May 14

Revelation Part 3: The Ongoing Restoration

 

In Part One, I noted the varying uses of verb tense in Revelation. As I pointed out, verses 20:7-10 contain 12 verbs; 6 are in the past, 2 are present tense, and 4 are future tense. Similarly, the description of the fall of Babylon contains both past and future tenses. This makes it impossible to assign the events in Revelation literally to the past, present or future– at least, not without suggesting that John didn’t say what he meant.

Revelation thus portrays events that occur outside our concept of time. In that sense, they both have happened and will happen. Put another way, they are continually happening. Thus, Revelation is not a prophetic view of the future, distant or otherwise. It is a description of God and Christ working in the world throughout our concept of history.

This puts the events described in a very different context. As I mentioned before, books could be written (and have been written) about the contents of Revelation. This, on the other hand. will be a very short summary.

Let’s take the example of the seven seals. First, I find it striking that, as the Lamb breaks each seal, the four living creatures (the symbols of God’s creation) “call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!'” (6:1). I’ve noted the writer’s love of irony. In Genesis 1, God calls Creation into being; here, Creation calls God’s work into being.

As the first four seals are broken, four riders are released. The first is the lover of power, the second is war, the third is famine and poverty, and the fourth is death. How often in history have we seen this cycle? Does it predict the future? Of course it does, for whenever a power-hungry leader arises, war and suffering and death follow.

With the fifth seal, the martyrs call out for justice, and with the sixth the existing structures are thrown into turmoil. Then there’s an interlude in which the 144,000 chosen and the multitude of believers from every nation are identified. This is a choosing up of sides between believers and evil.

With the breaking of the seventh seal, the seven trumpets bring forth plagues and tortures. Yet, as 9:20-21 makes clear, the point of these disasters is to cause people to repent, turn to God, and change their ways. They do not repent, and the story continues.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
    and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.” (11:15)

The Kingdom has been established! But the woes are not over. The dragon and the two beasts emerge. The first beast makes war on the believers, but an angel warns:

Let anyone who has an ear listen:

If you are to be taken captive,
    into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
    with the sword you must be killed.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)

Clearly, just as Jesus conquers with the Word, the believers are to eschew violence.

Even now, there is an opportunity for those who follow evil to repent (14:6). Yet seven plagues follow, ending with the fall of Babylon. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of irony: Babylon, the Great Whore, is destroyed not by God, but by those who serve her (17:16-18). Similarly, there is an entire chapter (18) dedicated to lamenting the fall of Babylon, the world’s great economic power– and yet the fall itself is never described. An angel declares before the plagues, “Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (14:8), and again after the plagues as the beneficiaries of Babylon lament (18:2), but the fall itself is never recounted.

Then follows the battle at Harmageddon, in which Christ the Warrior defeats the beast and slays the kings of the earth with the sword of his tongue (19:17-21). Satan is thrown down for a thousand years, then rises and is defeated. The dead are judged.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:1-2)

Yet here again, though there is a great deal of rejoicing for the wedding and a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, the wedding is never described. It is apparently already accomplished. Through the city runs the river of life, which comes from God and the Lamb. The vision closes with these words:

[H]is servants will worship him;  they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:4-6)

In the epilogue, John relates that the time is “coming soon,” yet “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). His benediction closes:

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)

Revelation is surely a vision of hope, yet not hope for the distant future. (It has, after all, been almost 2,000 years since it was written to give hope to the churches of Asia.) The gift of the water of life is available now. Babylon is fallen now. Satan is defeated now.

Revelation is a powerful exhortation that evil doesn’t have the last word, Jesus does. Every day.

 

May 7

Where Are Your Works?

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. John 14:12

I was sitting in class one day listening to a lecture. Suddenly, I saw a vivid image of Jesus’s side as he hung on the Cross, at the moment before he was pierced by the spear. At the same time, I heard a cacophony of voices chanting, “Where are your works? Where are your works?” It grew louder until I couldn’t hear what my professor was saying. This went on for about five minutes before it began to fade. But the image reappeared to me several times throughout the day.

Modern Christians are skeptical of works, and rightly so. In the 1200 years following Constantine, works were sometimes viewed as the means of salvation. They aren’t. The Bible clearly tells us that we are saved through grace. Surely any evangelical Christian can quote this verse:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Yet for some reason, many tend to ignore the following verse:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)

The presence of grace does not negate works, it makes them inevitable. How do we miss that? In our skepticism of works, we discount the words of James, the brother of the Lord:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith [alone] save you? (James 2:14)

Martin Luther seems to have found a conflict between Paul and James. (He preferred Paul.) I don’t see any conflict at all. If we have received grace, if we have received faith, we will do works–not to become saved, but because we are saved.

What were the works that Jesus did, which he tells us we will do more of? He welcomed sinners and outcasts. He fed the poor, healed the sick, and challenged traditional authority. He prophesied, cast out demons, and performed miracles. He warned the rich about the dangers of wealth. He reminded his listeners that they were sinners, that they (in Paul’s words) fell short of the glory of God.

And he gave his life to save others.

Look around at the Church today. Do you wonder, as the voices caused me to do, “Where are your works?”

I look at my own life, and I wonder, “Where are your works?”

By this, I mean works of the Spirit. I’ve done works. I gave up a lucrative career that was, in my view, unethical. I believe strongly in social justice, and have written, protested, organized, and campaigned. I helped bring about a six-year cease-fire in a faraway, war-torn country. I’ve fed and housed people who needed it. I’ve “loaned” money to people I knew couldn’t pay it back. But I did it to try to get closer to God, not because the Spirit moved through me.

(I do believe that the Spirit moved through me when I was doing peace work. But that wasn’t because I had faith. The results we achieved were clearly the work of God, but at the time I was not a Christian and I came home scarred and exhausted. I was not living in the Spirit. Thankfully, God can use anyone to achieve his intentions.)

Last August, I finally accepted the forgiveness of Jesus Christ for my sins. I’ve shared before about my long and meandering journey. I’d been baptized, but still hadn’t fully accepted Christ. Have I fully accepted him now? I think there’s still another step I need to take. Perhaps more than one.

Following my acceptance, I began to experience gifts of the Spirit. I had already learned that I can (sometimes) see demons. This gift grew stronger. I also began to have visions. I’ve had one experience in which, through me, the Spirit healed someone. This is all to the good.

Yet I’ve read the Gospels and seen what Jesus did. “You will do the works that I do,” he said.

I’m not there yet. But I’m willing.

How about you?

April 30

Revelation, Part 2: Three Faces of Christ


Jesus appears in three ways in Revelation. We first encounter him as the Son of Man in 1:13:

clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (1:13-16).

This is Jesus the warrior, as we will see in 19:11. Yet Jesus’ weapon is his tongue. We are told,

his name is called The Word of God… From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (19:13-14).

It’s noteworthy, however, that the word ποιμανεῖ, translated as the verb “to rule,” is more appropriately translated “to shepherd;” the same root appears in Jesus’ command to Peter in John 21:16: “Shepherd (or feed) my sheep.” Despite the warlike images Revelation offers, Jesus’ “war” is conducted with Truth, not steel, and his goal is to care for, not conquer. If this seems ironic, presumably it is meant to be; like the Gospel of John, Revelation contains a great deal of irony.

The Son of Man appears again in Chapter 14:

“Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand!” (14:14).

Here, Christ the majestic becomes the reaper of the earth. The text does not say exactly what was reaped. In the following passages, angels reap grapes and make wine (14:17-20).

The second appearance of Jesus is in Chapter 5. Here we find more irony, as the elder tells John that only “the Lion of Judah, the root of Davis” can open the scroll. But what John sees is not a lion, but lamb “standing as if slaughtered” (5:6). It is not Jesus’ power and glory but his sacrificial death on the Cross that makes him worthy to open the scroll.

As the seals are broken and the story unfolds, we are told more about the Lamb. Washing robes in his blood makes them white (7:14), he will shepherd (the same verb ποιμανεῖ is used as in 19:14) to the water of life (7:17, cf John 4:10, 10:11), he keeps the book of life (13:8, 21:27), and he is “Lord of lords and King of kings” (17:14). The “great multitude” (7:9) has been saved, we are told, because “they have washed their robes and made the white in the blood of the lamb” (7:14, cf 1 John 1:7). It is not only belief in the Lamb that saves, but participation in his blood sacrifice. “They will hunger no more and thirst no more” (7:16, cf John 6:35, Isaiah 49:10).

We should note here that despite the plagues being unleashed on the people of earth (which I’ll discuss in another post), what believers are called to do is to remain firm in their faith, even in the face of persecution. There is no allowance here for violence. In no way do the followers of Jesus participate in God’s judgment. They are called instead to a radically nonviolent response in the face of gathering armies and falling empires.

In Chapter 12, we see the third representation of Jesus: the innocent infant. He is described as ““a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne…” (12:5). (Note the use of the word ποιμαίνειν, another form of the verb “to shepherd”.) Here, in the midst of God’s Kingdom being declared, we encounter the birth of Jesus, the hope for the future. In Part 1, I argued that John intends to place these events outside our concept of time, a topic I’ll return to again; this is surely more evidence of that intent.

There is one final appearance of Jesus that stands out. In the closing passage, John  writes:

 I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (22:8-9).

But a few lines later, this very same speaker tells him,

“It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star” (22:16).

As we read Revelation, we find a great deal of ambiguity between Jesus and God, as we do also in the Gospel of John (e.g. John 14:7, 14:10-11). In this particular verse, we find ambiguity between Jesus and his servants, suggesting that just as there can be oneness between Jesus and God, there can also be oneness between Jesus and those who serve him (note the language in 22:9: “I am a fellow servant”). Again, this echoes the Gospel of John: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (e.g. John 15:4a).

Books could be written about Jesus as he appears in Revelation (and they have been). However, this short summary of the three (or four) representations of Jesus do give us an overall feel for where Revelation is taking us. Jesus is the Savior, and Jesus is the Word. Yet despite the warlike language describing him, Jesus does not fight his battles with military force. Instead Jesus conquers through Truth and through his own sacrifice on the Cross– a ritual execution by a conquering power that, to readers of the 1st century, was conventionally associated with defeat.

April 23

Revelation, Part 1: The Context

The Revelation to John is one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is gory, frightening, and complex. And it has frequently been abused. I recall over 30 years ago, a Christian man I worked with insisted that Babylon, as portrayed in Revelation, was the Soviet Union. He was convinced that the End Times were at hand, and he laid out who all the players were. Thirty years later, the End Times have not come upon us, and the Soviet Union no longer exists.

(I would add here another caveat: If Revelation is about imminent events, which nation do you really think is “Babylon the great… [of whom] all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxury” (Rev 18:2-3)? Does that really sound like the Soviet Union or Russia?)

What are we to do with such a complex and disconcerting work? Only now, after reading it multiple times and reading several commentaries on it, do I feel that I am remotely competent to add anything to this question.

The first thing to consider is this: Who was it written for? That makes a difference. Was it written to Christians in 1985? To Christians today? Clearly it was not. It is addressed to “seven churches that are in Asia,” namely what we refer to as Asia Minor, or Turkey. And it was written during the first century, only a few decades after the death of Jesus. We must assume that it had meaning for them, otherwise they would have discarded it. And we must assume that the symbolism John used had meaning for them. In other words, we cannot assume that the images John describes are of nuclear war, for example, There were no nuclear weapons in the first century.

The second thing to consider is this: The book was chosen (admittedly with some disagreement among the early Church fathers) to be part of Scripture. Thus, we must assume that it expresses some form of eternal truth. What was said to those churches in Asia must have something to say to us. Yet it is also clear that its message cannot be that TEOTWAWKI is imminent. If that were the case, its first readers would have been gravely disappointed. It’s now 2,000 years later, and it hasn’t yet happened. Or, alternatively, the world as its current residents knew it has ended multiple times, from the imperialization of Christianity to the fall of Rome, from the Black Death to World War II, from the discovery of penicillin to the universal presence of computers and the internet, and from the rise to the fall of the Soviet Union and its empire.

The third thing to consider is the timeline John offers for the events he describes. This is more difficult, because John mixes his verb tenses confusingly. Consider the following passage (emphasis added):

When the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, in order to gather them for battle; they are as numerous as the sands of the sea. They marched up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (Rev 20:7-10)

Here is a question especially pertinent for literal readers: Is this going to happen, or has it already happened? (Let’s count the verb tenses: 4 future, 2 present, 6 past.) Clearly this cannot be set literally in the past, present, or future unless we claim that John didn’t say what he meant.

We can see a similar conundrum in the Fall of Babylon cycle. The angel announces that “Babylon the Great is fallen” (it has already happened, 18:2), and “in one hour your judgment has come” (it has already happened, 18:10). But there is yet time for her people to come out of her (18:4). The shipmasters “stood far off, and cried out as they saw the smoke of her burning” (already happened, 18:17-18), yet the kings “will weep” for her as they stand far off (not yet happened, 18:9-10).

There are two possible approaches to this problem. The first is the “already-but-not yet” view, which many use to describe the Kingdom itself. In other words, it has already happened in God’s view of time , but we haven’t experienced it yet. This view places the events in the eschatological future, beyond our view of history. I see this as the “distant hope” view: that all things will be made right in this world at some point in the far future that we will never live to see.

The second possible approach is one I find more satisfying: the events described take place outside our concept of time. That is, they are eternal; they are continually happening in a cosmological sense. Put another way, they happen not in chronos time, but in kairos time.

As we consider that, let’s look at another passage:

“The second woe has passed. The third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” (Rev 11:14-15)

These two verses set a context: God’s Kingdom has been established, even though the woes are not yet over. Does that mean, as in the “already-but-not-yet” view, that the Kingdom is established but we will never see it in our experience of time? Or does it mean that, despite the ongoing woes, God’s Kingdom exists and is perpetually established (and being established)?

As I mentioned above, we must assume that Revelation contains some form of eternal truth, else it would not be part of Scripture. As I read the text, as a writer I am struck by the confusing use of verb tenses, blurring past, present, and future. Respect for the text demands, I believe, that we allow a reason for that blurring. What reason can there be other than that the events John describes are not anchored in time? John is describing not a series of future events, historical or otherwise, but a series of processes that are always in play. The Kingdom has been and is continually being established. Satan has been and is continually being defeated. Judgment has been and is continually being served. Salvation was, is, and will be at hand.

April 9

Jerusalem and the Kingdom of God

The synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) portray Jesus’ ministry as an inexorable journey of Jesus to Jerusalem where he enters the city in triumph on Palm Sunday. “Hosanna!” the people shout. Their king, the Messiah, has arrived, bringing with him great expectations. Yet, as we know, actual events were not what the people expected. Jesus did not take the throne, nor did he inaugurate a new political structure based in justice and peace. Instead, he was arrested and executed as a common criminal. We can only imagine the disappointment of his followers on Good Friday. Not only were their expectations disappointed, but the man they looked to (yes, they saw him as a human being) died in disgrace. Their hopes for their future and their confidence in this man both lay in tatters before the Cross.

Palm Sunday is thus a day of hope, and yet also a day of impending despair. Through its lens, our hopes for the imminent Kingdom appear to be misplaced.

And yet, to this story of temporal disappointment, John adds an important perspective that offers hope.

The Gospel of John is clearly different from the other three. He focuses not on Jesus’ temporal ministry, but on the spiritual nature of that ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, he tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). He emphasizes the eternal presence of Jesus.

John tells us,

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10-11)

In the very next chapter, Chapter 2, John tells us that “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” where he cleansed the temple (John 2:14ff). Yet it is not until Chapter 12 that Jesus enters Jerusalem as King (John 12:12ff). Clearly this diverges from the accounts of the synoptic Gospels. But if we concern ourselves with the historical issue of chronology (Did Jesus go to Jerusalem before Palm Sunday or not?), we miss the point. John is telling us something deeper than names, dates, and historical facts: Though we as humans perceive Jesus’ ministry as linear, though we perceive his entry into Jerusalem as a triumphal and climactic event, he was already there, just as he was already among us before his birth. But we couldn’t recognize him.

Why does this matter? Because it says something important about the Kingdom of God as well. The synoptic Gospels portray Jesus preaching that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (e.g. Mark 1:15). Other translations use the words “at hand” or “nigh.” The implication is that the Kingdom is imminent. We can reach out and touch it. And yet we can’t see it. Clearly the Kingdom is not the driving force in this broken world of ours. Paul expected the Kingdom to be established before his death (e.g. 1 Thess 4:15). And people have been waiting expectantly for it for two millennia.

We’re still waiting.

But John gives us another perspective. He tells Pilate,

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here… You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (John 18:36-37)

John uses the word “kingdom” very infrequently, choosing instead the language of “abiding” and “being.”

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” (John 14:18-21)

“You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:3-5)

And yet John’s vision is not of a group of disciples who sit around, content to abide in Jesus:

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12)

For John, Jesus is the King, and belief in Jesus brings us into the Kingdom. Yet there is an expectation that being in the Kingdom will motivate and empower us to do the works that Jesus did. He leaves it for the synoptic Gospels to describe those works in detail. The point is, in a very real sense, for John, the Kingdom is now.

We, the readers, are human. We cheer as Jesus enters Jerusalem, waving our palm fronds, anticipating the inauguration of the Kingdom. Our hopes are dashed on Good Friday, and renewed on Easter. We look forward to that day in the future when the Kingdom is fulfilled.

And yet, like Jesus himself, it is already here.

March 26

Written On Our Hearts

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:34-40

I was reflecting on Matthew 25 today, and something struck me: When the king addresses those on his right hand, commending them for feeding him, those on his right hand give an interesting response:

‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

They don’t say, “Yes, Lord, I did as you commanded.” They don’t say, “Yes, Lord, that was a demonstration of my faith.” They don’t say, “Yes, Lord, I did good works expecting your reward.”

No, they ask, “When did I do that?”

If these people didn’t do it to please Jesus, or to get into Heaven, why did they do it? One could argue that they did it because it was right. But I think there’s a more important reason that we can find elsewhere in the Bible.

 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:8-10

We were born again in Christ precisely to do these things. Or, put another way:

They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts… Romans 2:15a

And again:

“This is the covenant that I will make with them
    after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
    and I will write them on their minds…” Hebrews 10:16

Those on his left do these things because grace causes God’s law to be written on our hearts. We’re not looking for wiggle room. We’re following God’s law because it is the inevitable response to grace.

What can we say, then, when we claim to have received God’s grace but we don’t do as Jesus commanded?

I know my response: When I don’t do as Jesus commanded, I haven’t fully accepted God’s grace. And I want to fully accept it.

Matthew 25 seems to be a benchmark for our grace. It would be easy to run around doing works to prove that we’ve received grace, but that’s not the point. God knows our hearts, and he knows when we’re lying. The point is that when we fully accept God’s grace, we do these things automatically. There’s no thought to reward or glory.

There’s another paradox in the passage: Jesus came to save the world, and yet he rebukes (and condemns those who haven;t done as he commanded:

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Matthew 25:45-46

There is no expectation here that everyone will be saved. Not everyone has the will to be a Christian.

Now I’m going to make a radical suggestion– radical because we don;t want to hear it, not because it departs from the message of the Bible:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 7:21

Contrary to what I’ve sometimes been told, just professing Jesus is not enough. If we fully accept God’s grace, his law will be written on our hearts and we will behave accordingly. We’ll confess our sins, repent and renounce them. And we will serve the Lord and no one else.

March 13

What If Jesus Is Lord?

“What if Jesus is Lord?” I’m not asking whether he is, but rather what does it mean that he is? We’re Americans. We abolished lords over 240 years ago. What does it mean to us to have a lord?

Our relationship with authority is somewhat different than what people of Jesus’ time experienced. We pledge our allegiance, pay our taxes, and rely on the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”– rights we consider inalienable to us, but which were unknown to anyone in the ancient world. We don’t even have the draft anymore. The vast majority of Americans do not serve and have not served this nation actively in any way. It’s not required. (Note: I didn’t serve in the military, either. I’m not criticizing, I’m just observing.)

But do we take the same attitude when we accept Jesus as Lord? Is it enough to praise him, give to our church, and go on our merry way?

“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38)

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)

“Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:31)

“Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

Clearly the answer is no. Jesus actually expects us to do something. Moreover, Jesus expects us to put him first, not ourselves. Talk about un-American!

I think this is why Christianity is so difficult for us. Jesus asks us to serve him, and we don’t know what that means. Serve him a hamburger? A tennis ball? A subpoena?

People in the Roman world knew how. To serve meant to give up your freedom, do what you’re told, and die if necessary for your lord. For the privileged, there were reciprocal benefits: the lord would protect your safety and help support you. For the masses, the other 98%, it meant you could be taxed, relocated, accused, and even executed at the whim of a man (and it was always a man) in a distant city, whom you had never and would never meet.

Serving Jesus looked pretty attractive to them because it was an improvement!

To us, serving Jesus starts to sound like a lot of sacrifice.

And it is. We are some of the most privileged people in the history of the world. We don’t like to be told what to do, and we don’t like to share what we’ve accumulated.

Yet serving someone means exactly that.

Paul refers to himself as a slave of Christ (Romans 1:1), and says, “whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22). Can we even imagine such language? I suspect we can’t. Not really. None of us have been slaves, and most of us don’t descend from slaves.

Think about what it means to be a slave: to be considered property, to have no rights whatever, not even the right to life, and to have no opportunity for self-determination. You may want to become educated, but your master may have you working on the farm instead. Or vice versa.

Moreover, you don’t get to argue with your master without risking punishment.

Can we imagine such a relationship with anyone, much less Jesus?

The good news is, what Jesus asks is usually not life threatening. And the reward, peace that passes understanding, is greater than anything our economically-blessed freedom can provide.

 

March 5

Our Relationship with God and Each Other

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http://hookedonthebook.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/creation-hands.jpg

God didn’t have to create the world. He chose to. And he chose to create this world out of love. To believe otherwise is to attribute to God a mere hobby, a scientific experiment, or worse, some evil intent, none of which are consistent with an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God.

God created humankind in his image (Genesis 1:27). It is interesting to note that when God decided to create Eve, he describes her as “Helper” (Gen 2:18) using the word עֵ֖זֶר, ‘ê·zer. All occurrences of this word outside this passage refer to God as the helper (e.g. Deuteronomy 3:29, Psalm 89:19, Psalm 115:9-11 (3x), Daniel 11:34). So the relationship between man and woman was envisioned as the relationship between man and God.

Likewise, when God gives the two humans “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures (Gen 1:28), he uses the word וּרְד֞וּ, ū·rə·ḏū, which means to rule. Leviticus 25:43 and Ezekiel 29:15 both use the same root, making it clear that the model for this “rule” is the just rule of God, not the exploitative rule of human kings.

In the Garden of Eden, then, we see humanity living in communion with God and with each other. Even the relationship between man and woman is based on “helping” based in love, as God helps us. Up to this point, the woman doesn’t even have a name (Gen 3:20), for she and the man are one unit (Gen 2:24). (Lest you think that this is a sexist act, note that Adam’s name is taken from the Hebrew word אֲדָמָה (‘adamah), earth, from which he was made, and is thus more of a descriptor than an identifier. It may even be insightful to consider the relationship between the two descriptors: “earth” and “helper.”)

After they eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (Gen 3:6), something else begins to happen. They hide from God. When God confronts them, Adam blames his wife. She blames the serpent. Later, Adam gives his wife her own name, reflecting their separation. Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. No longer is there communion with God or between people.

Jesus came to heal that division. He came to reconcile us with God. One of the most poignant reflections of this is Romans 5:10:

For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

We became enemies of God, and still he reconciled us to himself through Christ. Through him, we return to communion with God.

Yet Paul opines that this reconciliation is not always reflected, even in the Lord’s Supper:

[W]hen you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. (1 Corinthians 11:17-21)

He warns,

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink in an unworthy manner without discerning the Lord’s body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:27-29)

To participate in this reconciliation with God, we must also reconcile with each other. This does not suppose that reconciling with each other causes us to be reconciled with God, nor that we must reconcile with each other before we can reconcile with God. Rather, I suspect, as with the relationship between grace and works, reconciling with God cannot exclude reconciling with each other as an inevitable consequence.

If we are reconciled with God, we are driven to reconcile with each other.

And if we do not reconcile with each other, how can we fail to question whether we are reconciled with God?