings instead of the tyrant inside our selfish hearts.
Let’s work on being the church of Christ for a change. We have a far better story to proclaim than the garbage that Hollywood and Wall Street are producing. Why can’t we see that?
[And so ends my series on the 10 Commandments. Thou shalt rejoice.]
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:17 RSV)
There is a significant shift between commands #4 (to remember the Sabbath day) and #5 (to honor parents). That shift is from commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior before God and to commands that regulate or prescribe our behavior with other people. That shift has been widely noted and thoroughly commented on. However, there is another shift that occurs between commands #9 and #10, and it is a shift that I have not previously noted until I started working through this series. Maybe I read about it somewhere, but if I have it sure did not stick in my memory very well.
That shift is from overt behavior to an attitude of the heart. Think about it. Honoring parents, not killing, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness – all of these require an action, or refraining from an action. But covetousness? That is strictly a heart issue. Therein lies a critical exegetical and hermeneutical point that I think many of us (okay, at least me) have missed when we study the 10 Commandments.
I have been raised with the understanding that the 10 Commandments were all about what you did or did not do. However, when Jesus came along he straightened everybody out and made sure that it was not just about what we did, but what we thought. Therefore (and I’m jumping over some intermediary steps here), the Old Testament is all about the flesh and the New Testament is all about the spirit. Therefore, we can reject the Old Testament and follow only the New Testament.
The only problem is, this is not true. The Old Testament was never just about the flesh. In fact it was not even primarily about the flesh. God simply used more fleshly illustrations in the Old Testament (animal sacrifice, oil lamps, incense, laws carved on stones) to teach His lessons. Like a patient and loving parent, God was showing his children how he wanted them to behave. But we do not discipline our children simply to inflict pain. We teach our children profound spiritual lessons through the use of very down to earth physical means. As they get older we can dispense with the physical, because they have (hopefully) already learned those lessons.
The truth is, the Old Testament is full of God emphasizing the spiritual truths that re-appear in the New Testament. But, if we dismiss the Old Testament because of a few bloody sacrifices and some arcane language about skin diseases and dietary restrictions we don’t see those truths. In fact, we consciously overlook them. And in so doing we excise a significant part of God’s complete word.
I know I have not dealt too much with the tenth commandment. So, let’s look at that command very briefly.
Why are we not to look upon our neighbor’s belongings (wife, servants, animals, anything) with longing eyes? Because, very simply, in so doing we are telling ourselves (and anyone who is sharp enough to catch on to what we are doing) that God’s gifts to us are not quite good enough. God loves other people more, and so if we could just have sex with our neighbor’s wife, if we could just own their servant (hire their employees in our world) or own their car then we would be loved by God just as much. Coveting what belongs to someone else is, at its core, a rejection of the grace of God-given to us. We shake our fist at God and say, “Not good enough! I want more, better, bigger, prettier, more expensive!” Coveting a neighbor’s wife is the sin of David – God would have given him anything he asked for, but no, that was not good enough for David (2 Samuel 12:8). He took that which was not only illegal, but primarily irreligious to have. He rejected God’s grace and demanded a physical pleasure. In one of the most amazing reversals of justice, God does not demand David’s death (which could have been expected due to David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah) and completely upon the basis of grace extends David’s life. Not only that, but God elevates the son of this union, Solomon, to the throne of Israel. How about that for a reversal of fortunes!
I would encourage everyone to re-think their appraisal of not only the 10 Commandments, but the Old Testament in its entirety. Yes, Jesus inaugurated the New Covenant. Yes the old covenant practices are removed (more correctly defined – perfected) in the sacrifice of Jesus. Yes, we have done away with the physical nature of the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly sacrifice of blood, the burning of incense, and the other trappings of the tabernacle/temple worship. But we also have to remember that the Old Testament was the Scripture for the first century church. By removing it from our study and our worship we have impoverished the modern church. It is time to recover this tremendous spiritual feast.
Let us never forget the words of Jesus on that mountain, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17).
Let us learn to read the 10 Commandments, and the entire Old Testament, with new eyes.
Please, learn to be comfortable in your own skin.
I grew up as many people do, thinking that I had to be something that I was not, and quite honestly, was never, ever, going to be able to become. It is, to be perfectly blunt, a lousy way to live. But so many of us are conditioned by society (parents, school mates, teachers, preachers, trusted adults, etc) to think this way that it seems rather abnormal to find someone who just wants to be who they are, regardless of their cultural preconditions. With me it was not my parents (who were and are amazingly supportive) but rather the larger culture in which I was raised.
Just a couple of examples. For many, many years I was led to believe that I had to be an evangelist or else I was going to be a second class citizen of heaven (or worse.) My eternal fate would be sealed by the number of persons who would tell St. Peter at the pearly gates who baptized them. If I met that magical number of inclusion into the sainted masses, well then I was in. Miss it by one or two and I might as well learn how to love sulphur and brimstone.
It took me quite a while to find Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. It seems to me that the apostle Paul was quite satisfied to admit that not everyone could be, or even should be, an evangelist. Isn’t it amazing to discover that someone who beats you over the head with a Bible has missed such a huge part of it? Now, don’t get me wrong – I love preaching and teaching. I will study the Bible with anyone, anytime. But I am most certainly NOT a personal evangelist and I never will be one. But, I learned that is okay. I had to learn how to be content in my own skin.
When I got out of preaching (for a while) I became a pilot. Now, in the pilot world the equivalent of being a personal evangelist is being the captain of a Boeing 747 or Airbus jumbo jet. I was a little bit older, but I was still driven by the concept that I had to perform at a certain level or that somehow I was just not good enough, or that I still had some mountain to climb. Quite honestly I did not want to pay the price to become a captain of a Boeing 747, so failing to meet that expectation did not hurt too much. But I learned something valuable along the way. New generation Boeings and Airbuses basically fly themselves. And, for the piloting part that the plane does not fly itself there is a crew of two highly trained and very proficient pilots. In the job that I had (flying freight for a small company) all I had was me and a plane that as often as not did not even have a functioning auto pilot. And when I did get a plane with an functioning auto pilot all it did was keep the wings level and the altitude steady. I still had to fly the plane through weather that ducks would not fly into, and I had to do it by myself. That, my friends, is really piloting an airplane. I learned that the big boys could sit on the tarmac and swelter in 110 degree heat all they wanted to. I was going to enjoy flying my little Cessna 402 and 404 and really enjoy flying the airplane. Chalk up another lesson in being content in my own skin.
During my brief stint as a hospice chaplain I had the supervisor from Gehenna. This person was not happy with anything that I did (well, with one notable exception). I did not visit enough, or I visited too much. I did not give enough counsel or I gave too much. Once I met with a family at their request and had a wonderful session. The next week I was called on the carpet for not involving another “team” member (who, by the way, never included me in their meetings with families). It was utter misery. But, my skin was getting thicker and I knew who I was, what I was capable of (and, equally important, not capable of) and so finally I just chucked the whole situation in my supervisors lap and walked away. No one has the right to make another person miserable for doing a job to the best of the person’s ability and giftedness.
I now find myself as an educator and administrator. I find out daily that I am gifted in ways I did not fully realize, and I find out daily that I am a real klutz at things that I once thought I was good at, or at least was going to be good at. But, I’m nearing the age where I could be considered a “classic” (although far from “antique”) and maybe for the first time in my life I can say with quiet calm – I’m good with my gifts and I am cool with my limitations. I cannot take credit for the first, and I refuse to be blamed for the second. I am mortal, and every mortal is good at something and bad at others. I may not be a personal evangelist, but how many personal evangelists have landed an airplane full of critical documents, medicines and other essential freight at an airport shrouded in fog where the visibility is one half of a mile and the overhead ceiling is 200 feet? And in an airplane going over 100 miles an hour? Hmmmmm?
Two words of caution here. One, I am not speaking of throwing up your hands and saying, “that’s just the way I am, get over it” if you are behaving in a way that is truly counter to Kingdom behavior. I am not saying be happy if you are living in a sinful relationship or condition. God expects all people everywhere to live according to His standards, His criteria. I am not giving you permission to dismiss God’s word or the teachings of his Son.
Two, just because I may not be gifted in some areas, or even if I am gifted in other areas, that does not mean I cannot try to improve where I feel God has called me. I want to become a better preacher, teacher and administrator. I would not even mind becoming a better personal evangelist. But I must use God’s standards for my life, not the standards of someone else who is exceptionally gifted in one particular area, and who cannot accept or refuses to accept that not everyone is as gifted as they are in that area.
Get comfortable in your own skin. God made you to be someone special – find the dirt where you feel especially happy and bloom where you are planted.
And don’t let some supervisor from Gehenna tell you that you are worthless. God sent his Son to die for you to tell you you are priceless!
It is an argument that is repeated endlessly. In the debate over homosexuality vs. heterosexuality someone who advocates the acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle will say, “The Old Testament may condemn homosexual behavior, but Jesus came to inaugurate a new relationship with God, and Jesus never condemned homosexuality.” Because the argument is so frequent, and on the surface has a degree of truthfulness about it, those who advocate for heterosexual relations, and monogamous heterosexual relationships at that, must learn how to respond to it.
Point number one: it is true that we have no recorded teachings of Jesus explicitly rejecting or denouncing homosexuality. However important that may appear on the surface, that point is really much ado about nothing, or at the most, much ado about very little. We have no explicit teachings from Jesus about abortion, nuclear warheads, genetic engineering, or driving while intoxicated. (Jesus could have at least given us a directive about riding a donkey while intoxicated!) Yet, Christians and non-Christians alike will agree that abortion is wrong, that nuclear warheads need to be destroyed, and that driving while intoxicated is a moral evil. So, to say that “Jesus never condemned X, Y or Z” is only to say that (a) we do not have any record of him denouncing X, Y or Z, and (b) if Jesus had addressed every single moral issue and every single permutation of every single moral issue the world’s libraries could not contain the books necessary, and as human culture is constantly changing, Jesus would still have to be on this earth giving his explicit approvals and denunciations.
End result – this is simply not that definitive of an argument. It would have to be augmented with other, more specific arguments.
Point number two: this may sound harsh and bitter, and I do not intend it that way – but I really do not think that those who use this argument are really all that concerned about what Jesus did have to say, even if he had condemned homosexuality. The fact of the matter is that we do have several teachings of Jesus regarding marriage and male/female relationships, and he always returns to God’s primary reasons for creating male and female, and that is for the fulfilling of human loneliness and for reproduction. Now, before everyone gets their knickers in a knot, yes, it is possible for same sex friendships to fill a person’s longing for companionship. But, and this is a huge but, after God had created the male he said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” (Gen. 1:18) Now, at this point God had an infinite number of possibilities open to him (our God is a God of infinite possibilities!) The answer to the loneliness of a male was not to create another male, nor to magically create a child, or whatever unseen option that God had open to Him. The solution that God chose was to create a female that was “like” the male, but also very different. When Adam saw his life’s mate he realized that he was complete, and it was at this point that the inspired author interjects this little editorial phrase, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother [note the heterosexual union] and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24, HCSB). Note, therefore, what Jesus had to say about marriage and divorce:
Haven’t you read, He replied, that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and He also said: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? (Matthew 19:4-5).
So, Jesus very clearly did teach about heterosexual relationships, especially in regard to monogamous and unbroken marriage.
It is my personal opinion, but I truly believe that even if Jesus had condemned homosexuality, those who advocate for it would simply dismiss his teaching as outdated, legalistic and unenlightened. Am I being too harsh? Those epithets and worse are all attributed to the apostle Paul, who very clearly labeled homosexual behavior as being sinful (Romans 1:24-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – notice that Paul explicitly says, “Some of you were like this” indicating that change from any sinful lifestyle is possible).
End result – those who advocate for a homosexual lifestyle disregard Old Testament teachings regarding homosexual sins, as well as New Testament teachings regarding homosexual sins, so I personally find it very difficult to accept that even if Jesus had specifically condemned homosexual behavior that it would have changed the debate to any great extent.
The end of the matter: I readily grant that we have no recorded words of Jesus on the specific subject of homosexual behavior. To me that is simply a non-issue. We do not have the explicit teachings of Jesus on a myriad of subjects, and yet we make moral and ethical distinctions based on the entirety of God’s written word, not just the ipsissima verba of Jesus. I will discuss the issue with anyone who so desires to keep an open mind regarding the subject of biblical sexual standards. But if we are going to discuss biblical teachings regarding sexual mores, then we have to include all biblical teachings, including the explicit teachings of Jesus regarding heterosexual marriage, the purpose of male and female union, and the original purpose of having a female and male mated together.
As I mentioned in my last post, I believe this debate over the issue of homosexuality will be a defining moment for the church. The members of the Lord’s church must respond with the dignity and respect that this issue demands, and that is also demanded of a disciple of Christ, but we must also stand firm in our convictions. Either monogamous heterosexual unions fulfill God’s original purpose for human beings, or they do not. We must not equivocate. But we must not be hateful or mean-spirited in our defenses, either. Let us be wise as serpents, and yet as innocent and gentle as doves.
The “traditional” way to understand this passage is, “The Old Testament condemns the act of murder, but Jesus condemns the underlying sin of anger, so even being angry will be enough for God to send you to hell.” At least that is one reading of the text, and one that I fear is all too common, although in real life we do not apply it as such. Interpreted in such fashion the command of Jesus becomes impossible. It is the interpretation that the “doofus” that I mentioned in my last post was absolutely certain was correct. So correct, in fact, that he flat out said it was impossible to obey, so the best we could do was to come close.
The fact is anger is an emotion, just like love, or joy, or frustration. God gave us those emotions. Anger is, in many situations, good and healthy. If we cannot get angry over sin, how are we supposed to react to it? Was Jesus never angry? That is an absurd assertion. And, I would suggest, Jesus got angry at people as well as circumstances and situations. But, I will argue, Jesus never sinned in his anger. He released it, worked through it, managed it – however you wish to describe it, but Jesus dealt with his anger in a healthy, God honoring manner. How did he teach us to deal with our anger?
According to Dr. Glen Stassen’s organization, Jesus begins with a “traditional understanding.” That is almost always prefaced with the phrase, “You have heard it said.” Jesus identifies murder as the final result of an untreated anger problem. Those who murdered were liable to judgment.
Then, Jesus goes on to discuss a “vicious cycle” that results from any anger that is not dealt with. Anger that is not dealt with leads to verbal attacks which will then escalate into physical attacks. Each will land the antagonist before the judges. But it is important to note here that there is no imperative verb in verse 22. Jesus is not making a command never to be angry – or for using colorful language for that matter. He is simply describing a cycle that corrupts the person and slowly descends into a physical confrontation. If we stop here and think that Jesus has simply equated anger with murder we have missed the point. Anger is not murder. To equate anger with murder is to make living life impossible. If anger is equal to murder, then Jesus committed murder, Paul committed murder, Peter committed murder – and likely you have as well. I know I would be in a perpetual state of murder. Is that what we want this passage to say?
However, when we turn to verses 23-26 Dr. Stassen points out that there are 5 imperative verbs in the Greek text. This section is not some quaint illustration that would keep us from murdering our enemy, but it is the transforming initiative that allows us to deal with our anger in a manner that honors God and reconciles our brother. Notice the context is one of worship. We want to have unmediated access to God, yet there is a wall between us and our brother. We are to take down that wall so that God can see the purity of our sacrifice. We are not simply avoiding murder by not using foul language, but we are taking the initiative to repair and restore a broken relationship.
This passage is not a command never to be angry. That would be an impossible ideal, a ridiculous command, a cold and heartless law – and virtually impossible to obey. In fact, even God Himself is portrayed at various times as being an “angry” God. Hmmm. If anger keeps a spirit out of heaven, exactly where is God supposed to go?
But, if we see this passage as a “triad” instead of a “dyad,” if we see v. 22 as the descending cycle that results when we refuse to deal with our anger issues, and when we see vv. 23-26 and the “transforming initiative” that gives us the ability and the power to work through our anger in a manner that is pleasing to God, this passage becomes a text that exemplifies God’s transforming grace. It is how we are to live in the Kingdom, right here and right now.
One final word – please do not look to me as a shining example of how to make this verse work. I have been cut out of a bolt of cloth that tends to hold feelings in until they explode – usually in very unhealthy ways. But, that having been said, this new way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount is deeply meaningful to me. Instead of trying to reach an impossible goal, I now believe that Jesus was giving me a rope to grab onto so that I can be pulled out of my fits of anger. In other words, instead of bitter judgment I read transforming grace. That is why I think Dr. Stassen’s interpretation is so much more healthy than my earlier understanding. I’m not “there” yet, but at least the path where I want to go is more clear. I hope it is for you as well.
For those who are new to the discussion, Dr. Stassen’s explication can be found in his book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context and an article, “The Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12) Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003) 267-308.
We have now reached the end of the beatitudes, and as with every beatitude we have looked at before, this one holds great meaning, and has also been deformed to the point that it is almost unrecognizable.
How many times have you heard a snide comment about a “Christian,” or maybe the Lord’s name used in an unworthy manner, and someone you were with (or, heaven forbid, perhaps even yourself) said, “Well, Jesus said, ‘blessed are the persecuted!’” as if to pin on some precious badge of honor?
I know many (otherwise) godly people who walk around with their sore thumb extended at full arm’s reach, desperately looking for a hammer that they can use to inflict the tiniest little tap, so that they can yowl at the top of their lungs that they are being “persecuted.”
I’m thinking that never in the history of mankind has one verse been so over-interpreted by so many people with so little justification. As we have done with each of the beatitudes above, let us carefully unpack what Jesus is saying here, and then re-evaluate just how accurate we are when we apply these verses to our lives.
To begin with, I want to stress that the primary verb in these verses is persecute. A persecution is an illegal and vicious attack upon someone’s person and/or property. Yes, it is true that in v. 11 Jesus adds “insult” and “falsely say every kind of evil,” but clearly the context is one of vicious mocking and false allegations that could lead to physical attack. Just think of Stephen, the early apostles, and later the life of Paul and his co-workers. The “insults” and “falsely spoken evil” was not some kind of anemic, “boy, you people are weird” kind of put-downs. They were false allegations that lead to legal repercussions, sometimes involving prison experiences and eventually even death.
I relate this phenomenon to my earlier discussion of hunger. We in the United States in particular simply do not get the concept of persecution. We say we are hungry, but we have a fully stocked pantry and refrigerator mere steps away from our over-stuffed recliners. We say we are persecuted when the Supreme Court rules that forced prayers in public schools are unconstitutional. Excuse me? Persecuted? Now, I am not arguing the Supreme Court was correct, but seriously; are we to compare a legal ruling that simply prohibits one type of prayer from being uniformly read or said over a public address system with real persecution? I think we need a refresher course in how to look up and read dictionary definitions!
Persecution would involve being locked up in a prison for months or years for even saying that prayer in a public place. Persecution would be having your property confiscated for publicly professing the name of Jesus as Lord and Savior. Persecution would be watching your children beaten or your wife raped because you “apostatized” from one religion to Christianity. That would be persecution. That would be an insult. That would be having someone say all kinds of evil against you. Having someone laugh at you because you won’t go to a bar or to a dance is not persecution. It might be uncomfortable, but let’s not get the situation out of perspective here.
The second huge misconception here involves the fact that Jesus is specifically linking the persecution to righteousness and because of me. I am afraid that in far too many circumstances when someone ridicules us it has nothing to do with Kingdom righteousness or because of Jesus; it is because quite honestly we were behaving like jerks. The so-called “Christians” of Westboro Baptist Church come to mind here. They are not acting for the cause of righteousness, nor are they representing the name of Jesus. They deserve all the mocking they receive. In this country their right to vent their poison might be guaranteed, but there is no law protecting them from proper and measured denunciations. True followers of Jesus will not allow his Name to be dragged through the racist and perverted mud that these hate-mongers attempt to do. They have no claim to Matthew 5:10-11.
So, the next time we attempt to get our sore thumb smashed by an un-godly hammer, we need to do some real soul searching. We need to ask a couple of very penetrating questions. One, is what we are experiencing true persecution or a life threatening insult? Or is it a simple slight against our self-image and pride? Is what we are experiencing a threat against life, property, our safety, or our way of life? Or is what we experienced just an example of someone being obnoxious that we should let roll off of our shoulders like so much water off of a duck’s back?
And, perhaps even more important, is the perceived insult, slight or persecution due to the righteousness of the Kingdom that we are exhibiting, or is it because of our own boorish and unchristian behavior? Are we receiving the attack because of the name of Jesus, or is it because we are mocking the name of Jesus?
These beatitudes come at the conclusion of the list for a reason. If we exhibit each and every one of the other characteristics that Jesus has enumerated we will stand out as strangers in our godless society. These behaviors and attitudes will make us be different. These actions and attitudes will make others nervous and they will generate negative reactions. In our country, with our legal protections, the negative reactions may never reach the level of persecution. We must be very careful that we do not over-reach in the estimation of our problems. But, we will not be welcomed, we may be ridiculed, and we may not get that promotion or win that award.
But there are disciples of Christ in this world today who face the very real possibility that they will lose their freedom, their property, and perhaps even their lives because of their allegiance to the crucified one. They are the ones who are blessed. They are the ones facing the persecution.
Is it possible that at some time in the United States a disciple of Christ could actually face persecution? Perhaps. Maybe even likely, who knows. If that happens we must be prepared to stand under the attack. But until we truly face the withering onslaught of the evil one, let us not confuse mere vanity with what our brothers and sisters throughout the world are experiencing on a daily basis.
May God keep them in a special place in His Kingdom!