Sunday Meditations: Romans 13:1-7

I had actually planned on writing my Sunday Meditation about Nas’ “Hip Hop is Dead” as prophetic literature.  If you don’t know, Nas released a new album last week and it got me thinking about how his 2006 album has some parallels with prophetic literature in the Bible and could even be an interesting access point into biblical interpretation for people who might be fluent in hip hop but not so familiar with, say, Jeremiah.

What I had specifically decided not to write about was Jeff Sessions’ appeal to Romans 13 to justify the separation of children from their parents at the border.  It’s not because it isn’t worth writing about, but because so many people have already written about why this is horrible and stupid that I didn’t really see what I could possibly add to the great things people have already said in response.  To get you going, I refer you to Fred Clark, James McGrath, and my personal favorite article on this subject, Jason Johnson.

But for whatever reason, I felt very sluggish writing the post I was very excited about and could not make progress on it.  I was later reminded powerfully last night that this issue of separating children from families at the border is truly terrible and frightening and you can’t get enough people saying something about it, especially when a public official uses our Scriptures to support such a thing.  So, at the risk of being very redundant (but hopefully contributing to overall volume), here’s the deal with Romans 13 and whether or not it gives God’s stamp of approval to everything governments do or demands the passive obedience of Christians to all governments.

The Old Testament

In the Old Testament, God has issues with unjust governments, including the one He directly set up, Himself (Israel at Sinai) – maybe especially that one.

One of the earlier clashes God’s people have with government is the story of the Exodus.  In this story, the Israelites come to live in Egypt by way of immigration because of Egypt’s prosperity.  The Egyptian government becomes concerned at the rapid growth of the Hebrew people and fears they are so numerous and powerful that they could ally with Egypt’s enemies and destroy Egypt or flee Egypt altogether and destroy their economy.  Therefore, they force the Israelites to do hard manual labor (Ex. 1:8-14).

God hears the cries of this oppressed people and assigns a man to save them from the Egyptian government – Moses.  Although Moses is acting on the calling and power of God, he’s the one who confronts Pharaoh, he’s the one who calls down the plagues, he’s the one who prepares his people to leave, and he’s the one who leads them out.  He is not submissive to the government.  God not only approves of all this, God empowers it.

Along with all the other things God does through Moses to free Israel from Egypt, God even has Israel rob their Egyptian masters before they leave (Ex. 11:1-2, 12:35-36).  What is not advocated is a violent uprising – unlike, say, the American Revolutionary War (I wonder what Sessions makes of Romans 13 and the Revolutionary War).

So, here we have an example of at least one government that God decides is unjust and authorizes a person to speak out against it, bring plagues against it, and even rob it blind.

You just don’t have to go very far in the Old Testament to find examples of God opposing a government and/or using His people to oppose the government.  The whole story of Esther depends on this – a story that doesn’t mention God at all.

Even with Israel’s government, God is not shy about calling out injustice and threatening to replace them, take them into captivity, or even destroy them.  As one example passage among many, we can look at Ezekiel 34 that begins:

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.

Ezekiel 34:1-4 (NRSV)

And goes on from there – a round condemnation of the shepherds of Israel that God will actually kill as we read in chapter 35.  Ezekiel 16 is also a terrible, bloody condemnation of Israel’s government that warns they will meet the same fate as Sodom because they are committing the same sins as Sodom.  And what are those sins?

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Ezekiel 16:49 (NRSV)

These are just a handful of examples among many.  It is easy to see from the Old Testament that God does not approve of governments simply because they exist.  Through His servants, God calls governments to accountability to govern their people with justice and compassion, and when this does not happen, God threatens to reverse their positions, often in terrible ways.

A prophet who threatens God’s judgement of America for sexual immorality but is silent about or preaches that the government has nothing to fear from the judgement of God for the government’s treatment of the poor, orphan, widow, or foreigner is a false prophet.

As we move toward the New Testament, it should be noted that Israel (due to her oppressive government) finds herself ruled by a series of pagan empires.  During this time, Israel is encouraged to try and leave peaceably under these regimes in order that she might prosper.  However, these governments do not escape judgement by God, which is the primary cause of their destruction from the Old Testament point of view, from the trials of Nebuchadnezzar going forward.

To say nothing of the examples of Daniel or his friends and others like this.  Would Jeff Sessions have stood over the fiery furnace and said, “This is regrettable, boys, that we’re burning you alive, but God wants us to submit to government.  He put Nebuchadnezzar in power, after all?”

Jesus and Government

We don’t know a whole lot about Jesus’ views on the Roman government because the primary antagonist in the Gospels is the power structure of Israel.  Rome is almost a good guy by comparison, at least initially.

Still, like the prophets before him, Jesus’ harshest words are for Israel’s leaders – the High Priest, the Sanhedrin, their teachers of the Law in the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus warns them of a wrath to come on account of their oppression toward their own people.

One example among many is Matthew 23, which includes the infamous bit about whitewashed tombs, and also this:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Matthew 23:23-24 (NRSV)

Matthew 23 ends with the warning of a coming judgement because of stuff like this.  It is also in this larger discourse that he compares the present government to the predations of Antiochus Epiphanes.

One could argue, I suppose, that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem do not represent “the government,” although that seems incredibly weak, especially since at this time the Roman government was appointing the High Priest, but we do have some insight into Jesus’ appraisal of the Roman government.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously reverses the “eye for an eye” ethic in Matthew 5:38-42.  Note where some of his examples come from.  Being struck on the right cheek and most definitely the example of being forced to carry a burden come from the Roman Empire.  It is certainly true that Jesus encourages Israel not to strike back and indeed go above and beyond in a way that clearly marks out who the oppressor is and who God’s people are.  This is not just a powerful demonstration of love and trust in God, but it’s also a very wise ethic when you live in a climate of Jewish insurrection and swift Roman retribution.

However, notice the terms Jesus uses to describe the Romans: evildoers, enemies.  Romans who use their legal right to force people to carry burdens are enemies of the people.  They do evil.  Jesus does not approve of their behavior but rather condemns it.  The fact that they are the government over Israel does not make their laws or their practices right.

It is true that Jesus also calls for obedience to laws.  He tells the people to give Caesar his money, for example.  But what we’re trying to determine is whether or not Jesus saw all laws or government actions as inherently good because government comes from God.

It is important to note, too, that Jesus is not in favor of armed resistance to the government, as John 18 shows us.

The Apostles and Government and Romans 13

Two, important things to keep in mind about the time the apostles are writing is that Rome is in power and the relationship between Rome and the Jews is a powder keg that often erupts into small scale (or occasionally large scale) violence and bloodshed.  The apostles are trying to keep, comfort, and grow a small group of believers who could be wiped out at any time with very little legal pretext.

We can see this concern in 1 Peter 2:11-17, which also encourages submission to the government.  But notice the reason Peter gives for this: so that the Gentiles who slander the believers will be found baseless in their accusations.  He doesn’t say submit to the government because they are inherently right and just; you submit to the government because they can punish those who do wrong and people are making false accusations about us.  This is not by any means a universal declaration that all government laws and actions are just; this is the same Peter who declares, “We ought to obey God rather than human authority” in Acts 5.

It is, in fact, the charges of sedition and stirring up riots that the apostles are having to defend themselves against in court, as Acts 24 shows us, as one example.

This is all to bring up the historical backdrop for Romans 13, which actually starts in Romans 12.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:14-21 (NRSV)

This is what immediately precedes the Romans 13 passage about government.  This is the flow of Paul’s thought.  Paul did not divide Romans into chapters.  Paul does not stop his thought to deliver a discourse on the divine mandate theory of government.

Instead, Paul is talking about retribution against oppressors.  Sermon on the Mount stuff.  Taking the law into your own hands.  Repaying evil with more evil.  Instead, Paul advocates paying back evil with good.

And it is in this context that Paul tells us to be subject to authorities and not resist them.

Paul is not in the least bit saying that everything a government does is right.  In fact, like Jesus, he refers to them as “enemies” who are doing “evil” when they persecute.  What Paul is doing is telling a small group of believers who are already being accused of sedition and uprisings to go out of their way to be good Roman citizens.

As a general principle, we might take from this passage the same wise instructions.  As Christians, we, too, should pursue a path of love rather than retaliation.  We, too, should try to be at peace with everyone.  We, too, should obey the law.  We, too, should not give substance to false accusations against us of being troublemakers.  No one should be able to say that the world would be a better place without Christians in it.

But none of this means that everything that governments do are right, and the Bible is full of examples where governments are condemned and even some passages where civil disobedience is what God rewards.  We are not to take something Paul wrote in a letter to advise an early church in the first century Roman Empire and make it a declaration that all governments throughout space and time are inherently good and just and everything they do is right because God put them there.

That isn’t even what Paul meant then, much less something we should take away from it now.


Sunday Meditations: Baptism and Equality

Every so often, my pastor outsources emails to me.  Generally, it’s someone in the congregation asking a theological question that requires a big response.  I think his theory is, once people hear from me, they’ll be reluctant to ask such questions in the future.

This past week, someone asked about the sacraments.  The Westminster Confession of Faith specifies that there are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  She had read this along with what it says about infants being baptized and was curious about all this stuff.  Particularly, she was interested in what it meant for a sacrament to be a “sign and seal.”

Whenever you explain something to someone else, it helps you see it in a new way.  You have to understand the subject well enough to communicate it, but you also have to understand how to communicate it.  You have to examine the material in new ways to put it in a form where someone new to it can absorb it.

As I was doing this, something stood out to me that hasn’t before, and that is that baptism marks a growing inclusiveness and statement of equality in the new covenant.

A pivotal old covenant sacrament was the sign of circumcision.  This was the sign and seal of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants.  Obviously, this could only apply to males and, generally speaking, infant males, although those who would have faith in Israel’s God as adults were also required to be circumcised.

While there were other signs of God’s covenant that took in both male and female, young and old, etc., the sign of circumcision was only for males, because it spoke to inclusion in God’s people in a way comprehensible to early Mesopotamian society.  The males were heads and representatives of households.  The patriarch of your family having the sign of the covenant was as good as everyone in your family having the sign of the covenant.  Since God’s covenant was with a people and not a bunch of individuals, the males carrying this sign in their flesh was a testimony to themselves, to the world, and to God that all the people of Israel were in covenant with Him.

Baptism is the new covenant version of circumcision.  In Colossians 2, Paul says that all believers have undergone a circumcision made without hands when our union with Christ puts off our flesh.  Our mystical participation in his death and resurrection is enacted, Paul notes, in the ritual of baptism.  Although the ritual is not this reality, it is a sign and seal of this reality and, to the early church, conversion and baptism were virtually synonymous.

In the book of Acts, we see this played out many times as someone converts and they and their whole household are baptized, very similar to Israel’s practice of circumcision – it was for everyone who lived with you, even if they were not family members.

But in Acts 16, we see something remarkable.

The chapter opens by pointing out that Timothy is the son of a Jewish woman who believed and a Gentile father who presumably was not.  The chapter tells us that Paul has Timothy circumcised, but he does so in order that there won’t be trouble from the Jewish audiences that they visit.  Since these audiences are only just learning about inclusion of the Gentiles and what it means theologically and practically, Timothy is circumcised for their sake.  He is not, however, required to be circumcised for any other reason.  He is a believer, and so is his mother.

In this same chapter, Paul is called to Macedonia, which is both a region of Greece and a Roman colony at the time.  He and Timothy go to a well-known place of prayer and talk to the women who are there.  One of them, named Lydia, converts.  The account in Acts then tells us, “When she and her household were baptized, she urged us saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’  And she prevailed upon us.” (Acts 16:15 NRSV)

Here, a woman joins the people of God, and she is baptized as is her entire household.  Something that used to only happen through males – the household taking on the covenant sign – just happened through a woman.

And thus another aspect of baptism opens up to us.  Whether you observe Torah or whether you don’t, whether you are male or female – you can take the sign of baptism.  It is a covenant seal that requires no distinctions and, in fact, symbolically buries them in death where all are equal – free and slave, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, male and female – uniting believers to Jesus and one another in death and in rising to new life, to begin our citizenship in the new heavens and new earth in the here and now.

Nor is this the only sacrament that has this quality.  In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul writes to the church there that he has heard there are divisions among them, and some eat all the food and drink all the wine at the Lord’s Supper while others have nothing to eat or drink.  This probably speaks to a division between rich and poor, but whatever the reason is for the Corinthians making distinctions, Paul will have none of it and even says this is why some of them have gotten sick and died – because they do not come to take the Lord’s Supper, but rather feast and drink while others have nothing.

The remedy for this, in Paul’s letter, is for the church to remember that, when they take the Lord’s Supper, they are participating in the body and blood of the Lord in the new covenant.

The sacraments are a physical preaching that those who are united with Christ in the new covenant are united with each other in such a way that all this-present-evil-agey distinctions do not matter and, in fact, the body of Christ should be policing itself to ensure that no such distinctions are practiced among us.

What a powerful statement this would be to first century society, and what a powerful statement it is, now!

Our sacraments are a time to proclaim to one another and a watching world that, however this age defines you and whatever it is that has made you an outsider, treated unjustly, treated unequally, or even treated differently at all – those distinctions mean nothing on this side of death and resurrection in the new covenant.

Our faith in Jesus grants us one Spirit, one baptism, one Lord, and we eat the same spiritual food and we drink the same spiritual drink from the rock that follows us, and that rock is Christ.

The New Testament portrays us as a body, as a nation, as a kingdom, and as a family.  Within these ranks, nothing the outside world uses to divide or differentiate us for the purposes of how it judges or treats us holds any sway.  And the sacraments are a sign and a seal of this thing that God has done in Jesus.

Sunday Meditations: Inspiration of Scripture

James McGrath – a friend of mine and this blog – has been posting bits of a conversation he’s been having with a colleague on the authority and infallibility of Scripture.  His colleague is taking Van Til’s position, which is basically the standard Reformed position with an emphasis on the circularity of reasoning.  In other words, Scripture is a self-verifying authority and it is the proper response of Christians to submit to that.

James has taken the position that there are too many complications in the biblical text to hold it forth as an authority in some kind of oracular way and believes the Scriptures discourage this way of viewing them as well as just honestly owning up to the nature of the texts that we have.

Various things have been touched on in the conversations, but one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is this: is the claim that the Scriptures are from God incompatible with the idea that they may have contradictions or mistakes in them?

The passage that is usually trotted out when discussing these issues is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that [the person of] God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NRSV with a slight amendment of my own in the square brackets)

I love the NRSV because it handles difficult Greek amazingly well.  I’m occasionally leery of the NRSV because it sometimes translates quite easy Greek phrases in uncommon ways and won’t tell you.  Here, it footnotes that this verse could read “Every Scripture that is inspired by God…” and, while this is true, I favor the translation they chose for the main text, although we do need to keep in mind that other books of the Bible were written after 2 Timothy, probably.

Anyway, the word translated as “inspired by God” is “theopneustos,” which is a compound word that Paul appears to have made up just for this occasion.  It’s the only occurrence of the word in the Bible and does not appear in any other literature pre-Paul that we’re aware of.  In fact, it rarely shows up anywhere at all.

It’s a combination of the words “theos” meaning God and “pneuma” which can mean breath, wind, or spirit.  So, all scripture is “of the God-breath” or “of the God-spirit.”  Needless to say, this kind of ambiguity can mean a lot of different things, ranging from a very generic declaration that the Scriptures are of God all the way to a very poetic way to say God dictated the words.  There is virtually no way to adjudicate between proposed meanings on the basis of the word itself.

One possible hint is Paul’s word “ophelimos,” which the NRSV translates as “useful” and other texts translate as “profitable.”  This shows up only one other time in the Bible over in 1 Timothy 4:8 where Paul tells us that physical exercise is a little ophelimos, but godliness is ophelimos for everything.  The word is about usefulness and benefit.

On the one hand, saying that Scripture is ophelimos for the categories Paul lists (teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness) definitely underscores the importance of the Scripture to these categories.  On the other hand “useful” seems like a soft word to use if Paul intends to teach us that God literally dictated every word in the Bible.

The context of this passage is Paul warning Timothy of false teachers and asking Timothy to hold on to the truths he learned from his childhood.  In this context, Paul reminds him that the Scriptures are theopneustos and useful for teaching, reproof, etc.  So, the Scriptures will be useful to Timothy in his task to discern true teachings from false ones.  This does not rule out Paul meaning that every word of the Scriptures was dictated by God, but to me it seems unlikely Paul would be so light in his advice if this were the case.

Imagine that you and I are listening to a young pastor talk about the various heresies and increase in immorality that is cropping up in his church, and he wasn’t sure how to handle them,  and I said, “You should look in the Bible.  I think you’ll find it useful in this situation,” you might think I was sarcastically joking to make a point, but that’s the serious advice Paul offers.  Unless he’s also sarcastically joking.

On the other hand (I think that’s three hands so far), Paul was a Pharisee and educated by a leading Sanhedrin authority.  We don’t know exactly what that training consisted of, but a very traditional Jewish view of the Scriptures has the Torah being dictated by God (even the letters are important), the Prophets receiving visions but not the specific words, and everything else (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) is “inspired” by God but not actually given as direct transmission from God.  Therefore, for that third category of writings, they must be weighed and debated as to how authentically they represent what God would want us to know.  This is why Ecclesiastes did not make it into the canon of the Hebrew Bible, so perhaps all those ways of thinking about Scripture fall under Paul’s umbrella of “theopneustos” and make all Scripture useful, regardless of category.

But I’m wandering afield, here.  The question for me isn’t whether or not the Scriptures come from God.  The question is: can they come from God and still have characteristics we associate with ancient (or modern, for that matter) texts written by people at the time?  Can two Gospel authors record the same event differently and one of them be wrong in the details, for instance, and both texts still be from God?

I certainly don’t have a problem with saying a biblical text is infallible or even inerrant.  I can speak inerrantly right now.  Observe:

Two plus two equals four.

Human beings say and write infallible and inerrant things with some degree of frequency, even as they also say and write fallible and errant things.  So, Scriptures certainly can be inerrant, no question, but is it a required characteristic of a text that, if it is from God in some sense, it must make it to paper without any of the foibles that exist in the writings of mankind?  Or is that just an assumption people make?  Can something be from God and still have characteristics we think of as being imperfect?

Part of the matter is we should decide what it means for something to be perfect.  “Perfect” is a word we throw around without a lot of philosophical rigor behind it.  If someone said they had a perfect date, we probably wouldn’t point out that they had to consume fossil fuels to get to the restaurant, so the date was hardly perfect.  Perfect is something that is contextual.  A person might be a perfect employee at one company and be a terrible fit for another.

Perfection is also usually defined by what we value about a thing.  If an employee is honest and trustworthy, easy to work with, a team player, and puts in their time and consistently does great work, we might describe them as a “perfect employee” even though we don’t mean that they never make mistakes.  In fact, how they deal with their mistakes may factor into our view of their perfection.

So, it’s a slippery term, but it’s worth considering what we mean when we think about God being perfect and something from God also being perfect.

Jesus is from God, as well, but he bled when you cut him and died when he sustained too much physical damage.  He was anxious in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He did not rejoice when Lazarus died, but rather wept.  He became angry.  While crowds would sometimes gather around him, his actual long term following was fairly small.  He cursed a fig tree to death.  He was poor.  He had to defecate.  Do any of these things make Jesus not perfect?

Well, no.  Jesus was perfect for what God intended to do through him.  It doesn’t mean Jesus was without every conceivable flaw or weakness or limitation.  He was human, through and through, and took with him all the characteristics of being human.

“Well, but Jesus’ teachings had no errors.”

That’s a very western objection to have, but in any case, Mark 7:24-30 has a Gentile woman correcting Jesus and Jesus rewarding it.  You might speculate that Jesus really agreed with the woman all along and was playing this out for the benefit of teaching, but A) the text does not say that, B) he could easily have taught this without playing along, and C) this speaks to the idea of Jesus being perfect in his context.  He actually spoke something that needed to be corrected because that was what needed to happen.

John 7:1-13 records a moment where Jesus directly said he would not go to the Feast of Booths because it was not time for him to die, and after his disciples left, he went, anyway, and snuck around.  This is actually brilliant because it affords Jesus the opportunity to hear what people are saying about him – the classic king in disguise among his people trick that he never could have pulled off if he’d went with his disciples.  But it doesn’t change the fact that he said something in verse 8 that turned out to be incorrect.

The one thing about the Bible that everyone of every ideology can agree on is that human beings wrote those words down.  What is our basis for saying that God being in some way the origin of those writings bypasses everything human about writing, or at least the weak parts of human writing?

This “incarnational” model of Scripture is one that Pete Enns has championed for some time, and he uses the divine and human natures of Jesus as a point of comparison for the Bible.  I think that’s a helpful starting point to get the thought engines going if you have a very conservative view of inspiration, and Pete is way smarter than I am, so there’s that.

But even apart from theories about the divinity and humanity of Jesus is that fundamental assumption: why does something have to be free of all possible flaw or weakness in order to be from God and useful?  Why have we made that assumption, especially when there are so many things from God and the Holy Spirit that are very helpful and still operate well within the confines of weakness and limitation?

Now, this does not mean that the Scriptures do work that way.  None of this constitutes an argument that the Bible is fallible or has errors or contradictions.  For that, we’d have to look at specific examples, and I’m not super interested in convincing anyone one way or the other.  But we owe it to ourselves as we talk to fellow Christians and a watching world to ask ourselves that question: could the Bible have errors or opposing viewpoints in it and still be from God and still be useful?

Sunday Meditations: Justice

Two weeks in a row, my meditations have been provoked by Darrell, which probably speaks both to how provocative his thoughts are as well as his tendency to post on the weekends.

In this particular case, he talks about love, justice, and one’s view of the end of time.  The article is very good and, I thought, begins to scratch the surface of some very deep assumptions that people carry in their thoughts about God in general.

I’m not going to rehash his article; I encourage you to read it, yourself, but one of the many things the article made me ponder was the notion of justice and its application.

One of the most common notions of justice in both America and Christianity is the model of retributive justice.  In other words, if you do something harmful, something harmful should be done to you.  If you steal a car, you should get two years of imprisonment.  If you commit sin A, you get penalty B.  I sometimes call this the “price sheet” model of justice; every wrongdoing carries a price you pay for doing it.

When I lived in Texas, there was a brief span of time where the government would post signs showing you the fine you’d receive for driving at different speeds over the speed limit.  You’d have a chart that said things like “55 mph – $20, 60 mph – $35” or whatever it was.  I realize the intent was to deter speeding by making the penalties visible, but in the perversity of my own nature, it worked exactly like a menu.  Hey, I’ve got an extra $20 on me.  Guess I can drive 55, here.

The intent of retributive justice is, in fact, to serve as a deterrent.  People who know something bad will happen to them if they commit a crime are afraid of that penalty so, the theory goes, they don’t do it.  Those who experience the penalty find it so unpleasant that they, they theory goes, are less likely to do it, again.

One characteristic of retributive justice is that it lends itself very well to a “one size fits all” strategy that scales easily;  this sort of standardization makes it easy to apply the same system to a wide variety of situations across a wide variety of people.  While judges in the USA have minimum and maximum limits to sentences, the window for customization is pretty narrow.  Punishments are not designed to specifically address the offense, but rather the gravity of the offense.

There is nothing, for example, about incarcerating someone for two years that has anything to do with the fact that someone is missing their car.  That action and that consequence have no connection other than the pain of the consequence is relatively sized to the offense.

You might also recognize retributive justice as the method usually taken for disciplining very little children.  Very young children do not have the cognitive ability to connect their actions with any consequences other than something immediately good or bad that happens afterward.  Even in this case, one hopes that the parent is fitting the consequences around making sure a small child doesn’t want to do that behavior again as opposed to some objective, cosmic price table of doing action X merits punishment Y.

This model of justice is the one I believe evangelicalism most commonly associates with God.  We commit sin X (and Y and Z and alpha and beta), and this deserves penalty Y.  Justice, then, is making sure this penalty gets paid.  In this model, God is not just if sinners deserve a penalty and God does not treat them as their sins deserve.  They (or someone, hence the penal substitutionary theory of atonement) have to balance the scales.  In the cosmic price sheet of offenses and penalties, God has got to make sure all those penalties get applied.  This, as Darrell points out, is often a primary ingredient in Christian stories about the end of the world, where everyone will finally get what they deserve.

But this is not the only model of justice.  There is another model of justice that centers around the idea of restoration.  The person who has been wronged must be restored, but so must the wrongdoer.  This is sometimes called a rehabilitative model of justice.

This is close to the “justice on the grass” model made famous by “Hotel Rwanda.”  In this model, a person who has been wronged by someone comes to the village elders.  The elders hear both sides and make a decision about how the wrongdoer can make things right.  When this decision is reached, one of the things that needs to happen (eventually) is that the elders and the two parties in dispute drink banana beer together as a symbol that community has been restored to all parties.

This model of justice is fairly complex.  There is no one size fits all model.  If someone steals your car, then this model of justice might insist that you admit to your wrongdoing and then work to replace the other person’s car, perhaps even with a better car, or perhaps even with your own car.  It depends.  Which set of actions in this particular case is best suited for the wronged person to be made whole and best suited for the wrongdoer to be restored to that person (ideally) and to the fellowship of the community as a whole?

This model of justice is very difficult to scale because it is intimately involved in the particulars of each case and who the people are who were harmed and did the harming.  Context and relationships are very important in this model.

This model is also very tricky to pull off well.  Some crimes do not lend themselves very well to being “made right” in the sense of true equivalence.  If you kill someone’s son, can you ever really make that right in the sense of whole restoration?  You might spend your entire life making amends for that to the people who were affected.

It’s also tricky because the victim very much needs to be vindicated and restored to wholeness.  You can’t focus so much on the restoration of the wrongdoer that you neglect the fact that someone has been truly harmed.  This is something that churches often struggle with.  Because we want to focus on forgiveness and restoration in Christ, it is sometimes difficult for us to seriously and practically take into account that someone has truly been harmed and needs vindication and amends by the community.  I have been the beneficiary of this at times, in fact, and while I have appreciated the grace shown to me (and if you’re going to make a mistake, let’s make it on the side of grace), looking back on those times, I think perhaps more needed to happen in order for the community to truly know that I had wronged someone and they had an obligation to be on “their side” and help them to heal.

It’s very tricky.  Very very tricky.  This model of justice is easy to screw up.  It’s almost as if a transhuman amount of discernment and wisdom and compassion is needed to pull it off.

But it is a model of justice, nonetheless.  This model of justice recognizes that, for the same crime, in one instance an apology may be doing justice, in another making repayment may be doing justice, and in yet another, leaving the person you wronged completely alone so that they feel safe and investing your amends elsewhere is justice.  The goal is the same and accomplished in a thousand different ways: the guilty and the innocent must be truly identified, and both the wrongdoer and the one who is wronged must be brought to wholeness and restoration in the community, recognizing that the wrongdoer is going to be responsible for amends.

There is room for punishment in this model as well, if that is what is determined to need to happen for the wrongdoer to pursue restoration.  This is, in fact, close to the model parents of older children use.  You may ground your teenager for a weekend because they snuck out of the house to go a party, but it’s not because their crimes merit the price of grounding – it’s because sneaking out is dangerous and potentially destructive behavior both in the present and future.  You may ground them to create more tangible consequences in the moment, but you don’t just do that and not say anything.  You’d explain to them how that behavior could have had very bad consequences on its own.  If they lied to you to cover it up, they may need to do things to regain that trust.  Every situation and every teenager is different.

But the point is that everything in this model of justice is evaluated in terms of how it will restore both parties, eventually, one way or another, to wholeness in the community.

Under this model, justice is not a means to settling objective, cosmic scores; it is a means to love.  It is a way to love the offender, the person offended, and the community in which both must live and to which both must contribute.  We are not trying to harm offenders in return for the harm they have caused because they deserve it; we are trying to repair what has been damaged in every sense of the word, including the offender’s own character.  We are not trying to sweep away the damage and grievances of an offended party under a generic blanket of “forgiveness;” we are trying to acknowledge right and wrong and repair the damage that has been done to the person who was harmed.  We are not trying to remove people from the community; we are trying to make our community stronger.

It is this rather more complex sense of justice that I believe is at work in New Testament eschatology and, honestly, even some of the more difficult Old Testament episodes display it.  God doesn’t just smite people because they’re bad; He intervenes to deliver a group of people who are suffering under another.  We could debate over specific instances to see how much this does or doesn’t bear out, but this is certainly the dynamic underscoring the eschatology of the New Testament.

YHWH being Israel’s God, becoming Lord over the nations, and making good on the promises to Abraham are the big cogs driving the machine of New Testament eschatology, but why does this eschatology exist in the first place?  It’s to make the world right again (MWRA!).  Love is behind all this – God’s love for Himself, His creation, and particularly His image-bearers in the world.

When we look at the eschatology of Jesus’ day, the big event on the horizon is an upcoming destruction of Jerusalem.  We might debate how “active” God is in that, whether He is deliberately causing it or whether it’s a byproduct of God standing aside and letting events take their course, but nevertheless, there is a destruction of Jerusalem coming up and this has a role in God’s plan.

This may seem on the service to posit a contrast between love and justice.  Destroying Jerusalem (through action or inaction) does not seem very loving, but it does seem just, especially from a retributive view of justice.

But we have to look at what brought us to this point.  Israel has completely defaulted on her agreement with God by this point, and their leadership is primarily to blame.  She has made alliances with nations who will abuse her.  She has adopted their toxic gods who do not care about her.  Her leaders keep themselves fat and happy and powerful on the backs of the poor and the widow and the orphan and the foreigner.  And God’s people are suffering.

God sends prophets to turn this situation around, to plead with king and nation.  Sometimes it seems to go ok, but the downward trajectory continues.  As the covenant dictates, Israel gets conquered by a foreign power.  You would think that this would be the wake-up call Israel’s leadership needed.  This would be the event that made them realize they needed to get on their people’s side.  They were all in this, together, and the only solution was to live in exile in a community run by love and peace and justice that ensured welfare for the least of these, and altogether the nation should repent of their abandonment of this vision for their own.  The prophets are screaming this.

And when those first conquerors are (relatively) mild, it looks like this might have a chance of happening.  But the consequences are not severe enough.  Leadership makes an alliance with the conquerors over and against their own people.  They silence and kill the prophets.

So the conquerors get worse.  We even get Antiochus Epiphanes.  If there is any pagan tyrant who should bend Israel’s leadership’s hearts to her people and cause them all to band together in unity and repentance, it’s Antiochus frackin’ Ephiphanes.  And there are rallies.  There is a renewed sense of longing of the faithful for the restoration of Israel and the overthrow of this terrible, terrible person that seems to crop up here and there, even among some of the priesthood and those who, in the recent centuries, seemed to care very little about Israel’s welfare as long as they were taken care of.  But it doesn’t take.  It does not sweep the nation or turn the hearts of leadership to their people (although exceptions abound – looking in your direction, Onias).

Until finally we get Rome.  And under Rome, the same people who were supposed to be looking after the welfare of Israel sell their souls to have a peaceful and prosperous life under the Empire.  The Temple becomes a money-making machine, Israelites become government agents responsible for fleecing their own people and keeping them ground down under poverty, and even the priesthood becomes a government-appointed position.

All this time, God has sent prophets and allowed the consequences to grow, and all this time, the prophets are ignored or even executed.  The signs of the times are not read.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  “How long O Lord?” becomes a common refrain of the people.

And you have to ask yourself, at what point is it still love for God to delay?

This isn’t simply a matter of people living sinful lifestyles.  This is a matter of one group of people suffering because of another group of people.  And God has tried and tried and tried to give them warnings and words and consequences and time to turn this situation around.  At what point is He no longer being loving to the poor and broken of Israel by allowing this situation to continue?  At what point is He being neither just nor loving?

We could debate a lot of things about God and His relationship to those events and His timing and His plan and what we think of it all from a moral perspective.  But what I can tell you is that justice that is a function of love and restoration is very, very tricky.

Sunday Meditations: Science and Possibility

I should begin by noting that I am not a scientist and what follows may be oversimplified or naive, at least concerning the scientific bits.

The conflict between Christianity and science is, as far as the world stage is concerned, a fairly recent development.  The idea that the Christian church has engaged in an ongoing program of suppressing scientists and scientific development is a historical urban legend.  This point is not what this meditation is about, but suffice to say that Christianity is actually responsible for the preservation and advancement of science in the Western world for most of world history and not its primary antagonist.  Many of the episodes in history that are summoned up as evidence of the Church’s opposition to science are discovered to have never happened at all (e.g. Christians destroying the Great Library of Alexandria) or are much more complex on both sides than simply a rigorous scientist being persecuted by dogmatic Christians.

All the while, Christians were scientists and humanists and the efforts of Christian monks and scribes are largely responsible for preserving a great deal of scientific thought and knowledge through the ages.

To contemporary generations in the West, it may feel as though Christianity has always had a hostile relationship to science because, these days, it kind of does.

It’s hard not to locate the high point of this animosity with Charles Darwin and the Creationists.  The 19th century heralded a lot of breaking with past tradition and established thought in philosophy, art, and culture.  In America, Christianity post-Great Awakening had resulted in very large numbers of well-intentioned converts with very little rooting in the development of Christian theological history, historical narrative, or biblical scholarship.  They had American values and spiritual experiences, and the combination took us to a theological landscape that was heavily individualized, experience-oriented, and status-quo affirming coupled with readings of Scripture that were very simplistic, literal, and largely out of touch with a broader historical context that might have changed what kinds of readings became popular.

Where our early church fathers might have heard Darwin’s findings and been fascinated at how the hand of God was revealed, what American Christianity heard was, “Science is contradicting the Bible.”  “The Bible,” in this instance, being a very literal understanding of Genesis 1 and 2 that, again, is relatively recent on the world stage.

This sharp dichotomy between “what science says” and “what the Bible says” has been a forest fire for both sides that seems to be actively fed.  This assumption is shared by both the fundamentalist Christian and the materialist: either the Bible is literally true as contemporary readers understand it, or the Bible is a pack of lies and we are of all men most to be pitied.

To this day, evolution versus a literal reading of the creation story is the primary battleground on the Christianity vs. science struggle and there is a significant issue in that, as time goes on, the evidence greatly seems to favor an evolutionary mechanism for life as opposed to everything more or less at once 6-10k years ago.  It’s hard to imagine what sort of discovery would overturn this understanding, although it’s always possible.

For their part, the fundamentalists (or at least people who share that understanding of creation) have generally taken one of two routes.  1) Arguing that the evidence does not favor evolution at all but, in fact, favors a literal reading of Genesis, or 2) arguing against the credibility of science, itself.

Ken Hamm’s Answers in Genesis or the Creation Research Institute would be examples of Christians taking that first path.  Such groups, in my opinion, cause more problems for the Christian church than they solve because, as more evidence accumulates that does not fit their scheme and/or “scientific” data they have presented in support of their reading has turned out to be inaccurate, these are damaging blows both to the public credibility of Christianity and the tender faith of believers who are not scientists who get caught in the crossfire.  If you tell someone over and over, as groups like Answers in Genesis do, that either Genesis 1 is literally true or nothing in the Bible can be trusted, and then evidence mounts that Genesis 1 is not literally true, you can see what’s going to happen.

The second approach is interesting for a few reasons.  One reason is that it is both the most uncritical and the most critical approach you can take.

It is the most uncritical when it is reflective of a sort of gut level distrust of science or fancy book learnin’ in general.  There is a worldview that holds that life, the world, the Bible, etc. are all actually very simple and anything that would seem to complicate things is not worth listening to.  If it isn’t readily apparent to me at a gut level, then it probably isn’t true or at least won’t serve me well.  When the Insane Clown Posse raps in “Miracles” that “scientists be lyin’,” it probably isn’t because they just finished reading Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and have developed new philosophical positions on science’s credibility; it’s because science seems to them to take away the miraculous that they see in the world and replace it with explanations that, because they are natural and mechanical, cannot be true.

It can be the most critical, however, because when we observe the history of science, the plumbing and assumptions of the scientific method, and the results the scientific method itself yields, we begin to see there are limitations and questionable presuppositions.

We may find that scientific knowledge, mediated as it is through people, is also subject to ideology, bias, and politics, but the scientific method itself is designed to prevent this from holding sway forever.  The method itself corrects over time, and in terms of human ambition, the fastest way to get famous as a scientist is to prove everyone else wrong and overturn established knowledge.  We should not have a fairy tale view of this process, however.  Power can keep such revisions from realistically happening for a long time.  Any grad student who has tried to get research published that contradicted the findings of the editor’s friends can tell you that scientists are not all dispassionate seekers of truth wherever it is to be found.

We will also find that there are limits to what scientific knowledge can tell us, and this is where most of your Christian philosophers like to hang out.  The scientific method is an incredibly efficient way to achieve a body of empirical knowledge while correcting itself for errors.  But empirical questions are not the only questions we have, and it is extremely doubtful whether the scientific method is equally suited for those kinds of questions.

What is justice?  Is Aristotelian syllogizing the best way to rationalize?  Does anyone love me?  Is anything worth dying for?  What should humanity be trying to accomplish, if anything?  The scientific method is geared for things we can observe.  It may yield data that may help us answer questions like this, but it cannot answer them.  At some point, we have to inject propositions that we did not arrive at scientifically.  We have to guess, or trust, or intuit.  We have to pick a horse and ride it not knowing if it’ll get us across the finish line first or at all.

But what I find the most interesting, perhaps, is how scientific findings themselves put our scientific knowledge in perspective.

Last week, my older son received a black belt in taekwondo.  At that presentation, his coach mentioned that it takes about 10000 hours of deliberate practice for someone to become world class at an activity, and receiving a black belt in taekwondo represented around 300 to 600 hours for most people.  The idea being that receiving a black belt is not the completion of mastery; it’s the completion of what you needed to know and the skills and attributes you needed to have to begin your road to mastery.  The vast majority of what it takes to get to mastery still lay before you.

Scientifically speaking, we are in an amazing place.  We have mapped the human genome, which seriously almost sounds like what you do right before the aliens decide your planet is worthy to join the Federation.  We have not only split the atom; we are finding subatomic particles, and sub-subatomic particles.  We are discovering that universals like time and space are not things in which our universe exists; they are properties of our universe and could theoretically operate differently if our universe were different.  We are so close to uncovering the base components that unlock all reality.


Well, sort of.

Imagine if you could send a computer back in time to ancient man.  Assuming they didn’t destroy it, what would the process of understanding that computer look like?  They can’t turn it on – no electricity.  They can’t unscrew anything – no screwdrivers.  But if someone were patient and careful enough, through a lot of care, trial and error, and precision, they might be able to get a panel removed.

And what would they see, but a forest of wires, circuits, chips, lights, and so on?

They would have made a stunning advancement in the acquisition of knowledge, and what they had learned by trial and error up to that point would still be true, but what they would have revealed in the process is that their ignorance of the computer is more vast than they could have possibly imagined when it was a black box.

Without knowing what else is out there, it’s hard to say if we’ve truly pried off a panel or received a black belt in scientific understanding, but my point is that the things we’re discovering are definitely telling us our limits.

Consider dark matter, for instance.  Dark matter is matter that is theoretically postulated because there are ways our universe behaves (gravity, acceleration, etc.) that suggest there is matter that we can’t perceive.  How much of our universe consists of this matter?  We think it’s 95%.


95% of our universe consists of matter we cannot even perceive, but because of what we can perceive, we can theoretically say it’s out there.  We can’t see it, measure it, or know anything about its properties other than, if this matter does exist, it shares enough commonality with matter that we can perceive that it creates the effects we are explaining by postulating its existence.

Light: it’s both a wave and a particle and cannot possibly be imagined as what it really is.  Despite the fact that the speed of literally everything we know of in the universe is relative to the speed and position of the measurer, light is not.  It is always the same speed no matter how fast you’re going or where you are, because the faster you go, the more time changes.

Time changes?  Yes, because time is a dimensional property of our universe just like three dimensional space.  You can theoretically have a universe without time, just as you can have a universe without depth.  You can have a universe with more than four dimensions.  Our universe could be a universe with more than four dimensions, but we cannot perceive them because we perceive four dimensions, and the extra dimensions would explain some of the behavior we do perceive in our universe but do not perceive the cause.

We have finally gotten to the top of a mountain in our scientific history only to see that a larger, more mysterious peak  is on the horizon.  We are finding that a great portion of our reality is currently inaccessible to us, yet we know must be there because of what is accessible to us.

It is because of this that some Christians or spiritual types in general believe they have found ammunition against scientific credibility.  At one time, we thought time was a constant and atoms were the fundamental building blocks of matter.  Today’s scientific laws are tomorrow’s scientific garbage, etc. etc.  So, why trust science?

The problem is that this proves too much.

The scientific method depends on things that are false eventually being demonstrated to be false.  This is what is supposed to happen in a good, reality-seeking methodology.  When a long held scientific finding is overturned by new discoveries, this does not make science incredible; it means science is working.  This is what you want to happen.

What it does, perhaps, is undercut overzealous or dogmatic adherence to the current body of scientific understanding and shows us how ludicrous it is for us to make dogmatic statements about how reality must be or cannot be based on the empirical information available to us right now.  It seems unwise to declare that everything is matter as we understand it and must operate as we understand it when we’ve just discovered that 95% of our universe may be a form of matter (or something) we cannot even perceive – something that would have mass but is imperceptible.

However, this doesn’t throw our existing scientific knowledge into disarray, either.  Nor is it a critique of the scientific method.  Nor does it mean that it is wise to doubt scientific consensus when such findings cause us personal discomfort.  Yes, it can be uncomfortable to have a literal understanding of Genesis 1 and be confronted with the massive amount of evidence across scientific fields that seems to indicate a very old Earth with life coming into being through branching forms rather than all at once.  But you can’t just shrug your shoulders and say, “Yeah, I know it looks that way, but quarks, you know.  And dark matter.  So, really, what do we know about evolution?  It’s all uncertain.  Science can’t really tell us what’s really going on about anything.  So, excuse me while I turn on my cell phone.”

I’m picking on evolution because it’s the flash point, but you could apply this across the board.

We do not want to make a god of the scientific method.  Nothing that passes through the lens of human inquiry should be given the status of Ultimate Arbiter of What Can and Cannot Be True.  Nor can we take what is primarily a mechanism for evaluating empirical data to understand the empirical world and somehow make it a tool for all truth evaluation and acquisition.

But at the same time, limitations are not challenges to credibility.  Science is good, and not just “science that agrees with the Bible” because our level of understanding of the Bible is also something that passes through the lens of human inquiry.

God has written the book of natural revelation, and His presence is borne on every photon.

Tuesday Meditations: The Gospel vs. Social Good

It started with one of Darrell’s recent blogs, which was commenting on this article by Ed Stetzer.  Yesterday, Jaquelle Crowe wrote this article for The Gospel Coalition.  The topic of all these articles is: are we pursuing social good at the expense of sharing the gospel?

Darrell says no; the other two say probably.

All three articles admirably state that there should be no dichotomy between these things and that both are important.  However, it’s interesting that the two “probably” articles actually depend fairly heavily on a dichotomy existing.  Stetzer’s article is far more “dichotomous” about them than Crowe’s, but even Crowe’s article can’t escape ultimately claiming that one is more important than the other:

Our God is a God of justice (Gen. 18:25). He cares for the needy (Ps. 68:10), he provides for the poor (Is. 41:17), he fights for the oppressed (Ps. 10:17–18), he hates abuse and racism and human trafficking. And he expects his people to as well:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Yet if we want to live out justice the way God commands and celebrates, we must prioritize the gospel.

In fairness, Crowe works very hard in the article to show how closely connected the two are.  In that article, the issue is more about how the gospel is a necessary prerequisite for the pursuit of justice.  But, as you can see, the conclusion is something that is pretty common evangelical theology: get people saved and then worry about the rest.

I’m sorely tempted to write about how this theology is a luxury only white people can enjoy, but what this recent spate of articles brought to mind is how much your idea of “the gospel” shapes this issue.

If “the gospel” is that you can now go to heaven instead of hell when you die, then this way of thinking makes some sense.  What’s experiencing 70ish years of injustice or poverty or disease compared to an eternal afterlife?

For the vast majority of evangelicalism, this is indeed the gospel.  Individuals can now enjoy a happy afterlife instead of a horrible one.  Good works are something that is an add-on – something to do while we wait for the end of the world.

I doubt evangelicals would actually agree with that statement as written, but the fact remains that, if God suddenly declared that Christians no longer had to do social good in the world, how would this change the gospel message according to evangelicals?  For many, it wouldn’t change it at all.

But is this really the focus of what we read in the Bible?  Is this the emphasis the texts give us?  Is the Bible primarily about what happens to individuals after they die, or is it mostly concerned with something else?

Death seems like an all-encompassing theme to us because, well, it’s all-encompassing.  We’re afraid of it, and it causes us immense grief and loss when it happens to those we care about.  It is a fundamental inevitability that confronts all of humanity and always has.

It is perhaps because of this that it is very easy to read “death as a universal concern” more or less everywhere in the Bible, especially if you come to the Bible outside of its historical context.

This is something you can see even in the early church fathers, who are much closer to the historical context of the Bible, but as Gentiles (and usually Platonists) are still on the periphery of much of the key historical contingencies in the Bible.  In fact, several of them seem to actively resent the Jews and you can see a serious effort to wrest the Scriptures away from their interpretations and concerns and into a paradigm more fitting to the concerns of a growing, Gentile church.

This is not to say that the Bible never addresses the subject of death as a universal phenomenon or what comes afterward.  Who can forget, for instance, the powerful image in Revelation 20 of Death and the place that holds the dead giving up their residents and then being destroyed?

But in the Bible, the good news of the salvation of God is defined by the historical situation in which the news arrives.  For instance, in Isaiah 52:7, we read:

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Isaiah 52:7 (NRSV)

Isaiah 52 is about God delivering Israel from the nations who oppress her and have brought her into captivity and exile.  The gospel, here, is that God’s presence and favor will be restored to Israel and He will deliver her in front of all the nations.

And so it goes with the entire Old Testament, really.  Concepts like “salvation” and “gospel” are defined by the forces that threaten the people of God in their lived out experience in the present.  There is no theological strand in there where God will save their souls in the afterlife but leave them in their present condition.  There are passages that may hint that God’s restoration will extend even to the grave, but these – if they exist at all – are occasional glints.

The good news throughout the Old Testament has to do primarily with liberation and restoration of the present, lived-out circumstances of the people of God.  Yes, this is usually (although not always) contingent on their repentance and turning their hearts back to God, but the good news of God’s salvation addresses the people corporately and holistically.

So, the big question is, when we get to the New Testament, does Jesus jettison this understanding of gospel for something that is predominantly a spiritual deliverance but leaves the present, external, lived out conditions of his people unchanged?

Unless you are predisposed to read the Gospels this way, it would be very hard to get the idea that is Jesus’ intent.  Healing the sick, casting out demons, and feeding the hungry are not peripheral items he introduces as time permits.  This actually defines the bulk of his ministry.

He says exceedingly little about the afterlife, but he has quite a bit to say about the imminent judgement of God against a corrupt Jerusalem power structure, and how those who return to God in faith will be saved through that destruction and have life in the next age on the other side of it.

When John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus asking if he is the Messiah or if Israel should look elsewhere:

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matthew 11:4 (NRSV)

This is how John is to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, because of his healing and help for the poor.  This is in fulfillment of Isaiah 35, which is about the return of the exiles to Mount Zion.

Jesus is about the task of redeeming the lost of Israel holistically.  Jesus’ good news is not, “Israel, I have a special prayer that you can pray and, if you do and mean it, you’ll go to heaven when you die instead of hell!”

Jesus’ good news is that the time of the promised restoration of Israel and arrival of the kingdom of God have come in Jesus Christ, and this reclamation of God’s people in Jesus’ present begins now and addresses their complete, concrete experience in the world.

We know from the rest of the New Testament that the Gentile kingdoms face a judgement for their sins as well, and those who believe in what God has done in Jesus will be brought into His people and share their identity, destiny, and mission in the world.

And, in history, this is what happens.  Jerusalem is destroyed, bringing an end to corrupt religious power structure that lorded an oppressive rule over believing Jews and persecuted the early believing communities of the faithful.  The Emperor of Rome becomes a Christian and brings those who persecuted believers to justice, declaring Jesus to be lord of the Roman Empire.

God does not save people’s souls and leave their sickness, poverty, and oppression unresolved.  That is not the gospel as either the Old Testament declares it or Jesus practices it.

That other sort of gospel, the one that only cares about souls but not the condition of people in the world, is only good news to people who are already doing great in the world as it is.  It is a status-quo affirming theology.

When you go to people who are living in corrugated lean-tos in Haiti, which sounds more like gospel to you?

“I realize you are living in grinding poverty.  But good news: after you die, you’ll go to heaven, not hell!”

“You are in grinding poverty.  In the name of Jesus, neighbors will share what they have, even if they have little.  And your brothers and sisters in the world who have much will, in wisdom and compassion, give of their resources that you might be strengthened.  This is how the God who loves you will care for you, and He will care for you even after your death.  He will be with you now and forever, as will your brothers and sisters who love you in His name.  And as you are freed from your poverty, this is just a taste of a new creation that is waiting.”

This is why I am somewhat bemused by a discussion about whether or not we should “prioritize” the gospel over doing good in the world as Crowe puts it or emphasizing the spoken word message over good deeds as Stetzer puts it.  To me, this is like saying, “Passing and running the ball to make touchdowns is very important and we can’t do without it, but we really need to prioritize playing football.”

In my opinion, which I grant you is often wrong, a gospel that is primarily concerned with an afterlife destination is not a gospel that can be recognized in either Old or New Testaments.  The various “gospel episodes” we see in the Bible are always immediately concerned with the concrete existence of people in the world.

Sunday Meditations: Tested in the Wilderness

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.”

Deuteronomy 8:2 (NRSV)

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.

Matthew 4:1-2 (NRSV)

The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”

On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. The Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions?”

Exodus 16:3-5, 27-28 (NRSV)

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Matthew 4:3-4 (NRSV)

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Exodus 17:1-7 (NRSV)

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Matthew 4:5-7 (NRSV)

And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, “The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.

Numbers 14:6-10 (NRSV)

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”

Matthew 4:8-10 (NRSV)

“I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.”

Numbers 14:35 (NRSV)

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:11 (NRSV)


Looking Like Jesus: Galatians 6:11-18

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

As Paul brings his letter to a close, he points out that his handwriting is really large. It’s just a little personal comment like any of us might put in any letter, but it lets us know that Paul has weaknesses – in this case, his eyesight. Some have even thought this vision problem might be the “thorn in the flesh” Paul talks about.

We read in other ancient writings that Paul was bald, scarred, short, and bow-legged. He even had a unibrow! Paul tells us in 2 Cor. 10:10 that the church loved his writing but thought he was pretty unimpressive in person.

None of this stops Paul from planting churches all over Asia Minor. He assumes that, whatever prejudices anyone might have about the way he looks or his physical challenges, this is no obstacle to the Spirit and the spread of the gospel, nor is it an obstacle to him living out the mission he believes Jesus has for him.

Paul tells us, near the end of his letter, that he believes the Judaizers are hypocrites who are just trying to avoid persecution. They themselves do not obey the Law, but they take pride in how many people they are getting circumcised. It’s hard for me not to think of the scandals that tend to arise in the lives of popular Christian speakers.

But Paul tells us the only thing he wants to be proud of is that the cross of Christ has made him dead to the world and brought him to life in a new one – a life of the Spirit where Jesus lives through him.

And for Paul, this is almost literally true, because he has been physically abused for his message, just as Jesus was. Paul says that this is why nobody should be giving him a hard time about circumcision; only his resemblance to Jesus matters.

As Paul closes this letter, he challenges all of our preconceived ideas of who is worthy of esteem. The only thing that matters is how much someone’s life looks like Jesus. Do they sound like him? Do they act like him? Do they prioritize what he did? Do they suffer like he did?

It doesn’t matter how much theology someone knows. It doesn’t matter how big their church is or how engaging they are. It doesn’t matter how many books they’ve written. It doesn’t matter how rigorous their moral standards are. It doesn’t even matter how many people they’ve shared the gospel with.

The only thing that matters is if they are like Jesus in the world. This is something that can unite a farmer in rural Kansas with a megachurch pastor in New York. For ourselves, for our congregations, for our leaders, for people we look up to, Paul leaves us with that final, vital question:

Do we/they look like Jesus?

Bearing Burdens: Galatians 6:1-10

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

There is a lot of good, pastoral advice packed into this little section. Every sentence or two could easily be its own devotional meditation.

First, Paul tells us that, if someone sins, we should gently work to restore that person. We don’t shame them. We don’t isolate them. We don’t stop spending time with them. It has sometimes been said that, “The Christian army is the only army that shoots its wounded.”

But we also don’t pretend like nothing happened, either. We don’t sweep it under the rug. We don’t keep it a secret. If we are helping to restore someone, that means we are doing something about the sin. We are helping them make things right – repairing damages and relationships – with the goal of healing that person and the community of believers.

Then, Paul tells us to be on guard against temptation and follows this immediately with, “Bear one another’s burdens.” Part of this may just be the wisdom that serving others is a great, practical way to escape temptation when it comes. Serving others gets us out of our own heads and focused on other people. But part of this is also that our burdens are often causes of temptation. Our burdens cause us stress, fear, and pain, and it is in those times we are very prone to doing something we shouldn’t. By helping with one another’s burdens, we help bring down everyone’s susceptibility together.

We often think of sin as a private matter and a personal, individual struggle, but that is not how the New Testament talks about it. Everyone’s sin is everyone’s problem. It’s something we fight as a team, and when it happens, we work together to make it right.

This might seem to contradict what Paul says next about each person carrying their own load and taking pride in their own work and not their neighbor’s, but I doubt Paul decided to just contradict his own teaching in the very next sentence.

We get a clue a few verses down the chapter. Paul notes that the Judaizers are disobeying the Law, but they’re taking pride in the fact that people are getting circumcised. In other words, they’re personally disobedient to the Law, but they’re proud of the fact that they’ve gotten others to follow it.

I think this is what Paul is getting at. We should bear one another’s burdens and help one another in the struggle against sin, but we also need to make sure we’re also striving for obedience and not taking pride in how well we’ve been helping others or how well they’re doing. If you encourage other people to avoid sin, but you yourself are sinning, this is hypocrisy. So, while helping others with their struggle, make sure you are paying attention to your own obedience as well.

In the last few verses of this section, Paul reminds us that if we invest in the works of the flesh, we’ll receive the corruptibility that comes with that. But if we invest in the Spirit, we’ll reap life that will go on and on and on.

This is not just true for individuals. Remember, Paul’s letter was not to individuals – it was to the entire congregation at Galatia. We need to keep an eye on our individual lives but also our communal life together. We need to make sure our churches do not become places where people are made slaves to the Law, but rather are encouraged to live according to the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and cultivate the fruits of the Spirit.

Finally, Paul says to work for everyone’s good, especially the household of faith. I don’t think Paul is saying that somehow believers are more deserving of our help that other people, nor do I think Paul is saying that believers should help themselves at the expense of non-believers.

Paul has to remind them “especially the family of faith” because, as you read Paul’s letters to congregations, you can see most of them are doing a terrible job of taking care of one another. In the same congregation, you’d find rich people sitting in special chairs and eating rich feasts right next to someone who could barely afford to stay alive and was not even invited to share in the meal at the Lord’s Supper.

So, it’s not so much a matter of believers being more worthy of help than everyone else; it’s a matter of, “You guys can’t even care for one another in your own congregations. You need to get your act together, especially if you’re going to share the gospel with those outside your church.”

But Paul does clearly tell us to work for the good of everyone, and it reminds us of Father Abraham, whose descendants were meant to be a blessing to all the families of the world. We still have that mission. Christians are not supposed to be a pain in everyone else’s neck! We’re supposed to be a blessing – a source of comfort and help and good news – to everyone. And when we work to be a blessing to everyone, it shows that Jesus is our King and establishes the truth of the good news we bring.

What is Freedom For: Galatians 5:16-26

[Author’s note: This devotional is basically an email I sent to my aunt. The story behind this is in this post. As such, it’s somewhat lighter on scholarship and more informal than my normal entries.]

Paul is still explaining why freedom from the Law does not mean doing whatever you feel like at any given time. He encourages the Galatians to live according to the Spirit instead of the flesh.

Paul isn’t talking about our physical bodies versus our immortal soul. Paul is contrasting a life according to our own desires, ambitions, and efforts versus being guided and “lived in” by the Holy Spirit.

Sin is obviously following our own desires, and Paul racks up a pretty good list of the sins he sees everywhere in the Roman Empire. It might surprise us that things like being an angry or an argumentative person gets put on the same level as sorcery and idolatry, but Paul shows us there are all kinds of facets to living a life according to the flesh.

Keeping the Law is also living according to the flesh. The motives and behaviors might be better than sinful ones, but keeping the Law still depends on our will, our desires, and our efforts. Even though Paul knows the Law is holy and comes from God, when it comes to our practical experience, the Law and sin are like fudge ripple swirl ice cream – always going together.

In contrast, Paul paints a picture of a person who is living by the Spirit – qualities like love, joy, and peace. It’s interesting that Paul’s picture of living by the flesh has a lot of specific behaviors in it, but Paul’s picture of living in the Spirit is all about characteristics. He seems to think that, if we have the Spirit and are guided by the Spirit, we will have these virtues and right behavior will just take care of itself.

If we have been crucified with Christ, we are dead to sin, the Law, and all the things associated with our own striving and failing. We have, instead, been made alive in the Spirit so that we might live out a new life – Jesus’ life – with acts of love and peace and mercy that flow out of us and don’t need to be defined by a Law.

This is certainly true freedom.