Sunday Meditations: Penal Substitutionary Atonement

I wouldn’t say I’ve been meditating on this, per se, but I’ve been recently in conversation on this topic with my friend, Matthew.  What follows comes mostly from email, but I’ve adapted it somewhat to fit as a blog post and included a little additional stuff.  Still, this isn’t a comprehensive overview of the issue.  I don’t really dig into the textual references or deal with objections or anything like that.

For those of you who aren’t up on your fancy theological terms, the penal subtitutionary theory of the Atonement (PSA) as it’s held to by Christians, today, looks something like this:

  1. Every individual has sinned.  It should be noted that there is also a theology of original sin that has all human beings inheriting the penalties of the sin of Adam.  Either way, you as an individual have sinned.
  2. When an individual sins, they incur the death penalty from God whose justice demands both their physical death and eternal torment in Hell.
  3. Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell to some extent, thus taking the penalty for sin that you deserve onto himself.
  4. Because Jesus paid the penalty for your sins, himself, anyone who believes in this receives the benefits of it, which are the rewards Jesus received for His obedience – eternal life in the presence of the Father.

This form of PSA is relatively modern, although some of the ideas back of this were present in the early church fathers.  Anselm in the 11th century made a version of it that described mankind’s lack of giving the obedience that God is due as a “debt” that needed to be paid.  The Reformers made the point that this debt was more specific – it was disobedience to the Law.  John Calvin sharpened this point very thoroughly, and this is probably where we get some of the ambiguity between words like “debt” and “trespass” when we talk about sin.  We possibly owe the development of theology in America for the radical individual orientation of these ideas.

Anyway, PSA is one of those things that I don’t think is right, but I don’t think is totally wrong, either.  The death of Jesus is substitutionary for sins, but I don’t think it’s according to the calculus that PSA lays out.  On the other hand, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to jettison all those concepts back of PSA and replace them with modern sensibilities, which is my perennial problem with the way some might do progressive theology – there’s a danger of not correcting old ideas with better exegesis or reasoning, but rather simply discarding those ideas in favor of a view of God or man that fits our preferences and concerns.

At the heart of PSA is the notion that God hates sin so much that, when someone sins, someone has to die to make restitution for it.  The redemptive problem, then, with the Old Testament sacrificial system is that they aren’t able to kill enough to meet the demands of God’s justice.  All those animals just sort of mollified Him for a while until the death of Jesus could finally pay the whole tab and exhaust the penalties that God had to incur.

There’s a certain simple, mathematical elegance to this story, and that’s what I think accounts for its persuasive power.  It offers an explanation that is syllogistically tight and explains a lot of data.  Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of biblical data that doesn’t fit the model.

For example, there are instances in the Old Testament where atonement is given for the sacrifice of things that are not alive (Lev. 5:11-13, Exodus 30:14-15, Numbers 31:30, Numbers 16:46-50, Isaiah 6:6-7) as well as instances where forgiveness of sins was given without any sacrifice of any kind, such as with Nineveh when Jonah preached to them.  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance of their ways (accompanied by a national period of fasting) was enough for God to forgive them.  So, given that we have instances that God doesn’t need something or someone to die in order to forgive sins, that seems to undermine a key term in the PSA equation.

It appears that God’s forgiveness ultimately comes down to His decision to forgive, which is exactly what happens in the parable of the indebted servants in Matthew 18:21-35.  The forgiving king isn’t paid off by someone else – that’s arguably not forgiveness of the debt at all; he just decides to forgive the debt.

When I was a little more Westminstery than I am, today, a teenager in my church was very grieved over the idea that God would send someone to Hell for any offense.  What I explained to him was that God did not make a choice to do this, but rather God was forced to act out of His nature, which was both holy and just.  You wouldn’t morally critique a hungry lion for killing a person because the lion isn’t making a choice; they are doing what lions do out of their nature.  So it is with God and sin.

There are a number of issues, today, that I see with this explanation, although there are some truths there, as well.  But one of the problems is that we see instances of a God who chooses to forgive, and He can do so without someone paying for it with death.

Personally, I think the Old Testament sacrifices for atonement are best explained by giving up something of value.  Taking something that is valuable to you and offering it to God shows how much you want that relationship restored.  This is a rabbinical understanding of sacrifice and also makes sense of a lot of the data, not the least of which is Paul’s command to present our bodies as living sacrifices – an image that is difficult to understand if “sacrifice” means “something you kill because God’s justice demands it for satisfaction of His wrath.”  If the center of gravity changes to “something valuable you offer to God to demonstrate your commitment to restoring a right relationship,” that makes more sense of Paul’s imagery.

In addition, we have to keep in mind that God’s wrath against sin in the Old Testament was at a national level by and large.  He gave commandments to the people and punished them as a people.  Individuals brought sacrifices, so there is this idea of individuals atoning for their sins or families atoning for their sins, but this was all under the larger umbrella of the people.  God did not prosecute His wrath individually; when the nation broke the covenant, they invoked the penalties of the covenant, and that is the form God’s wrath against sin took.

It’s important, I think, for both conservatives and progressives to view categories like “God’s wrath” the way the Bible presents them.  When we think of wrath, we think of someone driven by absolute rage.  We think of someone taking retribution because of their great anger.  This is, indeed, a very fearsome way to think about God because, if PSA is correct, this is how God is about anything that anyone could possibly do, no matter how big or how small.  In this picture, any sin throws God into an all-consuming rage that won’t abate until someone dies.

But in the Bible, “God’s wrath” describes the concrete, historical, political outcomes of a people and, in virtually all cases, it results in the liberation of another group of people who are suffering under the sinful behavior of the first group.  Both the Old and New Testaments present God’s wrath as a correction (granted, a destructive one) to the state of affairs that national sins have produced in the world, and we lose all of that if we boil away all the historical particulars of Scripture and end up with a picture of a God who is filled with eternal-torment-style rage if someone cusses at their parents.

Even with the individual penalties in the Law, only some of those are the death penalty.  The Old Testament perspective does not seem to be that every sin merits the death penalty, which is another key presupposition in PSA.  You commit a sin and God has to kill you.  If this is so, then why does the Torah explicitly illustrate that some sins are worthy of death while others are not?  All sins require restitution, which is designed not just to restore a right relationship with God but also with the neighbor who was hurt by your actions.  But they don’t all require your life as restitution.

At the same time, we do have God’s displeasure with sin and a system by which individuals can make things right by offering up something they’ve got to demonstrate their contrition.  This is an issue I have with some folks who criticize PSA; they find the idea of the seriousness of sin or God’s wrath against sin to be distasteful concepts, period.  But they are biblical ones, and I think our theology has to make room for them.  I would encourage people who may be struggling with the idea of how a loving or Christlike God could also demonstrate wrath to forget the way you and I might use the words and look at how, historically, the biblical writings present these concepts to us.  I think you might find that Jesus also displays this concept of “wrath,” but he is obviously a long way from a rage-fueled demander of vengeance.

The problems I have with PSA are not the concepts of sin and wrath per se, but rather the ideas that:

  1. Any individual sin invokes the death penalty from a just God.
  2. God’s anger toward individual sins is placated as long as something or someone gets killed for it.

The biblical data does not seem to bear that out.  Furthermore (although this isn’t the last word on whether something is true or not), it does paint God in a very unflattering color.  Under this way of looking at things, concepts like “grace” and “mercy” look less like unmerited forgiveness out of love and more like, “God will kill something or someone else instead of you.”

Well, if God doesn’t -need- someone to die to forgive sins, then what does Jesus’ death accomplish?  In my opinion, the answer lay in leaving the mathematical abstractions behind and looking at the concrete history.

In Jesus’ day, Israel was under the curse of the Law.  Because of a very long spiral of national disobedience (toward both God and her own people) through which God patiently sent warning after warning, she ended up defeated by a pagan empire (i.e. the wrath of God) ruling her in her own land.  This conquering nation even installed their own High Priest in the Temple.  Israelites sharecropped land that used to belong to them and lived lives of poverty and servitude under this foreign empire.  They were all but destroyed as a nation.

In an interesting parallel, one of the rulers over Israel before Rome was Antiochus Epiphanes – a tyrant who regularly perpetrated institutional blasphemies and persecutions against the Jews.  The book 4 Maccabees reflects on this time via a story of seven righteous sons who are being tortured to death by Antiochus, and one of the themes you see are some of the brothers asking God to accept their martyrdom as an atonement sacrifice for Israel so that He will put his wrath (i.e. life under this tyrant) aside and deliver Israel.

I think this gives us insight into the death of Jesus.  These brothers are not saying that their deaths pay for some death penalty everyone has accrued.  They’re being killed as a indirect result of the curse God has brought upon disobedient Israel, but they themselves are righteous.  They don’t deserve to be killed by the curse because they have been faithful this whole time, and they want their deaths to move God’s heart.  They want God to see their faithful, obedient lives that they have lived even unto death by this tyrant, and they hope God will decide that things have gone on long enough.  Because of the willing offerings of these righteous servants, they want God to accept them as sacrifices, forgive Israel of her sins, and save her from her situation.

So, these sons are not “paying” for Israel’s sins in the sense that Israel’s sins incurred the death penalty and these sons are offering to die in everyone else’s place to satisfy God’s wrath.  Instead, they are hoping that their faithful deaths will make a plea to God to forgive.  They are offering up the most valuable things they have – their own faithful lives – to move God to restore His relationship with Israel.  To make atonement for Israel’s transgressions.  To make things right again.

In this way, their deaths are a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they want their sufferings and death to avert the penalties Israel is experiencing, but they are not a substitutionary sacrifice in the sense that they think their deaths will satisfy God’s just requirement to kill someone if they sin, and once the sacrifice is made, He’s obligated to let the people they died for go free.

I think this very Jewish theology is behind the death of Jesus.

If Jesus’ death is a substitutionary payment for the sin of all mankind, then it doesn’t matter when he shows up in history.  He could have come immediately after Adam’s sin and accomplished exactly the same thing.  But Jesus comes when he comes because of what Israel is experiencing, and with his faithful death, his sacrifice is an appeal to God to forgive the sins of His people and save them from the penalties their sins have brought about.

God is absolutely convinced by this.  He accepts the sacrifice of Jesus, raising him from the dead, thus demonstrating (among other things) that He will forgive Israel’s sins and save her.  Although, it should be noted, this appears to have been God’s intent the whole time, because Jesus was proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of Israel before he was crucified.

So, Jesus’ death is substitutionary for sins in the sense of him offering himself as an atonement sacrifice.  He’s trying to make things right between God and Israel and motivate God to save her.  But I don’t think his death satisfies a need or demand in in God to kill someone because of their sins.

Now, so far, all of that is very Israel-centric.  I don’t know about you, but I’m a Gentile.  What’s more, the New Testament seems to indicate that Jesus’ death was necessary to save the Gentiles from God’s wrath as well, so how does that work?

Well, one of the things the death and resurrection of Jesus means is that Torah-compliance no longer determines who the faithful people of God are; faith in what God has done in Jesus is.  Gentiles can have this faith as well and, by doing so, become part of the people of God.  Part of this, too, means repenting of our past ways of life and embracing a new life of faithfulness defined by following the path of Jesus.  In this way, God not only saves Gentiles from their sins, but He saves Israel, too.  By forming a new people out of the two where righteousness is defined by faith and not Torah, believing Israel is freed from her condemnation under the Law and Gentiles are redeemed from their fruitless ways of living to which they were enslaved into a priestly service to God.

Additionally, God’s faithful remnant who might otherwise have been snuffed out as time went on suddenly received a massive influx in membership.

God’s judgement expanded to the nations as well, and those who had faith in Jesus were saved.  And we see that there will be a final judgment on the distant horizon, too.

In this way, Jesus’ death brought about a very different situation for both Jews and Gentiles and changed the trajectory of history such that Israel’s God became Lord over all the nations.  Jesus’ death was not only necessary for all this, but it had to happen -at the time that it happened-.

What we see, I would argue, is a much richer drama around Jesus’ death that is far more relational and covenant-oriented than PSA has to offer.

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It’s the Bread, Isn’t It: Matthew 16:5-12

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Matthew 16:5-12 (NRSV)

This little vignette has been one of my favorite Jesus stories since college.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because we see a very human Jesus in it, or maybe it’s because we can all relate to trying to get something across to someone who is just staggeringly dense about it.  Maybe we can also relate to being that staggeringly dense person from time to time.

Jesus says this after the Pharisees and Sadducees demand a sign from him in an attempt to discredit him.  Jesus knows this unlikely alliance has come together against their common enemy – himself.  He is also very aware that the effort to remove him from the scene will soon spill over into persecution for his followers.

So, there are very immediate, concrete reasons to be wary of what the Sadducees and Pharisees are saying about them among the people.  Jesus, himself, is very wary of this and is constantly working to slip through their rhetorical traps, hoping that the good works he is doing among the Jews will show them who is really on their side, regardless of what the religious leadership is saying about them.

That last bit is an ongoing theme for Matthew that shows up everywhere.  You have Israel’s leadership who should, in love, be using their authority to help struggling Israelites in this, their time of need.  The Pharisees and Sadducees should be doing the things that Jesus and his followers are doing, perhaps without all the fireworks.  God’s delegated authority to Israel’s leaders was always meant to be used for the welfare of the people under that authority, not the other way around.  “How can I use my power to serve the people under my rule?” is a question that was meant to be on the lips of every prophet, priest, and king of Israel.

But, by the time we get to Jesus’ day, Israel’s leadership has turned this model on its head (or turned it the right way up, according to the way the rest of the world typically uses power).  The power structure over Israel has used their position to acquire wealth and prestige, eliminate the people they don’t like, and deafen themselves to the cries of widows and orphans and foreigners.  Religiously, they have kept all the outward trappings of the religion of Israel while engaging it with all the zeal that I engage flossing.  It is, for them, a system of religious observances with no heart, no transformation, and no love.  “Look what a devout Jew I am!” says the Sadducee as he passes by a wounded beggar to avoid contact with anything unclean on his way to a party at Herod’s house.

It is exactly this state of affairs that has brought Israel to their present state in Jesus’ day.  God sent prophet after prophet warning them that, if they did not do justice, repent in humility, and restore a heartfelt worship and obedience of the God who brought them out of slavery, their trust in pagan nations would prove ill-founded and they would find themselves dispersed from their land under the rule of other kingdoms.

It turns out this is exactly what happened.

So, when we consider “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” we might think of it like a long spear.  This trend has gone on and on in Israel’s history and brought nothing but misery to the common Israelite, and now the sharp point is aimed directly at Jesus and his followers.

Jesus, being prone to parables and symbolism, captures this in what he feels is a pithy image: beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.  I’ve elsewhere discussed the imagery of yeast in both biblical and extra-biblical sources, and I’m not going to repeat it all, here.  But in summary, yeast is often used symbolically to describe the spread of corruption in Israel.  It starts small, but quickly spreads throughout the entire loaf.

One of the things I quoted in the post I linked to, above, is a prayer from Rabbi Alexandri that pulls together the imagery of yeast and connects it with the state of exile for the Jewish people:

Rabbi Alexandri, when he finished his daily prayer, said the following: ‘Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known to You that our true desire is to do Your will. What prevents it but the “yeast in the dough” and the subjugation of the exile! May it be Your will, O Lord, to deliver us from their hands, and we shall return to perform the decrees of our will with a perfect heart.’

Berachos 17b

The things that keep Israel from being able to be an obedient, priestly people are the conditions of their subjugation and the “yeast in the dough,” which is the internal corruption among the people.  If God would purge out this corruption from Israel and then deliver them from their oppressors, His people could go back to being an obedient, priestly people in the world.

As we look at the historical arc of the destruction of the Temple and the power center of Jerusalem and the overthrow of persecution of Christians, I can’t help but wonder if Alexandri’s prayer eventually came to pass.

But then we get to the part I like best.

Jesus has warned the disciples to watch out for the teachings of the Jewish religious and political leaders and compared it to yeast.  The disciples believe that Jesus is upset because they forgot to bring actual, literal bread.

I really wish we had a transcript of that discussion.

“What do you think he meant by that?”

“Well, we forgot to bring bread.  Maybe he wants some bread.”

“Ok, but why should we beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees?”

“Maybe he doesn’t want us borrowing their yeast to make bread.”

“But then we wouldn’t be able to make bread for him.”

“Yes, good point.  Maybe that’s why he’s upset.”

At some point, Jesus can’t take it, anymore, which is hilarious to me.  I mean, how obtuse do you have to be before you’ve strained the patience of Jesus himself?  It’s sort of like being such a jerk that Mahatma Ghandi takes a swing at you.

Jesus gives a short speech that I’ve entitled, “You’ve Got to Be Kidding Me,” where he explains the problem is absolutely not the lack of bread.  He points out that he is fully capable of asking God for bread and God will deliver even if it requires a miracle to do so.  The disciples were all there to see that happen – twice – which just makes the whole thing doubly stupid.  Not only have they taken Jesus way too literally, thus completely missing his point, but they have arrived at a conclusion completely counter to what they’ve observed in Jesus.

You know, there’s a lesson about hermeneutics in here for all of us, I think.

I wonder, if someone could present Jesus with certain very literal readings of Revelation or the Olivet Discourse that are popular in American evangelical culture, how long it would take before Jesus started tapping his fingertips on the table, trying not to lose it.

Jesus closes his reminder with the exact same thing he said at the beginning, “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  He does not spell it out, but once he has eliminated the option that he is talking about literal bread, the disciples figure it out in short order, to their credit.

It seems like a funny little story, almost an incidental slice of life, really.  But soon, Jesus will begin to explain more explicitly to his disciples that he is going to die and, not only that, but following him will very well mean their own lives will be in danger.  Their own commitments to the kingdom are about to be challenged.  Their faith is about to be put to the ultimate test – the sacrifice of their own lives for the sake of what they believe about Jesus.  Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the next story in Matthew is about the disciples recognizing who Jesus is.

Consider This

  1. Are there other examples you can think of in Jesus’ teaching or biblical writings when a very literal understanding creates confusion, misses the point, or maybe even arrives at a conclusion very different than we’d see from Jesus?
  2. Do you see any parallels between the political and religious power structures of Jesus’ day and the ones you live under, today?

Sunday Meditations: Jesus and Politics

Several years ago, I was an elder at a small but dedicated Reformed church.  Given the size of the congregation, it might not seem like being an elder there was a lot of work, but the body of elders was also very small at least some of those times, and there were a lot of big ups and downs during that time, so it really was like having a second, albeit part-time, job.

During that time, a congregation member had called me to vent.  He was angry and thinking about leaving the church.  Those are awkward times in the life of an elder, because you want the other person to be able to pour out their pain.  Sometimes, people just want to be heard even if they don’t want you to do something about it.

On the other hand, people can say some really unfair things during those times, and while you don’t want to get into a debate (anecdotally, I’d say that 90% of people who say they’re “thinking of leaving the church” in your conversation have already made up their minds to do so), it’s also not always healthy to let them say whatever they want about whomever they want without some gentle nudging back to a more fair and charitable way of talking about them.

In this particular case, this man was upset at, among other things, the pastor not preaching things he felt were indispensable.  As an example of this, he pointed to a recent sermon and said, “He said that Jesus wasn’t political, but Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.”

Like I said, those aren’t times for a careful discussion, but I am almost totally positive that, if I’d asked, “What do you mean by Jesus being political?” I would not have gotten a cogent answer back.  Someone he had complete exegetical trust in had told him Jesus was political, and even though he didn’t understand that, himself, he knew that anyone who said otherwise had to be wrong.

The pastor being critiqued is someone whose impact on my life overall is inestimable, and I remember the sermon where he said that Jesus wasn’t political.  I also remember the phone conversation where someone countered that notion with a somewhat odd way of putting it: Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny.

As mid-term elections draw nigh (I already voted – get the whole nasty business over with), I’ve been thinking about Jesus and politics, and depending on what you mean, I think some could make the statement, “Jesus was not political,” and be right or the statement, “Jesus was so political that it wasn’t funny,” and also be right – and not because of the funny part.

Jesus Was Not Political

Jesus was not political in the sense of how evangelicals have viewed American politics of the last several decades.  Jesus did not try to get influence with public officials, nor did he encourage others to do so (with the possible exception of Luke 16:9).  He did not participate in the various groups vying for the political destiny of Jerusalem in true Game of Thrones style, nor did he endorse any of them.  In short, Jesus did not view his mission in terms of using existing political mechanisms to bring about his agenda or accomplish his mission.

This is something of a contrast as to how conservative evangelicals have approached the American political sphere where using existing political mechanisms to bring about your agenda or mission is seen as vital.  At an evangelical church, you are likely to have a Voters’ Guide thrust upon you at some point.  It’s not uncommon to hear this or that political party or specific politician elevated or decried from the pulpit.  It’s also not uncommon to hear the outcomes of elections or referenda as incredibly high stakes events for the Church where the results mark major watersheds in God’s plan for America.  Oh yeah, in this way of thinking, God has a special relationship with America that is, more or less, the relationship He had with Old Testament Israel.

When we compare that view of spirituality and politics with the activity of Jesus, we do see some pretty large differences.  In that sense, which is the sense the Rev. Smith was using in his sermon, Jesus was not political.  Jesus was about the coming Kingdom of God, and that kingdom had a trajectory and destiny that began with calling faithful Israel out of the present world structures and into the coming kingdom.  To plant the seed of this kingdom, Jesus spent his time reclaiming the lost sheep of Israel – body and soul.

As we look at the early church continuing this mission, they continued this perspective.  The early church forbade their members to be politicians or soldiers (or actors, for some reason).  This is obviously a stark contrast to the fervent political activism and veneration of the military that are defining marks of much of the American evangelical church, today.  The idea for the early church is that those were institutions that propped up the powers of the age – the very powers that God was in the act of overturning.  A convert to Christianity who became a soldier or a Senator for his career was like a Jew becoming a pork distributor; you were not just joining “the rest of the world,” you were actively propping it up.

It’s from this standpoint that the sentence, “Jesus was not political” has meaning.  If we think about all the money American Christians have spent to get their favored candidate elected or what have you and transferred that money to programs that work against poverty and hunger, or that feed and clothe orphans, or that help prisoners get their lives back in society, it’s staggering to think of the good that might be accomplished.  From that standpoint, Christians in America could stand to reevaluate the example and commands of the Lord Jesus to see if our priorities and resources are directed along the same lines that Jesus’ were.

But Jesus Was Political

In American Christianity, you also have a group that contends that Jesus was solely interested in the spiritual condition of individuals, and this should be the Church’s priority.  What’s weird about this is that there is a significant overlap between the “Let’s Burn the World to Get Our Candidate Elected” crowd and the “Jesus Only Cared About People’s Souls” crowd.  I don’t get it, either, but there you go.

Unfortunately, you can’t talk about the Kingdom of God without talking about politics – specifically, how do the people of God exist in the world in the midst of other nations who are typically hostile or at least far more powerful, and what does this mean for the futures of both God’s people and the surrounding nations?

This concern weaves throughout the Old Testament, obviously.  The Old Testament writings do not give us a story of people’s individual spiritual well-being, but rather they give us the story of Israel and her God in the world.  It isn’t too uncommon to read the Old Testament in an individualistic way, especially in sermons.  The different characters become examples of our own individual spiritual journeys rather than pivotal figures in the ongoing story of Israel and her God among the nations.  I think, sometimes, we’re just not sure what to do with the Old Testament, so this is the route some choose to make it relevant.

But you have to cut out a rather lot of the Old Testament to make the Old Testament a collection of positive and negative examples of individual spirituality.  The Old Testament is about the fate of nations with Israel at the center.  When God saves His people, He saves the nation.  When Israel’s sins get her in trouble, they are national sins like idolatry or the priesthood only using lame and diseased animals for offerings or rampant injustice toward the poor and defenseless or dishonest business practices to make a profit.  Israel’s leadership stands as a proxy for the nation such that all it takes is an unfaithful king or obsequious prophets to get the whole nation in trouble.

And as Israel comes into contact with other nations, they are drawn into the scope of this story.  God saves Israel from other nations.  God invokes the penalties of the Law on Israel with other nations.  God takes and restores Israel’s land with other nations.  On the whole, messing with Israel is a sure means to God removing you from the world scene at some point.

It is this trajectory into which the Son of God is sent.  Israel’s land is occupied by a larger, more powerful pagan empire.  Many Jews can still live in their land and Jerusalem is still the center of their religious and political life, but this is a shadow of what it once meant.  Many Jews are dispersed throughout the empire and don’t live in their ancestral lands at all.  Roman law, not Torah, is the highest ethical and political authority in Judea.  Roman officials, not Jewish officials, have the final say in what goes on in the land.  Even the High Priest becomes a position filled by Roman appointment.

When Jesus arrives, his goal is to save Israel from their sins.  He is going to turn this situation around.  This will involve calling the lost to repentance of their ways of life into the ways of love of God and neighbor.  This will involve instilling a new piety in Israel and reminding her that God has not abandoned her, loves her, remembers His promises, and is for her.  In this sense, the disposition of the heart is very important to what Jesus is trying to accomplish.

But this is also political.  This all happens in the context that the Kingdom of God has come with Jesus.  He forgives sins, heals the sick, and casts out evil spirits not just to be a good dude but because the Kingdom of God has come and Jesus is the king of it.  He is out to restore everything that was broken and lost.  He is liberating his people from the curse of the law.  He is creating a counter-kingdom that runs off a very different engine than the world powers at the time – a kingdom where the Law is love, and no matter how much damage you may have done in your past, if you are willing to put that life aside and begin anew in God’s kingdom with Jesus as your king, there is no limit to how much you will be forgiven and what God will restore to you.  It is, in fact, Jesus’ claim to leading a rival kingdom that finds him executed by the Romans for insurrection.

Furthermore, there is a coming calamity on Jerusalem that will shatter the power of Israel’s leaders and redefine her place in the world.  Jesus wills that as much of Israel that can be spared this fate should be spared, and he labors powerfully to make that happen.  Many believe his warnings and are saved, but the powers of that age reject Jesus and crucify him, and God does not prevent the Roman onslaught when Jerusalem falls and the Temple is destroyed.  These consequences are not merely personal and spiritual; they are highly political.  The landscape of God’s people in the world would never be the same after that.

But it doesn’t stop there.  The Kingdom grows like a giant tree from the smallest of all seeds, and this does not escape the notice of the Empire.  While it would be a mistake to portray Christians as under constant and fiery Imperial persecution, they nevertheless experienced those seasons as the disposition of emperors toward Christianity would vacillate from seeing them as “distasteful religious sect not worth the bother” to “threat to Imperial stability.”

And one of the reasons for these changing dispositions was – to the shock of everyone – the fact that Romans themselves were hearing about Jesus and what God had done and believed it.  They believed and wanted to be part of this kingdom, too, eventually in even greater numbers than Jesus would have among his own people.  These people, too, were forgiven and healed and displayed the same Spirit that Israel’s God had poured out upon faithful Israel.

It was this trajectory of the kingdom that eventually caused Constantine to declare Jesus Christ the Lord of the Roman Empire and paint the Chi Rho on his shields, removing all who persecuted Christians decisively from power.

This is not to say everything Constantine did was good or even very Jesus-like.  But the political impact of the spread of the Kingdom cannot be denied, here, and the change it made on the political landscape for the people of God.

What About Now?

We’re in a situation for which there is little analogy in the Bible, unfortunately.  While we can and should turn to the written word for guidance, the Church must be especially attentive to the living Word because we are in a very different place than the Bible addresses as far as politics are concerned.

  1. Believing Jews and Gentiles have been made into one people of God.  In the Bible, this opened the scope from “the land promised to Israel” to “the nations,” which essentially meant the Roman Empire, and now we see the people of God distributed throughout the entire world, effectively decentralizing God’s people into all lands in general and no lands in particular, including America and what we now refer to as the modern nation-state of Israel.
  2. There is no centralized world power or dominant empire.  We talk about military super powers, but there is no Empire in the same sense as we find in the outlook of the New Testament.  In the New Testament writings, Rome is as big as you can get and they rule everything.  They were “global power” from the first century perspective.  Now, this perspective no longer serves in a direct sense.  We might look at the influence different nations have on the global community, but there is no longer a single, centralized Empire to define ourselves against.
  3. Christendom has come and pretty much gone.  In America, we have a strong fundamentalist streak that has slowed the disappearance of Christian elements prevailing in culture and government, and maybe there’s even a baseline under which it simply will not dip, but the idea of a government run basically by Jesus is gone and is unlikely to return anytime soon, if ever.  The images of a world where all nations proclaimed Jesus as lord has, from the standpoint of the New Testament, had its run, and now we’re kind of on the other side of that.  That doesn’t mean something couldn’t happen in the future, but where we are now, we are post-nations-proclaiming-Jesus-as-Lord, not experiencing it.
  4. America is a Republic informed by democratic principles.  The people elect representatives to government to speak and vote on our behalf.  So, there is a sense in which Americans (including American Christians) are the government and wield its power.  We are not helplessly at the mercy of a monarch or an emperor (however much it might feel that way from time to time), and this one factor alone puts us in a very different situation than Jesus or the early church.  Turns out that the principalities and powers of our age are, to a large degree, us.

This is why trying to drop the examples of the New Testament directly on top of our situation without further thought are bound to take us in weird directions.  Even in the Torah itself, we see God’s commandments changing to reflect the changing circumstances of Israel.  For example, the laws about sacrifices while Israel is wandering in the wilderness undergo some serious revision once they have an established Temple in Jerusalem.  It would be absurd to think that, politically speaking, the people of God in 21st century America are basically in the same situation as Jesus or the Apostles.  There are countries in the world, today, where Christians face an extremely similar situation to the first century Church, but America is not one of those places.

At the same time, Jesus is still Lord and we are not free to replace him with people or values we might prefer or who might better embody our cultural sensibilities.  What was important to Jesus?  Who was he helping?  Who received his critique and who received his compassion?  What principles and values do his commandments reveal to us such that we can still find ways to act in accordance with those principles and values?

The power of a vote or a political voice is a resource given to you just like your money or your time.  It belongs to Jesus and was given to you for stewardship.  How will you use it and what outcome do you hope to see from that?  Is it the sort of outcome that our Lord has shown us best represents his own priorities?  Are we shaping a world with MORE healing?  MORE forgiveness?  MORE lives being put back together?  MORE compassion?  MORE care for those who cannot care for themselves?  What did Jesus spend his time doing?  Who received his critiques, and why?

Is the Law love or isn’t it?  Is Jesus’ highest concern that we protect ourselves and our stuff?  Did Jesus value his own prosperity at the expense of others, or the prosperity of those he loved at his own expense?

And at any time, did Jesus ever use the complexities or ambiguities of a situation as a reason to do nothing?

 

Sunday Meditations: What’s the Word?

What is the Word of God?

In the Old Testament, the Word of God is something that comes to you.  It shares something with you.  In many instances, what the Word shared with the receiver was meant to be passed on to Israel.

Take, for example, Jeremiah’s account of his calling to be a prophet:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah 1:4-5 (NRSV)

This is very common prophetic language in the Old Testament.  The word of the Lord is something that comes to you and says things to you.  This is tricky for us to envision because words are what is said, and therefore it is easy to conflate the two, and I would argue that the Hebrew intends for the distinction to be somewhat porous.

Nevertheless, the idea is that the word of the Lord is something living that tells you things.  Those words could also be thought of as “the word of the Lord,” but in a derivative sense.  They are the words the prophet received from the Word.

This is an idea we should keep in mind as we read Old Testament passages that talk about God’s Word.  They aren’t talking about the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist yet.

In certain passages, they may be referring to the Law.  For example, there’s the famous passage in Psalm 119:105 where the psalmist writes, “Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,” and the rest of the psalm indicates this is talking about the law.  God’s commandments show the psalmist how to navigate.

Although, even in this psalm, it’s unclear that the psalmist is referring to the written record of these commandments, which were often lost for generations on end in Israel’s history only to be rediscovered later.  They were passed along (when they were passed along) through oral tradition, and Psalm 119 has various references in it that the “word” the psalmist is thinking about is a little bit more organic than the Torah.

Blessed are you, O Lord;
    teach me your statutes.

Psalm 119:12 (NRSV)

Here, the psalmist is asking for God to teach him His statutes.  In other words, God’s commandments are something God has to communicate to the psalmist.  This plea for God to teach the psalmist is repeated several times throughout Psalm 119.

The psalmist goes on to say that God’s word will revive him from the edge of death.  God’s word will bring him salvation.  God’s word is something in which the psalmist places his hope.

And then we get to this gem:

 The Lord exists forever;
your word is firmly fixed in heaven.
Your faithfulness endures to all generations;
you have established the earth, and it stands fast.
By your appointment they stand today,
for all things are your servants.

Psalm 119:89-91 (NRSV)

Here, we get the idea that God’s word is not simply the commandments that the psalmist observes but is also something established forever in heaven.  It existed before the earth and governs not only the workings of heaven but the workings of all creation.

This concept is part of a strong wisdom tradition in Judaism that crops up in a number of different literary sources, but one of my favorite examples is in Proverbs:

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
by understanding he established the heavens;
by his knowledge the deeps broke open,
and the clouds drop down the dew.

Proverbs 3:19-20 (NRSV)

and in a long passage where Wisdom as a person appeals to the reader:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
    then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.

Proverbs 8:22-31 (NRSV)

Once more, we have the idea that God’s wisdom is not to be equated with the words of the Proverbs, but rather a “being” who was with God before anything was created who assisted Him in creation.  It is from this “being” – this elemental law and logic that existed before creation and underlies all creation – that the words of wisdom in Proverbs proceed.  By acting in accordance with the wisdom of the Proverbs, you are acting in accordance with the fundamental structure of created reality that precedes it.

The Hellenistic version of this is Logos (also translated “word”).  The concept of “logos” is the same – the universe has law at the core of it, and this is logos.  It is the underlying structure that everything obeys and how it naturally works.  It’s not only where we get the word “logic” from, describing the way reason is supposed to work, but also why all of our disciplines of study end in “-logy.”  We are uncovering these underlying laws of whatever we happen to be studying, so biology is uncovering the underlying laws of life, geology is uncovering the underlying laws of earth, etc.

It’s the idea of the logos that John turns to in the opening chapter:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 

John 1:1-3 (NRSV)

Ok, so far so good.  This actually seems to be commensurate with both Jewish and Hellenistic thought at the time.  But then:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14 (NRSV)

In John’s gospel, this preexisting Word-of-God-being that we’ve been talking about became enfleshed, and of course he means Jesus Christ.

Of course, early Christian theology had a certain level of diversity as to exactly how this came about.  On one side of the spectrum were certain forms of adoptionism where Jesus was just a regular guy who ended up becoming this thing.  On the other side of the spectrum as something resembling Nicean trinitarianism where the man Jesus was God incarnate.  And you had all kinds of positions somewhere in between, like Arianism.

But the one thing they all agreed on was that Jesus embodied (literally) this Logos.  Jesus, as a human being, displayed this eternal Word of God.  He was a person, not a book.  But like the Word of the Lord in the Old Testament, he said things to people.  But he didn’t just say things, he did things.  And he didn’t just do things, he loved, served, wept, laughed, and sacrificed himself.

Behold, the inner logic of God.  The fundamental laws of all creation.

The Word of God is Jesus.  If you want to more deeply know and walk according to the Word of God, you have to more deeply know and walk with Jesus.

How does this happen?

Well, the Bible is one way.  Both testaments have things to teach us about Jesus, and we can find him there.  But like the words given to the prophets, these words are derivative products.  We can say they are the words of God, but we have to keep in mind that they are Gods words in a secondary, mediated sense.  The Word of God is a person, not a book.  He is a being, not words on a page.

It is the holistic, spiritual encounter with this living Word that we discover in the New Testament:

The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7 (NRSV)

No doubt, this spread of the “word of God” involved apostolic teaching (although, once again, keep in mind none of these people had Bibles).  It also involved selling your goods to take care of the poor.  It involved healing.  It involved visions.  It involved discernment.  It involved, not just the spread of verbalized words, but the spread of certain kinds of behavior, values, spiritual realignment, and even miracles.

Does this sound like anybody you know?  By the power of the Spirit, these early communities embodied Jesus and carried his presence to each other and the world around them.

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV)

Books are not living and active.  But the Word of God is.

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

2 Corinthians 3:1-3 (NRSV)

If you’re looking for the secret epistle written by Jesus Christ in a handwritten scroll, you are looking in the wrong place.  The Scripture that Jesus wrote, he wrote with the Spirit dwelling inside his followers.

How do you get to know this Word?

True, the Bible presents him to you.  I am not in any sense trying to take that away.

The mysteries of the Lord’s Supper and baptism present him to you as well.  As the Bible brings you Jesus through written words, the Supper brings you Jesus in bread and wine.  Baptism brings you Jesus in the going through and emerging from water.

The communion of the saints present Jesus to you.  They are his temple and the flesh that carries his presence.  His words come to you through them.  His love for you and service to you comes through them.  They bring the Word of God to you, and you, if you have the Spirit, are part of the project of bringing the Word of God to them in the same way.

And of course, there is your personal experience of the Spirit.  The godly wisdom the book of your life has written, the fellowship with Jesus in prayer and the voice you hear tugging at your heart.  The prodding of your conscience.  The wind that blows you in this or that direction.

In these things, we hear, see, touch, and even taste this Word.

Asking for a Sign: Matthew 16:1-4

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.

Matthew 16:-1-4 (NRSV)

This is an interesting passage because it lays out a few, different sets of expectations and assumptions, and they don’t always line up with the people you’d expect.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are both Jewish but have fairly different theological ideas on a number of topics.  It’s helpful to keep in mind that first century Judaism was not a monolith.  It’s helpful not only in the sense of understanding these events better, but it also helps in that it reminds us how grossly inaccurate it is to cast Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.”

The Pharisees were a group that believed Israel was under Roman dominion because they had failed to keep Torah.  Their solution to this was to preach stricter Torah observance among the people in the hopes that their obedience would motivate God to deliver them.  Since the Torah doesn’t exactly spell out in detail every little thing, rabbis of a Pharisaical bent threw themselves into that very task, creating traditions and interpretations of the Law to which they held their people accountable.

From the standpoint of Israel’s story up to that point, these views had a lot going for them.  It is true that the prophets explained Israel’s exile and tenure under foreign dominion as a result of their breaking of the covenant, and it’s reasonable to assume that, if the nation repented and began steadfastly obeying the covenant, God would turn their situation around.

The disconnect came in the fact that Israel’s failure to live up to the Law did not consist in the failure to observe this or that little detail – it was that Israel’s leadership had become corrupt and unjust in how they treated both their own people and foreigners, and they had led the people astray from devotion to their God into idolatry.  The indictments the prophets brought against Israel were indictments of how they treated orphans, widows, the poor, and the stranger.  Israel was doing fine observing the “religious” specifications of the Law and had abandoned anything that looked like love or justice.

As one example, take the opening salvo of Isaiah:

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

Here, the prophet tells us that God finds all the careful religious observances that are in the Law offensive because the same people doing those careful observances are oppressors.

We see this clash play itself out with Jesus and the Pharisees as well, as Jesus warns that a world-changing judgement on Israel is imminent, and the only way to be saved through it is to believe him, repent, and follow his path, which included not simply a spiritual reorientation to God but manifested in works of love and restoration of the least of peoples, even when doing so could be seen as technically a violation of Torah.  The Pharisees will not help a crippled man on the Sabbath because that would be doing work, but Jesus demonstrates that helping this man in love is, in fact, what God and the Law require.

You can see how these two would clash.  Jesus is preaching that the judgement will not be averted by more Torah obedience the way the Pharisees define it and, in fact, their definition of obedience is actually hypocrisy in the eyes of both God and Torah.

The Sadducees, by contrast, are more urbane than their Pharisee counterparts.  Sadducees do not believe in any supernatural beings but God, and even that might be a little iffy.  Sadducees do not believe that anyone has or could rise from the dead or even that people have an immortal soul.  They openly reject the “traditional” laws of the Pharisees and only hold strictly to the written words of the Torah, which affords them quite a bit of moral latitude.

The Sadducees tended to be something of a bridge between the Jewish people and the Greco-Roman control of the region.  They were often very high up in both religious and political hierarchies, performing grand Temple duties and serving in various councils and tribunals dealing with matters of Jewish governance.  As a result, they were a prosperous group and archeological evidence has shown us that they tended to adopt the customs of and even change their housing and decorations to match the tastes and preferences of whomever was in charge of Jerusalem at the time.

Perhaps Jesus has run afoul of this group because of the miracle stories or his teaching of resurrection, but I think a great part of the hostility probably comes from Jesus’ preaching against Israelites taking up the ways of her oppressors for their own comfort and prosperity.  God is in opposition to this world order, and those who are allied with it will fall in the judgement, and that puts Sadducees right in the crosshairs.

Honestly, both of these groups provide some good object lessons for looking at Christianity in America, today.  But that’s not really the point of the passage.

The point is that we have two groups who probably never agreed on anything – a fact that Jesus actually uses to his advantage a time or two – who are teaming up here to put Jesus in a bind of sorts.  They demand that Jesus show them a sign from heaven, presumably to validate his message.  The one thing that unites both groups is that Jesus represents a threat to their power base, and if they ask the Miracle Man to produce one, and he can’t, obviously he’ll lose credibility with the rank and file Jewish people.

One thing that’s interesting to me about this is that the author of the gospel of Matthew does not shy away from the miracle stories of Jesus.  In fact, this passage follows on the heels of a miracle Jesus performs.  Matthew, following Mark, even shows us a literal voice from heaven validating Jesus.  If the author is simply trying to establish Jesus’ credibility before gullible first century (and subsequent) readers, then it’s go time.  Jesus’ enemies ask for supernatural proof, Jesus does something amazing or another voice speaks from heaven, and boom – Jesus is vindicated, and you’re an idiot if you don’t believe him.  There are stories like this in both Testaments; it’s a well-established trope.  This is the kind of story we’d expect from a gospel writer who was more concerned with creating a Jesus movement than they were telling us what they believed to be true.

But here, Matthew shows us a Jesus who isn’t interested at all in a supernatural sign.  Honestly, in isolation, this story would look exactly like the story of a fraud – a shyster.  People quite reasonably ask for a supernatural demonstration that should be perfectly commensurate with the stories people are telling about Jesus, and Jesus cleverly and verbally evades the issue and produces nothing.  But it is clear that portraying Jesus this way is actually counter to the author’s intent.  It sort of hurts Matthew’s case, in a sense, to include this story.  If Jesus wants people to believe in him, and he’s fully capable of producing a miracle, why not do it right here, right now?  Those Pharisees and Sadducees would have no choice but to give in to the empirical evidence right in front of them, right?

Interestingly, John (the weird gospel) has an episode where this is exactly what happens:

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

John 12:27-32 (NRSV)

In this passage, John tells us that some people said the voice was just thunder, while others recognized it as a supernatural voice but ascribed it to an angel and not actually God.  If you continue reading this passage, some people in the crowd continue to grill Jesus as if nothing had happened. Maybe producing a supernatural event that convinces everyone is harder than it seems.  Even if you don’t believe John is recording a historical event, here, the author still has people reacting differently to it.  To me, these nods to skepticism not only give us a nice, honest depiction of how people of all worldviews interpret data according to their assumptions, but they actually add credibility to the gospel accounts in a sort of “we’d normally be embarrassed to say this” kind of way.  If you’re making up a miracle to prove Jesus’ identity, it really doesn’t help you out to note that a good chunk of people wrote it off as thunder, and it would just be weird to fabricate people ascribing it to “an angel.”

Anyway, that’s not the point either.  I’m getting there.

The point is that Jesus answers their request for a sign from heaven with an appeal to interpreting the world around them.  In other words, Jesus does not direct them to a miracle or even his past miracles, but rather he points them to the mundane events unfolding in the world.

In other words, they should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

I really want to underscore that, so let me say it, again:

They should be able to know Jesus’ message is true because they can look at world events and see that’s where things are going.

If you ever had any doubts about orienting Jesus and his message to the concrete, historical circumstances of his world, allow Jesus to put them to rest for you.  The claims that Jesus is making should have been supported and evident by observing the events of the day.

This criticism would be ridiculous if we had a Jesus who was solely proclaiming “spiritual realities.”  You can’t validate “spiritual realities” by observing the signs apparent in the natural flow of events.  What you can validate is what’s likely to happen down the road on the basis of what you’re seeing, today.

That’s exactly Jesus’ analogy, isn’t it?  You look at the sky the night before, and you can tell what the weather will be like, tomorrow.  You look at the sky in the morning, and you can tell what the weather will be like the rest of the day.  Jesus says the reason people are asking for supernatural validation from heaven is because they’re incapable of observing the normal course of events and drawing the conclusion that Jesus is correct.

This has to mean that Jesus’ message is at least partially about where concrete history is going.  He foresees tensions building up to a conflict with Rome that Jerusalem will not survive, and he weeps over it.  He warns people of this coming calamity and that the time is now to repent, start helping one another, get their hearts right, and literally flee the city when they see the Romans show up.

We can’t really understand Jesus’ preaching about coming judgement, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and salvation if we totally divorce those concepts from the historical situation and concerns of Jesus’ day.  I’m not trying to say there isn’t a spiritual component of those things, but I am saying that the Jesus the gospels show us is not a transhistorical teacher of timeless spiritual truths.  He is an apocalyptic prophet in the tradition of Israel’s prophets before him that are concerned with the survival of Israel among the nations, with the added status of being God’s own Son sent into the vineyard to warn the tenants.

Further confirmation of this is found in Jesus’ parting words, that this generation would get no sign except the sign of Jonah.

Jesus has already said this, elsewhere.

Part of this – the part that Christians love so much – is an allusion to the resurrection.  Just as Jonah was in the belly of the beast for three days and nights, so Jesus would be in the tomb for three days and nights.  That allusion is completely valid and, in the Matthew 12 reference to it, makes that allusion explicit.  So, I’m not trying to take that away.

But something the Matthew 12 reference also makes explicit is part of the “sign of Jonah” is Jonah bringing a prophetic message to Nineveh telling them to repent or their city would be conquered:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Jonah 3:1-5 (NRSV)

You see, Jonah’s warning wasn’t that Nineveh needed to repent or they would all go to Hell when they eventually died.  Jonah’s warning was that the great and powerful city of Nineveh would be overthrown.

Jesus is that sign of Jonah for Jerusalem.  He, too, is carrying that message in his day.  The tragedy is that, in Jonah’s day, the (very non-Jewish) city of Nineveh believed the prophet and repented, turning toward the mercies of the true God.  Here, among his own people, Jesus finds unbelief and rejection.  The overthrow of the great city will happen.  And Jesus cries over his beloved Jerusalem, praying that the disaster might not come on them in the winter or on a Sabbath.

But the gospel writers let us know all is not lost.

The kingdom of God has come like a tiny mustard seed, and it will grow until it is a mighty tree that fills the earth.  That seed begins with this rag tag collection of peasant fishermen and tax collector sellouts.  It begins with cripples and lepers and those who have been isolated because of the Law.  It begins with prostitutes who have no place in a first century society or economy.  Jesus’ opposition comes from the religious professionals who know their Bibles, but the salvation of Israel begins with the lowly.  And, thusly, a triumph of both God’s power and grace.

The day would come when all the nations who bowed the knee to Caesar would bow the knee to Jesus Christ.  Jesus was vindicated, and so were all who decided to place their faith in him.

Consider This

  1. What are the perfectly natural, mundane signs of our times showing us God is doing in the world?
  2. Do we have a hope for the immediate future?  What would have to happen in fifty years or a hundred years to vindicate our hope?

Sunday Meditations: Salvation and Relationship

Imagine buying your first house.  Or, if you’ve already bought your first house, try to remember that experience.  Most of what I remember about it was looking at what felt like three dozen houses whose features all ran together into an indistinguishable blur.

As you’re buying that first house, and as you’re thinking about why you want that house and what sort of life you’ll live in that house, do you ever pause to think about what a great place that house will be to store all your stuff?

It’s a legitimate thing to think about, right?  Many Americans have lots of stuff, and we need a place to put it.  A house solves that need.  Certainly, that’s what happens in a house.  In fact, most of the experience of moving in is getting all your stuff into the house.  If you visit other people’s houses, you’ll note that all their stuff is in it.

Yet, if you were going to talk about your thoughts behind home ownership, most people would probably not cite “stuff storage” as the main reason they’re doing it.  Sure, they might talk about storage space as an issue when comparing houses.  Also, they most assuredly will move their stuff into the house when they buy it, and they probably spend a fair amount of time planning where all the stuff is going to go.  Despite all that, “storage” is just not what buying a house is all about.

When you imagine buying a house, the picture is much bigger, much fuller than a structure in which to store your property.  You’re thinking of a place to live – a place of your very own – perhaps to share with a spouse or children.  You’re thinking of all aspects of your life as it plays out inside your house.  Storage is a part of it, sure, but it’s a facet of a much larger gem.  In fact, buying your house affects your life so holistically that it seems almost comical to imagine a young couple buying their first house so they can finally have a place to keep their stuff.  If you were considering a specific house, and the real estate agent kept going on and on about what a great place to store your stuff it was, you might start to wonder what they were trying to pull.

At the same time, the house is a place to store your stuff.  It’s a great benefit that comes with home ownership, it’s kind of a big deal, and if the real estate agent told you that she had a great house for you but you couldn’t keep any of your stuff in it, you’d probably look elsewhere.

So, on the one hand, we want to maintain that storage is a feature of owning a house, and it’s an important one – one we don’t want to do without – and one that plays a big role in our experience of that house.

On the other hand, we acknowledge that storage is just one facet of home ownership.  The whole picture is much bigger than that, and if you narrowly focus on the house as storage space, someone will probably point out to you that you could, in fact, live in the house, use it, and enjoy it much more thoroughly than your narrow lens was allowing.

That’s all!  Thanks for reading.  This blog has been brought to you by the Realtors Association of….

No, this long, rambling prologue is meant to serve as a (very) loose analogy.  Making “storage space” the entire point of a house is similar to how I feel when people make “having a personal relationship with God” the entire point of the biblical story, or God’s acts in history, or the apex of all God’s desires.

Like storage space in a house, the “personal relationship” aspect of what God is doing and has done in the world is there.  It’s a thing, and it’s a big deal.  Without that aspect of things, joining a priestly people called to serve God would lack some essential benefits, much in the same way you wouldn’t move into a house that you couldn’t store your stuff in.

Further, America (where I live, and also where all my stuff is) is a country that simultaneously exalts the individual and can be a very disconnected, alienating place for people who crave community.  It’s extremely easy to slip through the cracks in a country that has made individualism and self-reliance national virtues.  In this climate, just knowing there is a God who cares about and reaches out to you as an individual person can be life changing, especially to those who have been mistreated and/or isolated.

As a matter of personal disclosure, the individual mystical aspect of my Christian faith is very important to me.  I have had several individual experiences of God that I’d be happy to share with you and they often changed the trajectory of my life in significant ways.  The ongoing emotional connection and spiritual feelings of the presence of God is a big part of my life and, when I’m not feeling those things, the effect is large.

What’s more, some of the more profound and moving effects of my contemplation of God have happened when thinking of God’s love for me.  God’s attention to me.  These things are demonstrated in big and small ways and not the least of which has been my inclusion in the great works that God has done in Jesus Christ.

So, I want to be clear that I am not at all trying to take that from anyone or criticize it as a powerful force in someone’s life.  My own life is a testimony to that power, and you sure aren’t prying it away from me.  Much less would I intend to do so for someone else.

At the same time, I often find myself getting a little wearied with books or sermons or comments from other Christians that essentially boil down to, “What God wants most is to have a personal relationship with you.”  I get wearied of singing song after song about this.  Me, and God loves me, and God wants me, and God can’t imagine life without me, and everything God has done He’s done for me, and the whole reason Jesus died was me, and the whole Bible was written for me, and there’s just nothing God wouldn’t do if it helped me in some way.

The reason I get fed up (almost literally fed up, actually) with this sentiment has nothing to do with “correct doctrine.”  I’m too old in Christ and too skeptical of myself to get hot and bothered about incorrect doctrine for its own sake these days.  It’s also not simply because it makes me the center of the universe and actually taps into the idolization of the individual, although that’s also a real problem and, all told, may be the worst thing about it.

But the reason I get fed up is that it all just seems so small to me compared to what we could be talking or singing about.  Yes, let’s talk about it and let’s sing about it – it’s an important piece to the whole thing – but it’s only a facet on the gem.  I find myself wondering if this is really all the Christian story has become for people – a conveyance for my personal experiences with God and how we feel about each other.  I feel like the entirety of God in history has boiled down to something I’d read in a Hallmark card except someone had to die in the process.  I don’t know; maybe that happens in Hallmark card production, too.

The Bible is primarily a story about Israel’s existence in the world, particularly as she exists side by side with other nations, the vast majority of whom are stronger than she is and worship other gods.  Old Testament, New Testament, this is the riverbed through which the river of Scripture flows.

I know many people might balk at that statement, and that’s fine, but if that summary is distasteful, let me encourage you to sit down and read the entirety of the Bible, letting each writing speak for itself and without projecting the text into a theology, insofar as you can.  I would offer that what you will find is a great deal of story and reflection on what is happening to Israel and the nations.

What you will not find is that the Bible is mostly theological truths about God, nor about man, nor about the human condition.  You will not find most of the writings discuss heaven or hell, nor do they provide instructions about getting to one and avoiding the other.  You will also not find the bulk of the writings asserting God’s ultimate desire to have a personal relationship with individuals.

Some of those things, we might find in the biblical writings, but it’s like the storage space aspect of a house.  It’s there, it’s important, but there’s a much bigger narrative in the works, and that narrative is the story of Israel as she exists with her God in the midst of the nations.  The Bible in our heads might make some of those other things the primary topics of conversation, but the actual Bible does not.

Because of this, all our categories for what we find in the Bible have a character that is defined by the life of Israel in the world over a very long span of time.  “Salvation” is what happens when God saves Israel from something.  “Relationship” is covenant, which God sometimes does make with individuals, but it’s on behalf a people.

The great stories of those great characters you remember – Abraham, Moses, Samson, Deborah, Gideon, David, and so on – are not there to provide examples of God’s desire for personal relationship (if God is dealing with you the way He dealt with Moses, you should probably say something to someone about it).  They are there because these people are pivotal to the preservation and prosperity of Israel.

And so it goes with salvation.

In Exodus 14, Moses says, “Behold the salvation of the Lord,” when they are trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea.  A very similar passage occurs in 2 Chronicles 20 when Jerusalem is about to be besieged by an alliance of Moabites and Ammonites.  In Isaiah 52, the famous “how beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” passage is about Israel being rescued from the Exile to Babylon.

“Salvation” is God saving Israel from whatever she needed saving from.  As we get into the prophets, that includes her own leadership.

“Well, ok,” says my imaginary reader, “But everyone is probably ok with that.  Sure, sometimes we misread Old Testament passages to be talking about a spiritual understanding of salvation the way we understand it, but surely you can see that these are all pointing forward to Jesus’ work of setting people free from sin, death, and Hell?”

First of all, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that the horrors that Israel and her neighbors experienced were all part of a very elaborate allegory.  It’s all very well and good to sit in your armchair and declare that being killed or imprisoned by Babylonians would give people centuries later a typological allegory of being in spiritual bondage or what have you, but I think an Israelite mother who saw her husband impaled on the end of a Babylonian spear might rather just have gotten a pamphlet.  I doubt, as she saw her little boys taken away from her to be raised in Babylon to ensure the people did not revolt, that she thought, “You know, all this is a really great metaphor for how we’re all in spiritual bondage.  Well, I hope when the Messiah shows up, he sets us free from what’s REALLY important.”

Second, I think Israel / the Bible’s ongoing concern with the welfare of Israel in the world does not get traded for the spiritual realities of all humanity in the New Testament.

For instance, John the Baptist announces to Israel to repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  This is also Jesus’ message, you’ll note.  When Pharisees and Sadducees show up, John demands, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Whatever you think this “wrath to come” is, I hope we can all agree it’s not what would happen to each individual standing there as they eventually all passed away from old age.  The “wrath to come” is not “Hell when you die” to John the Baptist.  It’s something imminent that’s about to sweep through Judea and will clear all the corruption out of it.  Faithful Israel needs to be saved from this.  She needs to be saved from her oppressors, and she needs to be saved from the mechanism that will clear them out – not unlike the tenth plague of Egypt.

But as you can see, the people who will be saved are those who repent and believe.  This is the new twist.  In the Old Testament, you were saved by God by being Israelite.  In the first century, Israelites are both the oppressor and the oppressed.  A new line is being drawn, and as Jesus continues his ministry, we find that he, too, announces that the kingdom of God has come near, but this also means a coming judgement and the need to be saved from it, and the people who will be saved are the people who, quite literally, believe him.

In his warnings, Jesus offers advice like, “Flee to the mountains,” and “Pray that your flight will not occur in winter or on the Sabbath,” which is really unhelpful advice for escaping Hell.  Or the end of the world, really.

Even in the context of the Gospels, God is saving His people from something in the world they needed saving from.  In this case, Israel’s oppressors are immediately other Israelites, and ultimately the pagan nation that rules them.

“Ok, hold on.  Isn’t Jesus called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins?”

Yes.  His people are Jews, and saving them from their sins means rescuing them from the state of affairs that has come about because of their sins.  It does not mean that he will get them to stop sinning, anymore than you have stopped sinning.

When Peter delivers his sermon in Acts 2, the audience is cut to the heart and they ask the Spirit-filled believers (who are all Jews), “Brothers (because the audience is all Jews), what shall we do?”  And Peter tells them to repent and be baptized so that their sins will be forgiven and they will receive the Spirit.

What is this message that causes everyone to be cut to the heart and cry out asking what they need to do?  Is it that they’ll go to Hell when they die?  Is it that the world will end?

It’s this:

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.

Acts 2:36 (NRSV)

There you go.  You know that guy you killed?  God has made him Lord and Christ.

This terrifies the audience and they beg to know what they need to do in light of the fact that God has just exalted the man they had handed over to Rome for execution.

There’s nothing in that sermon about mankind’s sinful condition or estrangement from God.  There’s nothing about how God’s holiness demands the death penalty for sin in general.  There’s nothing about how God, desiring a personal relationship with them, sent Jesus to die to satisfy God’s wrath for their sins.

It’s just this:

“Why are all you guys stumbling around talking in languages we don’t understand?  Are you drunk?”

“No.  This is the Holy Spirit promised of old that would fall in the last days before the great and terrible day of the Lord.  You remember Jesus?  That guy you had crucified?  God raised him from the dead.  He made him Lord and Christ.  That guy you had crucified.”

“WHAT?  WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?”

“Repent and be baptized and be forgiven of your sins.  And you will receive the Spirit.”

God will save His people Israel in history in the world.  Even the inclusion of Gentiles, as Romans 11 tells us, is part of the plan to save Israel.  If you are a Gentile and you have faith in Jesus Christ, then you have been brought into the people of God so that Israel might be saved, and the wonder is that God has made one people out of the two, so that you are heirs of the promises to the patriarchs, and you, as well, are the Israel of God.

Above and beyond what salvation has looked like in my own, personal life and what my personal relationship with God looks like is God’s covenant with His people and His commitment to save them in the world when they need saving as they go from age to age.

Yes, the Bible tells us a (very) little bit about a final judgement and a new heavens and earth, and in that sense, that day may very well mark the telos of God’s saving works.  But the Bible has very little to say about that and, instead, tells a story of a people in a world among other people.  What happens to them, what do they need saving from, how does that happen, and how do they live as a distinctly holy and faithful people in their present historical circumstances?

Those questions are just as applicable today as they were to Israel, although we have to acknowledge that a lot has changed both on the world stage and for the identity of the people of God, which is no longer predominantly Jewish and is dispersed throughout all nations.  Still, to answer those questions involves reaching into our past for guidance, listening in our present for God’s voice and obeying it, and hoping for a future that may contradict our present circumstances but is grounded in God’s demonstrable historical faithfulness.

Those kinds of songs, books, devotions, sermons, and conversations would not be very small or boring, I think.

Sunday Meditations: God’s Behavior

A quick word of warning, this post is particularly long.  Not only that, the first big stretch is me talking about some doubts regarding God and the problem of evil and how many traditional positions have failed me.  If you are not interested in this or you are currently in a state where reading through those kinds of things might do you more harm than good right now, you might want to just read the next two paragraphs and then jump down to the first bolded subheading.  It’s “This World Has a Price.”

One of my biggest puzzles theologically is how to account for God and His intervention or lack thereof.

It turns out I’m not alone in this struggle; the history of theology even before Christianity is replete with people trying to work through this issue.  If you believe you’ve got this issue completely sorted, you might contemplate why this has been a mystery for literally millennia and still confounds many of our best sense-making abilities.  There’s a reason they call it “the problem of evil” and not “the brief question that’s easily solved of evil.”

The issue is that we want to maintain a list of things that appear inconsistent with our experience of the world:

  • God is always good.
  • God is all-powerful.
  • God intervenes in history to accomplish His purposes.

At the same time, we look around in the world and see things that don’t seem to square with all of those propositions.  There is suffering in the world.  There’s injustice.  There are tragedies that befall the innocent while prosperity comes to the wicked.  Some people are spared adversity while others aren’t.  It’s very difficult to come up with a philosophy or theology that harmonizes those experiences with the propositions about God.

Perhaps the most popular way to explain things is to appeal to human free will.  God wants humans to have free will so that their choices have meaning and value, including their choice to serve Him, and the price for this is that some will use their free will to do evil.

That might cover some scenarios, but there are still significant issues with it.

First of all, many suffering scenarios don’t involve free will.  When an infant is born with a terminal condition or a natural disaster kills and maims people and animals, the free will defense doesn’t really help us out of those.  Those are scenarios where people could have been saved and nobody’s free will would have been violated.

Second, this assumes that violating free will is the worst thing you can do to someone.  Perhaps from God’s perspective this is so, but it certainly isn’t from ours.  While there are plenty of times we allow people to experience the consequences of their actions, we have our limits.

Parents violate the free will of their children all the time for their own safety.  Don’t play in the street.  Don’t stay out past seven.  Don’t get into vans with strangers.  Parents will also physically intervene to prevent a child from doing something dangerous.

Even with adults, where we often do let consequences run their course for other adults, we still have limits.  If you visit a loved one and they’re lying on the bed surrounded by pills, breathing shallowly, with a suicide note on the table, you’re probably calling the hospital.  You’re probably not sitting there sadly regretting their decision but unwilling to go against their wishes.

Third, I’m not sure the picture of God we get from the Bible is a God who is unwilling to ever use coercion.  Granted, most scenarios I can think of still place the responsibility on the individual or nation to make the choice that’s in their best interest, but it’s still a consistency problem for the Free Will Defense.  God does not put an angel with a flaming sword in front of every rapist or strike every tyrant with insanity or supernatural death.

Even when it comes to the decision making process within the human heart, there are stories in the Bible that would indicate that at least the author thought God was at work in that process as well.  Exodus 7:3 comes to mind.  The Exodus narrative switches between Pharaoh hardening his heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, so we get the idea that Pharaoh is not some automaton being driven around by God, but at the same time, God is somehow involved in perpetuating Pharaoh’s unwillingness to release the Israelites.

Finally, as Christians, I think we have a hard time being consistent with a Free Will Defense.  If God will not intervene to violate human free will, that does mean we can’t blame Him for the evil that people do.  But it also means we can’t “blame” Him for the good things people do, either.  What sense does it make to thank God for a new job or an influx of donations to a charitable work if that was simply the outcome of human free will – something He refuses to violate?

Have you ever prayed specifically for the salvation of a loved one?  What is it that you’re expecting God to do that He isn’t already doing?

I realize these are painful questions, and I’m not suggesting that anyone stop thanking God for good things or asking Him to intervene in bad situations where free will is a factor.  What I’m saying is that the issue of God and His relationship to the good and evil in the world and His action or lack thereof is a very complicated issue and “free will” can’t be our bromide that smooths over all the tensions.

I do believe that free will and the price necessary to have free will are in the mix, here, but they don’t solve all our problems.

On the other side of the theological fence (not counting Deism) is the Reformed/Calvinistic view that, while God is not a primary cause of everything that happens, He foreordains everything that happens.

From the Westminster Confession of Faith:

God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

WCF Chapter III Section I

I have a grudging admiration for the Westminster Divines as they attempted to resolve the difficulties by fiat.  God unchangeably ordains everything that happens, but He’s also not the author of sin nor does He violate the will of creatures.  There you go, all done, nothing to see here, drop the mic.

Similarly:

Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

WCF Chapter V Section II

There are some things I like about this view of God and history.

One thing I like is that it does try to encompass the breadth of the biblical pictures we have for God and His acts or lack thereof.  In one story, we have God actively making things happen.  In another, He’s sort of sitting back and observing.  In another, He seems to be directly responsible for the good things that happen.  In others, He seems to be responsible in some way for the bad things that happen.  In one passage, the author tries to distance God from any kind of causal relationship to evil in the world, and then in other passages, the evil in the world is under God’s direction.

The statements in the Westminster Confession try to reckon with this diversity, which I appreciate, but they say little about the tensions between them.  There is no acknowledgement that it is a mystery how these things can all be true.  The WCF is pretty devoid of any sense of mystery about anything, even in the chapter on the Trinity.  “We’re not sure how this works,” is a phrase you probably didn’t hear a lot at the Westminster Assembly.

The challenge, of course, is that if God is in some sense the deliberate origin of all that comes to pass, then He is in that same sense responsible for it.  Like the problem with the Free Will Defense, it makes little sense to glorify God for the good things He’s ordained and then try to work it out so that He’s not in any sense responsible for the bad things He’s ordained.  We’ve freed God from being the direct cause of everything, but now everything is part of His plan.  I will say, in fairness, that there are voices in the Bible that seem to say exactly that.

Many Christians, however, sense an existential difficulty, here.  Who wants to look at some horrible crime or devastation and ascribe it to God’s plan?  Who wants to take a child who was sexually assaulted or an infant who was crippled for life by a neurological problem and say that God in some sense somehow decided that those things should happen?

So, then we get into some more contemporary variants.

One very popular one right now is the idea that bad things are not God’s will or part of God’s plan, but God is with us as we suffer through them and is at work to bring good things out of them.

This view has a number of advantages, not the least of which is that there is an extremely common motif in both Old and New Testaments of God doing exactly this sort of thing.  Someone does something that is intended for evil or some tragedy happens, and God does something that flips the script.  We also experience this sort of thing fairly regularly in our lives, that good comes out of something that seems bad at first.

But now we have the challenge that we’ve basically written off huge swaths of reality to happening outside of God’s control.  If we acknowledge that God could act to control or stop these events, then why doesn’t He?  We end up with similar problems with the Free Will Defense except, I’d argue, even greater in scope, because now we’ve got an entire world running amok with God reacting to it.  While I like that this emphasizes that God is in the boat with us, it does still challenge us with whether or God is capable of controlling or stopping things and, if so, why He opts not to do that.

Further, this tactic does not seem very consistently applied.  Why are some missionaries miraculously saved from a hostile government while others die in prison?  Why do some families come safely through a hurricane while others perish?

The most virulent form of this view is one I’ve seen crop up in premillennial dispensationalist circles and, oddly, Pentecostals.  In this view, Satan actually runs the world.  The reason why things seem so bad are all Satan’s fault, not God’s.  Why doesn’t God put a stop to all this?  He will, but the time isn’t right, yet.  More people need to be saved.  We should expect things to get worse and worse and worse for everyone until, finally, God has enough and takes believers to heaven and destroys everything else.

I cannot begin to describe what a massive failure both exegetically and theologically this view is for the Church.  What’s more, I’m very surprised at the Pentecostals who hold this view (#NotAllPentecostals) because I’m not sure how you reconcile a belief in exorcism in Jesus’ name with a belief that Satan controls the world.  Who’s in charge, here?

I’m not going to go into a detailed critique of this view because it is horrific, but I will say that it does succeed in freeing God from responsibility to a point.  I guess the larger issue would be what it would say about God that He would let such a situation go on for so long, and what does it say about the hope of God’s people when they are basically condemned to the Terrordrome for thousands of years.

This consistency vulnerability is an obvious point of exploitation for atheism.  When we look at the world with so much suffering and injustice in it, and that suffering and joy seem almost randomly allocated with no apparent rhyme or reason to it, isn’t that what we’d expect from a world without a God who intervenes in it?  Deists might be able to skate by, here, but not the rest of us.

For both atheism and deism, what we observe in the world is simply the running along of the various forces that propel events: sociological, economic, physical, etc.  Sometimes the combinations and timing play out one way for this person, other times they play out another way for that person.  This is more or less what we observe in the world and, when theism struggles to come up with a cohesive narrative that both explains these experiences and maintains a good, powerful God, then we have an obvious problem on our hands.

Because at that point, the issue isn’t just a belief in a non-empirical aspect of reality; the issue is a non-empirical aspect of reality that in some sense wishes reality were different and has the power to enact those wishes but apparently does not.  Christianity does not believe in the existence of -a- God, but rather the God who is described in the Bible, revealed in Jesus, and we contend is the actual God.

If you’ve stayed with me this long, I congratulate and appreciate you.  I have some thoughts on how these challenges might not be as crippling as they seem.

The World Comes with a Price

When God makes the universe the way it is, He imports in conditions and constraints in order for that universe to work.

For example, in our universe with our space-time features, God cannot create a square circle.  If you beat me in a chess match, God cannot make it so that I actually beat you after those same events occurred.  These are not limitations of God’s power so much as they are constraints of the universe in which He works.

These are not necessary constraints.  You can have a universe where time flows backwards or not at all.  You can have a universe where spatial relations are wildly different than Euclidean geometry.  But these are features of this universe, and God has to work with those materials unless He fundamentally revises the nature of the universe.

In order for this world to be what it is and work the way it does, things we think of as bad must be a part of it or at least potentially be a part of it.

The most obvious example is free will.  If you want a being freely capable of consciously choosing good, it has to be equally capable of consciously choosing evil.  Whether that being will choose one or the other is an entirely different story, but that potential has to be there.  If you create a being without the capacity to choose evil, that’s fine and good, but they don’t have free will.

But this is also true in terms of the mechanics of the universe as we know it.

For example, our cells can divide and mutate.  This allows us to grow and heal.  This allows a species to better adapt to the environment as the environment changes.  This also allows cancer.

You don’t get to have it both ways.  If cells are capable of reproducing and producing mutation, then they are also capable of producing cancer.  Hopefully, the day will come when we can spot cancer early, treat it with more success, and maybe even prevent it in practice.  But we will never be able to eliminate the very possibility of cancer without fundamentally restructuring the way cells work.  In fact, if we truly eliminated all capability of cells to produce cancer, we would doom our race to extinction, because that same capability is what enables healing and survival.

Even death – and I hate death.  This is not some philosophical statement for me.  I loathe death.  It has hurt me, taken from me, and plagues me almost daily in some form or fashion.  And it has hurt the people I love most very deeply.  But even death is necessary the way the world works right now.  Death is necessary for new life to spring up.  Death frees up resources and provides new ones.

In order for your children to live, and your children’s children, and your children’s children’s children, you have to die.  If people didn’t die, you probably wouldn’t be here, because the population would have to level out at a number commensurate with available resources (whatever that meant in a world where people didn’t die).  In order for new generations of people to be born, find God, experience Him, love and be loved, and return to Him, people have to die.  You can’t have it both ways.  You can’t have an Earth full of everyone God has come to know and love and not have people die.  You could have a world of immortals with fewer people and generations, but you can’t have this world.

We have a longing for a better world in our hearts, as we should.  That longing is God’s longing.  It’s difficult to explain why we would have this longing if it were not the case that things were wrong and could be different.

At the same time, we should also acknowledge that often these bad things are corruptions or negative side effects of the same things that introduce great good into the universe, and the absence of those things (or more accurately, a world where those things were totally impossible) might very well result in a very different world that we might not approve of at all.

A world where everyone is biologically incapable of being a jackass is the stuff of our dystopian stories.  A world where the Sun is incapable of going cold is a world where the Sun cannot generate heat.  A world where there is no friction is a world where you can’t walk.  While we can (and should) work to counter the things in the world that cause human suffering, we don’t really know what kind of world we would have if even their theoretical possibility was removed.  This is a good segue into the next consideration.

We Don’t Know How the World Should Be or How God Should Behave in It

The Tao Te Ching tells us that we should not label anything good or bad because we don’t know everything that gave rise to an event or what the total effects of it will be.

A man stubs his toe on a rock, and it hurts so bad that he has to sit down for a few minutes until the pain subsides.  Is that good or bad?

What if this delays him five minutes, and five minutes ago, a drunk driver was careening wildly across the very road that man would cross?  Was stubbing his toe good or bad?

(A somewhat less somber portrayal of the wisdom of the Tao Te Ching is the song “Oh, That’s Good / No, That’s Bad” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.)

While it’s easy for us to consider that, in the situation of the man stubbing his toe, the stubbed toe saved the man’s life, also consider that the man in the story has no idea his life was just saved.  The only point of reference he has is the stubbed toe, and it really hurt.  He might go on to have a pretty crappy day, all because of the stubbed toe that, unbeknownst to him, was the best thing that could have happened to him.

We can scale out this microcosm many times over.  As smart as we are individually and collectively, and as much as we know about natural and social forces, we really do not know all the factors that brought an event into being, nor do we know all the effects that event will have today, tomorrow, or years down the road.

We can readily acknowledge the bad effects of something or someone in the terms we can observe.  That’s all we can do, and that’s what we’re called to do.  We don’t allow murderers to go free because, hey, maybe that murder was the best thing that could have happened in the world!

But even as we acknowledge our obligation to judge in the present circumstances, we also have to admit that we are totally unqualified to pass judgement over whether or not, in the ultimate scheme of things with horizons far beyond our own, this event didn’t serve a purpose that, if we had known, we would agree that it was necessary.

Once again, I’m not being coldly philosophical.  I’m thinking right now of events in my own life that I’m pretty sure I could not tell you what possible benefit could justify those events happening.  Those events hurt, and every benefit I can think of pales in comparison to the suffering and trauma of those events on me and everyone in their orbit, to say nothing of all the suffering and evils that go on in the world that I haven’t experienced.

But that’s exactly the point.  The fact that I can’t see the factors that unspooled from those events or all the things that happened that resulted in those events is precisely the point.  I can’t.  You can’t.  We can’t.  On occasion we can, but often we can’t.

So, I ask you, why is it that we are so confident that we can accurately predict, prescribe, and judge what a good and powerful and loving God ought to do in the world?

Not only are we confident that we can chart out what such a God would/should do, we are so confident that it is actually more likely to us that God doesn’t exist than that we might be wrong about what omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness might look like.

Think about that for a moment.  When I doubt that God is loving or powerful or that He exists altogether because of the problem of evil, I’m assuming that my ability to judge an event and all its possibilities, variables, and effects on everything for all time is so cohesive, accurate, and absolute – that a contradiction of that judgement is a reason to believe God is not good, powerful, or doesn’t exist.

That position is mind-blowing in the sheer scale of its abandonment of perspective.

The story in the Bible that comes to mind, here, is the book of Job.  If you’ve not read Job, it opens with God and Israel’s accuser having a debate that God provokes.  God praises the faithfulness of His follower, Job, and the accuser responds that Job is only faithful because his life is prosperous.  In response, God allows the accuser to torment Job, removing everything Job has that makes life worth living.  Throughout the story, Job remains faithful despite everyone else telling him that he is either a grievous sinner or else terribly wronged by God.  Job, for his part, insists on both his faithfulness and God’s trustworthiness, but in his grief and confusion, he still wishes to bring his case before God.

It’s also interesting that Job explores other problems of evil, such as the wicked prospering on the earth.  It’s almost as if the story of Job was explicitly written to offer some kind of perspective on God and evil and suffering in the world.

When Job finally speaks with God, God does not explain His actions, nor pawn them off on the accuser (“I’m really not the secondary cause, here, Job”), nor offer either the Free Will nor the Calvinistic defense.  Even though the reader is actually told the reason for Job’s suffering at the beginning of the book, God Himself does not tell that to Job.  Instead, God questions Job’s ability to pass judgement on Him:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

Job 38:1-7 (NRSV)

This goes on for literally two chapters.  God brings up an overwhelming multitude of scenarios about creation and the way the world works and the flow of history.

It ends with:

And the Lord said to Job:

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
    Anyone who argues with God must respond.”

Job 40:1-2

Job says, basically, “I think I’ll just keep my mouth shut.”

And then God takes off again, going into all these things that God has done and all the things that happen in nature in the world.  For two more chapters.  At the end of this, Job responds:

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job 42:1-6 (NRSV)

I mean, this is God’s defense.  “You have no idea how the universe is supposed to work, but yet you have the gumption to call Me into question.”

At the end of the story, God restores Job’s fortunes and condemns his friends.  Interestingly, God says of them, “For you have not spoken of Me rightly as my servant Job has done.”  But Job didn’t offer a defense for God.  Job made his case and then acknowledged that he wasn’t in a position to be able to pass judgement on God’s actions.  Job spoke rightly about God by having completely justified complaints about God and ultimately acknowledging he didn’t know what he needed to know in order to actually pass judgement.

Job is quite possibly the oldest Scripture in the Old Testament.  It’s a long book, too.  It’s easy to summarize the story, but there are so many issues raised by Job and his friends throughout the book about evil, suffering, justice, love, and God.  These issues are as old as the Levant, and this perspective on the issues served the Jewish people through exile, tyranny, dispersion, and prophecies and promises from God that seemed to have failed at the time.

The story of Job is a story of God’s people in the world, and at the end of it, God’s people are to say, “We have many complaints that are justified, but in the end, we don’t know everything that needs to happen.  You do.  We trust You.”

This would be a good segue into my conclusion, but I want to make a quick stop before we get there.

Scripture’s Portrayal of God’s Acts Are Multivocal, Complex, and Usually Look a Lot Like the Real World

There is a reason that the Free Will Defense, the God Ordains Everything perspective, the “God doesn’t want this and is with you and will turn this around” perspective, and others come into our discourse.  All these views are present in various places in Scripture.

Sometimes, they even collide.

One of the most fascinating passages of Scripture, to me, is Isaiah 10.  In it, God talks about how the leadership of Israel has oppressed her.  In response, God will send Assyria to conquer Israel.

Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger—
    the club in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
    and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
    and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.

Isaiah 10:5-6 (NRSV)

The perspective is that God is doing this, somehow.  Assyria’s conquest is an expression of God’s anger against oppressors.  The club in their hands in my fury.  Against a godless nation I send him.

But what’s this?

But this is not what he intends,
    nor does he have this in mind;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
    and to cut off nations not a few.
For he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
    Is not Hamath like Arpad?
    Is not Samaria like Damascus?
As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols
    whose images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
    what I have done to Samaria and her images?”

Isaiah 10:7-11 (NRSV)

Whoa, hold on.  You just said You were sending Assyria.  But now You say that Assyria just up and decided on their own to conquer Israel?  Conquerors gon’ conquer?  Jerusalem is just another city to them, and they’re just doing what they’d normally do?

So which is it?  Is God sending Assyria against Israel, or is Assyria just doing what they’d normally do without respect to God whatsoever?

Isaiah 10 seems to indicate that both are the case.

Then, it gets into some very deep free will / sovereignty / responsibility waters:

When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the arrogant boasting of the king of Assyria and his haughty pride.

Isaiah 10:12 (NRSV)

So, to recap, God is sending Assyria to conquer Jerusalem.  Assyria, however, is conquering Jerusalem just because they want to conquer lands.  After this is done, God will punish Assyria because of this.

Catch that: God will punish Assyria because Assyria did what God planned for them to do in the first place.

Well, you know, Free Will Defense!

Ok, but read further:

Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it,
    or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it?
As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up,
    or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood!

Isaiah 10:15 (NRSV)

Here, God compares Assyria to an ax thinking that it’s greater than the person swinging the ax (God) or a staff trying to raise the person who is raising it.  This isn’t just God observing things human beings are choosing to do: God is swinging the ax and raising the staff, here.

And then, God will actually punish Assyria by… the liberation of Israel.

Therefore thus says the Lord God of hosts: O my people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. The Lord of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.

Isaiah 10:24-27 (NRSV)

So, which is it?  Is God in some sense in control of everything that’s happening?  Is Assyria just acting naturally doing the same thing they’d do if God didn’t exist?  Is Assyria morally culpable for this?  Will God turn this evil situation around for the good of His people?

Isaiah 10 portrays of all these as being somehow true and doesn’t bat an eye.

I use this text just because it pulls many different perspectives together, but obviously we find different portions of these perspectives emphasized throughout Scripture depending on the situation.

We also get a dash of this from Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts:

You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

Acts 2:22-24 (NRSV)

So, the crucifixion of Jesus.  Was it an evil that Peter’s audience is accountable for?  Yes.  Was it part of the definitive plan of God?  Yes.  Did God overturn the result for good?  Yes.

I hope that clears it up for everyone.

Even in our keystone story, Job, we get some of the ambiguity:

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Job 2:9-10 (NRSV)

Ancient near eastern misogyny aside, Job affirms that both good and bad events come from God.  At the same time, the reader knows that God is doing none of these things but has given the accuser liberties to do so.

God having a plan, God being in control, God being sometimes active and sometimes passive, people acting freely out of their own desires, and nature running according to natural law are all different layers that describe the same reality from the perspective of the biblical texts.

God is at work bringing everything to what’s best, and sometimes ancient Assyria is a jerk and conquers someone, and sometimes dead branches break off of trees when their structure degrades and someone happens to be under them when it happens, and sometimes things happen that God really hates.  Sometimes Jesus cries when his friends die.

This is hard for us to reconcile, because we can only envision our plans coming to fruition through control.  We are creatures and we exert our will on other creatures.  Even if I’m the most cunning, Games of Thrones manipulator on the planet, I still have to do things to make my plan happen.  The idea that I might have a purpose for an event to fulfill and that event coming amount solely through chance, freedom, and mechanistic naturalism would be absurd, but that’s because manipulation and force is the best I can do.

Somehow, in some way, God who created the universe with all its starting parameters running its courses, and this God who permeates and fills every subatomic particle, is both behind our reality, non-coercive in its execution, and an actor within it as He sees fit.  All these facets have their biblical data.  Is it any wonder we struggle to make a cohesive picture out of all of this that makes sense to us?

In a sense, this is what the Westminster Confession is trying to pull together for us, but we are forced to acknowledge that this is a portrayal of meta-reality that we cannot understand.  It is mystery.  And this is why all philosophical and theological constructs that try to put everything in a nice neat package will eventually fail us, the same way that an explanation for how something (anything) can exist eternally before everything else will fail us.

This is why I think that coming to a place of being able to live with the problem of evil is more about acknowledging our limitations than comprehending God.

Do We Trust God?

This is what it comes down to, doesn’t it?

Is God there?  And if so, is He good?  Is He powerful?  Does He have our best interests at heart?  Is He trustworthy?  If I pray, will He answer?  If He doesn’t, was He still doing what was ultimately best?

How much do I trust my own capacity for truly understanding an event in a cosmic context?  When I see evil or chaos, does my inability to see a good reason for it mean that there isn’t one?  If there is a God who has suffused all time and space and made them the way they are, should I expect that He will consistently behave exactly as I believe such a being ought?  Has God told us there are things we will not understand, and has He shown us things about Himself on which we can depend?

Everyone is going to have to answer those questions for themselves.  As for me, I have seen enough to believe that there is a God who can be known and can be trusted.

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him

Job 13:15a (KJV)

Feeding the Crowds, Redux: Matthew 15:32-39

Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Matthew 15:32-39 (NRSV)

If you’ve been reading through Matthew, this story probably looks a little familiar.  It was only a chapter ago that we saw Jesus (or, more specifically, his disciples) miraculously feeding a crowd of 5000 men along with women and children.

The stories are not just similar in events, they are similar in the specific language and sentence structures used.  Other than some specific details, the only substantial difference is that, in this story, Jesus verbally says things at the beginning that are a summary of the beginning thoughts and dialogue back in chapter 14.

So, what does this mean?

One option is that it doesn’t mean anything.  Jesus happened to have two experiences that were almost exactly the same right down to the opening thoughts and dialogue.  This is possibly the most “conservative” option in the sense that it would make these stories in Matthew simply reports of exactly what happened in Jesus’ life.  It just so happened that Jesus, being an unusual person, had the same unusual event happen twice and be almost identical.

I think this is possible but unlikely.  This story reads almost like a copy and paste of Matt. 14:13-21 with some tweaks (this is also the case with the two accounts in the gospel of Mark).  The coincidences, if they were coincidences, would be shocking in and of themselves, even apart from the fact that a miracle is at the heart of these stories.

On the other hand, we have to take into account that Matthew’s author is not an idiot, and neither was Mark’s.  They obviously know these two accounts are very similar and they are intentionally present together.

It could be that our gospel writers are preserving two accounts of the same event that differ in some details.  This does happen in the Scriptures from time to time, although often the two accounts are interwoven into one story.  It’s easy to imagine that Mark pulls together multiple sources, but it seems unusual to preserve two narratives of the same event by portraying them as two, different events separated by other events.  It is possible, however.

As we think through our options, one thing we need to keep in mind is that our four Gospels are neither journalism nor biography.  Nobody is following Jesus around with a notepad chronicling his words and actions.  Our Gospels are stories about Jesus written quite some time after Jesus’ death.  That doesn’t make them untrue, nor does it mean their historical claims are just creative fiction.  It does mean, however, that they are reconstructive stories about Jesus, not news articles or biographies in the sense that we think of biographies.

Think of it like this: what’s the difference between writing a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and a novelization of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.?  There’s certainly some overlap between those two projects, right?  You’ve got the historical figure and you’ve got the contours of his life.  But one of those projects is aiming for more of an objective, “scientific” presentation of King’s life, perhaps with an analysis of his impact, while the other project is interested in telling a compelling story.

In a novel of Martin Luther King’s life, conversations and events will be presented narratively.  It is quite likely that the events presented in such a work will do some dramatization.  Events the author was not present for will need to be imagined and/or derived from other sources.  Dialogue will be presented narratively, and the odds are good the novel will not be presenting the exact words said or put everything in all the right characters’ mouths.  It doesn’t make the novel untrue; it does mean that the novel’s primary concern is telling a story, not objectively reporting facts, and while it intends to faithfully present Martin Luther King Jr. to you, it’s going to take some liberties in order to deliver the meaning the story is supposed to have.

Now, if you were writing a novel about Dr. King’s life, you’d have a lot of existing written material, both primary and secondary source, to rely on.  In the case of our Gospel writers, they don’t.  Their material is a lot more scattered and hard to come by and, by the time the Gospels are written, already dependent on various stories that have gone around.

Here’s where I’m going with this: we have to understand the Gospels are, in many ways, dramatizations.  That doesn’t mean their source information is untrue; it does mean we are looking at a dramatic reconstruction of events, not the transcript of a video camera recording.  The writer shapes the story being told and does so for various reasons.

These stories sometimes give us clues that this is happening.  For example, in Matthew 14, Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000 men along with some unnumbered women and children.

Really?  Exactly 5000?  They took the time to count all the men for some reason (tax purposes?) and came out with exactly 5000?

In our story, today, we have 4000.  Exactly 4000?  A while back, he fed exactly 5000 men and, this time, they counted everyone again and it came out to exactly 4000?

Does it seem likely these are objective facts, or does it seem likely these are big, round numbers used in a dramatic recounting?

So, when we read the Gospels, we want to ask why a story was told and why it was told a certain way.  Maybe not every little detail “means” something, but more is being revealed to us than simply the raw events described.

In the previous passage, I talked about whether this crowd was predominantly Jew or Gentile and how that affects the meaning.  I’m not going to rehash all those arguments, and I encourage you to read that post because a lot of what is said, there, applies here.

I do want to add a few reasons that come up specifically in this part of the story that lead me to believe the crowd is Gentile.

In the first place, there are less of them (exactly 1000 less, as it happens).  This is perhaps the primary difference in the details of this story and the miraculous feeding in Matthew 14.  The main strategy Jesus has employed with Gentiles is to avoid them altogether.  In the rare instances when Jesus ministers to a Gentile, he likes to keep things under wraps.  The consistent message we witness and that comes from Jesus’ own mouth is that Gentiles are not the focus of his ministry; he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel.  These episodes are exceptions that happen on the way.  They may give us hints that Jesus’ work will eventually have meaning and ramifications for the Gentiles as well, but this doesn’t happen during Jesus’ regular ministry.

I admit that a crowd of 4000 is not a small number, nor does it really qualify as keeping things under wraps, but 4000 is a nice, big, round number less than 5000, and that may be our indicator that this crowd is “lesser” compared to the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14.  There’s fewer of them because Jesus isn’t focused on them.

Another potential indicator is that we get five baskets of leftovers.  In the other story, we got twelve.  The disciples go out in Jesus’ name bringing miraculous food to the people and return to Jesus with twelve baskets.  While this may be an incidental detail, it’s hard not to think of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Here, we have seven baskets brought in.  Seven is a number of perfection and fullness.  It’s also the number of days in which God created the world including humanity’s common ancestor.  It’s also the number of laws that define a righteous Gentile in Jewish tradition (the seven Noahide Laws).

But aside from these details, one has to ask why we even have this story if the crowd are not Gentiles.  We have a perfectly good story of Jesus miraculously feeding Israel and bringing them in as the good shepherd should.  What’s the point of including, later, another story that is almost exactly the same, even in the language used, except the numbers are smaller?

I’m not saying we couldn’t come up with reasons; I’m saying that, in my opinion, this story’s very existence makes more sense if what we’re seeing here is Jesus replicating a miracle that was done for Israel to a crowd of Gentiles.

And if this is so, then what we’re seeing is a preview.

Right now, saving the faithful from a coming judgement is very much focused on Israel, but after this, judgement will roll out to the nations, and so will the salvation of a faithful people of God.  This people will, of all things, incorporate faithful Gentiles.

And what is it that will identify these faithful Gentiles?  Their faith and belief in what God has done in Jesus Christ.  By sharing this characteristic with faithful Israel, these people who were not God’s people will be called His people.  They will receive the promises to Israel’s patriarchs and receive the Spirit of Israel’s God, and God’s people will be saved into the age to come at least in part because it now includes these people.  These Gentiles will come to Jesus in droves, and this will overthrow the Empire.

What we see here, I’d argue, is a picture that forecasts that day.  It’s a distant rumble of thunder that happens hours before the storm hits – where Israel’s promised shepherd and deliverer feeds a crowd of Gentiles because he has compassion for them.

If this is true, then the Canaanite woman deserves a lot of credit and air time, because it was her faith, persistence, and sharp reasoning that brought Jesus’ arc into this trajectory.

We might really owe her.

Consider This

  1. What elements of meaning from Jesus’ initial feeding of the 5000 might carry over to a crowd of Gentiles?  Which ones might not?
  2. If we think of Gentiles as the latecomers, what implications does this have for how we (I’m a Gentile) see ourselves in the story of the people of God?  What virtues should this engender?  Does this impact how we view Jewish people?

Restoring Israel: Matthew 15:29-31

After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Matthew 15:29-31 (NRSV)

In both this passage and the one that follows, it’s unclear exactly where Jesus is and who constitutes these crowds.  Unfortunately, this is kind of important.

The reason we get into ambiguity is mostly because of Mark 7-8.  Toward the end of Mark 7, Jesus is going to the Sea of Galilee by traveling through the Decapolis region.  This region was almost certainly Gentile at the time.  During this leg of the trip, Jesus heals a man who was deaf and had trouble speaking.  It seems to be an example of Jesus healing a Gentile, especially underscored by the fact that Jesus heals him away from the crowd and instructs all the witnesses not to tell anyone what just happened – a common thing Jesus does when he doesn’t want the Gentiles to get wind of what he’s doing.

Mark tells us that in those same days, Jesus feeds a crowd of 4000, which is the miracle that follows today’s passage in Matthew.

Because of this, many commentators on our passage believe the healings described in Matthew happened to Gentiles.  Certainly, in line with Matthew’s narrative, this would make a certain degree of sense.  Jesus has just had a woman convince him to heal Gentiles, so it would be a very interesting continuation of the story to have Jesus go on to perform healing and exorcisms among a great crowd of Gentiles and even, as we’ll see, perform another miraculous feeding that mirrors his miraculous feeding to Jews in the previous chapter in Matthew.

What’s more, our passage points out that the crowds “glorify the God of Israel,” which many readers think supports the idea that this crowd was Gentile, because why else would Matthew point this out?  Of course Jews would glorify the God of Israel.  What would be startling and newsworthy would be if Gentiles were healed by Jesus and, as a result, began to glorify Israel’s God.

If this is what the text is trying to portray, then what we have here is a very dramatic foreshadowing of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God.  Now, Gentiles are receiving the healing, restoration, and liberation that was promised to Israel at the hands of Israel’s Messiah, with the end result being that these Gentiles turn to Israel’s God.  It should be noted that these Gentiles do not become disciples of Jesus, nor do they seem to join up with Israel in any way, but what we would have here is an incident of Gentiles being exposed to the miracles of Jesus and responding in faith, which is something Jesus has speculated would happen.

What’s more, this is an eschatological hope anticipated in the Old Testament – not the inclusion of Gentiles into the people of Israel, but their conversion to / glorification of Israel’s God when they witness the deliverance of Israel.  For example:

On that day the Egyptians will be like women, and tremble with fear before the hand that the Lord of hosts raises against them. And the land of Judah will become a terror to the Egyptians; everyone to whom it is mentioned will fear because of the plan that the Lord of hosts is planning against them.

On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the Lord of hosts. One of these will be called the City of the Sun.

On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior, and will defend and deliver them. The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. The Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them.

On that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt, and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.

On that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.”

Isaiah 19:16-25 (NRSV)

In the prophetic imagination, God is going to deliver Israel from her Gentile oppressors and put her back on top, and when this happens, those same Gentile oppressors will turn to the Lord and become a people to the Lord.

We still have to get through things like Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem, and the conversion of the Roman Empire to see these hopes come into their own, but if Jesus is healing and casting demons out of Gentiles and they are, in turn, glorifying Jesus’ God, we may be seeing this happen in a small scale, foreshadowing way.  We have to keep in mind that, if this is what Matthew is showing us, this is the same Matthew who repeatedly highlights Jesus being sent to Israel and keeping his ministry hidden from the Gentiles.  We have to keep in mind this would be an exceptional episode, and because of its exceptionality, it draws our attention to what it says.

It’s also quite possible this is happening to a crowd of Jews, not Gentiles.

Bringing Mark’s gospel into play does not give us a clear cut indicator of what’s going on here in Matthew 15.  Firstly, there’s been some recent scholarly disagreement as to whether or not Mark 7 is meant to indicate Jesus is passing through the midst of the Decapolis region, sticking close to the border, or is at least at the border by the time the events happen.  I currently take the reading that Jesus is going through the middle of the region, but it’s possible that reading is wrong.

Secondly, Mark 7 tells us the route Jesus took on his way to the Sea of Galilee, but our passage begins with Jesus already traveling along the Sea.  We don’t actually know where he is now with respect to the Decapolis.  Mark’s “in those days” doesn’t really help us out, because that just means “around that time,” not that it happened on the same day.

So, by the time we get to our passage, we’re fairly disconnected from the background of Jesus healing the deaf man in Mark 7.

Regarding the healed people glorifying the God of Israel, well, Jews would glorify the God of Israel and would actually be more likely to do so than Gentiles.  But there’s another reason why Matthew might think it was significant to point out that a crowd of restored Jews would glorify the God of Israel.

We need to keep in mind that the mission of Matthew’s Jesus is to the lost sheep of Israel.  Jesus is not ministering to devout, faithful Jews.  He is reclaiming the lost ones.  He is recovering an Israel that has largely abandoned her God because she considers herself abandoned by Him.

We have already seen a number of places where Jesus is shown in Matthew to be a new Moses (including the feeding of the 5000), and it’s noteworthy that Moses believes that Israel won’t know who their ancestral God is:

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:

This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.

Exodus 3:13-15 (NRSV)

Moses is on a mission from Israel’s God to deliver Israel from her oppressors, but Israel has forgotten her God and has to be reminded.

What we may be looking at, here, is not a foreshadowing of God’s plan for the Gentiles, but rather a dramatic deliverance and reclamation of the lost of Israel.  Jesus said in the passage before this one that he was sent to the lost of Israel.  Of course, in the passage before this one, he also heals a Gentile.

Finally, we also have to take into account that a large display of Jesus ministering to Gentiles would be rather discontinuous with everything we know about Jesus’ ministry up to this point.  There’s no way he can keep this quiet (there are 4000 of them), so some dramatic display of healing to the Gentiles that everyone will talk about is pretty jarring, not just for Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry but all the Synoptics, really.

If you’re paying attention, you might have noticed that the “shockingness” of this story is both an argument for a Gentile crowd and an argument for a Jewish crowd.

Well, welcome to the wild, wonderful world of historical reconstruction.  When we do history, two truths have to be reckoned with:

  1. By definition, the things that are most likely to happen are what usually happen.
  2. When unlikely things happen, they’re worth noting.

Much disagreement among historians comes down to how this tension plays out.

On the one hand, it would be really irresponsible of a historian to accept all reports of highly unlikely events as historically accurate.  I’m not just talking about dramatic miracles, here, but even events that seem unlikely given the time or the culture or the people involved because they’d be inconsistent with what we know.  Generally speaking, responsible history work sticks with determining what was most probable.

On the other hand, we all know that improbable events are a… heh… normal part of reality.  Think about your own life.  Is everything that happens to you the most statistically probable thing?  Is everything you do or say completely consistent with your general character or culture or situation in life?  You probably don’t go an entire day without something discontinuous happening to you, and that’s just a day in the life of one person!  And when those things happen, you make note of them, don’t you?

So, this is the problem.  Jesus healing a huge audience of Gentiles in the midst of a mission very clearly defined as being to Israel with a self-conscious effort to keep Gentiles from finding out about it would be really out of sync with what we know about Jesus.  On the one hand, that makes it unlikely the crowd was Gentile.  On the other hand, it’s exactly the unlikeliness of it that would motivate Matthew to record it.

Personally, I’m inclined to think the crowds were Gentile.  I think that explains why Matthew bothered to include this story and, when we get to the passage about feeding the four thousand, I think there’s some numerical symbolism that bears this out.  I think there is a nice, narrative connection between Jesus insisting on a mission to Israel only, then a woman talking him into extending his healing to a Gentile, and then this act of mercy to Gentiles on his way back.  I am inclined to think of this story as a shocking foreshadowing – much like the story of the Canaanite woman.

However, I’m very on the fence and could easily be persuaded the other way.  This story serving as a reinforcement of Jesus’ mission to recover the lost sheep of Israel is more consistent with Matthew’s narrative and the second Moses imagery is also very consistent with Matthew.  What we’d be seeing here is a powerful incarnation of God’s fulfillment of His promises to His people as they are healed, freed from spiritual profession, and the lost detritus of Israel begin to praise the name of their ancestral God once more, also fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.

And who knows?  Maybe Matthew left out definitive, identifying information on purpose.  Maybe we’re supposed to come away with both truths – the hope for the Gentiles and the salvation of Israel – found pictured here in the ministry of Jesus.

Because whether the crowd is Jewish or Gentile, one thing is clear: Jesus is restoring them.  He is healing their sicknesses and diseases and will even feed them, and when they experience the good he is doing for them in their midst, they glorify the God of Israel.

How do you like them apples, J-Mac?

Consider This

  1. What does this story show us about Jesus’ concepts of salvation, deliverance, and redemption?  What implications might that have for the work of the Church in the world?

Sunday Meditations: Premature Theologization

Do we believe the Bible because (in some sense) it comes from God, or do we believe in God because the Bible tells us about Him?

The Westminster Confession of Faith comes down squarely on the latter side of that question.  The very first chapter is “Of the Holy Scripture,” where it lays down the validity of Scripture, including the canon.  The second chapter is “Of God and the Trinity.”

Although there’s a problem that crops up in item IV of the first chapter:

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I Section IV

This captures the essence of the problem.  Do we rest our belief in God on Scriptures that we consider to be authoritative on their own merit, or do we believe in the authority of the Scriptures because they come from God who is intrinsically authoritative and trustworthy?

Many Christian systematic theologies are not quite as out front about the problem.  They start with the doctrine of God, but everything they say about God is derived from the Bible.  Well, why should we believe what the Bible says about God?  Because it comes from God.  Well, why should I believe it on that basis?  Because God is trustworthy and wants us to know Him.  How do I know that?  Because the Bible says so.  And so on.

Some have appealed to Christian philosophers like Cornelius Van Til who famously presented that all epistemology is circular.  I agree with this, but what Van Til was talking about is that all epistemological starting points are self-verifying.  Ultimately, we pick something to be our final arbiter of truth and, by definition, that arbiter is not validated by something outside of itself.  If it were, then that other thing would be our actual final arbiter of truth.

But that doesn’t really help us out, here.  Do we believe the Bible because God is trustworthy, or do we believe God is trustworthy because the Bible says He is?

Well, one thing to keep in mind is that any intuition or experience with God that mankind has ever had precedes the Bible.  We haven’t always had a Bible.  Even if we decide many Old Testament stories were being told and even written down before they appeared as “books” in the form we know them, today, and ended up in a canonical Old Testament, we still have to own up to the fact that most of what Israel knew about God came from their experiences, interpretations, and stories of such that were passed down.

This says nothing of other cultures who also had ideas and stories about the divine, albeit sometimes very different from what Christians would recognize.

In making statements about who God is or what God is like, we first have to reckon with the fact that, for most of human history, what people “knew” about God did not come from any holy Scriptures but, instead, came from stories from the past, interpretations of those stories, present experiences, and interpretations of those experiences.

In addition, we must also take into account that before there were stories, there were intuitions.  People observed the world around them and intuited a creator or creators and made some guesses at what their characteristics might be.

Far from being crazy packs of dumb lies, the stories of other primordial religions are attempts at understanding the divine that different cultures were perceiving in creation and in making sense of their own histories and experiences.  We can see that what the most ancient of Israelites were doing was not a fundamentally different activity than their neighbors or even other cultures.  Everyone intuited that there was a power out there greater than themselves and were fumbling toward what that power was.

Over time, as this God acts and people and cultures have more experiences, these gaps begin to fill in.  This seems very much to be the tack that Paul takes in Athens in Acts 17.  He tells the Athenians that they have perceived rightly various basic elements of the divine, but now he’s going to fill in the gaps for them.

“Ok, that’s all fine and good for when we didn’t have a Bible.  But now we do, so isn’t it appropriate to derive all our knowledge of God from the Bible?”

As a Christian, I believe in Israel’s God – the God of Jesus Christ – and I believe they were God’s chosen people to be a priesthood to the nations, so their experiences through their eyes offer me the best picture of God at that time.  Further, I believe Jesus Christ offers us in human form the clearest picture and message from God while he was alive on the Earth.

At the same time, I acknowledge that the Scriptures are a product of that process, not the origin of it nor its completion.  They are textual derivatives of the journey of God and mankind in the world.  Even when John talks about the Word of God, the Word is a person, not a book.

This does not denigrate the character of the Scriptures nor minimize their importance, but it does put context around them and put them in their proper place.  The God Who is There comes first and He is at work in the world.  People tell stories about this, make sense of this, and eventually write some of all that down.  Believing communities recognize these writings as true, valid, and helpful and canonize them.

To me, there is no circularity problem here.  The Scriptures are valuable to me insofar as the God who preceded them is behind them.  If He isn’t, then they aren’t.

“Well, ok, but if you don’t make an a priori commitment to the authority of Scripture, then how do you know that what it tells you about God reflects the true God?”

Well, I don’t, and neither do you, if what you mean is 100% epistemic certainty.  What I have instead is trust.  Faith, if you will.

I believe in the divine being who preceded all myths, all stories, all fumblings, all theologies, and all interpretations, and I trust that being.  I concede that this being, since He is inaccessible to most empirical verification, is fundamentally a mystery subject to many possible misinterpretations, and what I believe I know of Him must come primarily through how He has revealed Himself, not only to me personally, but to mankind throughout history, and what they have made of all that.

Because I have thrown my lot in with this God and I see the testimonies of Him all around me in both creation and believers and in believers through history, some of which have been specially codified into Scripture, I have some relatively firm ideas of what this God is like, what He wants, what He has done, and what He intends to do.  I don’t know for sure.  I trust.

And you, my evangelical friend, are in the same boat.  The question is: what is the primary object of your trust?  Is it the Bible, or is it the God who is behind that Bible?  It isn’t a question of one being trustworthy and the other one not being trustworthy; it’s a question of which is original and which is derivative.

My theology does not start with the Bible, nor is it exhausted by the Bible.  As high as the Bible is in my hierarchy of theological data, that data begins with a created world and a primordial human race.  It encapsulates the Enuma Elish, the Baal Cycle, and Moabite stelae with prayers to Chemosh.  It encapsulates the toppling of the statue of Dagon before the Ark of the Covenant, but it also encapsulates how an idea of Dagon even came into being in the first place.  It encapsulates nations and their dispersions and their births, wars, deaths, and vanishings.  It encapsulates agnosticism and atheism.

Behind all of this, for millennia and before the property of time, is the God Who is There.