Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Woe to us when men are tempted to change the words of God. The religious leader of the largest denomination of professing Christians, with influence over the beliefs of a billion members, is suggesting that the Lord’s Prayer teaches error and needs to be changed to his improved wording.

At issue is the idea that a loving Father would never need to be asked to not lead his children into temptation. It is an understandable quandary: Does a righteous and good God lead people into temptation?

To begin, we must consider carefully what the Lord taught about how to pray to God:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Mt 6:9-13)

Within the Sermon on the Mount, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel account, Jesus instructed on how to pray in a manner and with words that would be acceptable to God. He sets the stage by criticizing the common approaches to prayer of the Jewish religious leaders. Prayer is a powerful means of getting what we want, and if God doesn’t answer, then it can still be used to get public attention from others. That was the context when Jesus walked the earth, and such distortions in how we are taught to communicate with God are just as common today, even to the point of changing the very words of Holy Scripture, in order to gain the public favor of those who frown at the idea of a good God having anything to do with leading people into temptation.

Luke also records this Prayer as follows:

“Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.” (Lu 11:2-4)

Although in Luke’s reference it appears much shorter in the above translation (NIV ’84), the main phrases are the same. And, depending on what early manuscripts are used, all the other extended phrases also appear in the Gospel of Luke. In other words, the prayer is essentially the same in both accounts, and in particular, the concluding phrase regarding temptation is identical. The Holy Spirit inspired both writers to document this prayer and in so doing confirms by two witnesses the authenticity and trustworthiness of phrase: “lead us not into temptation”.

So, what was Jesus talking about? What does God have to do with temptation? Does God actually lead people into temptation? And if so, how can that be right?

First of all temptation is a reference to the human inclination to sin. Since the fall of Adam, all have sinned and fallen short of the righteousness of God. We all are susceptible to sin. In our freedom to make choices, we are naturally inclined toward satisfying ourselves in ways that disobey and dishonor God. Although we could choose differently, we are easily tempted—we are easily enticed to think and do what is not right.

Even as Christians, filled with the Spirit of God, we remain vulnerable to the temptations of seeking the very same thing that Eve sought when she reached out for the fruit of the Tree that represented good and evil. All humans want to do life their own way, to decide on our own what is right for us, to even tell God what he should have said in Scripture. The Spirit in a believer doesn’t prevent temptation, rather it gives us the power to resist and submit to God’s will, timing, and ways.

God doesn’t make people sin. That is our own choice. He created us with the freedom to choose, and even though we remain fully capable of choosing either right or wrong, our innate desire to do it our own way has rendered us powerless to select anything other than what is wrong. In this condition, all it takes is a temptation that is tailor-made to what is desired by each person, and we will collapse in sinful indulgence.

“When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” (Jms 1:13-14)

It is a divine truth that God neither tempts people, nor is capable of being tempted himself. To many, this seems to fly in the face of needing to then pray that God not lead a person into temptation, but the two concepts are not the same. Listen more carefully to what you have heard, if you want to know the truth, and not drift away from the salvation first announced by the Lord. Scripture declares that God doesn’t tempt people. It also declares that he leads people into circumstances with choices that can tempt them.

“Leading” is a reference to God remaining sovereign and in full control of the unfolding of life. His dynamic plan, which includes the Fall of Creation, the continued exposure to temptation, and the consequences of dealing with the resulting filth of sin remain entirely under his authority. God is in charge, even while sin does its dreadful work. God doesn’t tempt, but he does use temptation; just as God is not evil, but he does use Satan to accomplish his glorious plan.

Disturbing as this is to our fragile feelings, God allows Satan to tempt. The “evil one” is the culprit of temptation—he is the one who tempts people to sin, not God. However, do not be deceived into thinking that Satan and God are opposing powers competing for the attentions of humanity. God alone is God Almighty. Unlike the Tempter, God does not want people to sin. Rather, he allows the evil one to infect the path along which people travel. Incredible as it sounds, he allows it, for the ultimate purpose of doing good.

God knows our vulnerable and broken tendency toward sin, but he also has established a masterful plan that depends on his own resistance to temptation. His plan is to provide salvation through his own righteousness over temptation. This is the amazing context of the Lord’s Prayer—the temptation of Jesus.

Notice carefully the context of salvation. Jesus was baptized in water at the hand of John as a sign of repentance “to fulfill all righteousness”. He had not, nor ever would sin—thus he had no personal reason to repent—but on our behalf, he would take on the full weight of our sin and thus the consequence of divine wrath in Hell’s death. Under the sovereign plan of God, Jesus was led by God to face temptation, to completely resist the Tempter, and to set the way of overcoming temptation through faith in him and what he accomplished.

So, hear Scripture, and answer for yourself, ‘Does God lead people into temptation, but without tempting them’?:

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt 4:1)

This is how the entire ministry of Jesus began: God led Jesus through his Spirit to be tempted. “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord”, established the pattern of sinless perfection in the face of temptation immediately after being baptized. God led Jesus along a 40 day path in the desert for the specific purpose of facing temptation. By facing temptation, Jesus was exposed for who he was, God-with-us: the Righteous One who “cannot be tempted with evil”.

This is God’s purpose in leading people along paths whereby they can be tempted by the evil one, not to make them sin (which is what Satan is trying to get them to do), but rather to expose their identity. God doesn’t tempt people to sin against him, but he does lead people down paths that have been corrupted with temptation minefields. The purpose is to expose the truth.

So, if temptation exposes truth, why did Jesus say we should pray that God not lead us down such paths? Because of what he has already done for us! In our fleshly condition, even as faithful believers, we remain vulnerable to failure when tempted. Our identity doesn’t need to be tested, because we have a far, far greater evidence of righteousness: the presence of Christ himself, dwelling in us through his Spirit.

Our “identity is hidden in Christ”—so Scripture declares. Our sinful condition, that penchant to succumb to our natural desires, to fail when enticed by Satan, which still haunts our humanity, has been dealt with by Jesus by completely resisting the temptations experienced along the path that God led him. We now are granted the right to request relief from such pressure, and such exposure, and the likelihood of slipping into what we hate to do against God.

Those who prefer to follow the path of Eve in reaching out for their own way of doing life, will be led down paths littered with temptations, to expose their real heart’s desires. Prior to Christ’s first coming, Job was led by God through intense suffering at the hand of Satan, who vowed to tempt the man of God to sin. As a type of Jesus, he resisted the Devil, but the account makes it clear that as an individual he spoke about what he didn’t understand and was humbled by God. God led him to face temptation, but Satan was the one doing the tempting.

So it was as well with David, when God wanted at one point to judge the Israelite people for continually sinning. God already had evidence of sin in the people, but they would likely have had a hard time connecting the specific punishment to their personal sins that had been piling up before God over the years, so he intended to use David to cause a specific reason for God to bring punishment on the people for their sins.

God was going to lead David down a path that would expose him to temptation, that Satan could tempt him to disobey God by counting how many men among the people could be used as soldiers. Remember, much of David’s life is meant to reflect the Messiah. Listen to David’s prayer to God and think of how it represents Jesus:

“When David saw the angel who was striking down the people, he said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned; I, the shepherd, have done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall on me and my family.’” (2 Sam 24:17)

God is light—by nature he exposes right from wrong. When we pray that God not lead us into temptation, we are pleading with him on the basis of what Jesus did for us. Like David, Jesus cries out to God, “I the shepherd have done wrong”, not by personal sin, but by taking on all the sin of those who put their trust in him.

God led Jesus to be tempted for us, so that by demonstrating his glorious success at resisting the Tempter, we don’t need to be exposed as sinners through temptation. He has taken the entire burden of our sin, as well as our condition to fall when tempted, and triumphed through the desert, upon the Cross, into Hell, and up from the grave to the right hand of the Most High. The hand of divine judgment, as David prayed, fell upon “me and my family”—meaning Christ, and meaning the Messiah that would come from the family of David—rather than the sheep.

That is the glorious truth behind Jesus’ instructions on why to pray that God not lead us into temptation by the evil one. Through faith in Jesus, we are asking that God shine his light of exposure on the identity of Christ, rather than on the weakness we still fight with tendencies toward sin. Those who show a life lived by dependence on being “led by the Spirit”, can pray that Jesus be exposed in us, rather than our sinful nature.

Of course, those who insist on satisfying their personal lusts and natural cravings, deny the internal presence of the Spirit, and should expect to face the overwhelming choices of temptation. God doesn’t tempt people to sin against him—that is not his purpose for allowing people to be exposed to such temptation. But, the wicked are assured that the path along which God will lead them will result in facing temptation fueled by the Devil, to their ultimate expose and destruction.

Humanity is being exposed. We are being tested by a holy God. As Scripture declares, “I the Lord, search hearts and minds.” From the beginning, God set before mankind, “blessings and cursings, life and death”, as a type of crossroads that forces us to reveal whether or not we trust and follow his leading word, or whether we insist on going our own way.

As world events continue to tumble toward finality, God intends to expose everyone to choices. God leads people to face temptation, for the purpose of revealing what lurks deep down in our hearts, motives, and minds–things that we cannot even see about ourselves. This frightening reality doesn’t need to apply, however, to faithful believers. Notice how Jesus speaks of what is coming:

“Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” (Rev 3:10)

To those who have ears to hear what the Spirit says in the above quote to Christians: life is heading toward one grand test that will reveal those who really belong to God from those who claim to be good. The Lord gives an amazing promise, but it doesn’t apply to all professing Christians. Listen to the words used: the great temptation is coming on everyone, but those who keep the New Covenant commands of Jesus and endure patiently, even though they personally have little strength on their own, won’t have to face this test.

Jesus faced this test for us. We don’t need to go through it ourselves, if we submit under him and show it by how we follow him. Consider the other words to the other Christians in these 7 churches–some believers are promised protection, but most are confronted with the warning that they had better repent and get back to obeying his words more carefully, or the Lord will come and fight against them himself–something far worse than facing temptations.

Protection from temptation is not automatic to those who profess Christ–it is a privilege that we are granted the right to pray for, in hopes that God will exchange the temptation of Christ in the place of facing our own test.

This never removes choices from challenging a Christian–we never have freedom taken away, we never become robots. Individually, we still face difficult choices and circumstances. We are warned that Satan is constantly on the hunt to find a way to break us, and apostasy in rebellion against God remains a very real threat to our eternity. We are warned against falling away and never being able to come back to repentance. We are warned against returning to the vomit of our independent desires against Christ. As such, we need to recognize that temptation lurks around every corner, and we must learn to submit our choices to the leading of the Spirit and away from following the common desires of our nature.

But this is different from being specifically led by God into dark shadows full of temptations. Regarding that dangerous path, we can cry out for relief from exposure, in the name of Jesus, if we are living out his commands faithfully as he expects of us.

As God reveals about himself: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” God doesn’t create sin, rather he takes full responsibility for establishing the environment that allows sin to operate. God leads people through a life that is exposed to the temptation toward choosing sin, but his purpose is to expose what is right, as only found in Jesus who resisted the temptation and revealed the righteousness of God.

That is what we pray for—relief from exposure to temptation, since we rely upon his identity and do not seek to have our own exposed independently.

In reflection, the entire prayer, taught by Jesus, is a reflection of his foundational temptation experience. Seeking our daily bread from God, rather than as tempted by Satan to produce it through our own effort and power, connect the prayer to that 40-day-fast of the Lord. To seek God’s kingdom to come according to his will and timing, is set in direct contrast to Satan’s effort to tempt Jesus to reach out for it now—and confronts our human desire to control and do things our way. Jesus’ purpose of providing a way for sinners to repent and receive forgiveness is central to his mission, and so we are instructed to repent in baptism and immediately be led by the Spirit to pray for that forgiveness in reflection of how we, like Jesus, grant forgiveness for those who have harmed us.

God doesn’t need ministers or priests to improve his words. They have been tempted, and by suggesting changes to his holy words, exposed as false teachers who don’t know the truth.

God promises faithful believers that he will not allow them to be tempted beyond what they can endure. It comes as a three-part assurance: 1) that the detail of whatever we are exposed to will remain common to man and not be something inhuman; 2) that the specific temptation will be restrained within boundaries that we can personally resist; and 3) that we will be granted specific grace that will enable us to fight successfully against falling into sin. These only apply to faithful Christians, however. Non-believers and false believers will likely face supernatural temptations that are beyond human ability to resist, in spite of the freedom of choice; that God will remove restraints on the temptation so that our personal strength and abilities will be overwhelmed by the exposure; and most significantly, he will withhold the power to overcome.

One of those powers of grace that enables a believer to “stand up under it” is the right to pray for relief by God from exposure to temptations targeted at us by the evil one. It is the request for “cool still waters” even through we may find ourselves traveling through the “valley of the shadow of death”. As believers in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we are granted the privilege of seeking relief and protection from temptation. We can ask for deliverance.

Don’t be deceived into thinking that God doesn’t allow temptation. He allowed Adam and Eve to meet the Snake, knowing full well what they were up against and what would happen. He led his promised people for 40 years in the desert, to be tempted:

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in year heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” (Dt 8:2)

He specifically let his own Son be led into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for 40 days, as a mirror to the failure of Israel when thoroughly exposed as sinners on their path through the desert. And, he continues to expose humanity through the process of facing choices, including his church–those who profess faith in Jesus, but who still struggle with temptations natural to this fleshly existence.

You have a choice to make…accept the righteousness of Jesus that resisted temptation on your behalf, and pray for relief on that basis; or, reach out for the fruit of independence and be consumed by your own desires.

As for me, I will continue to pray:

Our Father in heaven…lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from the evil one!

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Talented vs Gifted

Measuring excellence is a tricky business. It assumes that the one doing the measuring is especially skilled at recognizing the difference between what is normal and what is extraordinary. In a sense, it takes talent to identify talent, but when it comes to the things of God, that is not the same thing as being gifted.

The words are often used interchangeably, but here we will make a distinction between the two in order to highlight an important detail about what is out-of-this-world extraordinary versus what is on-top-of-this-world extraordinary. For our purposes, a talented person is someone who exhibits uncommon ability over and above most other people. A gifted person is someone infused by the Spirit of God in order to accomplish some intended purpose of God.

Christians accept that all good gifts come from God, and that a savant, or maestro, or master craftsman can certainly be called gifted, but in terms of how Scripture uses the term, recognizing a person gifted by God will require a completely different method of measurement than can be used to identify someone with great talent.

A talented person is someone who demonstrates great ability in something. They are recognized by comparing them to the majority around them using natural methods of observation. On the scale of talent, some will show slight achievements, while others astound with their over-the-top performance. In every case the ability, which likely reflects a combination of innate inclination coupled with developed training, is entirely measured by our natural senses and human comparisons one to another.

A talented dancer will often show early signs of skill, ability, insight, and balance even before any training, but then when more formally taught, and refined with long hours of practice, will leap over most others with a naturally-developed grace that rightly astounds those who marvel at her performance. She has been graced by God with specialized talent in a common way, but not likely divinely gifted.

Gifts are very different. To be gifted by God, means that a person has been identified by God for a special purpose in carrying out his divine will in some particular way. So as not to confuse who should receive the credit, a gifted person–one filled by the Spirit for some task–is rarely the same person who is talented. God has little interest in sharing his glory with another, except by those who submit all honor to him for who they are and what they do.

In order to identify a spiritually gifted person from a talented person, both that person as well as any measuring observer, must test for the evidence of the Holy Spirit. Though this Spirit of God endows all Christians to some degree, a Christian who has been specially gifted in prophecy, speaking, showing mercy, or in serving (as examples), will show evidence of a specialty in their calling. That gift cannot be measured with natural means.

This is the reason that many churches fail at teaching believers how to identify their spiritual gifts, because they use godless personality tests, observations of historic ability, and questions about personal interest and aptitude to identify in what ways an individual might stand out from others. That is about talent, but not about giftedness. Such methods are limited to natural observations that compare people to other people, but do little to distinguish the work of the Spirit.

Churches who hire ministers and staff based on their track record, numbers, degrees, resumes, and reputations, do so mostly upon assessments of talent with little if any regard for measuring of the Spirit’s specific giftedness. Few seem willing to test the spirit, and prefer to make judgments based on natural observations of ministerial success. They tend to look for Sauls, who stand head-and-shoulders over all others, to stand as their king, rather than Davids, who smell of sheep, are undersized, and play harps instead of manly drums.

To recognize the specialized work of God in ourselves and in others, we must learn to test the spirit.

“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn 4:1)

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor 13:5)

Testing ministers who try to teach us about God (the context of the first command quoted above), and testing of our own selves in our claim of being Christian (as commanded upon believers in the second quote above), is about recognizing God in a person by measuring for the confirming evidence of spirit activity rather than by natural talent. It demands that we look for and learn to test for the supernatural evidence that fits within the guidelines of Scripture, and cannot be naturally recognized.

Do not be deceived. This testing is not about dramatic displays, astounding activity, shocking pronouncements, or penticostal shaking, for it is a wicked generation that seeks after miraculous signs. What it really is about is the will of God.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Mt 7:21-23)

A Christian gifted by God will show evidence of the Spirit’s activity in ways that are well beyond that person’s natural abilities, that completely submit to all the boundaries noted in the Bible, that bring honor to the Lord, that accomplish the kingdom-purpose for which they have been gifted, that depend far more upon faith than skill to follow through, that weigh heavily on their own spirit out of devotion to following the inclinations of the Spirit rather than the preferences of the natural flesh. What they do will depend heavily upon divine intervention because they have little natural talent in that specific area to otherwise fill in the gaps.

This is much like the Apostle Paul who had very little ability in public speaking compared to those who were formally educated: He was gifted to preach, whereas many others stood out well beyond him in their talent at speaking. Or like the leader Moses, who was talented and trained in all the excellence of Egyptian royalty, but whose giftedness in leadership came through meekness by the Spirit after wandering with sheep in rejection for 40 years.

Being gifted is seldom left to private assumptions or unverifiable claims. Very often God will confirm his choice through others, like when providing interpreters for those speaking in tongues, or by announcing his plans to his prophets before he enacts those plans, in keeping with his own law of confirming matters with two or more witnesses.

Ultimately, the measuring for the Spirit’s activity will require that the one doing the assessment be gifted with the Spirit for that purpose of identifying what cannot be physically tested. It might be a granted gift for a moment, to fulfill the will of God when and where needed, or it might be an ongoing gift of the Spirit for accomplishing that divine will over time. Either way, such gifts are a matter of spirit and not of natural ability.

Both talents and gifts are blessings of God and ought to be pursued, encouraged, and used in the service of the Lord. A wise Christian will invest their life in developing themselves to serve. They will pursue advanced education. They will discipline their bodies to precise expressions of talent. They will challenge their minds and train their bodies. In doing so they will have more to offer to God in gratitude for the gift of life.

Talents are something we can participate in developing, but history demonstrates that most often they make us prideful, self-impressed, and deceived into thinking that we are amazing all on our own with little need for God. In the Garden of Eden, Eve wanted to be wise on her own, without submitting to God–she sought to be talented but not gifted. This is how talents and gifts differ, the former brings attention to us, whereas the latter gives all credit to the activity of God.

Gifts are something we can submit to and prioritize over our natural abilities, and ahead of relying upon our talents. Emphasizing and seeking spiritual gifts is to be highly encouraged, without rejecting personal development towards becoming more talented. Within the extraordinary freedoms granted by God, we should devote ourselves to developing, maturing, producing, expressing, and advancing out of honor to God. We may gravitate toward focusing on improving our natural talents and interests in some areas, and pass by other pursuits that we might have otherwise been able to stand out in doing. Talent development is something we get to invest into within our God-granted freedoms.

Gifts, however, ought to take precedence. As the specialized activity of God is recognized, it ought to capture our attention and shift our priorities, even to the point of setting aside reliance upon our talents, or even putting our own natural pursuits to death. Gifts can be enhanced by “fanning into flame the gift of God”, or it can be denied by “quenching the Spirit”. We are allowed to seek special gifts from God, or strive to identify what may be planted within already, but however they come to us, God expects that believers put a significant priority on expressing those gifts, through all obstacles, against our own natural preferences, as a reflection of bearing the Cross.

In God’s economy, gifts are much greater than talents, though they rarely stand out in our world with such amazing distinction as talented super-stars. Talents are like free-will offerings we can offer to the honor of the Lord. Gifts are like God’s own provided sacrifice offerings placed within a willing person. Gifts are direct infusions of the Holy Spirit that focus on expressing the work and will of God for some specialized purpose. God uses talented people, but true power will be reserved for those gifted by God.

If you desire to mature in Christ, spend increasing time sitting at the feet of those gifted by God, even if they don’t stand out as impressively as those talented at teaching, writing, and speaking. If you want to please the Lord, strive to identify and express what can only be credited as a gift of the Spirit, to the subordinating of talent. Don’t look for the majority, the popular, the big, or the successful–look for the faithful in obscure packages, along the sidelines of life, in the discarded churches left to wander in desert places. The gifted are typically found among the weak of this earth.

This is not to say that the gifted are talent-less. Those who are granted such special gifts of the Spirit are those who also actively invest their talents. The gifted are often talented as well, just not in the same way or in the same abilities, so their gifts are easily missed by those who don’t know what to look for. God uses talents in people, but he leads with gifts, so that all will see that this surpassing power is from God and not from human ability. It is a matter of how he chooses to display himself through jars of clay.

Put a priority on what God confirms when you test the spirits and your own discernment will deepen and strengthen. If you long to hear the “well done my good and faithful servant”, then encourage talents, but elevate gifts of the Spirit.

 

 

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Interpreting Symbols on a Page – Category vs Substance

Language is a curious thing. It is the vehicle through which we convey our thoughts, wants, and meanings, but of itself it is just a lifeless set of repeating patterns. Neither words, nor the letters that form words, have any significance, unless there is an agreed interpretation of the meaning of those symbols.

Symbols become identified as language when two or more people accept a common meaning. Such agreement, however, is far from automatic. Language is dynamic: meaning that such agreement on meaning is constantly changing over time and through different cultures, making the process of interpretation more of a function of controlled-chaos than a simple connecting of dots.

When it comes to interpreting Scripture, this challenge is even more difficult, because the text is formed with human language over several thousands of years, passed down through many cultures and filtered through different languages, presented through many dozens of different writers with different audiences, and ultimately because it is an expression of divine truth which natural human language is incapable of fully expressing. Because of its immense significance and godly purpose, it is also subject to constant attack and distortion by evil spirits, who fully intend to undermine the ability for anyone to rightly hear what it says. Holy Scripture is unique and unequaled when compared to all other human expressions.

As such, students of Scripture ought to approach the study of the Bible with much greater caution and carefulness when searching for the meanings contained therein. With such carefulness in mind, we will take some time to consider specifically the differences between categories and substances in the meaning of the words used in various passages of Scripture. Errors of interpretation in this distinction have been so common over the centuries, that entire denominations have formed their beliefs around unsound doctrine and distorted theology, simply because their scholars were unable to separate the difference of meaning in words and phrases between those that were intended to present representative-groupings rather than material-meanings.

One of the most common distortions revolves around the word “flesh”. The common dictionary will present the meaning of the symbols that form that word as “human biology”, “physiology”, “epidermis” a.k.a. skin, and “body”. Often one or more of those meanings may well be intended by the author, but that is not always the case. As has been noted previously, dictionaries are not the final arbiter of meaning, especially when it comes to Scripture. Meaning must be sought from the author; or more precisely, The Author.

One of the enormous challenges to scriptural interpretation involves the revelation that God speaks in ways, like through parables, so that those who approach it through a natural study of languages will think they understand, but completely miss the actual and hidden meaning.

By way of reference, consider the following passages that reference the word flesh:

“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”. (Jn 6:53)

“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” (Gal 5:17)

“every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God”. (1 Jn 4:2)

The original audience thought Jesus was commanding them to commit cannibalism by eating his actual flesh. They interpreted his words to mean flesh in terms of substance, when he was actually using it as a category to represent the idea of literally internalizing him and his words into our beliefs, lives, and practices, and to actually express the act of eating him through real and material representation of his body and blood through the bread and wine of Communion. Their interpretation slipped on the error between category and substance.

When Paul wrote that believers must live “by the spirit and not by the flesh”, as also referenced in the second passage above, many throughout history have again fallen on the sword of substance. The author presents the contrast between flesh and spirit numerous times and in multiple letters to different churches, but always with the same meaning. He uses this phrase to present categories, not substances. In other words, he is not talking about actual human flesh, whether in terms of the skin, the biology, the body, or material substance. In a similar way, when he says spirit, he is consistent in his reference to use that word, in the same way as the word flesh, to represent a category or focus, and not specifically the substance of either the human spirit or the Spirit of God.

The pagan belief that the flesh is evil and spirit is good, predated Christianity, and was found in such false religions as Gnosticism and Manicheanism, but it quickly found fertile ground in the naïve minds of many in the early church. Even to this day, many ministers teach that in this phrase flesh means the substance of the human body, and spirit means the spirit-breathed-from-God (both human spirit and Holy Spirit). As a result, they teach that the body will be destroyed, because it is flesh, material, physical, and thus evil, but the spirit is eternal, good, and can never die.

When viewed as a category, “flesh” is used by Paul to speak representatively of all that is based on worldly pursuits, dependent upon natural desires, temporary, and focused on human preferences, as compared to the opposite reasons for living that are represented with the heavenly-based word of “spirit”. In this way the word spirit is used in this phrase to contain all that is oriented toward and from God, rather than of this world. It should be recognized that the spirit-in-man, is where the sin and rebellious nature actually resides, and not in the cells of human substance, such that this human spirit is what is actually the container of evil and not the biology of human flesh. It is not the flesh or body that is evil in humanity, it is the sinful human—body, mind, soul, strength, and spirit! It is not the body that sinned against a holy God, it is the human, and thus it is the entire human that must die, not just the flesh. In fact, believers are promised to be raised in body at the return of Christ, because without a body, whether in this life or the next, humans are not alive. Those who suggest that only the body of believers can die, but they always stay alive, defy the biblical teaching on needing to be resurrected to eternal life at the return of Christ. Teachings that suggest that the flesh and body are bad distort this truth. This is why Jesus warned people to fear God who can destroy both the flesh-based body and spirit-based soul in Hell.

In order to live by the spirit and not by the flesh—meaning live with the orientation toward God and his will and away from the natural human desires—a believer must of course submit to living by the direction of the Holy Spirit. This truth means that in order to understand the category reference to both flesh and spirit, one must live by the substance of the Spirit of God as a born again follower of Jesus. However, the necessity of depending upon the actual Spirit of God does not change the way the phrase is presented in Scripture. The substance of God is how we are intended to rightly apply the command of living by the category-focus of the spirit and not by the worldly-category represented in the phrase by the word flesh. In this way, living by the spirit-orientation of godly desires will require the substance of the Spirit of God, who called all that he created, including the flesh of mankind as very good.

The third referenced passage above, also uses the word flesh, but the context shows that John uses the same symbol of letters to mean actual material substance. It likely is the result of the same distorted beliefs—that supposedly the substance of flesh is evil and spirit good—by which many within the church get tricked into thinking that Jesus, being holy and completely righteous, must not have ever taken on the substance of flesh, because that would mean he dwelt in evil skin. John tells us that this false belief was common even in his day, and it is evidence of a false believer, a false minister, and a false church.

The Apostle John wants Christians to accept that Jesus was not only the complete and accurate presence of God in his incarnation, but that he was also completely human in every respect—body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit. He was flesh as well as Spirit—both as a reference to his substance, his actual measurable existence with real blood and water flowing in him, while at the very same time formed by the divine substance of the Holy Spirit when impregnated into Mary.

This concept of recognizing the difference in intended use of the words, like flesh versus spirit, which at times are presented as categories, and in other passages may be used individually as statements about substance, can be seen also in how the Bible writer’s used similar terms.

“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all”. (1 Jn 1:5)

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, who great is that darkness!” (Mt 5:22-23)

Although it may well be true, and can likely be supported in other passages, this verse is not speaking about the radiation that emanates from God, nor differences in visibility. It is not a statement about substance. Rather, the writer is telling us something through the categories of light and dark, that speak about inherent righteousness and the complete absence of sin. It is a statement about character and nature, not material, or some kind of meta-material.

So, as it should apply then to believers who claim to have this “light” within them through their expression of faith in Jesus, if in practice, their eyes (both figuratively and literally) focus on the desires represented in darkness, in pursuits that swirl and churn with sin…”how great is that darkness”.

“You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb 5:12)

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Pet 2:2-3)

“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience”. (1 Cor 10:25)

Through the words milk and meat, the first writer above is using them as categories to represent spiritual maturity; namely, that many Christians who have been long-time members of the church are still so immature in their growth into Christ-likeness, that like babies who need milk and would choke on meat, they need to start all over again in being taught the truth about what it means to be a follower of Christ.

In a similar use of categories, the second writer is using the same words, but with the opposite meaning. The first writer is not suggesting that milk is good if someone remains stuck on it, whereas Peter’s use of the term is a praise regarding those who have ingested the words and life of Jesus, and who have come to that joyous understanding that the nourishing milk enjoyed by infants is much like believers who have matured, from initially accepting Jesus, to recognizing how good and right it is to follow him.

In the third passage, the writer is not using the term in a categorical way, but in a literal and substance manner. It is actually talking about the meat of animals—what a person actually can eat in a material way. Although literal and material, he is also using it as an example of living in and enjoying our freedoms to make all sorts of choices without religious restraint, while imposing upon ourselves the restrictions of putting the concerns and immaturity of others around us at the front of our expressions, so that we won’t indulge our desires while offending those around us. In other words, he is using this same word as a substance reference, rather than a category reference, but it also is presented as an example that should be extended to many further applications that might have a similar circumstance of comparing freedom with love-for-others.

There are many similar patterns in Scripture that show this distinction in how the language and words recorded are meant to be interpreted in different ways than is often assumed by worldly scholars.

To rightly divide the word of truth and show ourselves approved by God as faithful students of Christ and his word, we must carefully approach Scripture as God intended. Truth cannot be discovered simply by linguistic study, nor by educated review or scholarly interpretation or by comparisons to cultural norms of language. Meaning, especially when it comes to what God has breathed into Scripture, must be sought from the writer, and submit to his intended purposes—it must be revealed by God.

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Dramatic Obscurity–When Law Collides with Grace

The most dramatic revelations often arrive in the most subtle packages. Those who are sensitive to the “still small voice” are capable of recognizing the enormous significance, while most just drift on by.

The Savior of humanity came in shocking obscurity: a helpless baby, born to a poor couple, outside of his hometown and away from human dwellings. We are told that he came with nothing that would make us desire him—plain and boring to the point of individual insignificance. And yet, he was and remains the Creator of all: recognized by a few; rejected by most.

So it is with revelations of truth in Scripture. One of the most significant issues, in understanding the ongoing will of a holy God, is explaining how his own defined Law, given through Moses, has changed in how it relates to Christians. No other issue is cited within Scripture as more divisive or damaging to the early Church than this issue. Not even paganism, idolatry, sexual immorality, greed or power are identified as deceitful in turning believers away from Christ than syncretism of the Law into Grace. And it continues to distort a huge part of Christian doctrine even to this day.

It is the basis for the double-curse: “may they be eternally condemned”—those who preach and teach that Christians need to keep practicing commands given through the Old Covenant. The Gospels and Acts record continual confrontations over this subject. Romans and Galatians were written specifically to refute the Jewish distortion of pushing the Mosaic Law on Christians who had come to faith by grace. It is the main conflict addressed in Scripture by the Apostle Paul. The writer of Hebrews focuses on the supremacy of Christ and his New Covenant expectations, and how these have made the former system “obsolete”. In fact, nearly every letter written in the New Testament documents this struggle of theology in grasping how a God-given system, known as “the Law”, could shift in application upon believers while still remaining the breathed word of God.

The President of a Christian University preached last week to his student body that Christians who keep the laws given through Moses, although not specifically saved by their efforts, will be more rewarded in Heaven than those who follow Jesus without such obedience. The conflict rages on!

What you believe about this issue will directly determine whether you are an imperfect-and-righteous Christian who lives by their faith, or a professing Christian who is “alienated from Christ”.

Early translators of Scripture added chapters and headings to various sections of the Bible, in a sincere human effort to help students in their study and preachers in their references to God’s word. One of those sections, placed within Luke’s Gospel, and in the middle of a chapter, falls under the subtle heading of “Additional Teachings”. It is part of an uninterrupted discourse by Jesus—all red letter words.

It is a curious heading, because it gives the impression that those words recorded by Luke don’t appear to fit with anything leading up to it, nor to what follows. It is as if they were an after-thought, or a recording of Jesus’ words that somehow lost connection with a changing context. They appear out-of-place. They are like a still small voice, that most pass by with little recognition, and even less interest, while possessing enormous significance to those with ears to hear.

Within this passage, the unexpected and often ill-defined statement is made:

“the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.”

[The thought was to break this into several chunks here, but with the aim of teaching with consistency on difficult subjects, this will be presented as a whole].

Transitions are often the most difficult part of travel. When an airplane crosses into the upper atmosphere, there is often a stomach-stirring transition called turbulence. When a body moves from a warm fire into the cold outdoors, the skin complains with a swollen layer of goosebumps. Eating is a pleasure that most enjoy, but the transition to emptying the leftovers is an unpleasant reality that rightly gets hidden in a private closet.

In the plan of God, such a transition makes for a rocky shift between Old and New Covenant. What is defined in holy Scripture as two different contractual agreements between God, and those he accepts as genuine believers, has jolted the atmosphere with a turbulence of spirit that will make even the most seasoned sea-captain puke overboard.

The Lord declared his expectation upon his people, through his servant Moses, in the form of a system of worship and obedience for daily living, encapsulated in the term: the Law. It was holy and perfect. It remains just as godly and important in hearing the voice of God as ever. Through the incarnation of God in Jesus, a new form of worship and expectation upon daily living has been introduced, encapsulated in the term: Grace.

Biblically, the former is called old, the latter is identified as new. The systems have changed; God remains the same yesterday-today-and-forever. However, the air has become electrified, and all who come to God will be confronted with convulsions over the collision between Law and Grace.

God is always in agreement with himself and so the truth spoken and revealed through both Law and Grace are consistent and valid at all times. His covenant systems, however, are incompatible. Scripture declares, “he set aside the former, in order to establish the latter.” The resulting turbulence has caused untold grief and distress for believers for the entire existence of the Church.

Last time, we introduced the idea of hidden truth packaged in unlikely and unexpected ways, so that only the discerning who can hear the subtle references of the Holy Spirit will catch what most mistake as irrelevant and trivial. The following passages, recorded by both Luke and Matthew, present one of the most dramatic revelations on this juxtaposition between Law and Grace in all of the Bible:

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Lu 16:16-18)

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears. Let him hear.” (Mt 11:12-14)

The center of this statement revolves around the truth that the kingdom is experiencing violence and the violent take it by force. It is amazing the diversity of opinions on what this means.

One well known commentator says that this means there is only a brief time remaining until the kingdom of God arrives, so Christians need to “rush into it, without delay, as the Romans are about to do into Jerusalem.” This interpretation has absolutely nothing to do with the context that speaks of the transition between the Law being preached and the gospel of the kingdom.

Another commentator says that “sinners, all indiscriminately, are pressing into it” and that those who are under the Law are missing out. Although the Jews as a whole were rejecting Jesus and his kingdom message, it is a meaningless statement to suggest that sinners are pushing into it without discriminating consideration. The idea of being saved, without any mental or spiritual consideration is unbiblical, and probably an extension from the popular belief that God has predestined a group who will be saved and they don’t even have to know anything to just push their way into salvation.

A broadly accepted commentator writes that believers are to press into the kingdom with a “holy violence” that strives against the stream, contrary to the main crowd. He goes on to suggest that Jesus is making a distinction between a moral law and a ceremonial law, upholding the necessity of still practicing the former, but not needing to do the ritual parts. The problem here is that God never makes such a division of his commands—all God’s laws are moral, such that disobedience to a ritual is punishable by the same condemnation as all other types of commands. Although it may be true in other passages that the Lord expects believers to come out and live separate from the mainstream, this passage is not presented in that context. This one is about the confluence where the Mosaic Law meets the gospel of grace.

In one commentator’s opinion, the Old Covenant Law enforced “some things which were connived at by the law, for the preventing of greater mischiefs, the permission of which the gospel has indeed taken away, but without any detriment or disparagement to the law, as in the case of divorce.” In this view, divorce under Moses was focused on restraining further mischief, but under the gospel that has been taken away—but Jesus is clearly adding more restraint, not less, so again this interpretation is skewed.

Another modern commentator claims that Jesus is answering the objection that the Mosaic covenant and its moral demands are outdated, such that divorce is used to add further limits. Again, this writer assumes that this passage is recorded to preserve that Law, not to reveal anything about the transition between the ending of preaching that Law and into the preaching of the kingdom. Regarding the violence reference, he suggests that Luke is intentionally tempering Matthew’s stronger language, and that it just means “ordinary people eager to enter”. In other words, he completely rejects the meaning of the words violence and force which both writer’s of Scripture document.

Several commentators, as seen in volumes that parallel several well known scholars, completely skip this passage, avoiding any exposure to teaching what these words of Jesus actually mean.

In every example above, all the commentators take this passage in very different ways, with one exception: they commonly think it is recorded to teach that Christians need to keep practicing that former Law. This belief hasn’t changed since the start of the Church. It continues to dominate the landscape of Christian belief—that the Mosaic Law, or some hybrid idea of a moral law, remains as expected by God upon the practices and worship of believers.

What none of the numerous commentators acknowledged was the Spirit’s distinction between what Jesus taught and what Moses taught, as it applies to those who profess to believe in God:

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn 1:17)

This passage presents these two teachers of God’s words in contrast, not as extensions one-to-the-other. The enormous irony to the whole issue is that the Lord was the Word who spoke the Law as well as the Word who spoke Grace. Nevertheless, the reader should listen carefully to the distinction that God reveals, for as was declared at the Transfiguration, that placed Jesus together with Moses (the Law giver) and Elijah (the Prophet): “this is my Son, listen to him!”

As the Lord warned the followers of John the Baptist and the crowds, who specifically came to him to question whether his teachings and actions were supportive of what their Law declared about the Messiah: “Blessed are those who don’t fall away on account of me”. This theological turbulence, in how Jesus confronted issues where the Law and Grace intersected in the minds of believers, often so disturbed those following Jesus “that they no longer walked with him”.

That doesn’t mean they stopped thinking of themselves as Jews, any more than those who think they remain Christians, but who continue to live according to that Law of Moses. They passionately believe they will be saved, but they have refused to bow to what the Lord taught about this shift of focus between Law and Grace. It didn’t actually matter that he was speaking truth; what he said and did often confronted their comfort zone so violently that they vehemently rejected him in order to sustain their traditional views. That remains the primary obstacle on this same issue for many professing Christians to this day.

Scripture declares that the Law came through Moses, grace came through Jesus. Regarding that Law, the Apostle Paul wrote that Christians are “no longer under law, but under grace”. He goes on to define his own meaning by saying that those who believe that observing the commands given to Israel will ensure they are right with God, will find in the end that they are “alienated from Christ”. Why such a severe reaction? Because that Law is not compatible with grace, and those who insist on continuing in it reject the new approach that Jesus taught. A believer can’t do both because they focus on different objectives and rely on different methods.

This truth gets at the heart and core of the New Covenant gospel teaching on the kingdom of God. Hanging onto the Law, or some vain attempt to defend practicing aspects of that Law, will prevent a believer from grasping the revelation of grace. God will not accept overlap in anyone other than his Son. That Law pointed to and was intended to find its culminating fulfillment in Jesus. No other human in history could do that. Grace is taught as a focus of faith upon Jesus. No other human in history can have grace point to them. Jesus alone is the focus for both. Both systems of worship find their glorious objective in him.

Not only is it sacrilege to assume that the Law or Grace focuses on anyone other than Jesus, no other human is capable of practicing both simultaneously. This is the point of turbulence, so fasten your seat belts and get your eyes focused on a stable object that isn’t swirling about, namely Jesus.

The Law and Prophets–speaking of their messages as part of the Old Covenant system (rather than of individual prophets)–were allowed to be taught and followed until the time of John the Baptist. Whether that means the start of John’s ministry, somewhere mid-stream, or until his days were concluded, hardly matters to the meaning, because the focus here is that Jesus was going to change the approach through which people came to and followed God. The time of John is used as a marker of a seismic shift in how people need to relate to God, but the actual shift itself revolves around Jesus. He is the lightning rod of a new covenant and an entirely new way of living.

Previously, the Law dictated step-by-step directions on how to walk before a holy God. The people could identify and measure who belonged to God, how to worship him, how to get right with him, when to do just about everything, including when and where to defecate and how to deal with mold. The days and times and ages and ingredients were all spelled out in exhausting detail.

Through Jesus, the concept of how to walk before a holy God remains just as significant, but the color-coding has completely changed. Grace teaches that God has done all the detail necessary to please a holy God and a believer can be credited with this righteousness by “living by faith”. This idea of faith is two-fold: the first is that a person must put their trust in Jesus, what he has accomplished, and what he declares. The second, is that such a professing believer must also live by faith and not by sight.

Listen carefully; grace does not teach: live by faith and back it up with sight. Grace does not teach that a Christian can live by faith as the heart’s magnification of the law. Grace does not teach that a believer can please God by putting faith in Jesus while supplementing it with days, seasons, years, and sabbaths.

Living by faith means that we have to seek an entirely new approach toward how to figure out the detail of how, when, how much, to whom, and in what way to live Christlike. God hasn’t changed his expectation that his followers “be holy”. In other words we have to choose to submit to a system of living that either allows self-assessment—like the Law; or we surrender to living according to the Spirit’s direction—which doesn’t fit well with self-measuring.

The two approaches are not compatible–like new wine in old wineskins, which if combined will ruin both–because they require completely different methods and objectives. A person who thinks they can apply parts of the Old Covenant to how they live, will place those legal, step-by-step practices as an obstacle in front of their ability to trust the Spirit for guidance on what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and every possible detail on how to reflect Jesus in daily living.

A Christian who holds to Jesus’ teachings, rather than to Moses’ teachings, will find themselves dependent upon God intervening and guiding them every step of the way. They won’t claim to know what exactly to do at a difficult moment or situation, rather they will strain for recognition of that still-small-voice. They won’t look for some legal definition on what to do, but instead will live by faith that the Holy Spirit promises to guide believers into all truth. Such a believer won’t be able to measure their performance, nor outwardly identify a race of people that belong to God, because none of it will be measurable or controllable by sight, or by human, fleshly methods, or by checking the box of Law-keeping.

We are told that “it is for freedom that we have been set free”. Such a freedom of grace, that just has boundaries, but very few details on how to live in daily life or how to respond to relationships or conflict, seems scary, especially to those who have found safety in their traditions, their laws, their practices, and their ability to press those same expectations on other believers.

Again we are told, “everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial”. Such wide open permission, in the name of grace, seems like chaos. No wonder many well-meaning church leaders, like their Jewish counterparts, have introduced religious restrictions and doctrinal expectations on fellow believers, because living by pure faith, without some kind of measurable standard is unthinkable.

But that is where the error is really a function of blindness. Grace is not lawlessness. As Paul wrote to those who retorted that without the Law, Christians would go on sinning, “God forbid”. True Christians have died to sin. It is not the Law that keeps them away from sin, but their faith and desire to please the Lord. This new approach is scripturally called “the law of Christ”, and in context is specifically set in contrast to the Mosaic Law. The standard has shifted from the Ten Commandments to the Life and words of Jesus. Faithful believers measure their walk with God by how the Spirit leads them in harmony with New Covenant teachings in Scripture. They determine when to act or restrain their involvement per how the Spirit directs them, and not by commands that were part of an old system.

Believers don’t live in sin because they have the seed of Jesus actively expanding in them—the Holy Spirit—not because they keep the Law. Believers don’t need a command not to murder, because grace teaches that, just like Jesus, we don’t do any harm to our neighbors. Christians don’t look to the command “do not worship idols”, because our devotion is to God in Christ-alone, so much that we willingly demonstrate it by putting our own fleshly desires for this life to death so as to make more room for the desires of the Spirit. We don’t need a sabbath rest command, because as the book of Hebrews declares, a new rest has been announced such that we find our complete satisfaction and rest in our belief in Christ.

Again, those who try to also keep the Law, put that system in the way of sensing the direction of the Spirit. It becomes an obstacle to living by faith. That is why grace teaches that Christians are not under law, but grace. This has nothing to do with some mystical separation between moral and ceremonial laws; rather, it is a difference between what we depend upon to know how to follow a holy God—the Law or the Spirit of Grace.

So back to our revelation in Luke’s Gospel. The previous system in how to follow God was presented in the Law and through the Prophets up until the astounding transition of John the Baptist, who was sent to prepare the way so people could receive Jesus as God, as well as his new covenant method in how to follow God. Not that John new all those details, but Scripture tells us that is what God was doing through him.

Many were unwilling to accept Jesus as Immanuel, because their tradition interpreted the biblical revelation that their was only one God in such a way that they were incapable of understanding how this man could be God. As Luke records, “they rejected God’s purposes for them, because they refused to be baptized by John” and insisted on adhering to the Mosaic Law. The turbulence was too much for them, and without baptism (which their law did not teach), they could not hang on through the transition. They rejected God’s purpose that people accept Jesus as God. They also rejected God’s purpose that believers live like Abraham, through faith. They chose the Law over Jesus, just like many professing Christians do to this day.

From that pivotal moment in history, the Law stopped being preached by those who actually served God, so that grace could become the new method of worship and living for God. Because it is a new method that emphasizes faith through dependence upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the activity of believers is much more fluid and dynamic. Think about this carefully—where there is freedom, there is much less structure that can be recognized, repeated, or promoted. It can look and feel out-of-control to those who can’t see the guiding presence of the Spirit, nor the devoted heart of the believer to love and obey through faith rather than through sight.

Perhaps you may have seen salmon returning upstream, where the waters become shallow. Or maybe you have watched fish that gather and jump around a fish-ladder to try and reach their spawning grounds. The water is frothy, tails and fins are slapping the water and other fish. The whole seen looks crazy with activity, passion, and chaos. Yet, every one of those little creatures is focused on the same objective. There is nothing crazy or insane about their efforts. Rather, they are all working toward the same ultimate goal. So it is with Christians.

We have been given freedom to follow Christ by faith under this new covenant system of grace. We may not stand neatly in line, like kindergarten kids being led into class. As such, the scene may appear to outsiders as lawless, when in reality, each believer is trying to use their freedom to please God with their life by sensing through the Spirit of faith how to reflect him, how to care for others they bump into, and how to seek and offer forgiveness when conflict arises.

This approach results in violent activity that doesn’t have the neat, orderly appearance of one defined by laws, but that is only a surface observation. It remains true, that without specific laws that define every step of life, we are bound to make a lot of mistakes, which will result in the kingdom experiencing violence, but God remains in complete control. The secret is that he has chosen to control this menagerie by an internal guide rather than an external one.

Christians are very likely to bump shoulders, to rush like fans toward the music star on stage, to inadvertently offend each other, and while representing Jesus to even be the fragrance of Christ that smells like the stench of death to outsiders. This approach of grace gives a wide door of operation to believers. It also gives room for partial believers, false believers, and outright wolves and weeds to enter the kingdom through the simple claim of faith in Jesus.

The church is cautioned against witch hunts. We are told to separate from and avoid those who distort the truth and don’t live according to this gospel, but we are not to go about trying to root out the evil that has violently entered the kingdom. The Lord has commanded that the hidden weeds be left in the ground with the wheat, until the time of the end when he will separate Christians like sheep and goats. The prophecy is that the chaff will be removed from the kingdom by angels at the return of Christ, but in the mean time, the kingdom is advancing with violence from every corner. Although we are not to try and purify the church by our own efforts and labels of who is godly and who is an impostor, we are warned that the resulting turbulence can make us spiritually sick if we don’t make distinctions in our associations:

“But avoid foolish controversies…about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Tit 3:9-11)

Those who insist on pushing the Mosaic Law on Christians, even after confronted with the gospel of grace, are self-condemned, and faithful Christians who encounter such people in the Church are commanded to personally break off all contact with such individuals or risk their own contamination. This threat is so serious to our own salvation and identity as a disciple of Christ, that Jesus says it must be applied even if that person is a family member.

Like Simon Magus, the magician who was baptized after watching Philip do amazing miracles; or, like some of those elders in Ephesus that Paul said would become wolves and harm the church; so this method of grace allows for people to enter the Lord’s kingdom with violent activity. True believers will respond with increasing grace and forgiveness, humbly repenting of their own shortcomings in the process. Either way, the forceful grab onto it with a force of will and activity that desperately needs greater refinement.

In other words, what may be allowed to be forceful, violent, and seemingly lawless, needs to mature. The kingdom may be suffering violence on the front end, but true believers will be maturing into a more orderly and dignified body, if they respond to the biblical instructions under the New Covenant. As Paul taught, “the spirit of the prophet is subject to the control of the prophet.” Because God is a God of order, not disorder. With this understanding, the Christian is informed that although they may be allowed some freedom in how they operate, they need to seek greater orderliness by intentionally choosing the self-control of restraining their internal desires and impulses to increasingly mature submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Grace seems lawless to those who can’t see either the Spirit or the purpose for why God has called believers to a new system of faith. The former system of Law dictated orderliness; the new system invites believers to participate in becoming orderly by willing submission to the Spirit while traveling through an environment of freedom. We do it not because we are commanded, but because we desire to reflect the heart of God who does everything decently and in order. We look to Christ for our standard.

This dependence is a matter of how we find direction for our lives, rather than an issue of whether or not the words of that former Law remain impactful upon Christians. This is a very important distinction. The entire Bible speaks God’s word and none of it is better or more truthful than another. That is why Jesus declared in this context that not one detail of the words spoken in that Law would either disappear or fail to come about. That Law still teaches and remains a valid declaration from God; however, the Old Covenant commands themselves were part of a limited system of worship and practice that only applied to ancient Israel until the One to whom it referred had come, and never to Gentiles (see Dt 5:3 and Gal 3:25).

When Luke notes Jesus’ words about divorce in this section, it likely appears like a complete sideline reference that doesn’t fit the context, but with the above understanding in mind, consider what it reveals about how the Lord will deal with those who use their freedom in pursuit of the kingdom in ways that negatively impact others.

Believers may well have a wide and seemingly boundless degree of freedom in their choices, but that permission doesn’t translate into approval from God. We may have permission, but we will still have to answer for every choice, action, word, and thought. In terms of marriage, if a believer divorces their mate, they cause violence to both parties and expose both to the desperate need for intimate relationship. That need, if pursued, will result in having sexual relations with another person, while we remain bound-for-life-until-death-do-us-part with our first mate. That is why this and several other Bible passages declare that divorce will cause adultery.

Many who want to justify their natural desire to break away from their marriage commitment, will change the biblical “explanation” that is given in context into an “excuse”. So, where the Lord stated, “except for marital unfaithfulness”, he explained the reason why divorce becomes adultery. He did not provide an excuse to get divorced and then remarried. The point here is that a person’s freedom to get divorced impacts another person in a very hurtful way and causes them to become vulnerable to stumbling into sin, except for the one case where that mate has already caused themselves to be identified before God as an adulterer by virtue of their own actions of marital unfaithfulness. Under either conditions, when divorce has occurred, the command to Christians, through Paul is “remain single” or reconcile with your mate.

This example of divorce and how the freedoms to choose can cause violence upon others that God will judge upon the one who puts others in such a position, is the same truth repeated in the same sermon when Jesus spoke about those who cause one of these little ones to stumble. Sin will occur, the Lord reveals, but “woe to the one through whom it comes”.

Grace teaches salvation through faith in Jesus, but it also warns believers that they had better produce fruit in keeping with repentance that can only be developed when connected to the Vine of Christ. In other words, it is only through faithfully following the lead of the Spirit, in contrast to any methods of human measurement or control, including the Mosaic Law, whereby a Christian can mature in the fruitful character and likeness of Jesus.

Jesus’ teaching in the passage immediately follows his statement that what man values is highly detestable in God’s sight, to which he announces the contrast between the Law and grace. The Law was highly valued, even more so than Christ himself, by the religious believers in that day, and sadly it continues to be highly valued over the biblical gospel of grace through faith in Jesus that ought to be taught today.

The parable immediately following this text, is that of the rich man and Lazarus, which most Christians distort into a text about the afterlife, and thereby completely miss the contextual connection to this revelation about the Law and Grace. What Jesus reveals in this parable—remember the Bible declares that he never spoke to the people except by parable—was that ultimately both the Law and Grace speak the truth that God wants known.

There were a few back when it was in effect, very few, who heard God through that Law. Those who did, like Moses, Joshua, and David, would be the same type of people who would still be able to hear the truth through the new system and preaching of the kingdom. On the other hand, the majority who did not listen carefully to the words of that Law, are the same type of people who will never listen, not even if they witness dramatic miracles, like the dead being raised to life. The point is that God speaks truth, and those who respond in faith hear. Whether or not someone tries to continue practicing that old Law is irrelevant to being able to hear and follow God. Those who think they can follow Jesus better while striving to measure their activity and beliefs through the Old Covenant commands are deceiving themselves by placing a religious idol—that former Law—in their way of living by faith through dependence upon the Spirit.

Let go of the Law and let Christ be the Lord and lead of your every thought, action, decision, desire, and response while you try to mature in the Spirit, as you rejoice in your freedoms and use them to restrain your self-indulgence for the sake of helping those around you who are also experiencing the violence of activity and learning that is occurring at the threshold of the kingdom.

Remember, the peace offered at this time is designed primarily for the inside, while we all experience the turmoil and turbulence of suffering, persecution, and transformation around us.

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The Gideon Complex

Sickness and disease are most often acquired as a social condition, rather than by isolated infection. Much like sin, contagions are typically transferred from those around us; and, in spite of our cautions, are most often passed on to those we love. In this manner, diseases have wiped out entire groups of people. Such physiological distortions can also be seen in disabilities that are more common in certain groups than in others.

One of those distortions is the Gideon Complex. There are certain social groups in which this disorder is more commonly recognized, but it is a threat that can infect anyone who is exposed, and thus should be something that we all strive to identify, avoid, and remedy.

The Gideon Complex is a distorted basis of belief that requires human observation in order to accept something. The idea is that only dramatic manifestations—miracles, signs, and wonders—justify belief. Such a person must see-to-believe.

This was what the Bible reveals that the Israelite Army General, Gideon, needed in order to accept the victory promised by God. He requested that God cause the morning dew to saturate the fleece while keeping the surrounding ground bone-dry. Then he asked for the reverse to be displayed, with the ground wet with dew, but the fleece completely dry. Then he believed.

The Gideon Complex is what could be considered a childhood illness. It is an immature approach to belief, and one that is criticized by God for those who ought to be more mature in their faith.

Miracles, signs and wonders provided by God are intended to be an aid to belief and a confirmation of what he declares, but not the basis for faith. It is a tool through which God draws our attention, like a burning bush that is not being consumed by fire and so arouses our curiosity to draw near for closer inspection. Such manifestations are designed to turn our focus toward God, but they are not to be the reason for our faith.

The basis for faith, both for Christians and those who trod the earth in ancient times, ought to be established upon the word of God. It is what God declares that we are to believe. The Lord expects that we take him at his word, without demanding “proof” that we can control, measure, or determine if it is sufficiently amazing and worthy of our belief.

“For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy”. (Rev 19:10)

We are informed from heaven itself that it is the words testified through and by Jesus (which is all of Scripture for us today) that forms the basis of truth and knowledge for all that God professes. There is no other reliable source of revelation or knowledge. All that is true and right must fit and be expressed in submission to the word of God. This is why Jesus declared that his words were both “spirit and life”.

Those who hold to the words taught by Jesus are the only ones recognized as true disciples of Christ, and thus they are the only ones who will be granted the right of knowing the truth that sets us free (Jn 8:31-32). This significance is the likely reason John introduces Jesus in his Gospel as “the Word that was with God and was God”. For a Christian, this model is why we are taught: “I believe, therefore I speak”. Taking God at his declared word is intended to produce the continued declaration of that spoken truth.

Faith accepts what God speaks, and in turn professes it on through our actions and words. Believers must accept God by taking him at his revealed word–demanding miracles, evidence, proof, and things we can measure or control are all pursuits of idolatry.

The apostle Thomas suffered from the Gideon Complex.

“Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” (Jn 20:25)

He demanded proof that he could control, a manifestation of scientific observation, as the basis for his faith. By the grace of God, Jesus provided it for him, but the Lord had more to say about this:

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (v. 29)

This blessing of God will be given only to those who take God at his word, without insisting on dramatic proof. This Gideon Complex was so common in Jesus’ day, that he states that it was a social disease that infected the entire nation of Jews:

“Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you will never believe.” (Jn 4:48)

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. (1 Cor 1:22-23)

The sin of disbelief infects both social groups of Jews and Gentiles, but in different strains. To a Jew, belief needs supernatural displays. To Greeks—or in context, those who think they are educated and smart—they require a foundation that they can control through their own smarts and reasoning ability. In both cases, belief is formed on a foundation of human observation and control, and in nether case is it formed on what is preached—that pure declaration of the word of God.

As a group, the Jews—most likely meaning the entire racial group of Israelites—had come to define belief in their own minds as something that required a miracle to justify. They didn’t even comprehend that belief was something that could be formed simply by accepting what God says. This is why, when Jesus declared that believing God was the work that he expects of people, they automatically replied with “what miracle will you perform, so we can believe”. They had lost all comprehension of accepting what God declares, and had come to the distorted view that belief should only happen through dramatic manifestations that they could witness.

It is true that God often provides signs to help people in their belief, or to focus the attention where he wants it, but it was never intended to become the basis for such belief. This is the point made in Hebrews chapter 11 that celebrates the amazing faith of the patriarchs, who died “without having received what was promised”. They believed what God promised and did not insist on receiving either proof or the actual fulfillment in this life. They didn’t depend upon manifestations, but took God at his word.

This disease was so pervasive among the Jews, that when the Gentile Roman soldier said that Jesus didn’t need to show up and perform a miraculous act that he could see, but just needed to speak the words and his servant would be healed, the Lord declared his amazement by saying, “I have not found such faith in all of Israel”. That kind of belief that takes God at his word, simply didn’t exist in the Jews. The Gideon Complex had distorted the entire basis of faith in that group of people. Nevertheless, by God’s great mercy, he was still leading a few Jews through that disability and into a living faith that casts off any dependence upon what can be humanly measured, controlled, or evaluated.

The early church struggled often with the distortions of Judaism that tried to turn Christians back toward keeping various aspects of the Old Covenant Law along with their profession of faith in Christ. But these Jews were still infected with the Gideon Complex, and by pushing their traditions rather than the word of God, they infected entire churches, like those believers in Corinth who were “demanding proof that Christ is speaking” through the Apostle Paul. It didn’t matter that Paul had actually done many miracles in their presence, they demanded manifestations that they could evaluate–things that God will never allow to satisfy our belief, because that can only ever come through taking God at his word and evaluating what is preached according to how it fits within the revealed word of Scripture.

In our day, Penticostal Christians, among others, appear to suffer from this same social affliction. They insist on manifestations of the Holy Spirit, before they will believe that they or anyone else is born again. As a group they demand proof that they can witness. The idea that God would baptize someone with the Spirit, but not provide something miraculous, is unacceptable, just like the Jews. Socially, they struggle with the Gideon Complex.

Catholics depend on this same disorder when identifying “saints” to elevate posthumously. Such pious people need to have proved their sainthood status by performing at least two miracles during their life. Transformation of character by the Spirit, which is the biblical evidence of the internal presence of God, is not considered sufficient, because it cannot be humanly measured, identified, or controlled.

The Sadducee (Jewish) belief that great wealth is proof of God’s blessing on a person, continues today in those Christians who believe God is pleased with them because they have large and successful ministries, material prosperity, or long and healthy lives on this earth. Many tithe 10% because they believe it will ensure great returns on their investment, but they don’t realize that they are infected with the Gideon Complex.

Individuals also are just as susceptible and should take warning. Any believer can base their faith upon what they can see, or on getting blessings they can enjoy, or on receiving proof of what they ask for in prayer. God does provide confirmation and encouragement that we can witness, at times, but that should never become the basis for our faith. In fact, we are called upon to endure to the end, without receiving now.

Such immaturity is understandable in a young one, but as we grow spiritually, it is no longer cute—it becomes an infection that sickens genuine faith. As such, even when we are granted the ability to see dramatic proof, it will not assure our faith, because it is grounded on our observation rather than on accepting what God has declared.

“Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.”

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Lu 16:31)

The greatest miracle of all is Immanuel–the manifestation of God with us. Jesus came to reveal the Father by demonstrating the most extraordinary miracle ever–the eternal Son of God entering our world through a virgin woman and showing us perfectly and completely all that could be known about God through our human experience. Witnessing the greatest miracle ever still cannot cause faith:

“But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.” (Jn 6:36)

God will not allow miracles to replace Jesus’ words as the basis for our faith. Not even the amazing proof of the dead rising–like Lazarus and like Jesus himself–will be accepted in the place of taking God at his word. What is preached by God, regardless of whom through which it is shared to us, is the only justifiable basis for faith.

“There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it. I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”

Faith is intended to be placed in Jesus upon the basis of what God has revealed through Scripture. It is a matter of trusting that those words, as he declares, can never disappear or change. Faith that endures to salvation is that which is grounded upon accepting what God has promised in Christ, without demanding any personal proof, other than the recorded confirmations that Scripture declares and remains trustworthy.

“Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers” (1 Cor 14:22)

Manifestations of God, like tongues, are not designed to be the basis of faith for believers; rather, they are given to confront unbelievers. Those who switch this around and try to teach that such dramatic activity is proof of being born in the Spirit, are distorting the word of God, not believing it.

For believers, God provides something different:

“…prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.” (v.22)

It is the prophesying of the word of God—here meaning preaching what God wants professed (not dramatic prediction of some future event)—which provides the basis for Christian faith. This is why the writer states: “I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

Perhaps those five intelligent words, upon which we ought to base our faith and believe with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength are:

“Know The Lord Jesus Christ”.

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Living Our Theology Without Hypocrisy, 3/3

When it comes to putting our faith in what God has revealed into the motion of our lives, theology can seem to many to be a theoretical nuisance. As one minister put it, “kids need encouragement, not theology”.

That view is dangerous. Theology is the core of how we mentally relate to what God declares. It is the structure of how we explain what we believe. Without it, we are left adrift at sea without any way to explain or understand biblical truth on subjects addressed in different ways and times throughout Scripture.

It is a well known fact of psychology that humans act consciously according to their beliefs. We don’t always understand our own web of crisscrossing beliefs, but they are consistently the reason why we choose what we do. The same is true of our beliefs regarding God and his divine set of expectations on those who profess faith in him. We will act according to what we actually believe, which is not always consistent with what we say we believe.

We can claim to be a follower of Jesus, and we can be absolutely convinced that we belong to him, but if we are living inconsistent with how a follower is said to live, then we are at risk of hypocrisy and self-deception. This is why a biblical view of theology is so important. The better we understand what we ought to believe, the more likely we will be able to adjust our actions in accordance with the revealed will of God.

The existence of general theological truth is not at issue here. Truth remains true, even if we don’t understand it. It is how we define what we think we understand that is important at this juncture, so that we can bring together what we think we believe with what God says we ought to actually do as a believer.

This presents an enormous challenge. There are many theological truths stated in Scripture that appear to conflict with other passages, and that seem to allow for a do-whatever-you-want, justify-whatever-you-like, kind of life. How is a faithful Christian to approach trying to apply their theological beliefs in a manner consistent with what the Bible indicates on how to rightly apply each revelation to each circumstance, relationship, conflict, or opportunity?

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” (Pro 26:4)

“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” (Pro 26:5)

So which is it? Do you answer a fool or not? It sounds like you will be damned-if you-do and damned-if-you-don’t. Consider the sampling below:

“Do not judge, lest you be judged.”

“Are you not to judge those inside the church?” and “A righteous man judges all things”.

 

“Forgive your brother as you have been forgiven” and “Bear with those weaker in the faith”

“You must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is [living in sin]”

 

“Do not commit murder.”

“You must be the first to throw a stone” [and kill your own rebellious child]

 

“You are saved by grace”

“You have fallen away from grace”

 

“He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

“Judge for yourselves, whether it is right in God’s sight, to obey you rather than God.”

 

“Turn the other check”

“Turn them over to Satan”

 

“You are not under law”

“We uphold the law”

 

“Do not rejoice at the destruction of the wicked”

“The saints will dance in the blood of the wicked”

 

“No one who is born of God will continue to sin” and “anyone who does not love remains in death.”

“But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense.”

 

“Whatever you ask for in my name, will be given to you”

“Do not think that you will receive what you ask for, for you ask with wrong motives”

 

“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel”.

“He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it. For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers…they must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach”.

 

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved–you and your household.”

“By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.”

 

“He who does not provide for his immediate family has denied the faith”

“the pagans chase after all these things” and “Do not store up wealth on this earth”.

How is a Christian expected to know when to do what one passage says, and when to apply a different instruction on the same issue?

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is the part where many will attempt to make their best effort, but blow the whole thing. Many will try to pick-and-choose those passages that promote approaches that they prefer, and avoid those difficult passages. Many will cling to key statements that seem like a guarantee of eternity, but do so in rejection of other passages that reveal warnings they refuse to acknowledge. Entire groups will form around selective theology, rather than bow humbly to the entire revelation of Jesus’ gospel.

It not only is difficult, it is impossible to rightly apply Scripture. Humans are completely incapable of doing the will of God on their own. Jesus spoke in parables, and the Bible has been “rightly divided” in how it was written, so that natural study or sincere application will always fail and produce distorted beliefs. Theology cannot be applied without hypocrisy, unless a person is born again and endures in that Spirit-led life.

A Christian who has professed Christ, and who has been baptized, and perhaps even has outward manifestations of the Spirit, still cannot rightly live out theological truth, unless they submit and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit at every turn.

There is a classic revelation about the application of prayer through King David, when he was still running and trying to hide from King Saul. At one point he cries out to God, asking if he should enter a city and hide there. God answers yes. Then Saul discovers where David is and gathers his army to go after him. David again asks God if he should stay there or leave. It is a very understandable request. David was wrestling with the fact that God had told him to go there, so perhaps he should exercise faith and wait. However, what God declares doesn’t always apply under every circumstance, so it might be worth checking in again. The surprising thing is that God answers a second time and tells David to immediately get out of the city and hide, which of course, David gratefully does.

Scripture reveals to believers that there is a time and place for everything. This is not only a reference to natural things like a time for life and a time for death, a time for rising and a time for falling, a time for light and a time for dark, but it also is a theology about following the directions of God. We are not given the right to follow or not, but how we apply our following can change. In David’s case, there was a time to hide in the city by God’s own direction, and there was a time to flee from the city, again at God’s word.

So it is with Christians. In order to know when to rightly apply instructions that speak of the same issue, but that appear to give very different directions, a believer must get that wisdom from God. This does not mean that by following one instruction, we are in defiance on some other instruction, even though it might look that way to others. The important thing is to strive to apply the details as carefully and as specifically as we can to our immediate circumstance, within the boundaries that God allows, with a heart that demonstrates through our choice that we would rather honor God than do what is natural.

The theology within Scripture that might apply to a Christian always states what is true, but it never presents it with the how, when, why, names, or any other specific details of application to a specific person. Those details and boundaries have to be put together from other passages and by the inspiration of the Spirit of God.

A professor of Christian psychology challenged his students that they were hypocritical if they were “pro life” and also in favor of “capital punishment” (both phrases that reflect political viewpoints and not specifically Christian ones). In his view, a person could not be in support of life and death. To the student who shared this with me, I asked, “what about God; is he a hypocrite because he gives life and takes it away?” Human reason is not a very reliable basis for defining truth or in figuring out how to rightly apply theology in our lives.

Another revealing guidepost can be found in the underlying reasons for what caused the painful separation between Paul and Barnabas. Both had been specifically called by God into evangelical ministry and were sent out together to apply their calling. However, during the first trip, the young assistant John Mark turned-tail and ran back home. When it came time to consider a second mission trip, Paul refused to take Mark, and Barnabas insisted on it, contributing to a rift in their ability to continue in ministry together. Both were likely right.

For Barnabas, he likely was trying to apply the passages that taught on bearing with those who are weaker in their faith, who struggle, but not to the point of denying Jesus. He wanted to give Mark a second chance. For Paul, he likely was recalling Jesus’ own words that those who put their hands to the plow and then look back are no longer fit for the kingdom, and so Mark should not be accepted back into the field of ministry.

We find support for this dual solution in that both Barnabas and Paul continue forward with their joint plan to revisit those who had come to faith during their first mission trip. Barnabas takes Mark directly back to Cyprus, where the young man had deserted them, like the coach who helps his timid apprentice to get back on the horse that had bucked him off. Paul, goes the other way, and begins going back through Syria, in a reverse direction. It is reasonable to assume that they all meet again somewhere in the middle, to demonstrate their willingness to endure and to reconcile in relationship with each other.

In reality, God likely intended for both initial responses, so that Mark could be granted grace along with a warning, which as Scripture indicates, had its wonderful effect, because Mark shows back up later on as someone that Paul found “very helpful to my ministry”. What a sobering strong hand. What amazing grace. What a combination of upholding biblical instructions that saved a young one!

We are often given room to apply different instructions that can be found in Scripture, but what really matters is not whether we pick the right one (which assumes that the other biblical instruction is wrong), but more likely, whether we submit our motives and desires to implement what we sense would most honor and fit the will of God. We have all been given different gifts and placed differently in the Church body, and that means that the implementation of theology will often look different, but still be consistent with the overall revealed truth within Scripture.

When combined, the pattern should always reveal a consistent upholding of biblical theology, and a faithfulness to apply those difficult commands eventually, even if we are allowed to try the others first. Like the parable of the orchard farmer, “Lord, can I give it another year and water and fertilize it?  if it produces fruit then, great, if not, then let’s cut it down.”

We are given some freedom to apply the instructions of God in ways that are often different from other Christians around us. Most of the New Covenant is presented as a territory with boundaries within which we are expected to operate, rather than a specific code of laws by which we step from one to the next. Within those boundaries, however, we do have specific expectations and we are called to submit our wills to his directions.

Those who think they can pick the frosting off the top and not eat the carrots in the cake, will find their hands slapped. We might be given the grace to start with the frosting, but a faithful Christian will always apply the full set of instructions as led by the Spirit. We will not leave the hard parts to others, like those who say, “just you wait ‘til your father comes home”.

You may consider yourself an encourager, but do not be deceived into thinking that you can escape contending for the faith, or confronting a brother living in sin, or eventually “treating them like you would a tax collector or prostitute”. for others, you may lament like the prophet Jeremiah in being used to confront other believers in their ignorance and apostasy, but don’t lose touch with Jeremiah’s heart that still longed for the consolation of his people. You might prefer to offer forgiveness and grace, but do not cross the line and give what is holy to the dogs.

Should you pray for everyone? The Bible commands that we pray for civil authorities and even our enemies, but what do you do with the passages that say “do not pray for this people, for I will not answer”? I’d suggest seeking more specific council and not jump to conclusions or preferences, thinking we can do whatever we think best, like Moses who struck the rock to produce water, when God has shifted his earlier instruction and said to speak to the rock.

When should you cry out, when unjustly persecuted: “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” And what if the evidence is that they do know what they are doing, like those who have known Jesus and tasted of the heavenly gift but have fallen away? Are you going to ask God to forgive someone that Scripture declares will never be forgiven by God? As Scripture asks, “Are you greater than God?” and “Did the word of God originate with you?”

If the church operates as it should, we will all have tendencies and gifted preferences in expressing the theological truths revealed by God, but in so doing we must seek to uphold the arms of others around us who are commissioned to the same mission, but just with a little different concentration in implementing the will of God. We are in this thing together, so we need to ensure that the full will of God is being accomplished and supported through his body, and avoid the natural distortion of only doing what feels good.

Theology must be received in faith, attributed rightly to specific circumstances and people, and implemented within the freedom and boundaries established by God in a manner that is submissive to the leading of the Spirit and consistent with the gifts distributed to each, as defined by the theology of Scripture.

Cherish theology, particularly that which is stated within Scripture. Devote yourself to understanding it, and to rightly sharing it within the guidelines of Scripture that govern the appropriate circumstances and timing that will apply the specific instructions for that person or moment to fit within the will of the Lord. Then it will be the Spirit speaking in you and through you, rather than an empty expression of your own ideas, training, and natural cravings.

Show yourself approved by carefully handling the word of truth!

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When Theology gets to Plowing—the difference between Receiving and Applying, 2/3

Christians are told that Jesus is a stumbling stone, that all humanity will either fall upon in faith or be crushed under in wrath. This theological statement in Scripture is hard to receive—no one wants to lose their footing and face plant, but it is a promise that will apply to everyone, like it or not. The prophecy given to Mary, the mother of Jesus, was “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There are many statements in Scripture that appear to directly conflict with other passages, “which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” In this article, we will consider the difference between accepting the theological truths revealed in Scripture and thereafter attempting to rightly apply them.

Consider the difficulty in receiving these two theological statements:

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13)

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

Both speak of the assurance of salvation. The first appears to suggest that salvation is assured to anyone who simply calls out to Jesus in faith as their Lord. The second makes it horrifically clear that the first is not all there is to the promise, and that many will think they are saved because of their profession, but Jesus won’t accept that claim. So how is a believer to trust the word of God? How can we rightly receive biblical theology?

Within Scripture, theology must be considered in two different ways. The first is that biblically-stated theology is the same thing as eternal truth. It is a statement of reality that is absolutely right in how it represents God. It never changes and will forever be true. It is also a general, overall statement that never is presented in terms of specific application.

But theology is not just some contract with a fancy stamp of authenticity that we receive and file in a safe place. It must be applied. God demands that his truth be lived out. It is only those who hear and “put these words into practice” who are said to be like those who establish themselves on a rock that will withstand the storms of life. It is to those believers who “hold to my teachings” whom Jesus identifies as “truly my disciples”—all others are fake Christians. As such, theology must also be considered in terms of specific application.

This means that biblically recorded theology must be approached in two ways: in how we receive or accept it, and also in how we apply or attribute it to our specific circumstances. In this distinction we are informed that theological statements are not the same as application statements. The first are overall, general truths that always represent the will and revelation of God, and that speak of what we are to believe. The second are specific commands and expectations at applying those beliefs in the details of our life.

In the above verses, both speak about salvation, but they are not referencing the same details of theology. The first, which actually was recorded as Scripture much later, is a statement of theological truth that is sustained by both passages. Believers are expected to receive the truth that anyone who confesses acceptance of Jesus in faith will be saved. It is a general statement of theological truth that salvation will be granted to those who accept Jesus. It is set in contrast to the beliefs held by many that such salvation must be earned by efforts at keeping the Old Covenant Law. This verse is declaring that salvation comes to a person by receiving Jesus, not by what we do. That theology is a statement about what we are to accept, what we should believe even though we can’t scientifically prove it. It is an overall truth that is not presented with names, circumstances, or details about how to rightly apply it.

The second passage, which Jesus declared about how he will view those who make such a claim of faith in him as Lord, is revealing something different about salvation. It too is a theological interpretation that reveals that some, but not all, will enter the Kingdom who claim that Jesus is their Lord. In other words, both passages uphold this same truth. However, Jesus is not talking about how believers accept the promise, like Paul was addressing, but rather that those who make such a profession must also apply it to themselves rightly. Jesus is speaking about the application part, or more specifically the mis-application of the truth about accepting Jesus as Lord.

Paul confirms this same detailed caution about specific application earlier in the same letter when he says: “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation…For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die”. In other letters, he warns Christian believers who are not rightly living out their faith, “that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom”. Both passages are in complete theological agreement. The specific context of theology, that Jesus was teaching, is that how we specifically apply truth can impact whether God will allow that truth to continue to fit for that person, group, or circumstance.

The above theological truth–that those who profess faith in Jesus as Lord will be saved–always remains true; however, the persons to whom it rightly will apply is subjective, at least in our human ability to define. The truth is always objective and absolute; the application, however, is not automatic for every person who might like it to apply to them. Understanding this distinction is huge in being able to rightly grasp Scripture, and not fall into the trap of false teachers and false believers who distort the word of God toward their own reasoning and personal preferences.

The Pharisees didn’t understand this difference, which resulted in their arrogant belief that since they were Abraham’s descendants, they were automatically guaranteed to be saved because of the promise given to Abraham. To this they were confronted with the shocking revelation, that the promise was true, the theology was absolutely reliable and unchangeable, but that God could raise up rocks to fulfill that truth, and they would find themselves rejected, if they continued to refuse to submit to the words of Christ. The theology was true; the application was subjective and selective to whom it actually applied.

With this distinction in mind, it should be recognized that the truth never changes. It remains true that salvation comes to a person, not by personal effort, but rather by receiving Jesus as Lord. What can change, is that this truth doesn’t apply universally, like some kind of magical phrase, to every individual who announces, “I accept Jesus as Lord”. Truth is always unconditional. Application of truth always has conditions!

This truth is rejected by those false teachers who say that grace is unconditional. They are not being careful with God’s revealed word. It is correct that truth is unconditional. It is deceptive to say that this truth applies unconditionally to anyone who thinks and says they want it. The theology about grace must be considered in both its statement of general truth, as well as within the God-defined boundaries in how to rightly apply it. Those who say they want it, but who don’t live in a matter that fits, will find that God will refuse their profession as Christians:

“They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” (Tit 1:16)

This distinction between a theological statement of truth given in Scripture, and its connected boundaries on how to rightly apply it, can be seen in the following two passages. The first declares a general truth without applying it to any specific person, and is expected to be accepted in faith as always true. The second is recorded as a biblical measurement on how to rightly determine if this promise actually applies to a person who desires it, and is expected to be accepted personally in faith upon the partial evidence of a person’s expressions of godly love:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

“We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” (1 Jn 3:14)

When the Bible declares a general, overall truth, believers are expected to receive it in faith. They are theological statements that are intended to be received like a little child, without question or doubt. They are true, absolute, always correct, never mixed with human invention or error.

The following examples demonstrate biblical statements of theology that Christians are expected to accept and believe:

“You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“There is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved.”

“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth: and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live”.

“if you confess with your mouth, and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved”

“It is by grace that you are saved, not by works, so no one can boast”

“And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.”

“God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.”

“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”

When the Bible declares a truth about how to rightly apply our faith, believers are expected to submit and obey, or find that their claim of faith can shipwreck, their crown be taken, their ability to repent be rejected, their name be erased from the Book of Life, their candlestick removed from around Christ, their identity as a virgin of the Lord be rejected at the heavenly gates, their talent be taken and given to another, their divine seed be choked out by weeds, their call be dismissed as not chosen, their leaving show that they never belonged to us, that false teachers will arise even from your own number…. A student of Scripture should be able to recognize that these warning phrases come directly from the mouth of God to those who claim to be Christian.

What we do never changes the truth; however, it very much can impact whether that truth rightly applies specifically to us or to a specific event, decision, relationship conflict, or moment in time. Remember, the Bible teaches that truth is never conditional, but how it might apply to a specific person or situation very often remains conditional to how we implement it, as compared to the will of God.

Notice all the conditional prepositions:

“unless you take up your cross daily, you cannot be my disciple.”

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.”

“Now that you know these things, blessed are you if you do them”

“Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.”

“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

“he who tries to save his life, will find in the end that he has lost it.”

“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

“They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight reign on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…those who accepted his message were baptized”.

“what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this, he himself will be ignored.”

“If we disown him, he will also disown us.”

“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.”

“Unless you forgive your brother from your heart, you will not be forgiven.”

“You [Christians] who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”

The theology, revealed by God, is that even to a righteous person that God promises salvation, if in the end they turn toward wickedness, God announces that they will not be given life (Eze 33:13). The truth never changes; how it specifically applies to a person can change by how we respond in faithful obedience or by turning back to the vomit of our sinful desires.

The “license for immorality” is prophesied to be taught by false teachers, who want their followers to think that they are individually guaranteed salvation, even while continuing to live immoral lives. They want people to think that general truths revealed and promised in Scripture certainly apply to anyone who follows their ideas, and that there is no possible way to lose out. They are told that they have a license, a guarantee, an assurance of salvation that defies and dismisses all the warnings in Scripture that believers are expected to be careful in how they apply their theology.

In terms of the assurance of our personal salvation, God alone knows those whom he has given to Jesus. For our part, we are expected to approach our salvation through faith, and submit ourselves to striving to rightly follow his every word, knowing that we still have the freedom–as the Bible words it–to fall away and never be able to come back. Many are unwilling to trust in the love of Jesus for their salvation, and prefer to claim assurances that guarantee that they personally can never fail–just like those Pharisee’s who blindly assured themselves of their eternal destiny as “children of Abraham”.

No one can come to God unless he calls them to faith in Jesus. Those who begin to respond to this call are granted the right to put their hands to the plow for his kingdom. It is an incredible honor and act of grace that such undeserving whelps be granted such glorious privilege. However, we are warned, do not be like Lot’s wife—never look back.

Those believers who approach theology with the required “fear of the Lord” will be granted the grace to not only understand the gospel truth, but also to rightly apply it to themselves, their circumstances, and their assessments of those around them.

“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely, because if you do, you will save not only yourself, but also your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:15-16)

The above noted distinctions of receiving and applying theology emphasize belief, more than the process of actual implementation. In other words, the idea of application considered above is more specifically a reference to attribution. To attribute truth is to connect the dots between a general statement and a specific person or circumstance. It is the front end of the path of application. It is a way of asking, does this general truth apply to me? When it comes to the actual implementation, such application becomes a measurement of process, not just a reference to fit.

That is where we are heading next, to try and clear the mine-field that threatens all who travel between believing theology and living Christ-like.

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Theological Idolatry–Worshiping what we believe, 1/3

Beware of sacrosanct theology—that perfect, unchanging, holy definition of what can be known about God and his plan—it doesn’t exist. For many, their theology has become an idol that is worshiped as a replacement of what God has declared. The idea of the infallibility of church doctrine, ministerial decisions, or historical church councils are all misplaced belief in religious traditions. Per the voice of God:

“’You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’ And he said to them: ‘You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!’” (Mk 7:8-9)

Jesus confronts all religious leaders who allow human defined doctrine to override reliance upon the actual words recorded in the Bible. Theological tradition and denominational doctrines can become idolatry. It is not only possible, but actually very common, for Christians to worship what they believe ahead of whom they ought to believe in. Knowing Jesus is far more important than being skilled at explaining him. The former requires submission and faith; the latter allows for independent control and manipulation of explanations that favor what we desire.

Theology, other than the specific wording of Scripture, is not the same thing as Truth. Theology is a human expression of divine revelation. The revelation is always trustworthy, but the theology, like the human believer, should always be presented with the humble acknowledgement that it is in a constant state of maturing and may not fully reflect the truth at any given point in time.

Again, there needs to be a distinction made between theology that is directly stated in Scripture, and that which is derived from Scripture through the words of men. They both are important, but only the first is absolutely trustworthy; the latter should always be held cautiously, used carefully, and continually allowed to be questioned and re-measured to what Scripture actually says. Theology stated in Scripture is always true and timeless, such that theological statements declared in the Old Testament are just as valid and reliable as those stated under the New Covenant. Such theology, like truth, never changes.

In the following example, Jesus gives us a theological statement that is not just correct, it is specifically a statement of divine truth as well. The declaration is given as a biblical statement of theological truth, but subsequent religious efforts at adding definition to what it means to be born again, which extend detail beyond what the text actually states, would become human-impacted theology, and should be allowed to continually be re-measured to what Scripture actually records:

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (Jn 3:3)

Theology that is derived from Scripture and worded by religious men and church councils is very necessary and often helpful, but should never be taken or maintained over time with the same degree of trust that is reserved for theological statements directly preserved in the Bible. Such theology–like views on the Trinity, life-after-death, heaven and hell–can point to passages of support in Scripture, or be formed from commands of application that appear to reveal further fundamental truths beyond just that specific focus, but they should never be taken as inspired-without-error like those words given through the writers of Scripture. Both involve human writers and speakers, but the first is the only group that God declares is entirely his own breath and “will never disappear”.

Our human tendency to distort everything we touch is so pervasive, that it is worth noting that even direct biblical statements that are simply quoted verbatim out of holy writ, can still be mis-applied, mis-defined, and mis-used for personal gain. The theological statements themselves remain true, but the context in which many try to use them, and the human agendas that are mixed in with those declarations, and the defined meanings that ministers use to explain those statements, often distort the truth contained therein. With this understanding, a wise student of Scripture will bring every thought captive to Christ, even direct quotes from the mouth of God, so that they can be purified and used according to the holy and divine will of God, and not distorted into “no gospel at all”. This is how Jesus confronted the Devil who tried to quote Scripture to deceive the Lord into sin.

Human language is a vessel which can contain truth, but the word of truth is spirit, which is why no amount of education can discover truth without dependence upon the Spirit of God. So when Jesus identified his words as truth and spirit and life, he was not speaking of the Aramaic language through which he spoke; he was speaking of the meaning hidden within those words, which can be conveyed without error even when translated from one human language into another. In the same way, the idea of “the original Greek” used to write the New Testament words of Scripture are themselves a translation as well. All quotes of Jesus are Greek translations from the local Aramaic language that Jesus used, and also the Greek was a human language that was used as a vessel to contain and convey spiritual words of truth breathed by God. Again, we need to be careful how we depend on our human words, human definitions, and human traditions in claiming to speak theological truth.

For many churches and Christians, their fundamentals of theology are taught as the bedrock of belief, and cannot be questioned or viewed with doubt. It is lost on many that those fundamentals are all human inventions, though they claim to be grounded on scriptural passages. The noble character of the Bereans is rare—to search the Scriptures daily to see of those theological statements are true. In practice, many assume that if their church has determined the theology is accurate, or the individual members are satisfied with their own brief study, then the theology becomes sacrosanct—holy and unchangeable and unquestioned, as if it was the breath of God that could never be distorted by a human touch.

Those who don’t embrace the theology this absolutely are often pushed out of those churches. It is the primary reason for the unbiblical practice of congregational membership, and away from dependence upon membership in Christ. It puts pressure on attendees to accept what that leadership defines in contrast to all other churches in the area that claim belief in the same Lord. The Bible, and its specific wording, is rarely the primary basis for accepting someone’s profession of faith in Christ.

Sacrosanct truth exists; sacrosanct theology (other than the uninterpreted wording of Scripture itself) does not. Humans need theology to describe and formalize the revelation of truth into doctrines that can be taught and used to measure right from wrong, but such theology must never be viewed as an acceptable replacement of truth. It is truth we are to maintain, believe, and promote, not our wording of that truth that we have found useful.

Of itself, theology is not something bad—in fact, God requires that we invest ourselves in teaching what we can understand about him, and that means that we are expected to form theological statements. Just as each believer is a fallible “temple of the Holy Spirit”, so our theological wordings are also fallible containers of truth. Theology is very important and necessary, but it has a place and purpose that should not be allowed to replace the truth of God. It is only a tool for aiding the teacher and believer in understanding and accepting the revealed words of God.

God reveals truth; when we begin to comprehend that revelation, we identify that truth by formalized statements that become the basis of theology. In this way, theology is intended to be a record of what God has revealed. This difference between truth and theology is why it is necessary for humans to continually humble their ideas and traditional explanations to what God actually reveals, because theology can only reflect truth—it never replaces it. Theology can miss details and get some things incorrectly defined. Truth never changes.

Theology, as a structured study of God, is presented in language to reveal what should be accepted by humans regarding God and his word. The only way we are capable of recognizing truth is through revelation. Humans are incapable of identifying any truth of God by natural effort. We are entirely dependent upon what God reveals and has preserved through his holy word. In this way, truth is never a by-product of scientific observation or of human reason. It is always something we receive from God as he chooses to make it known.

Even the first apostles struggled with this distinction. You may recall the vision of Peter, about eating unclean meat in the sheet let down from heaven, to which he replied, “not so Lord, I have never eaten unclean animals”. As his own mind wrestled with what God appeared to be revealing, he eventually came to acknowledge the truth that God is not a prejudiced respecter-of-persons, and intends to call believers from all races. Peter’s own grasp of theology—thinking that God was focused on just saving the Jews—was confronted by the truth of God and had to be brought into submission to what the Lord revealed.

As a cautionary note here, there is a difference between the theological understanding of those early apostles, and their writing of theology that became accepted as Scripture. The first is a reference to what was developing and maturing personally in their minds, and the latter is a truth about what the Holy Spirit was specifically breathing through each of those writers as they were scribing the words being given to them. As Jesus taught, they were not to worry about what to say in defense of their faith when brought before authorities, “it will be given to you what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Holy Spirit speaking through you.”

Although the personality of each may well have been allowed to influence the style of writing, the truth itself that each word presents was specifically inspired by God for a purpose in establishing holy Scripture that was unique from all other inspiration in defining theology, “for all Scripture is God-breathed”. In other words, the theology presented in Scripture is not subject to the same cautions of likely error or incompleteness that all other forms of traditional theology are under.

For example, when Paul says that the two women who produced sons for Abraham “represent two covenants”, that theology cannot be found anywhere else in Scripture, and was an interpretation of theological meaning that could only be directly given by the Spirit of God as absolutely true and absent of all human opinion. This is why church doctrine must always submit to that originally taught doctrine and not be allowed to overshadow or replace the gospel that was “once for all given to the saints.” Theology that is directly recorded in Scripture is truth, and thus is generally spoken of as truth rather than by the label of theology; all other theology outside of Scripture (which is typically what is meant by statements-of-theology) can only reflect that truth, and must be received with the same humble caution in accepting how it is worded and what it suggests is meant by topical comparisons in Scripture.

It is the Lord Jesus Christ we are to worship, not our definitions, traditions, or history.

Next we will look at how the Bible presents the difference between receiving theology and attributing it specifically to a person or event. It is a set of stumbling stones that many who are casual with the word of God trip over.

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The Human Puzzle

Humanity doesn’t come with a colored picture on the box cover.

Understanding how God describes our humanity is important to a right view of self as well as an accurate grasp of what we experience in this life. The Bible reveals several specific details about how God identifies different aspects of a human. This is what can be found within the pages of holy writ:

  1. Humans, unique in all creation, are made in the image of God. This speaks of both purpose and function. Our identity is defined in terms different from animals, angels, and everything else. We were created for an overall purpose to reflect the image of God. In addition to our purpose, it is also something that reveals something special about how we were designed to operate—how we function—by designing things with artistic expression as an example, expresses qualities that resemble those found in God and no where else.
  2. Humans have been granted life—a spot in history with an existence in time and space that expresses independence and self-recognition.
  3. Humans have a temporal body. Our biology is of the dust of the ground and is bound in a temporary structure and exists for a limited time.
  4. Humans have a spirit-of-man that is different from the spirit in animals. This is not biological or genetic, but a spirit that conveys all the aspects of humanity, like a mind, soul, life, and a connection to God. This spirit defines our humanity.
  5. Humans have a soul. Although Scripture appears to interchange soul and spirit at times, when speaking more generally of a human, it does give distinctions that help explain some of the difference. A soul is a non-material part of the spirit-of-man that seems to contain the specific individual record and uniqueness of each individual, whereas the spirit is common to all humanity. In this way, the soul is about the inherited identity and development of each specific person and the spirit is about being human. This soul defines our individuality.
  6. Humans have a mind. They can think, reason, communicate, and operate by independent choices. This too is an extension of the human spirit and not something bound simply to the biology of a brain.
  7. Humans are designed to need relationships. As individuals, people are capable of biological existence on their own, but can only operate fully as intended when bound as one in relationship with another human. This is what marriage is designed to provide—the intimate relationship that resolves the aloneness of a person which God announced was not good. It is also the foreshadow of completing unity intended for humanity in their relationship connection with their Creator.
  8. Humans are divided into two genders, male and female. All of humanity will represent one or the other sex. Handicaps and distortions to not change this original design of humanity being established in two representatives.
  9. Humans have desires. There is a part of us that has yet to be satisfied and which drives us toward fulfillment, relief, and satisfaction. We were created whole in our biology and able to exist for a season, but not complete to the overall plan and purpose of God who set this whole earthly life in motion. We were created to desire what God set out ahead of us, but did not yet place within humanity. These desires produce a condition—a measurement of our link to God. This condition is not a substance, like a body or a spirit, but rather a penchant, a leaning, a natural preference to perpetuate the same sin of independent self-will chosen by Adam and Eve. Our condition resulting from pursuit of our desires is more than just a status, because this tendency actually contributes to propelling us toward our own restless wants and away from God. We are not sin, but we all have a very real sinful condition that infects our humanity. In contrast, the condition of Christ, who had no sin, is that of righteousness—that is the measurement of his desire for and link to God.
  10. Humans all have a second life. Each person, without exception, will die once and then be raise back to life to face judgment. For some this will be the transition into eternal life with an upgraded body and healed condition, for others it will culminate in their second death.

These are the distinct aspects or parts to every human as revealed in Scripture. Inspired writers of Scripture speak of the above with different terms, analogies, or cultural references, but everything that can be addressed about humanity should fit into one of the above revealed aspects.

It is important to understand, that although the above distinctions can be made as a way to relate to our humanity, they cannot be separated from the person. All the above parts are integral to what it means to be human at this point. For example, individuals do not exist separate from their body, or absent of a spirit-of-man. Those teachings that suggest that a person’s body can die, but they remain alive, are teaching contrary to what the Bible says. From what has been revealed in Scripture, humans will never exist outside of a body, nor will they be alive between the death of their body, and the return of Christ to grant salvation and a new body to those who have, as he phrased it: “fallen asleep”.

We do not exist within the parts; rather, the parts are what describe the whole of the person, and each are necessary to the existence of the person: body, soul, mind and spirit, and the other revealed distinctions above that Scripture shows are universal to what it means to be human.

Some have taken exception to the translations that replace the biblical word flesh with the phrase human nature. This is unfortunate and comes from a misunderstanding of what Scripture reveals about humanity. It is true that the Bible does not use the phrase “human nature”, and so translations that maintain the word “flesh” are certainly more careful in their wording. However, that carefulness to the wording does not necessarily translate into better accuracy to what the writer meant, and it is the teaching of truth that we are expected to seek, not simply the preservation of language.

Those who teach that the flesh is bad, and who emphasize the inherent evilness of material things, and who suggest that God will destroy the evil body but save the good spirit, and who try to separate a human into two competing parts of flesh/spirit (as if we could exist in one and not the other), follow a heretical pattern that was common in paganism, like represented in Manachaism and Gnosticism. God created man in the flesh and announced that it was “very good”. Sin attacks the soul, not the skin. Humans need to be saved and healed in their entirety, not just in their body.

Our primary understanding of the meaning of the term flesh should come from how it is presented in Scripture and not from cultural norms or theological traditions. One of the foundational teachings on God’s meaning in this, comes from Jesus’ teaching of Nicodemus about being born again, when he declared that “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jn 3:5). The Lord is not referring to flesh in the limits of materialism or specifically to the biological vessel of our bodies–he is speaking about the entirety of the human being. In other words, his use of the term flesh includes body, mind, soul, and spirit, as an entire package.

The contrast here between flesh and spirit he defines as: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” This demonstrates that his meaning of flesh is about source and basis and representation, not about biology or structure or form. By Jesus own words, flesh here means “of earth”, whereas spirit here means “of heaven”. This fits with the understanding of considering a persons’ nature–are they naturally of this earth or naturally of God, without reference to their physiology reality at that moment.

Humans have an earthly nature, but Jesus tells us that he is “not of this earth”. He is not suggesting that he is not physical or not fully human or not really existing in a fleshly body; rather, his origin, source, basis, and natural orientation comes from God and is not sourced from or dependent upon this created world. In this sense, Jesus came in the flesh, but was not of the flesh.

The Holy Spirit that inspires Scripture hasn’t changed his meaning when the Gospel writers record the words of Jesus, or when he inspires others to write Scripture. The context often shows that the term flesh means: that which is based in this life and reflects what is commonly and naturally limited to human desires.

The question being raised is whether we represent Adam, self, or even the god of this world Satan; or, whether we have been saved from that natural condition to now represent the Second Adam, the things of heaven, and the will of God. This is how the Bible uses the contrast between flesh and spirit to indicate the natural orientation, rather than to speak specifically of substances. Those who try to shift the biblical meaning of flesh to just the biological entity–like saying that it is only the body of flesh that dies, and people are eternal–distort the truth by promoting beliefs that have a long and pagan heritage.

When writers, like Paul, speak of not living according to the flesh, the context makes it evident that they are not speaking of human biology or of the epidermis skin layer. Rather, they are using the concept of the fleshly biology to instruct on the condition of humanity that powerfully inclines a person toward sin and away from God.

who put no confidence in the flesh–though I myself have reasons for such confidence…a Pharisee…persecuting the church…faultless.” and “their mind is on earthly things.” (Phi 3:3-6, 19)

Notice that Paul defines his own meaning of the term flesh with aspects that have nothing to do with physiology, but rather with things that attach to and put our focus toward this physical life, like status, position, choices, and efforts at doing good. John speaks of this distinction as the “love of this world”, which focuses on desires that we crave after, lusts of what we want, and bragging about the amazing things we can do:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man [flesh], the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.” (1 Jn 2:15-16)

In this way the term flesh is used to provide the distinction between two competing foundations upon which a person lives—flesh or spirit. Neither flesh nor spirit here are speaking of the above aspects of humanity, rather the flesh is a reference to the basis of natural choices toward sin which we crave after to our own hurt, and spirit is a reference to the basis of godly desires enabled through the Holy Spirit which honor the will of God.

Notice how Paul defines the context and meaning of his own words:

“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Eph 2:3-5) [NIV ’84]

“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” [NIV new]

The NIV changed its initial usage of “human nature” back to the more literal wording of “flesh” (in its most updated translation), but the context still supports both the original word and descriptive meaning. We are taught here that our cravings, desires, and thoughts propelled us toward gratifying what came naturally. The word here for “by nature”, which is translated this way in both of the above translations, comes from the Greek word: phusis. It means natural production, native disposition, and natural constitution or usage. It is the same base word for the phrase-word: man-kind.

The human “native disposition” since the fall in the Garden is to choose our own path in determining what is good and desirable—to default to our education, our abilities, our reasoning, our wisdom and knowledge, our preferences and desires—rather than to remain dependent upon God for such direction and satisfaction. Paul specifically tells us that this is our natural human craving which has resulted in our human condition of being “dead in transgressions” and “by nature deserving of wrath”.

This meaning is the reason Paul describes his own natural struggles as a faithful Christian in wanting what is right, but seemingly to be continually struggling with this pull toward selfishness:

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, It is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature [flesh]. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Rom 7:15-20)

Sin is not a substance that is possessing Paul and making him do bad things. He is speaking about the common struggle that we all face in wanting to do what is right before God, but actually choosing sin at times. As a Christian, he belongs to Christ, so it is not the new person who is causing this, but rather the ongoing natural presence of this sinful condition that still infects Christians who have yet to be fully transformed this side of the return of Christ.

In the above text, Paul personifies sin—he describes it in an artistic manner that makes it sound like it is alive and human. Back in verse 5, he speaks about this internal struggle as being “controlled by the sinful nature” or flesh. Our biology does not force us to do anything. He is not speaking about our nervous system getting out of control. He defines this as “the sinful passions” that all people have. Those are our desires which propel us toward finding satisfaction in our own way. It is so real and so powerful, even overwhelming our own mind and will at times, that he speaks here of this passion to sin as if it were a real person, when in reality it is something very real inside of us that we remain responsible for.

He concludes this section by speaking about himself as both a mental slave to God’s law while simultaneously a fleshly slave to the rule of sin. The beauty of this whole discourse is that God is fully aware of this internal tension, and through faith in Christ we have a way through it: by constantly coming to him to be forgiven and cleansed, so that in spite of this internal struggle, we can be counted free from condemnation by God.

At least, that is the promised shift in how God will view such a person, if they increasingly live by the Spirit and not by continuing to sin according to the natural fleshly pattern.

“Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature [flesh], to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature [flesh], you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” (Rom 8:12-14)

In other words, our natural condition remains dire and sinful, and also temporary, but our eternal condition that already applies to a faithful believer is grounded not upon our natural flesh condition but upon the righteousness of Christ through his Spirit. We are not separated from our fleshly condition; we are counted as righteous because of the blood-covering of Christ. Just like the blood on the doorposts for Israelites in Egypt protected them from the death angel who was sent to kill all firstborn humans and animals in that area, so long as they obeyed by painting their doorposts and also remained within their homes, so it foreshadows that Christians are also protected as we obediently “remain in Christ”.

And so, the most significant aspect to humanity is our created purpose to image God. That has been made possible through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus upon the Cross to remove this hateful condition and begin instilling within each believer the holy desire to do the will of God.

Those who seek first his kingdom rule and his condition of righteousness, rather than seeking their own ways, will, and natural desires, are promised to be granted increasing relief from this internal struggle and increasingly be fully satisfied beyond anything that could be experienced or even imagined through body, mind, soul, spirit, or this life.

Come, Lord Jesus, come!

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When Scripture Speaks of the Gospel

Have you ever wondered why the Bible seems to present the gospel through a blender?

Within Scripture, Jesus’ singular gospel is presented from several different angles.

At times, the gospel is addressed by considering the eternal plan and will of God that was determined from before the world began. This speaks of the original source and purpose that initiated and sustains the gospel. These passages do not put the focus on individuals, as many mistakenly think, but firmly upon God’s plan through Christ.

“And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1:8-12)

At other times, the text is emphasizing who Jesus is. In these passages, the subject is about the nature of Christ and that he is the fullness of God to mankind. Here is where the gospel speaks of the deity and humanity of Christ, born of a virgin as a physical human and proven to be the Son of God by being raised from the dead by the power of the Spirit.

“the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:2-4)

Again, there are many passages of Scripture that speak of the gospel in terms of what Jesus accomplished, particularly centered upon the work completed on the Cross. This is about what Jesus has done. This is the core of what is referenced under the term justification. These are the words that define the New Covenant in the blood of Christ and celebrated through Communion.

“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” (1 Cor 15:1-11)

A significant portion of the Bible teaches the gospel in terms that focus on how this good news applies to people. In these sections, the topic emphasizes how this gospel connects to believers. Most of these passages can be compiled under the subject heading of sanctification, where believers mature into the likeness of Christ, and where they do the works God has prepared for them to do, and where they endure in faith.

“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven”. (Col 1:21-23)

A lot of the New Testament teaches on the shift of the standard by which believers are expected to live. The focus is away from the definitions and practices commanded through the Mosaic Law and upon the life and words of Jesus as guided by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This gospel, though spoken about through the prophets of old, was first announced and initiated by Jesus, and as such cannot be an extension of previous covenants; rather, it is the reality and everything else just a former shadow of this new standard.

“But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom 7:6)

Scripture also teaches details about this gospel in terms of its culmination, rather than just its initiation, or ongoing development. These are the verses that celebrate the glorious return of Christ and the hope held out in resurrection to a new life, body, and purpose in the Kingdom of God. This is the glorification part of the promised salvation.

“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Rom 8:23-25)

Some of the Bible addresses the hard-to-receive truth that this gospel is not automatic, that it can be rejected, that it can be distorted and a believers faith shipwrecked. This is about those who begin well, but end poorly.

“Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.” (Lu 8:13)

Numerous statements in Scripture also speak of the gospel in ways that focus on the boundaries in defining what exactly is this gospel, and what is not acceptable as Jesus’ gospel. The foundation for defining this gospel is something that was established at the very beginning of the early church, and the Bible says that no one in future generations is allowed to alter that original teaching with their ideas of updated doctrines that shift what was first taught and once-for-all given to the church.

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ…All who rely on observing the law are under a curse…You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” (Gal 1:6-7; 3:10; 5:4-5)

The gospel is more than a message that can be packaged in a paragraph, it is a calling that must be lived. It is considered good news in what it promises to accomplish, but it can only be received as good for an individual when they respond to the call of God and demonstrate their own willingness to live according to the gospel.

“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…who had believed in him, Jesus said, ‘if you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will now the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” (Jn 1:12; 8:31-32)

It should be noted, that the gospel is principally about the good news of salvation that God designed for those Christians who accept Jesus through faith in this life, but the overall plan of God referenced in Scripture, actually extends beyond the boundaries defined in this gospel. Significant as the gospel is, it still is just a subset of the redemptive plan of God. This mystery applies to those passages that speak of Christ as savior of all men, not just believers. This is not part of the gospel, but it is a truth that extends the plan of God further than can be grasped through the gospel. This does not mean that everyone will be saved, or that none will be destroyed forever in Hell, but rather that what God is currently focused on in the Church is only part of a greater plan of mercy that will extend beyond the confines of just those who are confirmed in Christ today. Nevertheless, it is the gospel that Christians are expected to accept and promote, while understanding that there is even more planned by God that will somehow impact humanity.

“As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies on your account; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” (Rom 11:28-29)

To rightly understand this amazing gospel, and carefully divide the word of truth as one approved by God, a believer must approach Scripture with a recognition of these different angles by which the gospel has been revealed. Each passage must agree with the others in how we understand the meaning of the gospel, but they do not all speak of the entire package. In this way the truth of the gospel, even though recorded in plain sight, remains veiled and hidden from the educated and unfaithful. As a result, a discerning student of the Bible will put the puzzle pieces of the gospel together in a way that upholds the overall revelation, and not fall into the trap of thinking that one passage can be taken out of the overall context and used as a basis for defining a new understanding of the gospel. The gospel has many facets, but only one underlying foundation and meaning. There is only one gospel, spoken about from several different angles, which reveals the whole.

This is how to begin the approach to defining the gospel rightly. There are many, many distorted ideas roaming about in the Church that do not submit to the above distinctions in how God has packaged and recorded the evidence about what he means by the gospel of Jesus. Different people and denominations will tend to highlight passages that stand out to them, and form beliefs around those key passages, but which do not equally submit to the other revelations within Scripture. A believer of noble character will look to Scripture, not for justification for what they want to believe or were initially taught, but to see if such views are consistently in agreement with the entire revelation about the gospel.

Bible verses tend to reveal specific details that fit in a context and that address a part of the whole. It would be a mistake to use one verse, or a few similarly worded passages, to form a foundation through which all other passages must fit or be discarded. All of God’s words are equally holy, and we have not been given the right to cut-and-paste.

For example, when the Spirit declares that if a person confesses Jesus as Lord, then they will be saved, many incorrectly assume that this is a magical prescription by which a simply announcing “I believe in Jesus” will guarantee them salvation. This true declaration identifies the core and beginning of faith—openly confessing faith in Jesus—but it does not provide any guarantee of culmination if such a professing person continues to live in disobedience. To such distorted beliefs within the church, the Bible repeats several times, “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom”.

Another common mistake is to assume that the gospel is primarily about us. Passages can certainly be found that concentrate on applying the gospel to individuals and the benefits that can be expected, but that is just one part of the overall message. Such beliefs shift the focus away from where the gospel points believers to the supremacy of Christ, to the plan and will of the Father, and to upholding the holy name of God.

The sad prophecy is that in the end times in which we live, many professing Christians will abandon the faith and refuse to acknowledge the truth and so be saved. We are told that they will surround themselves with teachers, friends, fellow church members, and denominations that will agree with what they want to believe, but will not be careful to uphold the original gospel as once for all given to the saints. All will claim to be right, often engaging in powerful missions and ministries with their version of the gospel, and suggesting that the deceivers are somewhere else in other churches.

“I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” (Ju 1:3-4)

Hunger and thirst for what the Bible declares about the righteousness of Christ offered in the gospel. Fix your focus and beliefs on him and not on popular human definitions. Strive to rightly divide the word of truth by submitting to what it says, by looking for what the Spirit confirms, and by ensuring your views sustain complete agreement with every text that addresses some aspect about the gospel. Ask for the wisdom of discernment and then show your humility before God by repenting when he opens your eyes to his truth and your previous mis-representations of his gospel. Don’t be deceived: not one of us will be immune from this need, so prepare yourself for Godly sorrow that leads to repentance.

When the mote is out of your own eye, then you will see more clearly—for that moment, and until the next layer of maturing, which will likely require yet another humbling surgery of your mind’s eye—so  that you can help others to recognize the glorious gospel of Jesus. Transformation begins in the mind and in part is submitted to by refusing to conform to the ways and patterns common to humans, even within the Church. Come out and be separate.

There is no reason to be ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for all those who believe.

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