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)

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Sunday Meditations: Premature Theologization

Do we believe the Bible because (in some sense) in 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.

Sunday Meditations: The John MacArthur Statement

I’m reluctant to write about this, mostly because I’m not sure that I can do a better job than what’s already being said about this.  Nevertheless, the Sunday meditations are about what I’ve been thinking on, lately, and this is it.

In case you are not aware, John MacArthur has become very distressed at the state of evangelicalism in the world, and I can certainly relate to that.  However, he is distressed that evangelicals are becoming too concerned with social justice.  I really wish I were kidding about that.

To combat the horrific trend of evangelicals being concerned about justice for all, MacArthur has done what is becoming the new trend in evangelical gatekeeping: he created a Statement of what he thinks and got a lot of people to sign it.

That’s it.  Not that I’m complaining, of course.

Everything about this from top to bottom is just ridiculous.  I don’t mean ridiculous in the generic sense, I mean it is literally ridiculous.  It looks like a joke, through and through.  If I were writing a satirical article about Christian America, this is the kind of thing I would write.  “Evangelical Leader Concerned with Christians Actually Improving Justice in World Stems Tide by Issuing Statement.”

On the one hand, it’s mystifying how someone could think, out of all the problems in the church and the world, that a growing concern for social justice is the big thing we need to head off at the pass right now.  On the other hand, it’s equally mystifying to think that the “solution” to this or any problem is to draft a statement (it’s not even a petition) and have people sign it.  It’s the perfect storm of the most ineffective means to combat a nonexistent problem.

It’s unclear to me exactly what got MacArthur up in arms about this issue.  It’s not like the sort of evangelicals who are like John MacArthur are filling up the ranks of Black Lives Matter or consumed with their lobbying efforts for equal pay for women.  I find it hard to believe that his church attendance has gone way down because his congregation was out counter-protesting in Charlottesville.

I cynically asked people this past week, “Where are all these evangelicals that MacArthur fears are too consumed with social justice?” and my friend Kirk reminded me that there is, in fact, a trend starting in this direction.  Considering that the church should actually be at the forefront of being a prophetic voice against the powers that be and calling for more justice, more peace, and more compassion, it’s good that there are more evangelicals who have decided to get around to this.  Maybe that’s part of what this animus against “social justice” is about.  The existence of Christians who are now zealous for increasing justice in the world is an indictment to Christians who aren’t.  And nobody likes to be criticized, especially when your status quo has made you very comfortable.

Maybe part of it, too, as Kirk pointed out to me, is that there is a fear of losing numbers.  This fear is very legitimate.  If your church seems set to prop up the existing power structure or at least leave it unchallenged, and the Spirit has moved in your heart to speak out for those who suffer injustice, then at some point you have to wonder about where you’re at.  I know the election of Trump was something of a watershed for many of us.  When this man embodies the hopes and dreams of what your church “stands for,” it really makes you wonder how much you’re on the same page.

I remember the day that the Reformed African American Network became The Witness for reasons that I’d sum up as, “We just can’t do this, anymore,” and it was a powerful statement to me.

It’s taking everything in me to avoid condemning this new Statement as a love letter to the Beast.  Its express purpose is to pull Christians out of social activism in the world and reorient our focus to the afterlife.  A spirituality like that serves the interests of the principalities and powers in this world.  It helps them out.  It keeps the engine running.  I don’t believe John MacArthur is intentionally in his own mind trying to keep the powerful in power and assure them that evangelicals won’t rock their boat, but this is functionally what that statement declares.

But, no, I don’t think MacArthur sees it this way.  I don’t think he intends it to be that way.  But that’s part of the problem, too.

You see, the gospel in America is largely about giving people a better afterlife.  This is the good news: that when you die, you’ll go to heaven instead of hell.  That’s what Jesus and the Bible are all about, in this way of thinking.  Social justice, the environment, poverty, sickness – these things are all potential distractions from the gospel, which is exclusively concerned about the saving of the soul and the furtherance of individual moral conduct.  This world is not my home; I’m just a-passin’ through.

Now, please hear me.  I believe that most of the people who are committed to this idea of the gospel are genuinely concerned about the eternal well-being of other people.  What’s more, if this is what the gospel means to you, then anything else would be a distraction, wouldn’t it?  What’s unequal pay or police brutality in comparison to the eternal fires of Hell?

However, I don’t think that version of the gospel is a gospel that Jesus, his followers, or anyone who might have heard him would recognize.

The creation narrative is one that functions more like prologue than anything else.  It’s background information so that we might better understand the experiences of Israel in the world as the stories that formed the Old Testament were being formed.

Still, in those narratives, God does not create man in Heaven, nor does He create man as a disembodied spirit living out his eternal destiny.  Man is placed in this world with a family and the happy state of creation is mankind living in loving relationships with other people and with God Himself.  When mankind rebels, they are not sent to Hell, but rather are exiled out of the Garden and into a world that now has pain and struggle and, ultimately, the supremacy of death.  This is the prologue of a world where the line of the faithful all but fizzles out and the world is full of violence.  It’s all wrong.  Mankind is learning better ways to lie, steal, kill, and declare themselves God.  This culminates in the passing away of that world via the Flood.

It’s worthy of note that, in the story, God does not send all these people to Hell nor whisk Noah into Heaven.  The world that arises from the flood waters is a new one in one sense, but it’s also the same earth it was before.  God saves an entire family.  We once again have people meant to live in loving communion with one another and God Himself, and indeed the words to Noah reflect the commission given to Adam.  Mankind, in communion with one another and God, in this world.  The people who would turn the world into the opposite of God’s intention have been removed from it.

As humanity begins to recover, they conspire to build a fortification against another Great Flood.  God does not send them all to Hell, but rather confounds their purposes and disperses them into the world as separate nations.

It is out of this dispersion that God calls, once again, a family to be His people in the world.  He does not whisk them away to Heaven.  He instead has them live out their generations in faithfulness, growing in number, but always a faithful community in the present evil age providing a model of what it means to be the people of God in the world.  They have children, grow old, die, and their children have children, grow old, and die.

This is where most of the biblical story starts.  We follow the ups and downs of this community throughout history and, when they are in trouble in this world, God saves them in this world.  Faithfulness, destiny, salvation, justification, and eschatology never at any point leave the trajectory of this world and these people living it.  God’s judgement is destruction and His favor is long life in the land.

As Israel careens onto a downward slope of disobedience, prophets arise to warn her not about Hell, but about exile and destruction.  And as she begins to suffer these things, the picture of redemption her prophets hold out for her is not a spiritual existence in Heaven but a freedom, peace, prosperity, and protection on the earth.

It is into this picture – this historical, this worldly, this creation-y, this people-y picture that Jesus comes.

When Jesus comes, he does not simply tell people to pray a prayer of repentance so that they can go to Heaven when they die.  Jesus heals the sick.  Jesus casts out demons.  Jesus makes sure hungry people are fed, the poor are taken care of, and parents are honored.  And lest we think these are all just signifiers of Jesus’ divinity, he commissions his followers to do the same things, and they do.

If Jesus as prophet and Messiah is jettisoning all the this-worldly facets of deliverance to focus on the afterlife, I want to see evidence.  I want to see the compelling case that Jesus breaks radically from the viewpoint of the Scriptures and the prophets before him to redefine all extant categories in terms of an eternal afterlife.  I feel that case cannot be easily made.

Does Jesus care about the spiritual reorientation of the lost?  Yes, he does.  Does he hope in resurrection?  Yes, he does.  But the good news Jesus brings is not, “Pray a prayer of repentance and ask me to come into your heart, and you’ll go to heaven when you die!”  It’s, “The kingdom of God is at hand, and your King is here!”

And the kingdom of God is not a purely spiritual realm that one gets into after death; the kingdom of God is on earth in the midst of men and you can enter into it, today.

The kingdom of God is all the things the Old Testament hoped it would be: a people faithful to God enjoying His protection and well-being in the world, so much so that others would see it and want to be part of it.  The gospel isn’t simply about what happens after you die, it’s about how masters treat their slaves, the sick being healed, husbands and wives and children, orphans and widows and strangers.

It is a gospel that looks like this:

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Luke 19:8-10

Zacchaeus did not pray a sinner’s prayer and long for heaven.  Zacchaeus quit abusing his power, ended his corrupt economic practices, and restored the financial welfare of everyone he’d wronged.  His sinner’s prayer was repenting of his injustice and turning around to do justice.

I say to you, if one man recites the Sinner’s Prayer, and another man ends his corrupt practices and restores everyone he has harmed, which one of them has truly repented?

Look, the first century Roman Empire did not care what you taught about the afterlife.  It did not care about a message that, if you repent of your sins, you’ll go to Heaven when you die.  The government does not execute you because of your views on the afterlife.

The Roman Empire executes you when you appear to be a threat to the power structure.  When you stop putting a coin in the guild bowl, when you stop bowing before the likeness of the Emperor, and when you stop standing and putting your hand over your heart when the eagle banner is carried past.  When you say that Caesar is only in power because God presently allows it and the real King who commands your real loyalty is Jesus Christ – a man crucified for insurrection, which didn’t work by the way.

Those are political problems.  Those are this-worldly commitments and Rome is quite concerned about those things.  They don’t care if you believe you or they will go to Heaven, Hell, or Horus.  They care if your good news threatens their power, which it can only do if it addresses the way this world works in the here and now – who is in charge and what does that society look like?

The gospel in every age has always put this creation, what it looks like, and what human community is supposed to be like front and center.

Sunday Meditations: Continuing in Safety

Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer, Proper 13

O Lord, there are none like You among the gods.  You stand in their midst and judge them like mortal men.  You bestow upon them their power and take it up, again, for You alone are the God who created the heavens and the earth.

When Your people languished in the wilderness, You fed them, and their clothing and staves did not wear out.  When the horses and chariots of the nations rose against them, You went before them shattering the spear and sword.  It was You who threw horse and rider into confusion, and a highway was made in the desert for Your people to cross in peace.

You remembered Your promise to their fathers, and You were faithful so that Your name would be hallowed throughout all lands.

Even when Your people fled your covenant to other loves, You did not leave her in nakedness and abandonment, but still You pursued her, slow in Your anger and long suffering in Your love.

By Your power did Jesus turn Your people’s hearts to You, and by Your power did You exalt him to be Lord and Christ.  By Your power did You make a victor’s display of all powers on heaven, on earth, above and below.  And now, O Death, where is your sting?  O Grave, where is your victory?  It is the Lord of Glory who has taken your power.

Lord, it was You who brought the nations to kneel at the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It was You who took all dominions and gave them to Your Son, so that in the fullness of time he might subdue all and return it to You, placing his foot upon the neck of anything that would threaten Your people or bring Your good creation to ruin.

Lord, Your people are now dispersed through all nations, and we find ourselves beset on all sides.

In some nations, Your people face the flame and the sword and the chain for Your name’s sake.  We ask for their protection and their deliverance.  We ask for the reign of justice.  You are the God who overturns entrenched powers that Your people might be saved.  You are the opener of prison doors and the destroyer of shackles.  You bring down the mighty from their perch, for in their arrogance they believe they have conquered Your people as though they are like any others, for they do not know the name of the Lord.  Bring them out with Your hand and shepherd Your flock through your Son Jesus by the power of Your Spirit.

In other nations, great Father, Your people have sought other loves.  They have allied themselves with the powers of this present evil age.  They have sought their safety in the great possessions and weapons of this age.  Their children do not know Your tongue but speak the words of principalities and powers, trusting in others for their peace and prosperity.  The nations look upon Your people and mock, saying, “Where is their rock?  Perhaps He sleeps.  Perhaps He is away.  Perhaps He has sold them.”

Lord, remember Your promise to our fathers in the desert beneath the skies of countless stars.  For the honor of Your name, heal the sick, grant sight to the blind, put words in the mouths of Your prophets, and console Your people Israel.  Lead us in the blaze of Your fires and the darkness of Your clouds.  Fill our hearts with love, mercy, compassion, justice, and wisdom.  Reign, O risen Lord Jesus.  Cause every one of our tongues to speak Your words.  Cause our hands to be about Your deeds.  Take from us our confusion and stop our ears to the voices of the prophets who would strengthen our chains, binding us further to the powers that are passing away.  Bring Your people into the age to come, and endless ages ever after, for You are faithful to Your promises, and Your name will be hallowed, and Your will shall be done on earth even as it is in heaven.

Let Your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend Your Church, and because she cannot continue in safety without Your help, protect and govern her always by Your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit – one God – forever and ever.

Amen.

Sunday Meditations: Being a Christian

Before I get rolling, I want to let you know about a new blog by my friend Colby called The Bible is a Story.  Colby also has a passion for interpreting the Bible historically and pastorally.  He’s more interested than I am about maintaining the Reformed tradition in biblical theology (following really insightful and creative exegetes like Meredith Kline, Geerhardus Vos, and Herman Ridderbos), so if you’ve ever read this blog and gotten a little nervous that it was coloring a little too much outside the lines, you will probably like Colby’s blog much better.  Either way, we agree on more than we differ, and I think it’ll be some good stuff.

Try not to visit his blog all at once.  I don’t want to bring the servers down from the tsunami of traffic this blog will send his way.

Getting back to Sunday Meditations, an Internet friend and discussion partner asked me sort of out of the blue what I thought it meant to be a Christian, and upon talking that through, what I thought the benefit was of being a Christian.  In my typical style, I turned what I believe were supposed to be five sentence answers into epic treatises.  I present them, here, with minor edits for clarity, audience, etc.

What makes one a Christian?

In terms of being specifically Christian, Paul writes about Jesus:

he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:20-23)

People who believe that and are willing to engage the life calling that entails (emulation of Jesus, faithfulness to God, putting off the old creation to live out the new creation, willingness to endure suffering for this calling, etc.) are, by my lights, Christians in the specific sense of the term.

I think Christians can genuinely disagree on the exact definitions of those terms, and it’s also true that someone doesn’t have to be specifically Christian to embody the ethics of new creation humanity. The sad state of affairs we have today is that many who identify as Christians do not seem to be very interested in being the new creation, and many who have no significant regard for Christianity do a pretty good job being what we should be and doing what we should do.

I think this raises a number of options when we talk about what God will do eschatologically with humanity as a whole, but in terms of specifically who I would define as Christians, I feel pretty good with the definition above. I think it defines both the earliest faith communities and works as a contemporary definition, too.

What about people who call Themselves Christians but seem to reject key issues like the Resurrection?

Well, keep in mind that I said that it’s quite possible for Christians to disagree on what the terms actually mean. I may have my own interpretations of what it means to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and affirm his resurrection, but others may differ in their interpretation and that wouldn’t necessarily make them not a Christian, in my opinion.

But the term has to mean something and that something, by nature of the case, revolves around the importance of Christ. I have some friends who are atheists who are very caring people. They take care of their families, they pursue justice, they spread compassion and healing in the world. In just about every way that counts, their behavior looks like Jesus and is what any Christian should aspire to. But they are not Christians by either my reckoning or theirs.

And that’s why I made the point that when we talk about being the new creation, that category can be broader than just Christians, and we might debate what the outcome of all that is, but I (not that anyone should care) would not label someone a Christian solely because their behavior was exemplary of what God wanted in the world. Abraham and Moses and David and Solomon weren’t Christians, either. There’s a belief/confession component to it as well.

But the converse is also true. I would not typically classify someone as a Christian who claimed the belief/profession piece and embodied things like the pursuit of power and prosperity and self-promotion over all, or the exploitation of the weak for their own gain, or hatred of other people, or wanton hedonistic excess – and in America, that’s where we’re really taking it in the teeth.

People of other religions and atheists who care for others, pursue justice and compassion, and live unselfishly for the benefit of their fellow man are a living indictment against the Christian church in America, and for every Christian who responds to this indictment by throwing themselves anew into the task of being a blessing to the world, there are nine who double down on why they shouldn’t have to do such a thing.

I do have to acknowledge that there can be differing interpretations of ethics just as there can be differing interpretations of doctrinal confessions, and just because someone doesn’t define “being Jesus in the world” the same way I do doesn’t make them not a Christian, but much like the doctrinal piece, eventually you get to a point that’s so far afield that it’s indistinguishable from not being a Christian at all. And, frankly, I would rather share a planet with people who embodied the new creation in the world but eschewed Christian doctrine than people who affirmed Christian doctrine and went right along perpetuating the evil structures of the age.

So, all that to say that I think it’s important to keep in mind that:

  1. People being what God wants people to be is not the exclusive domain of Christians.
  2. Christians can vary to a degree on what their core confession means or what ethics ought to look like, but
  3. “Christian” is a term that means something, such that people who are not Christians can recognize they are not Christians even though they may be living out an ethic that has lots in common with the ethics Christians also should aspire to.

What’s the advantage of being a professed Christian?

The God of Israel is the God who created the heavens and the earth, and as things began to go badly, He established a new creation in the midst of the old one in the form of a people He made agreements with. Today, being a Christian is being part of this people which puts us in covenant and relationship with this God in the manner in which He is providing this in history.

This people has His promises, the gift of the Spirit, and the consequent hope for the future. This is the people that God saves when they are threatened with extinction. He forgives their sins when they turn away from them to do better. Being a part of this people is a calling into being a priestly servant who is in a deliberate and focused relationship with God and also dedicated to be a blessing to the world.

In addition, we belong to a community that (we hope) embodies the new creation. Among the people of God, I experience justice, forgiveness, compassion, love, healing, comfort, and restoration even as we look forward to a renewal of the heavens and earth.

Additionally, Jesus is Lord over these people, which means that by the power of the Spirit he is our leader and shepherd and dwells among us and in us, and this not only steers us through our various historical crises but also produces Christ-like behavior among his people. Jesus running the show is a good thing and is good news.

In the biblical narrative, the differences between “the way the Christian community works” and “the way the Empire works” or “the way the corrupt Temple power structure works” are obvious, although there are also glimpses of the idea that the picture is not as simplistic as it seems. For example, a good portion of Jesus’ own people do not believe him, but a Roman centurion does. Still, the lines are fairly solid in the big picture. You have the powers of the age that run off oppression, self-exaltation, and self-gratification, and you have the people of God who run off self-sacrifice, love of neighbor, and devotion to God.

At our current point in history, long past the cultural-political background of, say, the book of Acts – we’re in a weird situation. There are some countries where the situation is analogous to that early community of believers – selfless, Spirit-filled bonds of sacrificial love pitted against the powerful boot of oppressive regimes. But in other countries, the communities of believers are truly a mixed bag, some of whom looking so much like the world powers Jesus was -against- that people outside the community of faith can sometimes end up looking more like Jesus than some of the people claiming his name.

This seems more analogous to Jesus’ ministry among his own people. They all shared a common religion, but some of them used that religion for power, prestige, wealth, comfort, and they didn’t care who they beat down with it, while others found this situation regrettable and longed for the consolation of Israel and found in Jesus a hope for what they could be and what the future might hold, while yet a third group was just tired of the whole thing and just wanted to make it through life the best way they knew how. In terms of air time in the gospels, Jesus spends the majority of his time calling people from that third group into the second one.

By doing this, Jesus creates a sort of dividing line between those who technically held to Israel’s religion (and maybe even performed it fastidiously) but who had cut the heart out of it and made it a mechanism for worldly power – and those who, in faith, came to Jesus believing he would show them the way to being better individuals, a better people as a whole, and having a better future after making it safely through coming calamity.

Jesus, the people he is forming around himself, and their future is better than anything that power, money, or hedonism can get you, and that’s still a message I have for people today.

These days, I do not believe being a Christian keeps someone from an eternity of torture in the afterlife. However, I do believe in a new creation and I do believe that anything that plagues mankind will not be present in that creation. I’m not a universalist; I don’t think we’ll see Antiochus Epiphanes in the new heavens and the new earth. However, I also acknowledge that we might! That’s God’s prerogative and I have a lot of sympathies with my universalist brothers and sisters.

What’s more, there are passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that people who behave as God’s people do and take care of people like God’s people do will share in the rewards that God’s people do even if they don’t know they are serving Jesus. So, I don’t feel like the message, “Become a Christian or God will ultimately destroy you,” is an accurate message, especially because I suspect there will be a chunk of Christians who will be very surprised at God’s evaluation of their lives.

But when I share Jesus with someone, it’s not to avert disaster they might suffer at God’s hands, but rather calling them out of a broken, empty, oppressive world that is passing away into a new world where love is the Law and the Spirit is real and the man in charge of the whole thing is Jesus who is both Lord and Christ.

Sunday Meditations: Can’t Do Anything Right

I run a software development / guerrilla Lean operations consulting company with my good friend Travis.  Our developers work pretty closely with our clients, many of whom have other software developers that we team up with.

One of the things we’ve noticed in team dynamics over the years is when a consultant ends up in “the box.”  This can happen if someone makes a very bad first impression, or it can build up over time, but if you aren’t paying attention to staying relational and putting your relationships above other issues, you can find yourself in a position where pretty much everyone in a client organization hates working with you.

When this happens, it’s almost impossible to turn that situation around, and one of the reasons is that you’re already pegged.  No matter how much of a team player you try to be going forward, you are now “that guy who thinks he’s so much smarter than everyone else” or “that guy who flies off the handle every time he doesn’t like something” or whatever.  People will remember the things you do and say that are consistent with that box and they will overlook the things you do and say that might change their opinion of you.

This situation can be turned around, but it requires immense amounts of time and effort, dramatic displays of repentance, and a willingness to change convictions on the part of the observers.  Once a person has ended up in a “box,” it’s usually easier for all parties concerned to give them a fresh start with a different group of people.

Travis and I refer to this zone as a person “can’t do anything right.”  That doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing something right; it means that, no matter what they do, it won’t be perceived as right.  The right things they do won’t be noticed and the wrong things they do will just reinforce the predicament.

You probably have people in your own life you have pegged this way.  If you think about the person you know is a flake, or you know you can’t trust, or you know gets angry way too easily, what would have to happen in order for you to change your category for that person?  The odds are good that, at some point, they did do something dependable or trustworthy or kept their cool, but by that time, you’d already defined them as a certain sort of person.  Maybe your definition is even right on, but just imagine what they would have to do to make you think differently about them.  In some cases, it might not even be possible.

I have discovered that I have put evangelicalism in general and sometimes even my own church (in general as an organization – folks from my church that read this blog, I totally don’t mean you) in this box.

I know that, as people get older, they sometimes get more set in their ways and their preferences and, as a result, get more cantankerous and codger-y.  “That Snoop Doggy Doggy and the rap the kids listen to these days,” and all that.  I wish that’s what the issue was.

But the hard truth is that I’ve been like this in some form or fashion for most of my adult life.  When I became a Calvinist in college, I was all ready to show all those Arminian Christians how wrong they were.  I was a Grade A jerk to my parents and most of my friends who, unsurprisingly, did not see the glories of the Reformed faith as I did.  All those Arminian churches had their dumb, unbiblical theology that showed up in their dumb songs they sang in their dumb worship services.

But at least I was fine with other Reformed Christians, right?

Well, no, not exactly.

Now that I had become Reformed, I spent my time becoming more and more Reformed until my Reformed Level was over 9000.  I became what the Reformed community sometimes calls a “TR,” which is actually meant to be an insult unless you are actually a TR, in which case it’s a badge of honor.

TR stands for “Truly Reformed.”  TRs believe the Westminster Confession of Faith is basically the Bible in shorthand form.  TRs observe the Sabbath.  TRs are reading the Puritans in their spare time.  TRs are very, very concerned about tight distinctions between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.  TRs know what the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace are.  TRs are not ok with choruses.  TRs do not celebrate holidays because the only holy day is the Sabbath.  TRs will, upon being introduced to new Christian friends, find out how they feel about limited atonement.  You get the idea.

So, not only were Arminians dumb, but a great deal of Calvinists were as well, by my lights.  This got so bad that I came to a shocking realization about two years after graduating college.  I told a friend, “I don’t want my spirituality defined by how many things I have a problem with.”

That realization set me on a very uneasy balancing act.  On the one hand, I wanted to be true to my convictions.  On the other hand, I knew that the sheer number and extremity of my convictions were likely to have misled me.  If everything in the world looks crooked to you, the problem might be your own eyesight.

Since then, I have mellowed considerably on a number of things and been humbled by some big life experiences.  I have grown less certain about a wide array of things and learned to be ok with that.  I have come to see my beliefs (generally speaking) as less of a collection of true facts about God and more of a journey with God through which I am being transformed.  This has, I’m happy to report, done a decent although not complete job of moderating how I handle or even define theological disagreement.

But that substratum of patterns in my brain is still there, and it doesn’t take much for me to trip over something that shows I’m not done with the fine art of thinking everyone is wrong but me.

“These song lyrics are so stupid.  These concepts don’t even relate to each other.  It’s like they just wrote down everything they thought about God at the time.  Oh, inverted syntax – the last refuge of bad poetry:  ‘In You is where I will place my trust.’  I think they just confused members of the Trinity, in this verse.  Oh, here’s something about ‘sin.’  I wonder if they’ll say ‘and shame’ afterward.  Oh, they did!  Big surprise.”

“This devotional is so stupid.  Where did this guy go to seminary?  There are plurals in Genesis 1 because God is a trinity?  Oh, come on.  ‘God longs for you to spend time with Him?’  How do you know that?  What does that even mean?”

I could go on, but you probably get the idea.

In my defense, there’s a lot of things that go on in evangelicalism that are pretty dumb.  I mean, come on, right?  And these days, there’s even a component where I’m not sure we’re even on the same page morally.  I was telling a friend the other day that I don’t tell people that I’m an evangelical and unless they ask directly, I’m cagey about where I go to church.  And that’s entirely because I’m afraid of what kinds of things they might associate with me, either theologically or politically or what have you.  But on the other hand, describing myself as “a theist to whom Jesus is specially important” doesn’t really seem to capture it, either.

So, yes, there are certainly reasons especially these days to be wary of what bubbles up from the center of American evangelical Christianity.

But it’s gotten to the point that, whenever my church announces some new program or curriculum or activity or whatever that I just assume it’s going to be dumb and wrong.  Whenever the worship leader introduces a new song, I assume it’s going to be terrible.  That doesn’t mean I will stubbornly continue to insist those things are dumb or terrible, but I’ve already created an uphill climb.  These things now have to prove themselves to me that they’re not dumb or terrible, and good luck with that.

I wonder if I haven’t gotten to the point where American evangelicalism simply cannot do anything right, no matter what they do.

If that’s true, then this bothers me about me.  Deep cynicism is the love child of distrust and pride.  Everyone else is terrible; I’m always right.  My life is a testimony to the massive untruth of both of those clauses, and I don’t need them, and I don’t want them.

But it’s a very difficult situation when there’s a pretty good streak of things that come out of conservative American Christianity that are highly problematic, and I don’t just mean poorly thought out song lyrics.  There are things that should be called out.  There are statements and stances that should be criticized.

Many people I respect have decided to just leave the train altogether, and I understand that.  They’ve gone to mainline churches or formed small groups that get together or gone nowhere in particular.  I had an atheist friend several months ago ask me point blank, “Why do you even bother with those people [meaning evangelicals in general]?  Why don’t you just distance yourself from all that?”  I’ve been tempted to do that, sometimes.

But what else would I do?  I have a feeling that this dissatisfaction would not go away in a mainline church, although it may shift to new issues.  Besides, at this rate, there’s not going to be any mainline churches in America in ten years, so….  Starting my own thing seems like a disaster waiting to happen for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which being I don’t think the Holy Spirit would be behind an operation that started because of the conviction that they were more right than everyone else.  On the other hand, Protestantism.

I sometimes feel a lot of connection with Luke:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Luke 1:1-4 (NRSV)

Yes, most Gospels were written so that you might believe, but Luke wrote his because he thought he could do a better job than everyone else.  But you can probably get by with that when you’re authoring a Gospel.

For my own part, this continues to be a struggle, and the struggle is within me, so it won’t go away just because I changed churches or moved to South Korea or whatever.

I have to find that delicate balance between identifying the things that are truly not profitable and the things to which I have a personal aversion but are actually from God or are at least harmless.  I have to learn how to see the value in things that, overall, I might find a lot of fault with.  I have to be wise about what battles need fighting and what things are just flotsam and jetsam in the stream that will pass on their own with time.

But above all this, whatever I think or speak or whatever I do must be of faith, and therefore of love.

Sunday Meditations: Holiness, Righteousness, Sanctification, Justification, and Moral Behavior

Holiness

Holiness is the state of being set apart, special, not like the others.

For example, many Bibles are printed as “the holy Bible,” literally “the holy book.”  We say this because of our belief that the Bible is in some sense not like other books.  It is a special book.  It is God’s own book for His purposes.  In many senses, the Bible is exactly like other books, but it is holy in that it is set apart from other books.  It is special among books.

Many religions have things they consider holy – holy writings, holy women and men, holy sites.  Externally, there is nothing to distinguish these things from others of the same kind of thing, but they have been set apart.  They are special.  There is some spiritual sense in which these things are not like the others of their kind.  They are treated with a certain, special regard.

In America, we ascribe a certain amount of holiness to the American flag.  It is not allowed to touch the ground.  You have to fold it a certain way.  When you play Taps in the military, you have to face it.  You salute it.  We treat it as a flag different from all other nations’ flags or pieces of cloth with designs on them.

At our most common level, you might think about your favorite shirt or your favorite mug – some object you have that you think about and treat differently than every other object that is like it.  That is a sense of what it means for something to be “holy.”

You will notice that nowhere in that definition is moral behavior, because many things that we consider holy are incapable of any kind of behavior at all.  Holy Scriptures and holy sites and holy water do not behave morally.  It is their set-apartness that makes them holy.  In some sense, these things are all special and distinct from other things that would normally be like it.

Where the issue becomes foggy is when we talk about what it means for a person to be holy, because a person does behave.  God behaves.  Israel behaved.  Christians behaved.

But when we talk about behaving in a holy manner, it goes back to the root concept of being different than everything else.  When say that God is holy, we are not saying that He is perfectly moral.  We are saying that He is unlike everything else, including other powers and gods.  He is ultimately special.  There is no being like Him.  He is unique.  He is set apart from other things we might normally compare to Him.  Perhaps God’s moral characteristics are part of what it means for Him to be unlike other powerful beings, but being moral is not what makes Him holy.  Being different, special, other, set apart is what makes Him holy.

Israel was not a holy nation because they behaved morally all the time; they were holy because God set them apart.  Structurally, they were very similar to other people in the Levant, but they were God’s special people, and God was their special God.

Part of being special in the world meant behaving differently.  If Israel behaved just like everyone else, how would she be any different?  So, morality was a -component- of her being set apart, certainly.  But it’s part of a much larger picture of being something set apart.  When God says to her, “Be holy as I am holy,” he means, “Be as different from the other nations as I am from other gods.”  It is a sentiment picked up by Jesus when he calls his followers the “salt of the earth” and asks what salt is good for if it loses its saltiness.

If we would think of ourselves as holy and be holy, we cannot and should not define this as simply improving our moral consistency.  Being holy means being something set apart.  It’s about our values, mission, identity, and purpose.  How we choose to behave is part of that picture, but being holy is less about how morally we perform and more about consistently being different.

Sanctification

Sanctification is not the process of sinning less.  Sanctification is the process by which something is made holy – the process by which something is set apart.

For example, Moses sprinkled sacrificial blood on the objects of the tabernacle.  He sanctified them.  He marked them off as “special” bowls and books and lampstands and tables.  Incidentally, Moses sprinkled blood on the people of Israel as well.

When you sanctify something, you mark it off from other things like it.  When we take the Lord’s Supper, ministers bless the elements.  For the purposes of that ceremony, the bread and wine are holy (what happens to them physically or mystically depends on your theology), which is why you don’t grab a handful of the bread, slather honey butter on it, and complain that you didn’t get enough wine to give you a buzz.  That’s all stuff for you to do with the bread and wine at your house.

In churches that have holy water, a minister consecrates the water and it is kept in a special font.  It has undergone a certain process that has set it apart from regular water.

The New Testament describes believers as being sanctified as well.  This does not mean they magically sin less.  It does mean they have been set apart.  A process has been undertaken to consecrate them to God’s special service, specifically the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood and the baptism of water and the Spirit.

It is true that the New Testament does describe us going through a process of putting aside our old ways of life and embracing new, Christlike ones.  But sanctification is not talked about in this way.  People may use the word sanctification as a useful label for becoming more morally consistent in our behavior, but the idea of the New Testament is that believers have been set apart; they are already sanctified.  The task is to live out consistently with what has been done.  Sanctification means set apart for special use, not made more morally consistent.

Righteousness

Righteousness is the quality of being in the right.  When we’re talking about behavior, we’re talking about acting rightly according to some standard or expectation that defines right behavior.

This can and often does include moral behavior, but it includes any kind of being/behaving rightly.

For example, if I agree to mow your lawn for $25, and I mow your lawn and you give me $25, we are both righteous, at least with regard to our agreement.  If you’re introduced to someone and you hold out your hand and they shake it, you are both righteous with regard to social protocols (at least in the United States).  You are acting rightly – behaving in line with expectations, promises, and standards.

As you can see, this is very tightly related to moral behavior, so much so that they are almost synonymous, but it is helpful to realize that righteousness is a broader concept than what we might consider being ethical or moral.  It means that you are on the right side of things.  If you were brought to trial, you would be found innocent.

Righteousness, then, is something that can only be possessed, pursued, or determined if there is some kind of standard or expectation.  You can’t be unrighteous if there’s not a “wrong.”  If we didn’t agree you would give me $25 to mow your lawn, and I mowed your lawn, and you did not give me $25, you would not be unrighteous.  You might be kind of an ingrate, but you would not be unrighteous.  There was no agreement, so there was no violation.  I have no case against you.

For Old Testament Israel, righteousness was determined by the Law.  You lived by it.  This included doing what the Law said to make things right if you messed up.  When Paul, for example, tells the Philippian church that he was blameless before the Law, he did not mean he never sinned; he meant that he did what the Law required when he did sin, so he could not be accused by the Law.

This is why Paul can contrast the righteousness he had with regard to the Law and the righteousness he had by faith in Christ.  It isn’t that one is immoral and the other is moral; he’s contrasting two different standards.  Two ways of defining what righteousness is and acting that out.

This is why Isaiah 64:6 can make a seemingly paradoxical statement that the nation’s “righteous deeds” are like unclean rags.  It’s not to point out the shortcomings of “works righteousness;” it’s to point out that even when people do things in compliance with the Law, they are still grievous sinners.  You can behave righteously according to at least portions of the Law and still be in flagrant violation of what God desires from His people.  This is the very charge the prophets lay at the feet of Israel’s leaders in the Old Testament.  This is not unlike the accusations Jesus levels at the Pharisees – they maintain a form of external obedience to the Law (righteousness) while conveniently overlooking their obligations to love sacrificially, forgive, and restore the people.

Proverbs 21:2 comes to mind, here, that a person can be righteous in their own eyes (i.e. they behave rightly according to their own standards they set for themselves), but God weighs their hearts.

While the New Testament does talk about people who are unrighteous (i.e. they are in the wrong, behave wrongly, etc.), there is a strong focus on how you are determined to be righteous.  What is the source of your right-ness?  Is it the Law?  Is it faith in Jesus?  Is it your own standards?  What standard does God use, and who will be shown to be right when it is revealed to all?

Justification

Justification is being declared righteous.  In other words, justification is a declaration/demonstration that you were in the right.

What do we mean when we say a person is trying to “justify themselves?”  What are they doing when they do that?  They’re trying to show that they were in the right.

Justification is not forgiveness, and it most definitely is not the guilty being declared innocent.  It is the people who were in the right being vindicated, declared and demonstrated to have been in the right no matter how circumstances might appear or what anyone might be saying.

If I am brought to court on charges, the law is the standard of righteousness.  My behavior will be examined.  If my behavior is found to be in accordance with the law, I will be found righteous, and the judge will justify me.  She will declare me innocent.  If I have broken the law, I will be found unrighteous, and the judge will not justify me.  She will justify my accuser.  We call this “justice.”

This is why the standard of righteousness is so important to Paul.

As long as the standard is the Law, Israel cannot be justified.  She’s broken the Law, persistently.  She will remain in her sins and their consequences.  What’s more, Gentiles can’t be justified, either, because they don’t have the Law to begin with.

But if a righteousness has appeared from heaven apart from the Law, then there is hope.  What is it?  It is faith in Jesus.  If our righteousness can be evaluated by that standard, then both Jew and Gentile have hope, and salvation from sins for both Jew and Gentile is truly a gift from God.

It is important to note, however, that Paul believes genuine faith in Jesus produces genuine actions in line with that conviction.

Why I Care

In terms of systematic theology, I don’t.  I often think our efforts at systematic theology tend to ask the wrong questions and therefore yield answers that may or may not be valuable or arbitrary.  I’m not that concerned about this from the standpoint of making sure we use the right theological terms for the right concepts.

The reason I care comes back to how the Church sees herself, her identity, her mission, her hope, and her experience in the world.

Holiness is not a goal to achieve; holiness is something that has come upon you, already, and you are to be on a quest to conform your character, values, and behavior more consistently with what has happened to you.

If you are a Christian, then you have been called into the service of the God who made the heavens and the earth.  You have been marked off, set apart.  And you have been set apart to be a blessing and a light to everyone around you.  You are a priest serving in the temple of creation with your actions being a ministration to the rest of creation, a persistent witness to the reality of the Creator, and gentle call to all to leave behind the world systems that are passing away and embrace the new heavens and earth that will last for countless ages.

Our lives are not defined by escaping judgement, although that may be entailed in this calling.  Our lives are not defined by the rigor or consistency of our morality, although that also may be entailed in this calling.

The justification Paul was hoping for happened.  A righteousness has appeared from heaven apart from the Law to which you can attain.  You have been sanctified to be holy stones in God’s living temple.  This is who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing, and it is a gift to you from a God who calls you to be holy as He is holy.

Sunday Meditations: Hip Hop is Dead

A few weeks ago, Nas released his new album: Nasir.  This made me think of my favorite Nas album, which is “Hip Hop is Dead” released at the end of 2006.

“Hip Hop is Dead” is an album constructed around a central theme and all the songs support it.  Remember when albums used to do that?  Because of the ability to buy individual digital tracks instead of whole albums, you don’t see that too much anymore.  Most albums could be called “A Collection of Songs This Artist Hasn’t Released Yet” and capture the essence of the collection just fine.

But “Hip Hop is Dead” has an unmistakable central message and various facets of that message were communicated in different ways, ranging from symbolic imagery to straight out indictments against the music establishment that had taken control of the content away from the rappers, thus neutering hip hop as a political platform.  Also, he pointed out the rise of rappers who were in pursuit of a hustler lifestyle and just crafted their music around what would get them their money instead of expressing the pain and struggle that were the roots of hip hop and made it powerful.

I got to thinking about how Nas was presenting a prophetic voice to the hip hop community in 2006.  Like when other prophets made their pronouncements, a lot of people got offended, a lot of people thought he was making mountains out of molehills, etc.  But whether you agree with the message or not, “Hip Hop is Dead” is a prophetic work, and I thought it would be interesting to point out some features of the album that look like prophetic literature in the Bible.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Depends on the Historical Circumstances at the Time

While principles like artists controlling their content and being authentic instead of selling out for cash may be timeless, Nas is talking about these problems in concrete historical circumstances facing the community he’s addressing.

Probably the most directly historical is the track “Where Are They Now?” that almost reads like a genealogy of rappers representing what Nas considers the true heartbeat of hip hop, then points out that few of these people are still making records and being successful with their art.

In “Money Over Bullshit,” Nas talks about violence in specific locations he assumes will be familiar to his listeners and pulls in the ubiquitous presence of drugs sold by pushers in the community and even mentions the spread of AIDS.  These are lived out experiences he says are behind hip hop and young rappers have not lived through these experiences that they’re rapping about.

In “Black Republican,” Jay-Z and Nas talk about their feud.

Probably one of the more pivotal references to current events as it relates to the album’s message is one of my favorite lines from my favorite song on the album.  In the actual song “Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas asks his listeners, “So, n____, who’s your top ten?  Is it MC Shan?  Is it MC Ren?”  Not only does this take us back to rappers who, for many, represent the spirit of original hip hop, it also indirectly pulls in the Queensbridge / South Bronx feud over where hip hop actually began.  If you don’t know who these people are or the events around them, you wouldn’t know why their mention is significant.

These are all events and people that the audience would be familiar with, and the message arises from these circumstances.  Nas is not concerned with hip hop as an abstract concept; he’s concerned about these events, these artists, this industry, and what’s going to happen to it.  The album isn’t just generic truths about commercialism and authenticity in music, but is rather about a historical crisis (as Nas sees it) affecting those particular hip hop artists in the here and how (or there and then, in this case).

Prophetic literature in the Bible starts here as well, and it’s good to know that we won’t know what the “song” means if we don’t know the historical circumstances that gave rise to the prophets and the concerns they have.

Imagine someone telling you that “Hip Hop is Dead” is a great album that had a lot of meaning for them, and you should listen to it as well.  “But don’t worry about all the people mentioned or the social issues or the feuds or what the record companies were doing at the time.  That’s all interesting trivia that might add to your enjoyment, but really the album is about general principles for you to apply to your life, or maybe it’s about the distant future.  I don’t know; I found a lot of it confusing, actually.”

Yeah, if you ignore the concrete history, then it will seem very strange to you and you may not know what to do with it.

One of the easiest cherries to pick, here, is Jeremiah 29:11 –

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

You can’t read a Christian college’s yearbook without running into this verse about five bajirillion times.  This verse is regularly brought out as a promise by God to you as an individual believer that God has a specific plan for you that will bring you a wonderful future.

Unfortunately, understanding the verse this way requires you to completely overlook all the historical circumstances mentioned in the passage:

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

Jeremiah 29:1-3 (NRSV)

Oh, hey, that changes things a little, doesn’t it?  This is a letter from Jeremiah to exiles who had been taken to Babylon.  You have to understand those people, that location, and what’s happening to them at that time.

That whole thing up there is Jeremiah’s way of saying, “South BX all day!  You know what it is!”  Except, you know, for Babylon.

The passage immediately before Jeremiah 29:11 tells us –

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

Jeremiah 29:10 (NRSV)

So, Jeremiah 29:11 is not a general sentiment that means God will make everyone’s life awesome.  It’s meant to be an assurance to Babylonian captives that, when Babylon’s reign has ended, God will bring the exiles back to Jerusalem.

Now, even knowing this, we might decide to extrapolate from it what sort of God God is and how He feels about His people and His commitments and what that might mean for His followers today or you as an individual, but my point is: do you see how the concrete historical circumstances are so important to the meaning?  It addresses a group of people who are in the middle of the actual circumstances of what the prophecy is about.

This is especially important, I think, when reading passages in the Bible that are often assumed to be about the distant future.  It helps us understand them better if we can understand the actual historical circumstances the prophet is writing into.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Uses Symbolism and Assumes the Audience Will Know What It Means

In “Who Killed It,” Nas opens with rappers killing each other over a woman.  Nas runs across this woman, finds out who she is and her history, and then she vanishes into thin air leaving Nas with a pile of money.

This woman is hip hop.

Nowhere in the song does Nas ever say, “This woman is hip hop” or “This woman is a metaphor” or anything like that.  When you read the lyrics literally, it sounds like the kind of thing that could just normally happen except for maybe the vanishing at the end.

But the listeners are meant to realize this is a symbol.  How?  The text does not spell it out for us, but it gives us clues:

What are ya born 77 or 78?
She says, Nah it goes way to an earlier date
Slave times, claims the slaves said rhymes
But she fell in love with some fella named Clive

Who? Clive Campbell from Sedgwick Ave, the Bronx
Now she shows me the cash
I said who’s Clive, don’t play with me skirt
She said Clive Campbell
He’s Kool Herc.

“Who Killed It,” Nas

The woman was born back in slave times when slaves were creating songs and poetry about their situation, but then she fell in love with Clive Campbell aka DJ Kool Herc – a Jamaican-American DJ who many believe was a key person in the launching of hip hop.

Listen up sweetheart
Now we gettin somewhere
As she’s talkin, she starts vanishing in thin air
But before she drops the money bag on the floor and died
She said if you really love me I’ll come back alive

“Who Killed It,” Nas

We are clued in that this is not a literal woman by the fact that she vanishes, leaving behind money.  She also dies, but she tells Nas that, if he really loves her, she’ll be alive again.

This image is basically the central message of “Hip Hop is Dead.”  Hip hop has left behind money, but died in the process.  If artists rediscover their love for hip hop as Nas has seen it, hip hop will live again.

One parallel that comes readily to mind is Revelation 12.  Here, the prophet sees a woman “clothed with the sun” who is about to give birth to a child who is destined to rule all nations.  A great dragon is waiting to devour her child, but before he can, God takes the child to Himself and the woman flees while a mighty angel fights the dragon (who we are told is Satan) and defeats it.

The dragon is pretty upset at all this and tries to kill the woman, but she grows eagles wings and flies away.  The dragon tries to kill her with a flood, but the earth helps the woman and swallows up the water.  The dragon, foiled at last, decides to go after the rest of the woman’s children, whom we are specifically told are “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.”

Folks, this is not a prophecy about an actual woman who grows eagle wings being chased by an actual dragon.  These are all symbols that meant something to the audience.  The woman is faithful Israel who gives birth to the Messiah, but is also the mother of all who would believe (the rest of her children).  She is persecuted by Satan who will give all his power to the Beast (Rome).

We may disagree on what the symbols correspond to, but I hope we can agree that these are symbols and not a literal description of future events where an actual woman grows wings and flies away from a Satan dragon.

Sometimes, the symbol is greatly exaggerated to make a point.

For instance, hip hop was not dead when Nas made his album.  Hip hop is not a living person who can die, although it could potentially die out as a musical genre.  Even so, it’s often portrayed in the music as dead, and Nas’ reaction is apocalyptic:

If hip hop should die before I wake
I’ll put an extended clip inside of my AK
Roll to every station, murder the DJ
Roll to every station, murder the DJ

“Hip Hop is Dead,” Nas

It turns out that, as upset as Nas was, he did not literally drive to every radio station in existence and shoot the DJ.  This is imagery meant to communicate Nas’ anger and the intensity of his response.

We find this same thing at work in biblical imagery in prophetic literature as well.

Look, for instance, at Isaiah’s prophecy about the destruction of Edom:

All the host of heaven shall rot away,
and the skies roll up like a scroll.
All their host shall wither
like a leaf withering on a vine,
or fruit withering on a fig tree.

When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,
lo, it will descend upon Edom,
upon the people I have doomed to judgment.

Isaiah 34:4-5 (NRSV)

This is God’s version of saying he’s going to roll to every station and murder the DJ.

It is true that Edom was destroyed, but the sky and stars were not literally destroyed, nor did God drop a literal sword on it.

And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
her land shall become burning pitch.
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
no one shall pass through it forever and ever.

Isaiah 34:9-10 (NRSV)

This did not literally happen.  The land of Edom does not have streams made out of pitch and the soil is not sulfur.  It is not on fire today nor has it been in perpetuity.

Edom was conquered by a foreign power.  They were dispersed, and eventually they died out as a distinct people.  The imagery here refers to this.  Edom is being removed from the world stage and will cease to be a power and a people.  But very extreme imagery is used to communicate, poetically, how destructive this will be.

It is sometimes the tendency of our futurist brothers and sisters to point to passages like this and state that, since this did not literally happen to Edom, there will come a day in the future where Edom will be restored and these things will literally happen to it, then.

Well, the strength of this gambit is that you can never say what definitely can’t happen in the future, but it ignores the nature of the literature.  It’s very common in ancient, Near Eastern descriptions of this sort to go over the top with the imagery and even talk about people groups being completely obliterated, even though this isn’t precisely what happens.  It’s a way of communicating the impact and severity of what happened.

By comparison, there are Moabite tablets that talk about how they killed every last Israelite in battle.  So, that’s probably not what literally happened.  They may have defeated Israel in some key battles, but it turns out that they did not roll to every station, per se.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Offers a Conditional Message of Hope

The death of hip hop is so imminent to Nas that he describes it both as a present and future situation.  The album is called “Hip Hop is Dead,” not “Hip Hop Will Be Dead If We Don’t Do Something,” although the latter title more accurately captures the message.

As we saw at the end of “Who Killed It,” Lady Hip Hop offers the hope that, if she is truly loved, she’ll come back to life.

The beginning of the track “Hope” says in the introduction that hip hop will never die.  Nas reflects on the life experiences that inspire his rap, and he testifies that these life circumstances are still shared by his community, so hip hop can still live.  The track ends with Nas hoping desperately that hip hop will not die.

So, is hip hop dead or can this crisis be averted?  Nas seems to be saying both things.

Well, there’s quite a bit of biblical prophecy that also works this way.

As one example (among many), here’s Jeremiah again:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Jeremiah 18:5-11 (NRSV)

So, is Israel doing evil and judgement is about to come upon her?  Yes.  If she repents, will God stop His plans for judgement?  Yes.

In Jonah 3, Jonah tells Nineveh, “In forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  He does not say anything else.  But Nineveh repents and God decides not to do this.

More often than not, prophecy in the Bible does not predict a fixed future, but rather predicts a contingent future – one that can change if the audience hears the prophecy and responds accordingly.  The response (which is usually repentance) itself will produce a new outcome.  While this means the prophecy will not “come true,” it will absolutely have served its purpose as creating the outcome God hoped for.

Nas does not want hip hop to die, but by portraying it as dead, he hopes the community responds in such a way that it won’t die after all.  His prophecy is designed, not to predict a fixed future, but produce a response.

“Hip Hop is Dead” Can Be Repurposed to Explain Future Situations

The other day, I was driving my son to taekwondo and playing hip hop on the radio.  As we drove home, I turned the radio back on and he said, “Oh, wow, it’s the same song we heard on the way up.”

But it wasn’t.

The sad fact is that there’s a lot of hip hop these days that’s indistinguishable from each other and, in many cases, indistinguishable from atonal mumbling over a trap or some arrhythmic sample, usually involving some edgy, dark instrumental to add sophistication and gravity.

You hear people talk about the Golden Age of hip hop and contrast it to today’s “mumble rap,” and while that might be some nostalgia talking, I get it because I was there for the late 90s and early 2000s of hip hop, and while it wasn’t all deep and amazing stuff, it was by and large definitely real and aimed at communication, typically an artistic scream, “This is the way life is for us!”

That still happens, but it seems rarer by the day.

If someone were so inclined, they might easily call up Nas’ old words and sing them, thinking about today.  Is hip hop in crisis, again?  Will it snap out of it if enough people remember the roots and bring it back to authenticity?  While the historical particulars are different, can we use Nas talking about his own experiences in his day to give us an explanation for our current day?  If someone pays you a million dollars to mumble irregularly about your jewelry for three and a half minutes, is that what hip hop is to you?  Are we seeing similar things play out?

We could debate that, I guess, but it turns out that prophetic literature is used this way in the Bible as well.

Let’s close with an example from Jesus, himself:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 (NRSV)

This is a passage from Isaiah 61.  In it, Isaiah has talked about God’s promised deliverance of Israel from her oppressors.  God will remove the corruption from Israel and redeem her, overthrowing the powers that have conquered her, gathering her together from exile, and restoring her as a nation.  Edom, specifically, comes in the crosshairs in this extended bout of prophecy.  All of this is coupled with a call for Isaiah’s audience to put away idolatry and selfish and unjust practices.  Best as we can tell, this comes around the return from Babylon.  The prophet is talking about himself, not a future person.

Edom fell under Babylonian invasion in the 6th century BC and the remaining nation were driven out of their land by nomadic tribes over the next few centuries.  The remnant ends up settling in southern Judea until they disappear as a people after the Roman-Jewish war in AD 70.

This prophecy is for that Babylonian remnant.  It’s set in their circumstances and deals with their enemies.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon the prophet speaking, not someone hundreds of years later.

But Jesus takes up this prophecy to describe himself speaking in his own day.  In Jesus’ day, Israel is under another pagan government and troubled by unjust rulers.  They are living in Jerusalem, but all is not well.  They are still oppressed, their leaders are still corrupt, unrighteousness fills the land, and they still suffer the curse of the Law.

If you understand the circumstances of Isaiah 61, then you are in a position to point to another circumstance and say, “This is that.”  And that’s what Jesus does.  He points to his own situation in history and Jesus’ announcement of God’s deliverance as bringing to fullness what the prophet was doing in Isaiah 61 for his audience.  All that meaning gets brought forward to Jesus to help his audience understand what is happening, what Jesus is doing, and why they have reason to hope.

In this way, could these biblical prophecies tell us something about our own situation?  Give us direction as to what we could be doing?  Give us a reason to hope?

I think so, but it all starts with understanding the prophetic literature as it was written.

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 live 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.