Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Ziggurat

"And she's buying a stairway to heaven." (J. Patrick and R. Plant, 1970)

Much can probably be conjectured about the meaning of Led Zeppelin's famous song. Certainly the line above speaks to the woman's conceit in believing she can bring heaven to earth; and this by constructing a ziggurat, or stairway connecting heaven and earth.

Her conceit is not unique to her, though.  It was the original conceit of humankind that resulted in the separation of humankind from the Creator--that is, Death.  The conceit was and still is heaven can be attained by trusting in creation instead of God.  The lie Satan proffered to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was just that: You will become god by trusting in yourself.

It was also the conceit behind one of the most famous of ziggurats, the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). The people banded together to bring heaven to earth by constructing a tower touching heaven.  This tower was a ziggurat, which they believed would allow them to bring heaven to earth.

God wants heaven to be brought to earth; this was His purpose in creation; heaven and earth would be His dwelling place with His image bearers (humankind) in an eternal relationship of holy love (Gen. 1:26-2:1-3).  God's purpose in creation was to establish a kingdom for Himself.  Humankind loused this up because of their aforementioned conceit.  Nevertheless, God will realize His purposes; God will bring heaven to earth.  But He must be the one who constructs the ziggurat.  God must do it; it is impossible for human beings.

We see this prophesied in a dream of Jacob:

"He reached a certain place where he decided to camp because the sun had gone down.  He took one of the stones and placed it near his head.  Then he fell asleep in that place and had a dream.  He saw a stairway erected on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens.  The angels were going up and coming down it and the Lord stood at the top.  He said, 'I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather, Abraham and the God of your father Isaac.  I will give to you and your descendants the ground you are lying on.  Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north and south. All the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants.  I am with you! I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land.  I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you!'  Then Jacob woke up and thought, surely the Lord is in this place, but I did not realize it!  He was afraid and said, 'What an awesome place this is!  This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!" (Gen. 28:11-17 [NET])

God would of course partially fulfill this by a covenant with the nation of Israel (the new name God would give Jacob at Peniel [Gen. 32:22-32]) through their exodus from Egypt, wondering in the wilderness, entering the Promised land, and the construction of the Temple, where God would dwell with them.

But God would completely fulfill His promise and restore His kingdom through the living ziggurat--through the person who would come out of Israel.  That person would be God Himself entering into Human history:

And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we saw His glory, glory as the only begotten and unique one from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 14)

God has restored His kingdom through His son, Jesus the Christ, so that through Christ we see God and consequently know Him and are known by Him, which is to dwell together no longer in a fixed place, but in the totality of heaven and earth made one in Christ.

Jesus is the ziggurat through whom God brings heaven to earth.  Indeed, this is what Jesus meant when he told Nathanael,

"Because I said to you that I saw you beneath the fig tree, you are believing?  You will see greater things than these."  And Jesus said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you [you is plural, here] you will see the heavens having opened up and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." (John 1:50-51)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Oddity

It was an odd thing--something for Ripley's.  Everyone thought so.  Both young and old and all those in between would stop and stare and wonder.  It stood bravely upright against the push of humanity from all sides--a silent yet colorful contradiction to the concrete, asphalt, grime, and litter that was the legacy of a race in lethal pursuit of ambition. "How could it be?" someone would say.  Another pointed out weeds sometime grow out of a crack in the pavement, as if to remind us of our delusions of beauty. Yet another would clarify, "This is no weed.  And there is no crack, either.  It has just come up as if it had pushed itself through the cement from somewhere deep below."  Everyone nodded in agreement, secretly enthralled by the loveliness shining before them they had been taught long ago couldn't happen. Some looked up and all around for a camera or other evidence of a hoax. Others brought themselves close and sniffed in a fragrance of indescribable splendor.  Still others gently touched the pedals, delighted to discover their softness exceeded their promise.  There were those, too, disquieted by the phenomenon.  "It's not natural!" someone opined in thinly veiled trepidation.  Many gave the flower a wide berth, suspecting it had been cleverly placed there to lure them into something.  The oracle remained steadfast in all its resplendent colors, day after day through inclement weather and sun.  The bloom never closed at night; and even gave off its own special light. It became a place for people to come together.  A happening where those who came with food or wisdom liberally shared with those who did not.  Those who couldn't recall the last time they had smiled, grinned and pointed.  Faces that for eons had mingled in nonrecognition, became as kin.  Before long the laughter and chatter around the flower challenged the din of industry that seemed to sulk.  The tints and hues of grays and blacks and soiled whites soon grew unbearable.  Slabs were cut away, and trees and planters and fountains installed. Gardens rose up alongside places that made light the revelry and camaraderie. And then it happened.

Song birds arrived and nested in the burgeoning trees, filling the air with a palette of melodies rivaled only by the creatures' varied colors.  It was an odd thing--something for Ripley's.  Everyone thought so.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Mirror

I had a dream the other night.  I dreamed I was bouldering.  The place was a collage of various wilderness areas I have frequented over the years (you know how dreams are).  It was a hot day; I could hear the locust, and the sun beat down on me through the otherwise still, dry air.  I could smell the sage.  It's funny how one remember smells.  It was like being in Grand Junction again, hunting for fossils with my dad.  Except now, I was very much alone--not lonely or distressed--just by myself. A large bird flew overhead and disappeared in the burning light marking the noon Colorado blue sky. I looked away to navigate the next pile of rock, placed there to make the way forward both cerebrally and physically demanding-- of that I was most certain.  I could feel the sandstone roughening my hands and scraping my knees as I puzzled out the best path.

After climbing like this for what seemed a long time (probably only a second or two of real time), I came upon a cleft in the rocks.  It appeared to be an entrance to a cave.  Because it was large enough for me to fit through, I clambered my way in .  From my original vantage point, it seemed quite dark beyond the opening; but the inner chamber I soon found myself was actually well lit.  I looked up and all around, and everywhere was solid rock, yet the room was bright as day.  Looking down I saw in the center of the stone cell, a pool of water.  The liquid was pure and placid.  It had all the appearance of a polished sheet of aquamarine glass that had been perfectly fitted within the hole in the rock floor.  I crouched down for closer examination.

I looked at my reflection in the glassy water.  It was a perfect rendering.  I could see every mark, wrinkle, and blemish in my aging face with unusual--and I must say--depressing clarity and resolution. My life was recounted in the image peering up at me.  I saw in that visage an entire history--not the history of Wells but my own. It began with the scar left on my cheek when I was four years old and tried to shave with my dad's razor.  It progressed on from there.  Each new degradation marring what once had been a baby face, bore witness to the reality of entropy and a long life of worries, fears, self-doubt, selfish choices, lost opportunities, and qualified successes.  I shuddered as I gazed into the face of disappointment.

When I could no longer bear the truth, I reached down and scambled the water.  The image didn't fragment or distort as one might predict, but transformed.  Even though I had done violence to the watery mirror, the surface held perfectly calm.  My hand was wet, and there were water stains on the walls of the rocky basin that hadn't been there before, but the pool itself remained unmoved.  Only the image had changed.

I saw myself.  I studied the new image intently, not believing what I saw.  It was me.  But the scars were gone.  The worry and pain and anger and sadness and hopelessness had all vanished.  The decrepit twilight of late autumn had suddenly turned to the dawn of early spring.  The features of the old man shining back at me from the crystalline mirror had been smoothed and sculpted and shaped and polished into a paradox of youthful vigor.  An inexhaustible vitality glistened in those peaceful blue eyes, and a fathomless joy gently turned up those tender lips in a smile. And although the room around me was encased in rock, a soft breeze tousled the hair about the face of that image.  I knew it to be the spirit of freedom.

He is risen! He is risen, indeed.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Christ Fulfills the Law-Part 3

5) Blessed (Happy) are the merciful because they will receive mercy.

We have already learned how mercy is the response that flows from the humility of one poor in spirit.  But we just saw how mercy also requires sacrifice on our part.  This should illustrate for us how we cannot draw hard and fast lines between the first four beatitudes nuanced as they tend to be in humility and these last four nuanced by sacrifice.  Humility and sacrifice are inextricably tied together--hence my spinning purple sphere illustration.

The best way to illustrate the sacrifice of mercy is forgiveness.  We all each and every day need to forgive someone or be forgiven; forgiveness is almost as much a part of living as breathing.  We all must forgive because God has forgiven us. To refuse to forgive others often is pure arrogance on our part because, despite what we might say to the contrary, when we don’t forgive others we really believe God was obligated to forgive us.

The other necessary component of forgiveness is the sacrificial part that is mercy.  One doesn’t really forgive anybody without also being merciful towards them.  And such mercy means one will have to give up something or many things, whether it be his time, his inconvenience, his reputation, his property, his money, his right to be right, and his right to be vindicated.

People often tell me I must forgive him or her but I don’t have to forget.  This is the world’s wisdom, not God’s.  It is not letting go of oneself to God, but seeking one’s own benefit.  It isn’t being poor in spirit, or mourning with Christ, or being meek, or hungering after righteousness.  It is, in fact, selfish-ambition and conceit and not the servant’s heart of humility and sacrifice bound together in love.  If we stand in Christ we will forgive regardless of the cost to us, because God forgives us the same way.

Relationships can only be restored if there is forgiveness, but repentance is also needed.  I must forgive someone who has wronged me without demanding any form of recompense, even their admission of guilt and apology. (I understand this is a hard teaching.  You must understand that what Christ has called us to is all difficult because it is contrary to the world’s wisdom that has been hard wired into us because of the fall.) We forgive others with no strings attached; otherwise, we haven’t really forgiven them.  But the relationship will only be restored if the other person repents.  You cannot have a holy relationship with someone who fails to admit his or her transgression.  This is true in even simple scenarios.  For example, one would be foolish to give an employee access to the till after she pilfered it without remorse.  You forgive by giving her another duty if possible, but you don’t trust her with the money until she comes to believe she was wrong to steal.  On the other hand, if she repents, then you give her her original job back, because such mercy leads to a restored relationship.

If we are not merciful in the way I’ve described, we will never receive mercy.  The reason is simple.  We won’t receive mercy because if we are unwilling to be merciful, we don’t really believe we need it, or we believe we were somehow owed it.  Here we clearly see how if we are not humble (poor in spirit) we also will not sacrifice.  There is a more sinister reason for being unmerciful; and that is in our heart of hearts we don’t really believe God has forgiven us, or anybody, for that matter.

6) Blessed (Happy) are those who are pure in heart because they will see God.
John tells us in his first epistle,

See how great a love the Father has given to you, so that we are called children of God, and so we are.  For this reason, the world does not know us, because it does not know Him. Beloved, we are now children of God, and it was not yet revealed what we will be.  We know whenever it appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.  And everyone who has this hope in him or her purifies him or herself, just as He is pure. (I John 3:1-3)

We learn from this the ultimate end of Christ’s work in us is purity—holiness.  We cannot stand in the kingdom of God without being holy, because God is holy.
John also teaches us we must be purifying ourselves.  And as we said at the beginning of this lesson we do this by remembering who we are in Christ by doing what His spirit instructs us to do through the grace of wisdom, strength, and forgiveness the spirit provides.  All of which is to say faith is active not passive.

Faith that makes us holy is also sacrificial, just as Paul teaches us,

Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)[NET]

The sacrifice begins with a willingness on our part to change how we think.  One of the most crucial ways we do this is laying out our motives before God.  It is easy—I mean effortless and slick—for us to think we are doing something good for others, when in reality we are only doing it out of selfish-ambition.  If our motives are wrong, we are not pure—regardless of what we might be doing.  Paul also tells us if our thinking isn’t right (faulty motives) we will not hear God’s will.  Furthermore, I cannot love God, which is my acceptable worship, unless I am a living sacrifice.  I cannot love God if I still love myself more than God and therefore others.

It takes sacrifice on our part to become holy.  This sacrifice begins and ends in loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbor as our self.  We should see in this that all we have been talking about as the tension of mercy and justice is driven by and towards ultimate fulfillment in the perfect tension of love and holiness that defines the eternal state of God’s kingdom, because it is the nature of Christ.  This tension of love and holiness is in fact the law fulfilled in Christ, which is why I spent so much time at the beginning of this lesson discussing it (Part 1). Putting it another way, because we stand in Christ’s kingdom today and at the same time we also live in the fallen world, our nature in Christ is the perfect tension of love and holiness that we practice in the fallen world as the perfect tension of mercy and justice.  And in so doing, we make ourselves pure.

We can summarize this beatitude with a reading from the book of Hebrews:

Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14) [NET]

Crisp and clean and no caffeine!

7) Blessed (Happy) are the peacemakers for they will be called the sons of God.

We have spent mucho time on this subject in previous lessons.  Suffice it to say our Lord Jesus the Christ, the son of God, always pursued peace all the way to the cross and then beyond.  Of course, Jesus does, because His kingdom is perfect peace—perfect Shalom—because, contrary to popular belief, peace means perfect justice, which is perfect holiness bound up in perfect love.  And all of this is the righteousness that comes from God.  If we claim to be followers of Christ, then we will be peacemakers and therefore sons of God.  And as we have discussed previously, such peacemaking demands sacrifice, even--dare I say it?--sacrifice unto death.

8) Blessed (Happy) are those who have been persecuted on account of righteousness because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

If we stand in the kingdom of God, which means we are Christ followers with all that entails, we will be persecuted.  The perfect tense, “have been persecuted,” means we will be persecuted and that persecution will leave its marks on us.  When we stand before God He will see those marks and know we have been standing in Christ all along (I am speaking in human terms; of course, God knows whether or not we stand in Christ).  The point is if we stand in Christ we will sacrifice ourselves to persecution.

Jesus then expands upon this last beatitude:

You are blessed (Happy) people whenever liars revile you and persecute you and speak every evil against you on account of Me.  Rejoice and be full of joy because your reward is great in the heavens; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who came before you. (Matt. 5:11,12)

Firstly, Jesus is telling us something about what happiness really is.  The world thinks it is having everything going the way we want so we are perpetually on an emotional high—all smiles and giggles.  If that is so, why is it so many famous people who got it all by the world’s standards are so broken in their relationships and have to medicate themselves?  No, happiness is a state of mind; it is an inner peace that comes with finally knowing oneself because we love Christ. Dr. Ratzinger, in response to those who say the beatitudes are really only sour grapes, explains beautifully what I mean:

 “In a word, the true morality of Christianity is love. And love does admittedly run counter to self-seeking—it is an exodus out of oneself, and yet this is preciously the way in which Man comes to himself.[1]

Secondly, because true happiness is standing in Christ, we are indeed happy when we are persecuted for righteousness sake.  This does not mean we can expect to be happy if we were persecuted because of our own sake.  If you are persecuted because of your sin, you certainly cannot rejoice in that; no, in that case it is time to repent.

Thirdly, Jesus locates Himself as to what He means by “for righteousness sake”; He teaches us the latter is synonymous with “for My sake”.

Fourthly, Jesus said our reward is great in the heavens, not that heaven is our reward.  The beatitudes are not prescriptions for how to get to heaven, but descriptions of one who is standing in God’s kingdom today.  The beatitudes describe the nature of the heart of one standing in Christ in terms of that person’s present status in the kingdom (e.g., I am poor in spirit, so I am in the kingdom).  Our status in God’s kingdom doesn’t change, but there will be bonuses, as it were, when God consummates His kingdom in the future[2].


The eight beatitudes begin with our status being the kingdom of God and end with the same status.  The first beatitude strongly emphasizes humility; the last beatitude strongly emphasizes sacrifice.  To be in Christ is to have through Him His nature of humility and sacrifice motivated by love.  Jesus describes His nature we have in Him as the beatitudes.  Because Jesus came as a servant, these beatitudes define a servant’s heart.  I have vividly pictured this servant’s heart as like a spinning, purple orb generated conceptually as a coin bearing sacrifice on one side and humility on the other that has been spun and is kept spinning by love.  I also defined Christ’s nature theologically as walking in the perfect tension of love and holiness.  All that these are and all that result from them—justice, holy relationships, peace, the fulfilled Law, and so on—is collectively the kingdom of God centered in Christ; it is, in fact, the righteousness that comes from God. Indeed, Christ fulfills the Law.

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Jesus of Nazareth: Baptism to the Transfiguration” Image Press, New York (2007): p. 99.
[2] B. Witherington, “Matthew” Smyth and Helwys, Macon, GA, (2006): p. 123.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Christ Fulfills the Law-Part 2

Unlike Moses who only gave us the Law, Jesus came to be the Law for us and this because in Christ we can know the Father[1].  Christ has perfectly fulfilled the Law so that in Him we too can fulfill the law and this through holy love.  John explains this nicely for us in his first epistle:

Beloved, I am not writing a new command to you, but the old commandment which you were having from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you heard. Again, I am writing a new commandment to you, that is true in Jesus and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the genuine light is already shining. The one who claims to be in the light and hates his brother is still in the darkness.  The one who loves his brother remains in the light and no reason to sin is in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and is walking in the darkness and does not see where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (I John 2:7-11)

Therefore, Jesus is not burdening us with a new set of commandments, but freeing us to fully apprehend the old commandments.  He frees us first by dying on the cross and being raised to eternal life in order to put to death sin and death (what John means by darkness) that had for us irrevocably broken our relationship with God, so that we can once again stand with God in the relationship He created us for, by standing in the risen Christ who is king, Lord, and Master—that is, by standing in the kingdom of God.  And by so standing in Christ—a restored relationship with God--we are free to fulfill the law through love and establish, sustain, flourish, and forever enjoy righteous relationships with each other.  We are freed this way because Jesus enlivens His holy love within us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Standing in Christ, which as I said is tantamount to standing in the kingdom of God, we are truly happy (blessed).  And this happiness (blessing) prevails within us by faith in Christ to make it real to us by doing what His spirit tells us through the grace of wisdom, strength, and forgiveness His spirit provides.  Putting it another way, we are truly happy when we take on the nature of Christ by faith.  And this nature is the perfect fusion of humility and sacrifice motivated by love.  In short, it is the beatitudes.

I’m fond of describing the kingdom nature, or servant’s heart, as a coin on which one side is painted red and the other side is painted blue[2].  The colors symbolize sacrifice and humility, respectively.  Now imagine taking this coin and spinning it.  See how it becomes a purple sphere.  Yes, there it is; it is the heart of Christ and therefore the heart of His servant-- one who follows Christ—one who truly dwells with God in God’s kingdom—one who lives in Christ by faith—one who is a Christian.  But what is the force the starts the coin spinning and then keeps it spinning?  The force is love.  The nature we have in Christ is the perfect melding of humility and sacrifice motivated by love.

Jesus describes eight beatitudes in the gospel according to Matthew.  There are other beatitudes in the scriptures, of course, but these concisely convey the servant’s heart.  If you look carefully you can see how the first four are nuanced toward humility, and the last four towards sacrifice.  We don’t want to draw solid lines of division here, because one can easily discover many transpositions.  But I find the nuances help us to appreciate fully how these beatitudes describe the heart of Christ, and therefore the heart of his disciples.  We can loosely split the eight beatitudes in the following way:

Humility: Be Poor in Spirit, Be One Who Mourns, Be Meek, and Be Hungry and Thirsty for Righteousness.

Sacrifice: Be Merciful, Be Pure in Heart, Be a Peacemaker, and Be Patient in Persecution 

Let’s take each beatitude one by one.

1)  Blessed (happy) are the poor in spirit because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

To be poor in Spirit is to be humble in the purest sense.  It is a complete and unqualified realization of our helplessness:

Certainly you do not want a sacrifice, or else I would offer it;
you do not desire a burnt sacrifice.
The sacrifices God desires are a humble spirit –
O God, a humble and repentant heart you will not reject. (Ps 51:16-17) [NET]

To be poor in Spirit is a complete and ongoing repudiation of our misplaced trust that constituted our rebellion.  This is why there is no incompatibility between Luke’s statement of this beatitude in a material sense[3] and Matthew’s in the spiritual sense.  The issue is trust; it is the lesson we learned from the encounter between the rich man and Jesus.  To walk in God’s kingdom we give up any hope of finding security in the human heart or its institutions.  We must surrender ourselves totally to Christ; there is no blessing (no happiness) outside of this poverty of spirit.  If we are to enter the kingdom of God, we must trust God with a childlike trust:

And Jesus said, “Truly I say to you. Unless you turn around and become like children, you will absolutely not enter into the kingdom of Heaven!” (Matt. 18:3)

This holistic trust is, of course, faith that is the perfect, unbroken triangle of belief, trust, and obedience. In the first volume of his three volume series on Jesus of Nazareth, Dr. Ratzinger captures the essence of people living by such faith:

These are people who know that their poverty also has an interior dimension; they are lovers who simply want to let God bestow His gifts upon them and thereby live in harmony with God’s nature and word.[4]

To be poor in spirit is humility, but this humility is not the kind mustered up in order to get what we want by invoking pity in someone. Neither is this humility a means some people use to exalt themselves over others, such as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable:

Two men ascended into the Temple in order to pray, one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.  The Pharisee standing prayed about himself these things: ‘God, I thank you because I am not even as the rest of the people, swindlers, evil doers, adulterers, or even as this tax collector; I fast twice a week; I tithe a tenth of everything I possess.” (Luke 18:10-12)

To be humble as one poor in the spirit is to be stripped of all pretense of self-sufficiency.  It is the recognition of one’s own powerlessness and lifelessness.  To be poor in spirit is to expose the lie that one is or ever could be a god unto oneself.  To be poor in spirit is to finally grasp in the depth of humility one’s certain need of God’s salvation. Indeed such humility wakes you up to the reality of you tumbling end over end in a freefall into a bottomless abyss, where the ever increasing speed of your descent blurs the features of the living passing beyond your reach.  To be poor in spirit is the humility of the tax collector:

The tax collector standing far away (from the Pharisee), did not want to raise his eyes toward heaven, but beat his chest saying, “God, forgive me the sinner!” (Luke 18:13)

To be poor in spirit is Jesus telling Satan, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by the word of God!” And “You will worship the Lord your God and will serve only Him!”

To be poor in spirit is Jesus washing His disciples’ feet.  It is Jesus alone with the flames of the second death looming ever nearer, praying to the Father, “Not my will, but your will be done.”
To be poor in spirit is Jesus,

Who being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God the thing to be grasped. But He emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, becoming in the likeness of humankind, and after being found as a man in appearance, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient until death, even death on the cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)

To be poor in spirit is the humility of being the last of all and the servant of all.  Yes, to be poor in the Spirit is to be the greatest in the kingdom of God.

2) Blessed (Happy) are those who mourn because they will be comforted.

Mourning in the Greek is in the present or continuous form.  This means it should be always present in our minds.  I don’t mean we must always walk around hidden beneath hooded cloaks, reciting lamentations.  No, to be in a constant state of mourning is the humility of knowing the present world is not the way it should be—it is not the right order of things—because of the rebellion of humankind against God.  When someone asked G.K. Chesterton what he thought was biggest cause of all the troubles in the world, he replied, “I am.”

When Jesus arrived to raise Lazarus from the dead he was met by Martha and Mary in separate occasions and mildly rebuked for not having come sooner to save Lazarus.  It is informative at this point to note that Jesus did not get angry at them for their impertinence, even though He knew he was about to bring Lazarus back to life and had tarried for good reason.  God always wants us to be honest with Him—to come to Him as we are.

What we also learn from this story is Jesus saw how everyone was mourning at the death of Lazarus, even now after four days in the grave.  And even though Jesus knew everything would be alright, the Bible tells us He wept.  Why?  Because Jesus mourned with a humility that said none of this should be.  Death was not what God intended for His image-bearers.  The torment of loss and the anxiety of fear that so grips our world are the sole result of our rebellion. Unless we grasp this as a deep humility by rehearsing its truth every day, we will become complacent.  Unless we mourn in this way, we will soon forget our own and sole culpability in the fall of God’s creation, and return to trusting in ourselves and our human institutions.  And in so doing, we will trivialize the corruption and violence in the world; we will come to accept death as a useful tool, and even a happy end; when in reality death is the source of all evil in this world, because it separates us from God.

When we embrace mourning in this way, we can be truly comforted, because the humility it engenders turns us back to God for our life.  A good example of this for us is Peter after he denied knowing Jesus three times.   St. Paul teaches us,

For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death. (II Cor. 7:10) [NET]

The mourning the fallen world knows is grief without hope.  It is mourning that either leads to suicide, as it did for Judas Iscariot, or virtual suicide, where people kill themselves in vain pursuits and dissipation.  Otherwise, it leads to contempt that slowly kills both the mourner and those around him or her.

But if we mourn from a depth of humility, we will turn back to God for comfort that, as John Chrysostum observed, goes beyond just forgiveness but is an abundant consolation[5].

3)  Blessed (Happy) are the meek for they will inherit the earth.

Dr. Ratzinger explains that the Greek word praus means meek or gentle, and is a translation in the OT of the Hebrew word, anawim, which refers to God’s poor; we see a connection, then, between the first Beatitude and this, the third[6].  A meek person in the sense Jesus is meaning here is the poster child of humility; he or she is a living example of what means to be poor in spirit.

Meekness and gentleness does not mean cowardly or spineless.  Meekness takes great courage because a meek person seeks to restore justice with the weapons of God’s kingdom, which are mercy, forgiveness, and sacrifice, and not the weapons of the world.   James said,

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct he should show his works done in the gentleness that wisdom brings. (James 3:13) [NET]

And such wisdom seems futile to a world that believes power only resides in the sword.  Well, of course God’s wisdom would seem this way, because the world is not poor in spirit, and it mourns with hopeless despair.  The world subsists on its arrogance.  But the meek in Christ are living abundantly in humility.

A meek person knows who he or she is in Christ.  Christ is perfect meekness.  He announced the arrival of His kingdom riding on a donkey, not with political rancor or with the din of war drums and the rattle of armor and swords. He willingly ushered in His kingdom by being nailed to a cross--bleeding, beaten, cursed and spat upon--even though there was no sin in Him.  Christ cared deeply for God’s creation and lost humanity and He went about saving it through the only means it could be saved: through the mercy of God’s wisdom that is love, forgiveness, and sacrifice.  So that at the height of the world’s contempt and cocky self-vindication, Jesus still prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.”  We who claim to be followers of Christ can be no less meek, because a servant is not greater than his/her master; and a student is not greater than his/her teacher.

Jesus tells us that it is the meek who shall inherit the earth. The meek stand in the God’s wisdom; they act to bring His justice through the gentle methods of His wisdom; they seek God’s justice instead of their own, and endure the harsh rebuke—even death--from the world that has a vested interest to remain in its darkness.  The meek in its sincere and deep humility knows that the quick fix and seemly expedient measures proffered by the world are nothing more than a thinly veiled conceit and selfish-ambition.  The meek person trusts in the Lord even when it seems to be ineffective.  And the Lord says it is such meek people who will inherit the earth because they are walking now in sync with the world God created to be, not the rogue world born out of rebellion.  It is for the meek as the Psalmist says,

Trust in the Lord and do what is right!
Settle in the land and maintain your integrity!
Then you will take delight in the Lord,
and he will answer your prayers.
Commit your future to the Lord!
Trust in him, and he will act on your behalf.
He will vindicate you in broad daylight,
and publicly defend your just cause.
Wait patiently for the Lord!
Wait confidently for him!
Do not fret over the apparent success of a sinner,
a man who carries out wicked schemes!
Do not be angry and frustrated!
Do not fret! That only leads to trouble!
Wicked men15 will be wiped out,
but those who rely on the Lord are the ones who will possess the land.
Evil men will soon disappear;
you will stare at the spot where they once were, but they will be gone.
But the oppressed will possess the land
and enjoy great prosperity. (Ps 37:3-11) [NET]

The fact the Lord promises we shall inherit the earth, means God is interested in restoring all creation, not just His image-bearers.  Our salvation is not only a private one, but a necessary part of God’s whole redemptive plan.  The humility of the meek recognizes it is not about me but God reconciling the world to Himself, to be the place where He dwells with His image-bearers in perfect justice, bound together in love. And this kingdom is the seamless union of the physical and spiritual realms.

4) Blessed (Happy) are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness because they will be satisfied.

First of all, the Greek words for hungering and thirsting are in present or continuous forms, so Jesus means we must always be hungering and thirsting after righteousness without ceasing.

Righteousness was the term in the OT referring to fidelity to Torah—that is, to observe the right path shown by God (i.e., the 10 Words).  I have already spent a lot of time at the beginning of this lesson explaining how only in Christ is this righteousness fulfilled (See Part 1).  We hunger and thirst for righteousness by faith in Christ.

It is a mistake to think of righteousness as only a right standing with God, even though it is that.  We first must have a right standing with God, because only in that restored relationship can all the rest of what righteousness is can be fulfilled.

Therefore hungering and thirsting after righteousness is for each of us individually to stand totally in Christ.  But because the kingdom is about restored relationships, each of us is seeking that others would find their way to stand in Christ. This means we must model for them this righteousness we have in Christ in all our relationships.  Therefore to hunger and thirst after righteousness is to seek Christ to transform us so that we love with a holy love that leads to justice.  This requires a deep humility on our part because none of this righteousness is due to anything we have done, but the outcome of what God is doing through Christ; so we must not treat the world as if this isn’t true; to do so is not humility, but a spiritualized arrogance and therefore unrighteous.  To hunger and thirst after righteousness is also, then, to seek the restoration of others in Christ by extending to them the same mercy Christ has extended to us—to love others as Christ has loved us.

As we have learned together, mercy is love acting in justice and for justice. We extend mercy to the lost by lifting them out of the unjust state they find themselves.  And when they see this justice in love they begin to understand their own sinfulness.  An excellent example of this is the work the Wheaton Bible Church has been doing in West Chicago.  There are there apartment complexes of Latin immigrants, and because of their impoverished condition  there was a rise in gang activity and a steep dropout rate among the children.  People from Wheaton Church forsook their own middle/upper middle class lifestyles and moved into these apartments and ministered to the tenants there by tutoring children, providing job and marriage counseling and medical services.  The result has been the children are going back to school, gang violence has declined, and two services for the Latins have formed at Wheaton Bible Church to accommodate the influx of new believers.  Those Christians at Wheaton hungered and thirsted after righteousness by bringing justice (moving the wrong order to right order) by extending mercy to the lost, with the result relationships are being restored along with the fallout of justice—just as Jesus promised would happen when we continually hunger and thirst after righteousness: we will be satisfied.

I would like to add one more thing before moving on.  We should also see from the Wheaton example how John Chrysostom was right in his perspective on this beatitude.  He said that hungering and thirsting for righteousness is turning away from coveting wealth, property, and the accumulation of worldly prosperity[7].  Jesus will validate this later in the Sermon on the Mount:

 “But seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things [the things we need] will be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33)

My point is the main reason we don’t extend mercy to the fallen world, and perhaps devise whole theologies to justify our inaction, is because deep down we are unwillingly to part with the possessions and wealth we believe to be our security and comfort.  This misplaced trust is unrighteous; so our unwillingness to be merciful to those who don’t deserve our mercy is not to hunger and to thirst after righteousness.

[1] I believe this is what John means to communicate in the climax of the prolog of his gospel account: Moses brought us the skeleton (the Law), but Jesus made it alive by fitting it with the flesh of grace and truth because only in Him is the Father revealed to us (John 1:17,18).
[2] B. J. Kokko, "A Final Word on LOVE" Kindle e-Book (2011): p. 108.
[3] Luke 6:20 reads, Blessed are the poor because yours is the kingdom of God.
[4] J. Ratzinger, “Jesus of Nazareth: Baptism to the Transfiguration” Image Press, New York (2007): p. 76.
[5] Chrysostom, Homily XV (Matt. V. 1-16), 4.
[6] J. Ratzinger, “Jesus of Nazareth: Baptism to the Transfiguration” Image Press, New York (2007): p. 80.
[7] Chrysostom, Homily XV (Matt. V. 1-16), 6.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Christ Fulfills the Law- Part 1

The second temple Jews saw upholding Torah as the expression of wisdom and righteousness. But the issue is what this wisdom must be based on.  Matthew places the Sermon on the Mount near the front of his gospel account because a primary objective of his is to show Jesus as the Messiah—the personification of God’s wisdom—God with us..  All of which is to say Jesus claims Himself to be the basis of wisdom.  The Torah, then, is fulfilled in Christ.

Jesus ascended the mount to proclaim this perfect wisdom to His disciples, which of course includes you and me, as a clear nod to Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Law, or Elijah receiving instruction from God on the mountain.  What we will hear from our Lord is counter-intuitive and contradictory to conventional wisdom.  Of course it is, because it is wisdom of the Kingdom of God, not of the Kingdom of fallen humankind.  Witherington sees Jesus’ wisdom statements for the new relationship God has with His image-bearers in His kingdom (B. Witherington, “Matthew” Smyth and Helwys, Macon, GA, (2006).)  I agree as long as we understand this relationship as new in the sense of a restored relationship in Christ.

We will discover as we listen to Jesus, He is fulfilling the essential Law, not all that came to be the Torah.  Many of the Laws of the old covenant were necessary for keeping some order in Israel coexisting in a violent, pagan world—that is, they were judicial laws.  Such laws will vanish; others will be recast into the essential Law, which is what I believe to be the Ten Words (Ten Commandments).  It is this essential law Jesus ultimately fulfills.  And we will see what this means as the wisdom of Christ is unfolded before us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

In verse 2 of chapter 5 we see what seems to be a peculiar description we might take as simply an archaic expression: “He opened His mouth and taught them saying….”  But it isn’t.  Matthew is contrasting here wisdom Christ taught through miracles and through His silence (e.g., before Pilate) with wisdom He is about speak to us.  John Chrysostum in his homily on this passage of Matthew further explains that Matthew connects Jesus’ acts of healing with His verbal teaching to demonstrate God’s concern for both the spiritual and physical aspects of His creation (Chrysostom, Homily XV (Matt. V. 1,2), 1.).  God is restoring all of creation, not just individuals.

Jesus now lays out the eight so-called beatitudes. Let’s step back again and view the magnificent forest and gradually hike our way in to examine these beatitudes in detail.

The Sermon on the Mount is the Kingdom ethos.  It isn’t a new set of commandments, but the fulfillment of the old set of commandments—specifically, the Ten Words.  The Law is to God’s kingdom as the skeleton is to the body, in that the Law provides the necessary infrastructure and shape for the Kingdom of God; the Law describes what right order (justice) looks like and must be because God who is holy created His kingdom for His good pleasure as a place to dwell with His image-bearers—and God does not change.  I say this lest we might think the Law is a capricious thing, subject to change by an act of congress.

The law is a necessary but not sufficient foundation for the kingdom of God.  If left alone, the skeleton remains nothing except a sculpted inanimate collection of minerals.  The skeleton only comes alive when covered with flesh infused with living consciousness.  In the same way, the Law is fulfilled when it is animated by love.  The law fulfilled by love is the necessary and sufficient foundation of God’s kingdom, for only relationships built on this foundation will be genuine (holy) and therefore thrive.  And the kingdom of God is all about holy relationships.

The right order or infrastructure of the Kingdom as described by the Law is necessary for holy relationships to form, flourish, and be forever sustained.  The right order is necessary for true love to flow between God and His image-bearers and therefore between the image-bearers.  In more profound terms, the kingdom of God is the holy community created to share in the eternal community of the Trinity.  Because God is relational, it was His good pleasure to create relational beings to become a community with Him (Note: We must not make the mistake of suggesting God had to create the cosmos in order to in some way complete Himself.  God is totally autonomous; neither His character nor his being is contingent on anything outside of Himself).  And all of us who stand together with God in His kingdom are blessed.

Let us digress for a moment and think about this adjective, blessed.  We shall see it is how Jesus introduces each beatitude.  Are we to understand blessed as a method of entering His kingdom, or only some future reward awaiting those who will enter His kingdom?  No, even if in their respective senses they are true, they don’t adequately define blessed as it is used in the beatitudes. The Greek word makarios translated blessed also means happy.  We who stand in God’s kingdom are certainly blessed, because it is God’s sole accomplishment as an act of His inexpressible love.  But it is also true happiness for us who stand in His kingdom.  The fallen world has been on an unending carrot chase for happiness, trying every conceivable means to satisfy a hunger they fail to understand can only be sated by the Kingdom relationships we were created for.  We can and only will be happy in God’s kingdom; this is Truth.

Blessed or happy describes the inner wholeness we have as kingdom dwellers, both now and when God consummates His kingdom.  This blessed (happy) condition is not mere abstraction, but even now should manifest itself in the outward actions marking His kingdom dwellers.  Putting it another way, this blessing is an inner heart condition that expresses itself in holy relationships.  What Jesus will unpack for us with the Sermon on the Mount as His beatitudes is beautifully summarized in Proverbs 3:3-4:

Do not let truth and mercy leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart.  Then you will find favor and good understanding, in the sight of God and people. [NET]

True blessing and the happiness we all seek is only found in the restored relationships of God’s kingdom.  And this is not something we earn, or a reward, but as you shall see, a transformation we have only in Christ.

There is a paradox in this relationship of love with this infrastructure illustrated for us by the Law.  Unless the love is flowing in righteous (holy) relationships—that is, relationships circumscribed by the Law—the Law, itself, will be forsaken; it is only through love the Law is ever truly obeyed.  To use our skeleton analogy, the skeleton is kept alive through the blood flowing through it from the flesh it gives shape.  Likewise, the Law is vitalized by love.  But even as the living skeleton manufacturers the blood cells that will return to keep the skeleton alive, the Law provides the boundaries of love.  For it is as Paul said,

Owe nothing to anyone except the debt to love each other; for the one loving others has fulfilled the Law.  For the edicts, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet, and if any other commandment, are summarized by this principle in this way: Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does not work out bad for a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law. (Rom. 13:8-10)

It is a mistake, then, to view Christianity—walking in Christ’s kingdom—being a Christ follower—from a legal perspective only.  This was the mistake Israel made.  They thought the Torah could be obeyed by holding to a standard of the Law (e.g., the Sabbath requirements).  But this approach ultimately crippled or outright destroyed relationships.  This is a main theme of Jesus’ pronouncement of seven woes upon the Scribes and Pharisees recorded in Matthew 23:13-36.  Let’s consider just a few to hopefully drive the point home.

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut out the Kingdom of Heaven from before the people; for you are not entering the Kingdom nor are you letting those who are entering to enter.  Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you go around the sea and the desert in order to make a single convert, and whenever it happens, you make him twice a son of hell than you.

In the fourth Woe Jesus explains how this happens.

Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you give a tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, and forget the weightier things of the Law: the justice, the mercy, and the faithfulness.  You must do the latter things and not forget the former things.  Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but who swallow the camel.

Returning to our analogy, then, if one attempts to keep the skeleton alive by depleting the flesh—such as, say, limiting the diet to only those foods that will build bones--one ends up killing both.  Likewise, if we try to keep the Law without love, or love without the Law, we lose both.  And this is exactly the fate of our fallen world.

Jesus teaches us the basis of the Law is love—that is, the law is fulfilled by love.  What this looks like is what has come to be called the beatitudes fleshed out in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus ascended the mountain to reveal the Law—not a new law, but a fulfilled law.  Indeed, it is the law God demanded from the very beginning.  Jesus reveals to us the law of God’s kingdom, or as I called it earlier, the kingdom ethos.  And every dweller of God’s kingdom will perfectly conform to this Law because Christ perfectly conformed to it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jesus and the Rich Man- Part 3

What Jesus demanded of the rich man, Jesus' disciples, and all of us who want to be followers of Christ is a difficult teaching;  for this reason, the rich man walked away downcast.  Jesus tells us how hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven, particularly for the wealthy.  Jesus uses the eye of the needle analogy to make His point clear. (By the way, the eye of the needle is just that, not the gate in Jerusalem, which didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.)

The issue here is trust, not money.  Jesus was no Marxist.  Money is not inherently evil.  Money has its purposes, even in bringing about justice, as we have seen in what Jesus demanded of the rich man.  We also see this in Jesus’ parable of the unfaithful manager (Luke 16:1-14).  Money is not evil; but the evil is putting one's trust in money.  This is why Jesus, teaches us,

"No servant is able to serve two masters; for either he/she will hate one and love the other, or he/she will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money." (Luke 16:13)

No, the problem with all of us is a misplaced trust.  We all want to be our own god, but deep down we know we are hopelessly fallible, so we attempt to protect ourselves from our own fallibility by amassing wealth, which is essentially power.  In short, we put our trust in wealth, instead of God.  But as we see with the rich man, wealth doesn’t engender mercy and love; instead it hinders it, because by trusting in wealth, we possess it.  And such possessiveness always leads to hate, in the end.

The rich man will have to do some serious soul-searching.  It just isn’t easy to trust Jesus to the extent we willingly cut all the lifelines by which we have secured ourselves—or so we have deluded ourselves to believe.   This begins to dawn on Jesus’ disciples.  “How can anyone be saved?”  First, if the rich aren’t saved--indeed, it is more difficult for them to be saved because of their wealth--and everyone always believed their wealth was evidence of God’s favor, what hope is there for anyone?  Second, if dwelling in the kingdom of God demands goodness, and goodness can only be attained through an unconditional trust in Jesus—a trust really beyond us because of our inherent fear—how can anyone be saved?

Jesus explains that it is impossible in the presence of man (i.e., trusting in human wisdom, methods, and institutions), but all things are possible in the presence of God (i.e., standing in the kingdom of God, in Christ).  And God achieves this through His son, Jesus the Christ.  This is the gospel.  Jesus is king and is offering his kingdom to us.  He is king because he overcame death on the cross; Jesus is alive!  And the kingdom has come for us because, through His death on the cross, forgiveness is possible with our repentance, which is dying with Him; and because He lives, eternal life is possible by living through Him; and because of Him, goodness to dwell with God is possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  These three define what it means to dwell in the kingdom of God, and fundamentally involves a trust.  Hence, we are truly justified only by faith alone.  The basis of the kingdom of God is faith, not the Law, because only by faith can we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.

We learn with the rich man, then, that the kingdom of God is based on Goodness, defined as the tension of mercy and justice that can only be achieved through the joining of ourselves with Christ.  In short,

As dwellers of the Kingdom of God we must trust God unconditionally by surrendering ourselves completely to our Lord, Master, King Jesus.