Dreaming of Daniel

April 19, 2018

daniel-facts

The book of Daniel is fascinating on many levels. It shares the compelling story of Daniel along with his friends as they overcome great obstacles to their faith in a strange and oppressive culture. It includes incredible stories of God’s rescue and of dreams and visions. It offers answers to some questions while leaving others open to a vast array of interpretations. Overall it presents a message of hope—to all generations—of God’s ultimate rescue for his people—things may seem hopeless, but better days are ahead.

Then and There

To understand Daniel, the book and the prophet must first be understood within the context that produced both. Daniel shared his prophecy primarily for his immediate audience—those in his time and place. Ripping the stories out of that context is not helpful to discovering their meaning.

Daniel’s story begins right after Babylon’s first attack on Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 24). Among those things seized in this attack were “some of the articles from the temple” (1:2) such as gold and silver cups (5:2). Also taken were people from the royal linage of David including Daniel and his three friends (known best by the names of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) who play a significant role in the book. This was not an uncommon practice for conquering nations—take back the best the defeated country has to offer to serve the center of the empire at home.

The bigger picture in which Daniel was caught up was the fact that Judah was done. All of the previous prophecy and warning against impending doom was coming true. Because of their rebellion and sin, God’s people were being punished. Babylon was God’s chosen instrument. For the next seventy years, Judah as a viable nation would not exist. Many of her people would live in exile pushed to serve foreign gods in a strange land. What would become of these people? Did there remain a word from the Lord to them? This was the then and there. This is specifically what Daniel addresses. Everything that flows out of the book flows out of this context.

Faithfulness in Exile

Two of the most well-know Daniel stories focus on unwavering faith in the face of immense pressure. From the start Daniel and his friends established their commitment to remain true to the Torah (chapter 1) and as a result gained some favor. But this did not shield them from future pressure to compromise their faith. Both the fiery furnace (chapter 3) and the lion’s den (chapter 6) were the result of them not caving into pressure but rather remaining faithful to their God and his will. In both cases, God rescued them dramatically—sending a powerful message to the Babylon king and to anyone else who may have been listening.

God has not forgotten his people. God will reward faithfulness even in exile. God is not cowered or neutered by Babylonian might. The Babylonian king—regardless of how it may appear—is not the most powerful force in the world after all. God is still very much at work in the world to bring about his ultimate will.

One message is clear from these stories (and all of Daniel’s stories)—hope remains. Do not give up. Remain faithful. God is planning a rescue.

Dreaming of Better Days

King Nebuchadnezzar did not realize it but that is exactly what he was doing—not for himself and Babylon however, but for the people of God. His dreams (chapters 2 and 4) along with his son, Belshazzar’s “hand” written message (5) and Daniel’s own dreams and visions (7-11) all serve a similar purpose. While each contain different details, they all serve to further this story within the Story by proclaiming God’s ultimate deliverance of his people into a kingdom that far overshadows any that has come before it-including the mighty Babylonian empire

They all establish several significant truths:

  • There is only one God and none of Babylon’s kings is it. Regardless of how exalted these kings thought they were—God was more so. It took Nebuchadnezzar some time in the pasture to discover this while his son, unfortunately for him, never discovered it.
  • Human kingdoms will almost always turn beastly. Images of beasts and horns are aplenty in Daniel. Don’t get lost in them. They all signify human arrogance and abuse of power. Nothing about this has changed since Daniel’s day. Power continues to corrupt governments. Nations still arrogantly act as if all history depends upon them. If Daniel teaches us anything—it is that this is to be expected.
  • No kingdom but God’s is forever, however. Human kingdoms come and go (Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Roman—to name those covered by Daniel) but God’s kingdom outlasts them all—including whatever kingdoms exist now and in the future. God will tame all of these beasts.
  • “The Story” remains God’s focus—and he is active in pursuing it. Daniel speaks of the “Son of Man,” “the Ancient of Days,” “Gabriel” and “Michael, the great prince” all participating in the story he was sharing. That story was about “The Story”—the coming kingdom of God in which true redemption would be found. It was the promise of those better days ahead in Christ Jesus. We should expect God continuing his work today among the nations to continue writing “The Story” in us.
  • Like Daniel (chapter 9)—we must learn to be patient in the midst of our place in the story, and to trust God to ultimately bring full justice to this world—once for all establishing his eternal kingdom in his timing.

“A Pattern and a Promise”

This could be how best to consider Daniel’s story. Perhaps instead of trying to pinpoint each vision; each prophecy; and each dream to some point, place or person in history—maybe Daniel should be understood as a message for all of history as we find ourselves living it. Jesus referred to Daniel to address corruption in his day. John uses Daniel to confront the oppression in his time in the Revelation.

Daniel offers us a pattern, that is, as long as the earth stands, evil people will seize power, corrupt nations and oppress God’s people. He also offers us a promise—through this, God will never forget his people, always be working to finish The Story and ultimately one day slay all the beasts. Then his kingdom will flourish forever. Like Daniel and his contemporaries—we remain in the journey—as aliens and foreigners in this world. Again, like him, our call is to remain faithful in the exile.

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Listening to Leviticus

April 12, 2018

leviticus

The Old Testament book of Leviticus can initially come off as a stale book of codes and regulations for a people and a time long removed from us. Because of its details and some repetition it can be a tedious book to read. But there is far more to the third book of the Bible than this!

Leviticus is an important part of The Story! It is set right after the Exodus and its purpose is to instruct Israel on how to be holy. Consider the events leading up to Leviticus. God had dramatically delivered his people from bondage. He had established a covenant with them—He as their God and they as his people. It was a watershed moment for the Hebrew people! Yet, they immediately violated that covenant. From the start it did not go well. There was a disconnect that had to be corrected. God is holy—so must his people be—set apart and uniquely his in heart, in worship and in behavior. So Leviticus offers God’s instructions on holiness in order to lift up Israel as his holy nation.

Outside of the Tent

The Leviticus narrative begins with God calling Moses “from” the “tent of meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). This “tent of meeting” was the pre-tabernacle place where God dwelt among his people. It was pitched outside the community to symbolize how God could not dwell among them due to Israel’s rebellion and breaking of the covenant (Exodus 33:7,9). At this point Moses was not even allowed in the tent—also signifying the unclean nature of Israel. They were all outside the tent in need of instruction and guidance on how to be a people who could approach the holiness of God. The book of Leviticus provides just this guidance.

How to be Holy

Leviticus offers three avenues of instruction to Israel on how to become God’s own people—holy and set apart for his purposes.

  • The first centers on certain rituals—sacrifices and celebrations designed both to honor God and remind his people of his grace and salvation. The first six chapters of the book detail several types of sacrifices, which both thank God for his blessings while also acknowledging sin and guilt before him. Later in chapter 16 the “Day of Atonement” is detailed—for the purpose of sin offering, but also again to remind Israel of God’s faithfulness and holiness. Then in chapter 23 God establishes several special days and celebrations to be kept and honored within Israel—all for the purpose of reminding them of his mercy and grace along with their place before him and within The Story. All of these events would continually place God at the center of daily life within the Hebrew community. These rituals were designed to lead his people to a higher appreciation and understanding of God’s place among them and their responsibilities to him. This was God giving them his calendar—how to order their life around him. There remains a great need for this now and listening to Leviticus demonstrates that.
  • The second is about those especially chosen to administer God’s gifts among his people—those called to be priests. In two sections (8-10 & 21-22) Leviticus highlights the purpose, place and character of those who would serve as intercessors between God and man. The overriding factor within this information is God’s call for his priests to maintain the highest moral character possible—demonstrated not just by the detailed instructions, but also by the failure of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. The dramatic end to their story served to illustrate how God would not tolerate his special servants compromising their call. This sent an unequivocal message to Israel that God’s call to be holy was not to be taken lightly by anyone, especially priests. His priests were to be the conduits through which his people could learn, grow and approach him. All of the rules associated with them may seem to us like overkill, but in order for Israel to reflect the holiness of God and truly be his people, the priests were a key component to making this happen. God only wanted the best from them—to honor their call among his people. Not by accident he asks the same of us—his priests—today (see 1 Peter 2:9).
  • The third avenue to holiness in Leviticus is the general call for all Israel to be pure. Within this is a call to be ceremonially clean, that is, free from elements that would contaminate and therefore create separation from God (such as contact with bodily fluids, skin disease, mold and mildew, skeletal bones, and eating certain foods—see 11-15). All of these prohibitions were not given arbitrarily. They protected Israel against disease and health concerns along with keeping them ceremonially clean before God. Any Hebrew contaminated could not come into the presence of God, so provisions were made for cleansing. It was another way for God to remind Israel of who he was and who they were called to be—not to mention his way of protecting them from devastating disease. Also within this overall call of purity was the challenge to be morally and sexually clean (see 18-20). No way Israel could be who God called them to be through immoral conduct. So detailed instructions were offered to guide them. Once again these instructions not only protect them spiritually but physically as well. It would still do us well to continue to listen to Leviticus in this regard.

Other instructions are given with the book—concerning taking care of the poor; social justice; and honoring God in all relationships—that would be key to Israel representing the holiness of their God within their community of nations. It all connected back to the holy nature of God and how he desired his people to honor, be led by, and embrace this holiness in their daily lives. It was to be their identity as they lived and settled among the nations. It would be the way they would bless the other nations and direct them to their God—the one true God. The reason for Leviticus was to make this clear and show them the way to accomplish it.

It Worked!

The book that follows Leviticus in the Bible is Numbers. In Numbers 1:1 this is what we read: “The Lord spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting…” From outside of the tent to inside of it! Moses made the transition (as did all Israel). How did that happen? By listening to Leviticus.


Wisdom for the Ages

March 29, 2018

wisdom

Solomon—especially gifted by God—is famously one of the wisest men who ever lived. He requested and God granted him an extra measure of wisdom (1 Kings 3), which he shared through “thousands” of proverbs (1 Kings 4:32-34), which others sought out. Many of these are now collected for us in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Solomon wrote most, but not all of them. Together they represent God’s wisdom addressing a wide range of subjects. This wisdom is about more than just knowledge; it is more about applied knowledge—that is, using the wisdom to inform and live out God’s will in all aspects of life.

It is important to understand how the literature of Proverbs differs from other parts of the Bible. Proverbs is, fittingly, in the category of wisdom literature. It offers guidelines, probabilities, and insight, but unlike the law and prophecy sections of Scripture, it speaks about probable and possible outcomes—not commands. (For instance, while it is generally true that a child who is brought up in the way of the Lord will never depart—Proverbs 22:6—there are exceptions). The Proverbs should not be approached as a book of formulas therefore, but as they were intended—a collection of applied wisdom and a general guideline for wise, godly living.

Our specific weekly Bible reading of Proverbs 6-24 is part of the heart of the book—full of applied wisdom covering a wide swath of subjects. Topics such as justice, poverty, debt, sex, family, generosity, marriage, friendship, vocation, character, alcohol and forgiveness are addressed. In one way this section can be used as a reference—looking up each subject to hear a wise word about it from the Lord.

Wisdom for the ages! Let’s check some of it out:

  • Avoid the sluggard syndrome. Don’t become lazy and fearful. The sluggard is presented in Proverbs as someone so lazy they will not exert the energy to feed themselves or so fearful that even a rumor of a roaming lion will entice tremain in their perpetual slumbered state. The end result is ruin (Proverbs 6:6-11; 13:4; 19:24; 20;4; 21:5, 25-26; 22:3; 24: 30-32; 26:14-15). Instead of a sluggard lifestyle, the Proverbs point to the ant as the example of industrious labor.
  • Avoid seduction. Adultery; the allure of illicit sex is a topic to which wisdom is applied (Proverbs 6-7). This is a father speaking to his son—teaching him the folly of empty, gratuitous sex. These words remain ever true to our contemporary setting.
  • Embrace wisdom. Of course, this could be the purpose statement of all of the Proverbs, but in chapter eight wisdom’s significance is especially highlighted. Here wisdom speaks for itself and advises: “Listen to my instruction and be wise; do not ignore it” (vs. 33). We would still do well to heed.
  • “The fear of the Lord.” This is a theme of the Proverbs (9:10) but it is more about reverence and awe than it is about being afraid. It is about being drawn to God to learn from him, not about hiding in fear from him. Being drawn reverently to him is how we begin our journey of wisdom and knowledge.
  • The tongue—a source of blessings and curse. All throughout this segment of the Proverbs, wisdom advices proper use of the tongue, while also warning against the trouble the misuse of words will bring. Just consider chapter 10 alone (vss. 11, 13-14, 18-21, 31). All true wisdom for the ages.
  • Discipline brings maturity; the lack thereof brings folly. This is another major thread running throughout Proverbs. The wise man understands the value of a disciplined life; while the foolish man avoids it and runs into folly and ruin. Discipline teaches, corrects and matures. The undisciplined receive no such parameters and therefore are destined to error and trouble. (10:23; 12:1; 15:12; 21:11).
  • Pride leads to ruin. Wisdom shines light upon pride and exposes the traps it contains. (11:12; 13:10; 16:18; 29:23). Pride continues to lead to destruction.
  • Justice is encouraged. It should not surprise that wisdom and justice go together (8:20; 17:23; 18:5; 21:15; 29:7, 26)). Justice—like wisdom itself—originates in God. The righteous seek it, while the wicked seek to subvert it.
  • Avoid drunkenness. An entire section is dedicated to warning against the effects of strong drink (23:29-35; also 20:1 & 23:20-21). Alcoholism and drunkenness continues to do much damage throughout all generations. The wisdom of the Proverbs applied would limit such damage.
  • The way of the righteous is also highlighted all throughout the Proverbs. It is usually contrasted with the way of the wicked (see for example 11:5-11). This also illustrates the “probable” nature of the Proverb. In each comparison, the righteous realizes a positive outcome, while the wicked are forecast nothing but trouble. While this is generally true, it is not guaranteed (this side of eternity anyway). Some struggle with the Proverbs as a result, but the purpose, context and style of literature must be heavily considered.

Divine Common Sense

Another way to consider the Proverbs is as divine common sense. Solomon being gifted a special dispensation simply approaches life situations and topics sharing a measure of common sense to them. “Wise sayings” is how the Proverbs are defined and that is an accurate definition.

The first seven verses of the book provide an overview and what the Proverbs are all about but one text perhaps sums the point of the Proverbs up best:

Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips. So that your trust may be in the Lord, I teach you today (22:17-19).

The Proverbs are wisdom for the ages—all ages—for us here and now. It would serve us well to pay attention and put this wisdom to work in our lives.


A Marriage Theology

March 15, 2018

marriage-prep

In his first correspondence with the “church of God” at Corinth, the apostle Paul dives waist deep into the Corinthians marriage troubles. These were not typical marriage troubles—more like extreme marriage troubles, as in an extreme misunderstanding of what constituted holiness within a marriage.

Two overriding circumstances drive Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7—both are vital to understanding this text:

  • Apparently the Corinthians somehow had come to a conclusion that all sexual activity was immoral—even within marriage—that abstaining from sex even when married was the best choice to avoid defiling God’s temple, the body. This is what Paul first responds to (7:1—not to “touch” means not to engage in sex with), which provides the framework for the rest of the chapter.
  • “The present crisis.” It is crucial to realize that Paul’s answer to their marriage questions were framed by some type of urgent crisis—specific to that situation. The crisis is not identified for us. Some have speculated it could have been famine, persecution or some other challenging circumstance. Whatever it was, Paul makes clear it would be easier faced alone if at all possible. Perhaps if this crisis had not existed at that moment, his answers might have been different. There is no way for us to know, but this does have significance to unpacking this section of Scripture.

Moving into the text, it is vital to know how these two points inform and frame every bit of marriage theology Paul shares.

Enjoy the Marriage Bed (1-9)

Immediately Paul counters the idea that sex even within marriage is unholy. The extreme idea of the Corinthians that sex was somehow too dirty even for husband and wife was incorrect. Rather—couples have a responsibility to one another in this regard. They belong to each other in this way, so enjoy—do not withhold sex from one another. What they were promoting was not holiness—it was dangerous. Satan could seize it and create real trouble.

Understanding the nature of the flesh and of Satan, this was Paul’s best advice. He did not command it so, but conceded it. In his opinion the best practice was celibacy, but he knew not everyone shared that gift with him. (At this writing Paul was single, but he might not always have been so—Acts 6:10; Philippians 3:4-6.) To those who did not share this gift—the “unmarried and the widows” Paul advised them to marry rather than “burn with passion.” The overall point of this section—enjoying sexual relationships within marriage is a natural part of that relationship. While singleness may be preferable considering the current crisis, marriage is preferable to singleness if temptation and lust are the alternatives.

One note—the word rendered “unmarried” in verse 8 is only used by Paul in Scripture and only used here in this text—four times (verses 11, 32, & 34 also). He uses it to differentiate the unmarried from the widows (who obviously are unmarried). The meaning of the word for Paul would have likely included those who had been divorced. Our versions translate it using our broad term for all unmarried, but contextually Paul seems to use it in a different way, which would have included those divorced.

Christian Couples (10-11)

Out of the idea that abstaining from sex within a marriage might be a godly approach, some Christian couples apparently took it a step further to consider dissolving their marriages altogether. Paul speaks to this next. He references Christ’s teaching (Matthew 19:1-12; Mark 10:1-12) to reinforce the marriage bond. Absolutely these couples should honor their marriage vows—no reason to consider divorce even under the current distress. Even if separation occurs—work it out or remain single. No drastic changes needed to occur considering the circumstances.

Mixed Marriages (12-16)

The next question Paul considers is the validity of marriages in which a Christian is joined to an unbeliever. Are these marriages sacred? Should a Christian remain in them? Paul answers in the affirmative—if at all possible—except in this situation he has no direct teaching from Christ to reference. Instead he offers his apostolic advice based upon the overall circumstance and what is best for the family. The presence of the Christian within this type of marriage brings a sanctifying aspect to the union—to the unbelieving spouse and to their children, if present. Like the leaven Christ mentioned—the believer could be God’s instrument to bring salvation to the rest of the family. So Paul instructs the believer to stay within that marriage. Of course the unbeliever may see things differently and abandon the marriage. If so, Paul advises the believer to accept that for the sake of peace. In this situation the believer is not bound to the departed unbeliever and would be free then to pursue remarriage.

Stay Where You Are (17-24)

After answering their specific questions Paul offers some general advice to all of the Corinthians. Again, considering the overall context of the crisis, he suggests the best course is for everyone to remain exactly as they were when called by Christ. If married—stay married. If single—remain that way. Don’t try to abandon your ethnicity—nothing to gain in doing so at this point. He even advises slaves to not seek their freedom unless an obvious opportunity arises. From Paul’s perspective this was the least complicated situation from which each person could most effectively serve God. He stated this was his rule for all the churches, but he also knew not everyone would be able to keep it. Already in the text he has make exceptions and he will continue to do so.

Never Married? (25-35)

Now Paul addresses the “virgins” or those never married. Once more he has no direct word from Jesus to consider, so he offers his own judgment based upon the “present crisis” and encourages those never married to stay that way if at all possible. He realizes not all can accept this and once more allows for marriage (while again instructing those married to remain so), but foresees potential trouble for such marriages. This could mean the coming of persecution; the effects of a famine—whatever the crisis was—Paul thought it to be impending and being single with no dependents would be the best way to face it. Being single under these circumstances would also be the best possible way to serve God with “undivided devotion”.

To Those Engaged (36-38)

Some in the Corinthian church were engaged. What about them? Paul leaves that decision up to those in that relationship. If for reasons of conscience, age, or self-control, the decision to marry is made, so be it—marry. But if the decision is made to not marry, that too, is permissible. Couples should feel no compulsion—in such stressful times—to honor their engagement. Both are good, but being consistent, Paul concludes being single is the better option.

Christian Widows (39-40)

He concludes his marriage Q&A in the same manner. Christian widows would be best served to remain single—she would be “happier” is his judgment. He acknowledges their freedom to remarry, instructs them if they do so to only marry another Christian, but fortifies his instruction to remain single by speaking as one who has “the Spirit of God.” This was Paul’s way of putting the divine, authoritative apostolic seal on his teaching in this text. In his ministry Christ did not address all of these specific situations, but Paul, inspired by the Spirit of God has the authority to do so—creating a marriage theology consistent with and flowing from that of Christ.

Now?

As we go about applying these teachings to our own current situations, it is imperative that we understand their context of impending crisis. The takeaways for us remain: It is less complicated to serve God as a single person. Not all have the gift of celibacy. Marriage is holy and honorable including the sexual component—commit to make it work in every way. However if abandoned or widowed—the marriage bond is broken. Remarriage is possible, but don’t rush and if desired–find a good Christian mate. The overall goal is to make sure God is served first whether married or single.

 


Out of Job’s Ashes

March 8, 2018

job-suffering

The Old Testament book of Job is somewhat of a mystery. It includes quite the unique story told in an unusual way compared to the rest Scripture. In it Job is both the protagonist and antagonist as the center of the story and of the storm surrounding him. It is rich in dialogue—between God and Satan; between Job and his friends; and between God and Job. The focus is about human suffering and why God allows it, yet a definitive answer to this dilemma is never offered. In the end it is about trust—as in—will God be trusted above and beyond the suffering with all of the accompanying questions. There is much to unpack in Job’s story and indeed out of his ashes there are numerous life lessons to learn.

The Prologue (1-2)

The book begins by firmly establishing Job as a righteous man—a guy who did everything right by his family, his friends, his community, strangers, and by God. Even though Job was not a Hebrew, he worshipped their God. He was from the “land of Uz,” which remains a rather mysterious place—no one is exactly sure of its location. The historical context of the book also remains unknown, with best guesses placing it at some point before Moses. Who recorded this story also is a mystery. What we do know is that Job was a good man—about the best around in his day.

Satan took notice of that. In a fascinating snapshot of the supernatural, we eavesdrop in a conversation between God and Satan. God asks Satan, who was apparently roaming the earth in search of people to take down into his sinful web, what he thinks of Job and his righteous conduct. Satan doesn’t think much of it and does what he does best–accuse. Job is too protected by God, so a bargain of sorts is agreed upon. God takes down some protective hedges and Satan gets a shot at Job, but at first not personally. He can only attack him around the edges—and he does it very well. Yet Job stays strong and true to God. Then a second bargain is struck. Satan can harm Job physically, but only to a point. Job’s life is to be spared. This almost surreal situation (to us anyway) sets up the rest of the book. Satan hit Job hard. First his property, security, and serenity—then his body and his health.  It rocks Job to his core. Job cannot understand why he is suffering so. For him it made no sense. He was a godly man yet all hell (almost literally) had broken loose upon him. Why? This “why” discussion takes up most the book. It remains ever present as we face suffering of our own. This is also why this book remains so compelling—and so challenging.

The Dialogues (3-41)

Job’s despair was shocking to his friends. When they came to his aid, they barely recognized him—sitting in ashes, rejected by his wife and with only a broken piece of pottery to ease his suffering. How was this the same man whom they had known—a man renown for his righteousness, justice and goodness? Obviously something had gone terribly wrong, so Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, Zophar the Naamathite, and Elihu the Buzite determined to figure it all out. Just why was Job suffering so? This is at the heart of their prolonged conversations.

To understand these exchanges it is important to understand the assumption they were all (including Job) working from—a common assumption that continues to this day. That is—how everything in the universe operates according to a strict principle of justice. From their perspective, if you were about righteousness, you would be rewarded. If evil—then the proper punishment would follow (see 4:8-9; 34:11; 36:11-12). Under this assumption, Job was apparently not the man everyone thought him to be.

So, his friends set about to probe into his life, to expose his sin, and thus to help him accept it, repent of it, and escape his ashes. But Job insisted he had not sinned—that he was innocent (9:21). No way, according to Job, had he done anything anywhere to deserve the horror he was living. He could not process this being about the justice of God because he had done nothing to warrant it. In addition to his physical distress, this was ripping at his very soul. Eventually in these discussions and in his frustration he turns on God—accusing him of inflicting this pain for no cause (16:9; 27:2,8). He is confused and just trying to make sense of it all.

At this point in the story the last friend, Elihu, speaks up. He thinks Job is mistaken in accusing God and interprets suffering somewhat differently. He suggests it may a punishment not for sins committed but rather as a warning against committing future sins.

The point of all of this dialogue? Each segment represents an element of man’s wisdom in trying to come to grips with human suffering. Who among us has not asked why innocent people suffer? Who among us has not wrestled with the apparent injustice of it? The dialogues were their way of wrestling.

Then God enters the dialogue. In what may be the most amazing part of Job’s amazing story—God speaks up and answers Job, but not exactly how Job expected. Job’s perspective of how God operates in the world centered upon himself. From that limited viewpoint Job accused God of not holding up his end of the bargain. In answering, God opened up Job’s eyes to a universe much, much larger than his own circumstance. As God spoke about creation, about taking care of the natural order, about how things operated from his perspective, Job quickly realized he was out way of his league and repents. His accusations against God were unwarranted. He simply could not know enough to make such claims against God.

So why all the suffering? Even in all of the discussion, no clear answer is provided. God does seem to use two of his more impressive creations, though, to provide some direction. He speaks of the behemoth and the leviathan—two large creatures known to Job and his contemporaries. Using them to illustrate, he pictures creation as both ordered but also dangerous; the world as having justice, but not having perfection. Thus, the suffering—it is a part of this imperfect world.

For us, who still operate at times under the same assumption as Job and his friends that answer may seem to fall short, but Job was satisfied. The epilogue of the story (chapter 42) reveals that not only did Job recover, but ended up far more blessed than before.

Trust is the Takeaway

This is the point of Job’s story. It is not to answer the problem of human suffering; it is to trust explicitly in God throughout human suffering. Even though rebuked by his friends, Job did the right thing—he took his doubts, hurts, and questions directly to God. Suffering is a byproduct of our broken world. Satan orchestrates it—just as with Job. God’s answer to this dilemma is not to eradicate it, but to send this only son to enter it—to suffer just like us so that we can eventually escape it. In the meantime—trust! Trust in the infinite wisdom and justice of God. One day it will overcome and all suffering will cease. This may not fit into all of our assumptions, but like Job we are so limited in our ability to understand. So, we cling hard to him who does understand and trust him regardless of what other voices may be saying.

That at times will not be easy, but in the end well worth it (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Out of Job’s ashes comes a perspective that can see beyond the moment trusting God through it.

 


Slaves and Other Brothers

March 2, 2018

57.PHILEMON.1

The apostle Paul’s New Testament letter we recognize as Philemon, carries incredible impact for such a brief correspondence. Its messages are revolutionary and transformational. It is a deeply personal letter. It is all about a slave named Onesimus.

First let’s identify Philemon. He was likely a wealthy man due to slaves within his household. He was non-Jewish and known by Paul. He lived in a city named Colossae and obviously was a very crucial part of the church there since it met in his house.

Now, let’s briefly consider this church. It most probably was planted by a man named Epaphras (Colossians 1:7; 4:12; Philemon 23) and/or by Philemon himself. Either could have heard the gospel during Paul’s ministry stay in Ephesus and then returned home to Colossae to start the church. However it occurred, Philemon became a friend and co-worker of not only Epaphras but of Paul also.

Slavery in Ancient Rome

This brings us back to Onesimus. He was a slave owned by Philemon, thus making him a part of his household and subject to whatever jobs or duties Philemon chose. Slavery in the Roman context was not racially driven. Slaves could be any nationality. Many were losers in border wars in the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Some volunteered enslavement to pay off debt. Others were the product of generational slavery—the offspring of slaves. Numerous unfortunate pathways could take someone to the slave block in Rome. However Onesimus got there—he was there. He had extremely limited rights; was the sole property of and at the complete mercy (or often lack thereof) of his owner. His value lay in whatever he produced for his owner. The hope of buying himself out of slavery (a practice called “manumission”) existed, but only a small percentage of slaves were ever able to do so. Onesimus certainly benefited from having a Christian owner, but still a slave’s life in Rome was a slave’s life—it was not their own.

So Onesimus ran away from home and from Philemon (which was far from legal and put Onesimus in great danger if caught). He ran to Rome and eventually to Philemon’s friend Paul, who was himself imprisoned there. Influenced by Paul, Onesimus became a Christian and a significant aid to Paul (vss. 11-12). This then created a dilemma—what to do with the now-Christian runaway slave of a friend and brother?

Legally Paul could have been complicit in harboring Onesimus. It was a tricky situation. Paul’s answer? Suggest something quite revolutionary!

“ As a Dear Brother”

Paul’s solution to this dilemma on the surface sounds quite simple. He asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave, “but better than a slave, as a dear brother…even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord” (vs. 15-16). This simple request, however, masked many complexities and certainly challenged Philemon to reconsider relationships in the Lord.

In the Roman context slaves were in no way socially equal to their owners. In no area of life did the barrier between slave and owner not exist. Slaves were property—no more, no less. An owner would never view a slave as his equal; never treat him like a brother. To do so would have been scandalous and no proper Roman would ever consider it for the briefest of moment.

Add to that the fact that Onesimus had cheated Philemon in some manner before he ran away. Perhaps he stole something on his way out or had been slack in performing his job. The specifics are not clear, but Paul recognizes the situation. Certainly Onesimus had briefed him on it.

So stop to consider what Paul is asking of Philemon—to not only receive back this slave who cheated him and ran away from him; but also to receive him back without penalty or punishment AND no longer as a slave but as a brother–an equal! What an incredible request!

On what basis could Paul request such a scandalous action? On something actually more scandalous—the cross of Christ! While not specifically mentioned, it underscores Paul’s reasoning to Philemon. First, it changed and redefined Onesimus just as it had Philemon. Onesimus was now a new man—from slave to free in Jesus; a son and dear brother to Paul and therefore to Philemon. Second, Christ was the very reason Paul and Philemon were friends and co-workers in the faith—now Onesimus shared in this partnership. Third, Paul was willing to pay the ransom (just as Christ had paid for all) for the transgression of Onesimus. “Charge it to me” says Paul (vs. 18). Paul put himself in the role of redeemer and reconciler–at least in regards to the wrong committed by Onesimus against Philemon.

This course of action recommended by Paul undermined all social norms and supported his call for a brand new community—one not bound by earthly constructs but defined by heavenly values. One he described to Philemon and the church that met in his house as:

Here there is no Greek or Jew; circumcised or uncircumcised; barbarian; Scythian; slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11. See also Galatians 3:28)

Now was test time for Philemon. Could he live this out? Would he be courageous enough to put this to practice? Would he run the risk to his reputation and to his household to honor Paul’s revolutionary request? Could he ever see a slave as his equal in Christ?

Will We?

Think about the transformational themes within the brief book:

  • Forgiveness
  • Redemption
  • Reconciliation
  • Equality

These are among the hallmarks of the new community of Christ. This community exists to destroy the harmful, artificial, and oppressive culture of the world and replace it with a community of grace, justice and mercy–a community where all are equally welcome based upon freedom in Christ. Only through Christ can this ever be accomplished.

This still presents quite the challenge to our way of thinking. Christ levels the playing field. The same grace that saves me—saves everyone. I am in no way superior than anyone else. My relationship with others in Christ should trump all accepted social and cultural norms. Being ashamed of your sister or brother (Romans 1:16; Galatians 2:11) is not acceptable. In Christ we are all one—all equal— as slaves and other friends and brothers. That is the revolutionary nature of God’s community to which Philemon and us were called to live out.


The Often Complicated Ministry of the Apostle Paul

February 22, 2018

2cor4_8-9

The brief New Testament letter of 1 Thessalonians offers us a fascinating glimpse into the often-complicated ministry of the apostle Paul. His transition from hardcore Jewish legalist and Christian persecutor (see Acts 9:1-2 & Philippians 3:5) to special missionary and apostle to the Non-Jews came with baggage. Some in his former community did not appreciate his conversion and new emphasis. They opposed him at almost every stop along his missionary journeys—even seeking once to kill him (Acts 23:12-35). More often this opposition metastasized in the form of fierce criticism within the local church context in an attempt to undermine his credibility and authority. Such was the case in Thessalonica.

Dangerous Duty

Acts 17:1-15 chronicles the story of Paul’s experience in Thessalonica. After initially finding quite the receptive audience in the local Synagogue among a few Jews, some God-fearing Gentiles along with several prominent women, things turned ugly. “Jealous” because of Paul’s success, some Jews in the city rounded up some “bad characters” and created a mob scene by rushing to the house where they assumed Paul would be. This led to false accusations and more chaos before city officials. A man named Jason, who had hosted Paul, caught the brunt of the trouble. Paul, along with his traveling companion, Barnabas, was able to slip away after nightfall and escape to nearby Berea. This should have been the end of the story, but upon hearing that Paul was teaching in the synagogue there, the Thessalonian Jews followed him, “agitating the crowds and stirring them up.” Once again, Paul had to make a hasty departure—this time to Athens.

As a result of this dangerous duty Paul had to abandon his ministry in Thessalonica much sooner than he desired. This is evident when reading the first Thessalonian letter. Also evident is the continued attempts to harass Paul’s name and create doubt within the church about his motives and authenticity.

The Letter

It is a masterpiece of Paul’s writing. He wonderfully lifts up the Thessalonian Christians for their steadfastness in the face of opposition. He expressed his joy over the health and growth of the church in spite of the difficulties. He reminded them they were chosen by God to be his people and upheld them as a model church. He had some teaching to do as well in correcting some eschatological misunderstandings. He also addressed some moral concerns and church matters common to all infant churches, which were not necessarily related to the other circumstances.

He does express his regret in not being able to stay with them longer, but recognizes that in spite of that, his ministry among them was successful. His only agenda while among them was to share Christ and do God’s will. He reminds them that he and his team did not burden them in any way financially, but worked to support themselves. He was proud of their progress in the faith—much like a parent with a child. He wanted to make it clear to them that he and his efforts were above reproach unlike those who opposed him. He longed to be able to return and spend more time with them.

“Hard Pressed on Every Side”

This is how Paul described his ministry in 2 Corinthians 4:8. That too was in a context of heavy criticism and challenge to Paul’s authority in a local church context. Like in Thessalonica, some in Corinth were attempting to undermine his ministry. To defend himself against those critics whom he labeled false teachers, he reluctantly shared his substantial resume and concluded with this:

Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak and I do not feel weak? Who is led to sin and I do not inwardly burn? (See 2 Corinthians 11:1-33 for the full context)

Slammed for leaving Judaism; opposed for introducing the gospel to the Gentiles; criticized for receiving support to spread the gospel and accused of preaching merely for financial gain; made fun of because of his appearance and lack of speaking eloquence; accused of teaching cheap grace; characterized as being a paper tiger—bold to write letters, but timid when face-to-face; and finally arrested for his proclamation of Jesus to all people; Paul’s ministry was indeed often complicated with forces opposing him from both within and without the church. Yet he constantly carried with him the daily  concern for all the churches.

The Thessalonian situation was certainly a part of this concern. Specifically his critics in that city and within that church accused him of exploitation, greed, and deception, of impure and improper agendas. The point of the criticism—like all of it—was to destroy Paul’s influence within the church so a takeover could occur. This happened repeatedly in Paul’s ministry. The motivation for the takeover varied. Sometimes it was monetary gain. Sometimes it was doctrinal. Sometimes it was ego. Envy and hatred were among the driving forces. It was never healthy.

The Jews attempting to cripple Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica were just another group pressing hard against Paul. They were among those making a career out of opposing the gospel; of opposing Jews who expressed faith in Christ; of opposing inviting Gentiles into a relationship with God through Jesus. The idea that they “always heap up their sins to the limit” (1 Thessalonians 2:16) was Paul’s way of saying that they were leaving no stone unturned in their fight against him and the gospel. They were going to use every measure and go to any extreme to stop the spread of Christianity.

Paul was willing to endure it for the sake of the church (see 2 Timothy 2:10). And about all of these complications that were pressing on every side? Here is the rest of that story:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Paul was opposed but never defeated. All attempts to short-circuit the gospel failed. God cut through the complications. He still does. There is no time for pity-parties in the kingdom. Capturing the singular passion and purpose of Paul is our challenge. We still have God’s treasures in our jars of clay. Nothing can stand against that all-surpassing power. Paul understood. Do we?