End Times or Something Else?

February 15, 2018

Jtemple

In Mark 13 we find Jesus in Jerusalem having just left the Jewish temple with a group of his disciples. This temple—marvelous in scope and structure—was the pride of the Jewish nation having been fabulously rebuilt by Herod the Great beginning around 19-20 BC (and not finally completed until 65 AD). Some of the disciples noted its size and magnificence (perhaps with an eye toward ruling from it with Jesus?). To this Jesus replied, “Do you all see these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” This statement sparked their curiosity. So later four of them approached him privately to find out more information. They asked, “Tell us when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus provides them a lengthy answer—an answer that even now continues to be widely and variously interpreted.

Many take these words of Christ as a vision for end times and certainly Jesus uses eschatological language, but there also seems to be more going on than just that. He says at one point, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (vs. 30). If he was speaking exclusively about end times, then how does this statement fit into that context? Obviously, we are still here and still waiting for his return. So, just what is he saying? Is it about the end times or something else?

Another Perspective

Mark wrote his account of the life of Christ around 65-66 AD. Let’s consider another perspective from someone who shared this same story a few years after Mark. Matthew wrote his gospel in the early 70s AD. It is interesting to compare his recollection of the disciple’s query to Jesus. He records it this way:

Tell us, they said, when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3; Luke also gives his account in Luke 21.)

There is a nuance here in Matthew not obviously present in Mark. Matthew’s account seems to indicate that, yes, actually there is something else going on here. The same eschatological language is present indicating an “end of the age” conversation, but also there is something more immediate to consider, that is, when these huge stones are going to be turned upside down (along with any possible signs connected to either event).

So, as Matthew indicates, Jesus actually answered separate questions. The first is all about the temple stones being overturned and if any signs were to accompany that. The second is about end times. Why Matthew offers this slightly clearer account has to do with timing. He wrote his gospel after the first event—the destruction of the Jewish temple—had occurred. Mark wrote his before.

“The Abomination that Causes Desolation”

Politically, Israel had long been a hotbed of rebellion against Roman rule. Jewish terrorists or zealots continued to be a thorn in the side of Pax Romana. This led to an explosive confrontation during the sixth decade of the first century. In 66 AD the Jewish nation was in full revolt against Rome and managed to vanquish the Roman presence from the temple and make other small gains. Emboldened by these limited victories they continued to openly defy Rome. Eventually Rome had enough. Under General Titus troops were sent to crush the rebellion and crush it they did as brutally as possible. One of their targets was the Jewish temple—not only the pride and symbol of Jewish patriotism but one of the strongholds of the résistance. After they finished demolishing it in 70 AD, not one stone was left standing on the other—just as Jesus had foretold. In all of this destruction, chaos rampaged through Jerusalem. Jews savagely turned on Jews. Horrific events unfolded. It has been estimated that over one million died during this period. It indeed was an “abomination that causes desolation” as Jesus had said.

This is what happened before that generation passed away—about 40 years after Jesus spoke the words. Luke phrased it this way: “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24). This then explains and puts into context his statements within the text such as “flee to the mountains;” don’t “enter the house to take anything out;” how “dreadful” it would be for “pregnant women or nursing mothers;” or “pray that this will not take place in winter.” If it were truly end times, why would any of that even matter?

As for signs of this impending doom, he shared several—wars and rumors of wars, persecutions; false prophets and the gospel being preached to the “world” (which according to Paul in Colossians 1:23 had occurred prior to 70 AD). He uses figurative language of judgment (Mark 13:24-27) to illustrate the total devastation that was to come for the Jewish people and nation. In fact, this was God’s judgment upon them. Never again would they have a temple. Never again would they be his exclusively chosen nation.

The End

After this discourse, Jesus responds to their other question about end times. About “that day” no one knows except the Father in heaven. There are no signs to foreshadow it. Matthew has Jesus speaking about it in terms of Noah’s flood. Everything will be as it usually is. He leaves his disciples (and us) with a warning—“Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:33).

Separate questions and separate answers. It is about the end times, but it is also about something else.

Other Viewpoints

But as might be expected, not everyone interprets this text the same way. Variations abound. One of the most interesting is called “preterism.” Full (or hyper) preterism interprets Mark’s story (along with all of Revelation and NT prophecy) as totally being fulfilled within the 70 AD time frame—including the second coming of Jesus. According to this view, he literally came during this judgment of Israel. What yet remains is the final coming of Christ and eternal judgment.

To further extrapolate, there is also a partial preterist viewpoint—which includes almost everyone else. This approach understands some of Mark 13 to apply to 70 AD, but not all. Partial preterists interpret the book of Revelation differently also—taking a-millennial, pre-millennial and post-millennial stances. With “end times” understanding, it can get complicated! The best advice is Christ’s: Always be alert and be ready!

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The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018

wonder-servant.jpg

From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.

 


When Jesus is in the Neighborhood

February 1, 2018

silhouetteThe gospel of Mark was the first written account of the life of Jesus. He starts it this way:

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (1:1)

Using a reference from Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3) he introduces John the Baptist as a new prophet foretelling the coming of the Messiah. From there—as Jesus is baptized by John—Jesus quickly and rightfully takes center stage in Mark’s narrative.

In Galilee

The story unfolds as “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14). The Nazarene starts at home to introduce himself as Messiah and to share the good news of God’s kingdom. He first went into his own neighborhoods teaching and healing. This is the focus of the first eight chapters of Mark.

The reaction Christ received was mixed. Some came to faith. Some opposed him. Many were skeptical. A few from his neighborhood—who knew his family well—completely dismissed him as trying to rise above his station in life. No way the son of Joseph the carpenter could ever be anything more than that.

Reading these chapters offers us a fascinating glimpse into what happened when Jesus went into those neighborhoods to proclaim his purpose and mission. As we observe, it would also serve us well to read ourselves into these texts. Just how would we have responded?

What Happened When Jesus Was in the Neighborhood

  • He demonstrated his power over the created order. Repeatedly in Mark’s narrative, the ability of Jesus to override and alter the created order is presented. From healing the sick, to exorcisms, to raising the dead, to calming the sea, to multiplying food, to even forgiving sins—Jesus did what no other could. Obviously this was an imperative for Christ in order to verify his claims of Messiahship and kingdom. (Later Peter in Acts 2:22 would affirm the essential role of these miracles in this regard.) The miracles gave Jesus a platform from which to speak and serve—and he did!
  • The people were amazed, but the disciples were stupefied. Repeatedly Mark notes how the people responded in amazement—and not just over his miracles, but also in reaction to his teaching. “At this they were completely astonished” is how Mark phrased it on one occasion (5:43). Why wouldn’t they be? They had never seen nor heard anything like this! (2:12) As a result Jesus became a must-see event with crowds flowing from every corner of the neighborhood to see him, hear him, touch him and be healed by him. Perfectly placed in the center of it all were his closest disciples, but instead of being transformed, they appear dumbfounded—not able to absorb the true meaning of the situation. Jesus asked them at one point, “Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear?” (8:17-18). As we read ourselves into the text these questions remain crucial.
  • The compassion of God was on full display. Three times (1:4; 6:34; 8:2) Mark notes how the compassion of Christ motivated him to action. It was through the lens of this compassion that Christ viewed his neighborhood. While some stood by debating who was clean or unclean according to tradition, Jesus was “moved by compassion” to actually intercede and change lives. We should never underestimate the depth of God’s compassion and seek to always be instruments of it (Psalm 147:3; Luke 15:20; Ephesians 4:32).
  • The duplicitous nature of Christ’s enemies was revealed. From the start, Jesus posed a threat to some within the neighborhood. Among those who should have immediately and instinctively recognized and embraced him, these teachers of the Law and politicians instead opposed him. They even plotted to kill him (3:6) while trying to discredit him with accusations of collusion with Satan (3:20-30). Jesus knew them perhaps better than they knew themselves. As he confronted them he exposed their hypocrisy and evil agendas. They honored him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him. Ouch. Not a place any of us ever want to be.
  • The significance of simple faith was most evident. From the desperation of the woman with the blood disease (5:34) to his reaction to the Syrophoenician woman’s plea (7:24-30) it was clear that Christ put a high premium on simple faith. “Don’t be afraid, just believe” is how he succinctly stated it before bringing the dead back to life (3:36). Can it really be that simple? Some thought not—adding traditions to commandments until faith became burdensome. Jesus ably cut right thought that red tape—bringing back the rightful place of uncomplicated faith in response to God. Our challenge is to keep it that way—not being afraid to just believe—even when (or especially when) all evidence points otherwise.
  • Expectations need to be reset (8:31-9:1). Even as the excitement of Jesus being in the neighborhood unfolded; even as those healed were celebrating; those fed were satisfied; and those amazed were wondering what was next, Jesus shifted gears. It would not always be this way. He would not always be with them. Difficult days were ahead and tough choices would need to be made. Following him beyond the neighborhood necessitated a willingness to sacrifice. That was the real expectation of discipleship. It would not always be healing and feeding. There would be loss. He himself would die. But it was not to end The Story, only to further it. Anything lost would be more than recovered. No shame in that at all. The kingdom was coming with power—expect it, but also know what that truly meant. That remains a challenge for us to this very day.

“Jesus went around teaching from village to village” (6:6). Imagine him teaching in our village! Actually we do not have to imagine because he is! He remains in our neighborhoods—the same compassionate Savior challenging us to follow him.

Are we?

 


Judgment and Hope

January 25, 2018

prophetisaiah

The prophet Isaiah lived in quite extraordinary times and penned quite the extraordinary book. It is divided into two main sections. The first is chapters 1-39. The second is the remainder of the book—chapters 40-66 (of which there is much discussion about Isaiah’s authorship). Overall Isaiah addresses two main themes—God’s judgment upon his people Israel and Judah and beyond that judgment, hope in the Immanuel.

The world of Isaiah was one of trouble and transition. The tribes of Israel in the south were in a desperate situation. Mighty Assyria (then the world power) was in the process of sweeping them away. Isaiah spoke to that from his position in Jerusalem. He identified it as God’s judgment upon them for their rejection of him. Assyria was also a threat to the tribes of Judah in the north. Like their sister nation they, too, had rebelled against their God. A godly king, however, rose up within them, begged God for mercy (37:14-20), and saved Judah from Assyrian destruction. But King Hezekiah’s actions would only delay the inevitable. “The Day of the Lord” was coming to Judah as well, Isaiah foretold. Another power would rise up—Babylon—and be used by God as his purifying agent of judgment (39). Only this time (unlike that of the tribes of Israel) there was hope beyond the judgment. A remnant of God’s people would remain; exiles would eventually return to their homeland; from among them Immanuel would be born (7:14). This “little child” (11:6) would lead and restore Zion to its rightful place among the nations. Eventually a “new Jerusalem” (65:17) would replace the old to be what God always intended for it to be.

Judgment and hope—this is the word from the Lord Isaiah speaks to his people, and now to us.

Startling Rebellion

Isaiah does not hold back. He presents a stark image of God’s people in full rebellion. Instead of being a light to other nations—corruption, injustice, idolatry, greed, violence and immorality defined Israel. Their worship was empty, meaningless, and burdensome to God. He could no longer tolerate it.

Instead of fulfilling God’s will among them, they turned to idols, practiced oppression, were corrupted by evil desires, chased after godlessness, became “brawlers and revelers,” confused good and evil, and denied justice. Isaiah phrased it like this:

They have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the works of his hand. (5:12)

This was true of both Israel and Judah and God had had enough. Isaiah proclaimed:

Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. (5:25).

Judgment was coming. The “Day of the Lord” would take place, first for Israel and then for Judah. Isaiah leaves no doubt about it. God simply could no longer tolerate their startling rebellion. A “fire” would scorch the earth (and not just for Israel and Judah), cleansing it, but also preparing it for something better to follow.

Isaiah’s Call

To illustrate this—Isaiah is called before the presence of the Lord (chapter 6). He quickly realizes just how out of his league he is, standing before the holiness of God. He fears his own doom until being touched on the lips by a burning coal. The coal, however, was not one of judgment but one of cleansing. This represents the purpose of God’s judgment—to cleanse his people in preparation of the Immanuel; the shoot of Jesse that will rise up out of the charred stump of Judah after the Day of the Lord comes.

It was Isaiah’s mission to be sent by God in order to “Go and tell” this news to his people. This is the way, then, the entire book of Isaiah plays out—judgment followed by hope; exile and return; old Jerusalem being swept away replaced by New Jerusalem-God would not forget his people, even though they forgot him.

Isaiah’s Word to Us

The sins of Israel were many, but at their core was a failure to seek and live out the righteousness and justice of God. Without this at their center, it opened them up for the corruption, idolatry, immorality, and greed that followed. Isaiah identified it early:

Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (1:15-17; see also 1:23; 3:14-15)

Even as they worshipped God—their disregard for God’s justice and righteousness made their worship unacceptable to God. What is the word from Isaiah to us on this and from the story of his prophecy?

  • God calls upon his people to see after the oppressed, not to be the oppressors. Nothing about this has changed from Isaiah’s time—James 1:26-27. Unless we do-it will undermine our ability to be God’s people and leave our worship void of meaning and purpose.
  • God guides The Story—using people, nations, events, etc. to accomplish his divine, redemptive will. Sometimes judgment is necessary. If God could use nations/peoples to carry it out then, he can do so now. The key is—to listen! Something those in Isaiah’s day did not do.
  • Judgment is still coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10) but hope remains (2 Peter 3:8-9).
  • The “little child” is leading us to that New Jerusalem where the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God will define everything and everyone; where people from every nation, tribe and tongue will flow; where God will be glorified above all (Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-12; 65:17-5; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21)

The purpose of God’s judgment is to cleanse, reset and renew hope among his people. This is the story of Isaiah within The Story.

 


The Legacy of Choseness

January 18, 2018

chosen

Romans 9-11 is not easy treading. These chapters represent the core of the apostle Paul’s response to the struggles of integrating both Jew and non-Jews equally into the Roman churches.

In this text Paul reveals his own struggles for his people; expressing his passion for Israel, while also explaining why Israel is now about more than genetics. It is a fascinating section of Scripture, which offers us an incredible glimpse into how a sovereign God operates to accomplish his will, which includes exploring the notion of God’s choseness.

In my faith family–the churches of Christ–the idea of choseness (or election) has not historically been a topic of much consideration. We have tended to dismiss these ideas in opposing Calvinism and/or the doctrine of predestination. Yet when we read Paul in these texts it sounds like God is up to something that seems fairly similar.

All About Context

Just as a reminder—what Paul is teaching flows directly out of the situation in Rome—a situation over which the Jewish Christians there were stumbling. Paul masterfully weaves history, Scripture, and theology to present the case that it was always God’s intent to include non-Jews into his covenant of promise. If the Jews had been paying close attention to the prophets they would have known that God had long planned to take the wild olive branch and graft it onto the cultivated olive tree. He did what he had to do with whom he had to do it for all of that history to play out—so when Jesus arrived to accomplish it, all would be ready. This was no slight to Jewish people however. It was supposed to be an honor—they were actually chosen for this—to be God’s instrument to share his Good News. And even though they did stumble over this, God still has not forgotten them. Those branches that died falling off the olive tree can very well be brought to life again and grafted back. God desires for all Israel to be saved. So it is a win-win situation. God’s grace is extended to all people of every nation with that cultivated olive tree—Jewish nation leading the way. Being chosen has its privileges.

Is God Unfair by Choosing?

This was a question asked of Paul in reply to his teaching by those in the Roman church. After all, from the womb God chose Jacob over Esau. In the Genesis narrative we witness this approach repeated often. On the surface it seems quite unfair. Paul’s answer was startling. God is God and we are not! God is his sovereignty has the right to do what he wants—to show mercy upon whom he desires. None of this redemption story depends upon our efforts anyway (9:16). It is all God-originated. Everything he has and continues to do is for the express purpose of furthering this story. How he has decided to do it is not for us to question—just as the clay does not question the mastery of the potter. It is not unfair at all—it is how we got to where we are. Our call is to not stumble over this, but embrace it; to trust explicitly in God and find our place within The Story. If God has chosen us—what exactly does that mean?

We have Grace to Share

Contextually it meant that the Jewish people had the wonderful privilege of being God’s instrument to share their covenanted blessings with others. How could others hear without the preacher sharing it with them? Who better to share than those most acquainted with faith? Yet some within the Jewish community refused their calling and election—so God rejected them. But as God extended his blessings to others, he still did not forget Israel. He did what he had to do, but continues to hold the door open for their full return. It is called grace—exactly the result of everything God set out to do. Every choice; every action of kindness or sternness; everyone chosen to be involved along the way; all of it for this:

So, too at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer works, if it were, grace would no longer be grace. (11:6)

There will always be the remnant chosen by grace or else everything God accomplished is for naught.

Our Choseness

Now consider what Peter says in light of the Romans text:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9; See also Ephesians 1:3-14)

See any similarities?

We are here—a people of faith in the exact same way Israel was—because God chose us. He chose to create us a little lower than the angels; took care of our sin problem when we could not and arranged a way for us to enjoy a full relationship with him through Christ Jesus. He elevated us above our own status based only upon his desire for us—nothing we ever did or could do. Just like he chose Jacob from the womb based upon his sovereign will he chose us. We are now a part of royalty—a people made holy—for God’s special use, that is, to speak his praises into the dark world yet aware that they have been chosen too. (Which by-the-way is exactly what Paul was trying to get the Jews in the Roman context to understand.)

So what can we learn from this:

  • We are now the chosen of God
  • The promised blessings for the chosen will occur, but individual participation in them still requires a faith response
  • Being chosen does not shield from failures and difficulties
  • The chosen still are to answer a missional call
  • All of this is predicated upon the act and will of God. He alone makes it all possible—so that none of us can boast in our choseness. And the NT makes it even more abundantly clear that what motivated him to do so is his deep and abiding love for us (John 3:16; 1 John4: 7-8)
  • Like the Jews–we can reject our choseness, but God will never give up on pursuing us

We do have a legacy of choseness. It should excite and motivate us. We should rejoice in being God’s elect and get on with the serious business that involves. By faithfully living it out and sharing it with others—we give witness to  The Story among those yet aware of the grace they also have access to in Christ Jesus.

 


Why Be Wretched?

January 11, 2018

wretched

First, let’s set the context—without it the story is difficult to discern. The Roman church of the apostle Paul’s day had some complications. Jewish and non-Jewish Christians did not play well together. Outside forces factored in (Jew’s banishment from the city of Rome by Emperor Claudius around 49 A.D. for approximately five years), but inside factors were driving the tension. The Jewish church wanted the non-Jewish church to honor and keep the Law (as in the Torah, Law of Moses). For them it still held substantial meaning even as they followed Christ. It was their heritage and embedded securely within their identity. No way they could worship God without it being somehow a part of the process. Circumcision, the Jewish calendar, dietary practices, etc. were simply too deeply ingrained to abandon. Paul understood. He was Jewish. It was not an issue as long as Christ was honored and followed above it all. One small item however—the non-Jews were exempt. The Law and those cherished practices were basically meaningless to them. They did not come to Christ through it. It did not enhance their relationship to Christ. In fact it actually got in the way. They were not expected to honor it. But this irritated many Jewish Christians. They wanted church done their way and so the struggle of which Paul’s divine correspondence addresses. Numerous lessons for us to learn in this letter, but for now let’s consider Romans 7-8.

The Law’s Failure

Or more precisely stated—our human failure. In this text Paul expertly affirms the purpose, strength and significance of the Law while at the same time detailing its weakness.

The Law itself was good—God’s covenant to us for generations. It was his marriage contract, but it expired. A death—Christ’s—annulled it and his resurrection ushered in a new contract/covenant, one vastly superior. The Law’s failure was that it could not release us from condemnation. It only served to remind us of our weaknesses. The Law was not at fault for this—we were. Sin used the Law to exploit our weaknesses and remind us of how truly wretched we are. Just like Paul, it left us conflicted and guilty—never able to extract ourselves from the consequences of sin regardless of how diligently we tried. So while we may want to be right, we end up wrong—evil always right there with us as Paul described it. That is not a good position in which to remain and just a quick glimpse at the Jew’s historical relationship with God demonstrates it. So, why desire that status quo? Why force that on other unsuspecting folks? Why be wretched when there is another option?

That option, of course, is Christ. In him there is absolutely no condemnation. He did what we could not; what the Law could not—set us free from the life of sin and death. Through him and God’s Spirit our sinful nature can be defeated. No more living in constant conflict! Instead we develop the mind of the Spirit. He empowers us. Our obligations are met as we live as more than conquerors. That is the story of the text! Incredible!

But let’s be honest—are we actually living this story?

Still Clinging to the Superficial?

The message is clear. Christ has done the job for us. In him we are set free. Our sinful nature no longer has to hold us captive. Life in the Spirit is something altogether more and wonderful. So why do we continue to find ourselves stuck in the middle of the wretched disconnect of knowing what is right and actually doing right?

Could it be that we have never really moved beyond the superficial to fully embrace the Spirit-led life? Could it be that we continue the worn out practice of attempting to measure our faith by our own merit? In our hearts do we find some comfort in measuring our Christian performance by some standard other than the grace of God? Actually we are prewired to do this. It is not the Law or the same situation of our text, but it is the exact same tendencies. And as long as we go here—we lose. We will never be able to develop a deeper relationship with God or fully develop within us the Spirit-led life. And we will forever be failing even as we redouble our efforts to work harder to take up the slack. The story here is—it is not up to us to tackle our sin problem. We are unable to take up the slack. Christ has already done that. What is up to us—is to follow him.

Now this may come across as too fine a nuance, but it is actually much more than that. Following him does not become about what we do, but who we are. The Spirit resides within totally remaking us from the inside out. It is not about a law, it is about a life—a discipled life fueled by faith. God’s nature becomes our nature instead of our sinful nature. His will becomes our natural default, not merely a set of facts to remember. Our relationship with him empowered by and through his Spirit supersedes all else. The Spirit enables us to realize a deeper level of commitment—not based upon performance, but upon what Christ has delivered: no condemnation; sonship; adoption; the inheritance of the Father. This reconstructs our very makeup. We begin to yearn—not for things of this world—but for what is to come in Christ. Apart from Christ we cannot even begin to define our life. It makes no sense without him. We cannot even fathom being separated from the Father.

Everything else—not our approach to Christ—becomes superficial. No more hesitation on selling completely out to him. If not, then it goes back to this—“O wretched man that I am”— that is, either always guilty and hopeless on one hand or self-righteous and sanctimonious on the other.

What does that accomplish? Nothing healthy. The Romans are evidence of that. Is this who we really want to be? Why stay here when there is amazingly more to experience in Christ?

Wretchedness?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.


The Curse of the Tree

January 4, 2018

At Levy we are reading the Bible together in 2018. My lessons will flow out from the reading texts. Here is the first one from the first few chapters in Genesis. 

tree-of-knowledge-of-good-and-evil

The creation narrative of the Bible is fascinating on numerous levels. Just the thought of God in six days (or even six eons) bringing about the incredible world in which we live simply by speaking it demonstrates his unfathomable power. The intricacies; the details; how the creation is held together and works is a wonderful topic all its own. The earth and its economy, ecology, and sustaining ability all are a part of the awesome creation story.

So are humans. Central to the narrative of Genesis is God’s relationship with those he created in his own image—man and woman—starting, of course, with Adam and Eve. God created us to have dominion over the rest of his creation (created just a little lower than the angels according to the Psalmist in 8:4-6; also Hebrews 2:6-8). From the beginning God’s ideal was to have a special relationship with us. Adam and Eve experienced the idyllic garden life—innocent and carefree. The garden was fashioned to sustain them and for their enjoyment. It offered them the perfect situation in which to commune closely with the Creator. No one should have asked for more, but they did. Of course, they did. And this then—the consequence of them wanting more—becomes the central narrative of the entire Bible. It is all about the fall and redemption of man. It is the curse of the tree.

Become like a god

This story is just the first of many in human history that demonstrate our tendency to grasp for more and how we can be manipulated and deceived into selling out to possess it. Satan (himself one of God’s creations who fell due to likely wanting more—Isaiah 14:12; Ezekiel 28:11-19) exploits human weakness in the garden for the first, but certainly not last time. Who doesn’t want to become like a god? Once Eve submitted and then Adam by eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil everything immediately changed forever.

In fact, they did become like a god in some ways (Genesis 3:22). By eating the fruit they entered into the tension between good and evil, but unlike God were not adequately prepared to handle it. And since that moment we remain securely within that tension doing battle with the same “devil’s schemes” as we wrestle “not against flesh and blood,” but “against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:11-12). The same desire that was within first Eve and then Adam to become like a god resides in us. After all this time, we still want more, which allows Satan to exploit and manipulate us just as he did them. Sin still is “crouching” at our door, “desiring to have” us (Genesis 4:7) It is the curse of the tree, which remains ever with us.

The Curse’s Effects

Immediately the world felt the effects of Adam and Eve’s actions. Immediately they felt the shame of their nakedness. Innocence was lost. They became fearful, hiding from God. Pain entered the world for the first time. These three alone—shame, fear and pain—continue to do great damage to God’s creation, but there was more.

All of creation was specifically cursed—animals, man, woman and the earth itself. Women were put in a submissive role to man—a consequence that continues to create conflict. Men were sentenced to sweat and hard labor. And the ground itself was cursed—from the beauty of Eden to thorns and thistles (which was still being acknowledged in Noah’s day—Genesis 5:29; and which is still being felt by the creation to this day—Romans 8:18-23).

And then there is death—the ultimate, horrible result of Adam and Eve’s decision. Death came by murder after the garden and death continues to come in all shapes and forms to claim us. The curse of the tree! We wanted more and we got it, but it was more than we ever needed; more than we ever bargained for; and much more than we could ever handle. We were not initially created for this.

The Genesis story quickly reveals it—jealousy, murder, and evil of all sorts followed man’s banishment from the garden. Eventually it reached critical mass, in that, all we thought about continuously was evil. The desire for more totally consumed. The earth went from calling “on the name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26) to being destroyed by a flood due to completely forgetting the Lord. God had to reset. The effects of the curse were overwhelming.

God’s Covenants

It would not be the last time God reset. That same deceptive serpent would eventually be crushed (as foretold very early—Genesis 3:15) by a God who became like a man on another tree. He lifted the curse with death the last enemy still to be eradicated when he returns to take us back to the beginning—as God will once again dwell with us (Revelation 21:1-4).

Even with the direction of this story showing man moving away from God, he never moved away from us. His covenant with Noah simply foreshadowed the one he made with Abraham, which itself foreshadowed the one we enjoy now in Christ Jesus. This is The Story within the story.