July 2012


The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments (Photo credit: bamalibrarylady)

Yesterday, Part 1 brought up the debate over how the Law, grace, atonement, character, and faith relate, and the confusion over Paul’s apparent conflict with Jesus’ teaching.

Many people believe that Paul sort of trumps Jesus because Paul’s preaching is more “updated” after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But this has a sneaky way of making Paul the reigning expert and Lord instead of Jesus. It’s unintentional, of course, but nevertheless dominant in church thinking today.

If you want a good example, just ask any pastor, layperson, or yourself what the Gospel is. Ninety-nine percent will quote a dozen verses from Paul, but not a single quote from Jesus. (More info here: A Badly Needed Clearer Gospel.)

I myself did this for decades. But it’s just one of many inadvertent forms of “harlotry” that I now call The Great Substitution.

Lover or Hater?

At any rate, with the preliminaries from Part 1 in mind, let’s look at what Paul says in the book of Romans about the relationship between life, death, spirit, and Law. We’ll see he isn’t the Law-hater he’s been assumed to be, both in his day and ours. It’s the letter (or “works”) of the law and Death he opposes, while he loves the true Law and working of grace. In fact, all his epistles repeat this theme. And, to my great relief and amazement, he’s right in sync with Jesus.

Romans 7:6

“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.” Followers of Christ are “dead” to rule-following and alive to God because Jesus abolished Death, not love.

Romans 8:2

“…because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”

Romans 8:4

“…in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”

Thankfully, because God changed His tactics by sending Jesus to abolish Death, He doesn’t require flawless obedience. He simply wants honest practice and growth—fruit. Thus, the fruit of the Spirit that Paul teaches in Gal. 5:22 (love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness) is precisely the righteous requirements of the Law he teaches here.

Anyone who says you cannot change your sinful nature underestimates the transformative power of human spirit working in conjunction with divine Spirit. Sure, by yourself you can’t do it. But that’s different from doing it with help from Jesus, the now-living, fully competent Expert on life.

Romans 2:13

“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” This agrees with James, who says we shouldn’t be hearers of the Word only, but doers of the Word (Jas. 1:22-23).

Romans 3:31

“Do we, then, nullify the law by [our] faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” Jesus won’t obey for us, but he will show us how to keep God’s commands. Grace and substitutionary atonement mean that his atonement substitutes for our atonement, not our obedience.

That’s why we no longer need repeated animal sacrifice but are still accountable to the Law’s intent. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows the way in great detail; faith means we follow his instruction because we trust that he, more than anyone else, knows what he’s talking about.

Romans 13:9

“The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Old Yet New Again

In Jhn. 13:34, Jesus gave a “new” command to love one another as he loved us, but it wasn’t new because God had just recently thought it up. It was new because people hadn’t heard it from their leaders. This mind of the Spirit was almost a foreign concept that had to be reintroduced. “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as their teachers of the law.” (Mrk. 1:22)

In the Pharisees’ day, God had already proven His point through Israel’s long history that human virtue isn’t a matter of following divine rules. That doesn’t mean God wasted His time or that the Law was no good and should be thrown out. It means that mankind had reached a pre-determined point, ready for the game-changer: Jesus, the Messiah and Savior.

He teaches and demonstrates what kind of person lets the Law of love flow from the inside, thereby becoming well enough (“fit”) to live with God in His great kingdom of love. Regardless what tactics God uses over time to teach the world, His prime message is consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments.

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD.” (Psa. 119:1) Not because they have to, but because it’s who they are in spirit.

 

 

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Bible Study 1

Bible Study 1 (Photo credit: DrGBB)

The spirit of the Law, as opposed to the letter of the Law, is what matters to God. It’s about heart, will, spirit, nature, or character, which is where the legalistic Pharisees went afoul.

Not all people who keep the Law are righteous. And people who don’t keep the Law are not righteous. But all righteous people keep the Law—not flawlessly, but wholeheartedly in the Spirit of love and joy.

Today, the debate rages on over how the Law, grace, atonement, and faith relate. It’s easy to get confused by apparent contradictions in Paul’s letters, or seeming conflict between Paul and Jesus. The incorrect premise is that through the cross, Jesus abolished the Law. But what he actually abolished, for the joy set before him, was spiritual Death.

God’s Law is Good

This act of grace on God’s part allows us to safely re-learn how to live in the goodness of His ways. But, according to Paul, the sinful mind opposes the Spirit and therefore does not, and cannot, correctly submit to God’s Law.

Of course, the Law by itself won’t make you a good person any more than traffic rules will make you a good driver because no one, including God, can legislate morality. No law has transformative power. But spirit and intent does, including the spirit of God’s Law.

So it isn’t some evil thing to avoid. After all, it’s as much God’s Word as anything else is. Cheerful, willing practice brings increasing competence and blessedness. “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” (2Cor. 3:6)

Grace and faith don’t kill obedience, but rather, bring it to life, although God expects it to be child-like and clumsy at first. That’s okay, and in fact, necessary; and that’s good news!

Preliminary Thoughts Toward the Mind of the Spirit

As I wrote in another post, and to shed light on the confusion, it’s important to first distinguish between secondary laws like clean vs. unclean food, tithing, circumcision, etc., and the Law, the Ten Commandments. Jesus boiled the Law down to two commands: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Paul boiled it down to one: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Gal. 5:14) And James put it this way: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” (Jas. 2:8) All three men are quoting Leviticus 19:18, the Law of the Spirit and spirit of the Law.

We should also assume Jesus to be the prime Expert on anything and everything. No Pharisee, priest, prophet, apostle, scholar, or institution overrides him; and he never cancelled the Law. So really, no amount of worship, confession, prayer, “belief,” bible study, speaking in tongues, or witnessing can honor the Lord if his Law is ignored because, according to him, “If you want life, obey the commandments.” (Mat. 19:17) Again, we’re looking at spirit, intent, and desire as opposed to a grim, outward image of compliance.

Enduring Wisdom

Don’t think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Mat. 5:17-18)

“It’s easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luk. 16:17)

With his fine intellect and wit, Jesus often addressed serious issues with a touch of sarcastic humor, aimed mostly at bombastic Pharisees who imposed heavy life-style burdens. He knew that neither heaven nor Earth would be disappearing anytime soon; so these remarks showed just how serious he was about the true Law, yet simultaneously told misguided Pharisees to lighten up.

Heaven and Earth still haven’t gone away and everything is not yet accomplished. Therefore, if we’re to take Jesus seriously, we should understand that the Law remains in effect today. It’s silly to call him Lord if we’re going to disregard him, and even more ridiculous to pit the cross, the ultimate act of love, against the Law, the ultimate policy of love, both of which come from God who is love.

So when Jesus says to keep the commandments, he doesn’t mean to go get circumcised and make a burnt offering, or be sure to stone your neighbors when they wrong you. He means to become a healthy person who happily thinks and carries out acts of love.

Tomorrow (rather than next week), with these preliminaries in mind, Part 2 will look at what Paul has to say in the book of Romans. You might be as pleasantly surprised as I was that there’s less confusion than most of us have been taught.

 

 

 

Jesus Stills the Storm

Jesus Stills the Storm (Photo credit: Will Humes)

Spirit is the fundamental basis on which we relate to God because He is Spirit who intermingles with His physical creation.

For mankind, spirit is the essence of personhood and life. Biblically, it’s synonymous with will and heart, which has a great deal to do with thoughts, feelings, and wishes.

Paul reminds us that the mind of the Spirit is thriving life and peace, while the mind of the flesh is living death (Rom. 8:6). Like Jesus, he wanted people to understand that a physical-only orientation to our world cuts us off from “life to the fullest,” where we languish and die.

Spirit occupies and affects the physical body, yet can’t be located anywhere specific within it. Spirit exists as distinct–co-mingling with physical matter but having independent power to think, choose, and affect it. This is true of the Holy Spirit as well as human spirit because it’s one form of energy.

To use a mundane example, and the best one I’ve heard, the furniture arrangement in your house is your personal power to convey your thoughts regarding it. The furniture didn’t arrange itself under its own power. So the furniture is seen, while the spirit behind its placement is unseen yet just as “real.” My point is that the spiritual realm is the one in which we primarily live and move and have our being and power.

It’s by spirit that you and I arrange our lives, good or bad. That doesn’t mean the physical world is nothing but evil, or something trivial we should try to ignore or escape. It simply means that spirit, thankfully, isn’t limited by it. This is why we can happily be in the world but not “of” the world—just as God is.

The Manifest Power of Spirit

Like morning dew, spirit regularly “condenses” into physical matter from seemingly nothing. Biblical examples are manna from heaven, food for 5,000 hungry people on a remote hillside, the burning bush, and even God’s Word itself becoming flesh, to name just a few from the Old and New Testaments.

You and I are spiritual beings designed to perceive and relate to spirit, often using physical, bodily senses. Scripture is full of people who vouch, “I heard the sound” of rushing waters, or rushing wind, or voices speaking from heaven all around. Others say that an angel or other being “touched me and renewed my strength.” “I saw.” “I felt.” “I heard.”

This sort of thing continues even today, though I think we’d hear more about it in Western society if people weren’t afraid of being dismissed as crazy. In our unbalanced, collective mind of the flesh, we’ve learned to ignore the spiritual “radar” we’re equipped with.

Jesus, the Lord of science, energy, spirit, and matter, reveals God’s world of ceaseless spirit and undying power. He, of course, could walk on water, speak to a raging storm, turn water into wine, or fill an empty net to the breaking point with fish. He could, at will, lay down his life and pick it up again because he is, simply, the Master of life and the Master of death.

Yet, even among Christian pastors and laypeople alike, it’s amazing how many today believe that God no longer speaks or manifests Himself in person, and His only communication with us is limited to the Bible. In this view, encounters with spirit are either imagination or strictly from the devil. Little wonder, then, that they describe relationship with God as difficult and live rather stunted life-styles empty of joy, energy, strength, and grace.

Faith is being certain of what we don’t always see with physical eyes. We walk and act by faith because we can know God’s Spirit and His world of both seen and unseen reality. Undoubtedly, this is what Jesus has in mind when he teaches and corrects the crowds. He aims to prepare and restore the spirit’s sense of place with God, the place of human rightness, pervasive love, and sound well-being.

Bridging the Gap

Last week, I wrote about continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament, and that starting with Israel, God changes His tactics as mankind grows into His reality. As an example, I mentioned the woman caught in adultery, whom Jesus saved from stoning. This week’s example is that God, by Spirit (according to Paul), has now revealed His ancient mystery of unity to prophets, apostles, and thus the entire world, through Christ, who brings life and immortality to light. (Eph. 3:5, 2Tim. 1:10)

God is Spirit whose physical form is Jesus; yet the Holy Spirit can’t be located anywhere specific in space or time, just as human spirit can’t be pinpointed in the body. Jesus is therefore able to be “with man” in any time period whether he or they occupy physical bodies or not. Indeed, his Great Commission assures us that as we teach people to obey all that he commanded, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mat. 28:20)

And even in the ages to come after that, we won’t live in a strange, disembodied world devoid of physical matter. We’ll live in physical, resurrected bodies on a physical, refreshed Earth with familiar animals, plant life, rivers, oceans, and cosmic heavenly bodies. Moreover, we’ll judge angels which, presumably, would involve some kind of interaction (1Cor. 6:3).

Thus, as we practice and grow increasingly “in step” with God’s spirit-saturated world, learning to thrive in it free of darkness and doubt, we become complete, or, “fit” and “perfect.” In fact, we’re created to rule in it, to reign with Christ, the Master of life. As Peter phrased it, we become partakers of the divine nature (2Pet. 1:4). As Paul phrased it, how much more “will we reign in life” through Christ (Rom. 5:17).

Therefore, it’s vital to see and become fluent in the world Christ presents, for it’s where we live now and eternally. He invites us fully into the environment God created for us; and spiritual formation in Christ enables us to celebrate with God, angels, and other spirit beings that even now, the earth is full of His glory (Isa. 6:3).

 

Getup Get God

Getup Get God (Photo credit: prettywar-stl)

The photographer of this graffiti says he saw it in a window and decided to capture it. I saw the photo and decided to use it (freely shareable) to address a widely held misperception among Christians and non-Christians alike.

Many people see God as predominantly unhappy, ready to smite at the slightest provocation. Yet love and grace don’t flow from an abundance of crankiness, but rather, from such profound joy that it spills over even to enemies.

Heaven and angels and all sorts of beings associated with God are consistently portrayed as rejoicing with Him, usually connected immediately with worship. God is supreme in joy, infinite in love, and unmatched in wise, creative goodness. While He’s clearly displeased with some things at some times, that doesn’t mean He’s an ill-tempered Being.

For example, four successive chapters in the book of Job (38-41) are God’s running commentary of delight over the creatures and systems He created on Earth and in its immediate cosmic surroundings. Consequently, Job decides he was a bit rash (though I don’t think entirely unreasonable) in his rant to God. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” (Job 42:3) God evidently didn’t think Job was unreasonable, either, for He wasn’t displeased with Job. Sarcastic with a touch of humor, yes, but not displeased.

At any rate, who knows what God has done in the billions of entire galaxies we’re only now discovering? A decade ago, we didn’t even know they exist let alone what marvels they contain. If you and I can delight over beauty or be greatly moved when gazing upon majestic sights even in this fallen world, think what God gets to see every day throughout His wondrous universe—densely rich things He’s not yet introduced to us.

My point is that we can be happy for God that His pervasive joy pours into His creation, which certainly includes mankind. That delight is meant to be contagious; we should “catch” it from Him because our glad-heartedness, cheer, and happiness delights Him and is a primary form of worship.

Old Testament vs. New Testament

So what are we to make of the “mean” God of the Old Testament? I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few ideas. First, I know that if we overlook the joyful OT God, we’ll never make sense of Jesus or his vision of new life for the world that God has always loved.

I also know that while God Himself doesn’t change, He does change His tactics over the centuries when dealing with mankind. Off the top of my head, one example is the woman caught in adultery, whom Jesus protected from being stoned by the Pharisees.

They, of course, considered Jesus a lawbreaker. But he knew that the New Covenant overwrites the Old Covenant, yet doesn’t alter God’s intent that His Law of love—the Ten Commandments—be both the course and reflection of transformed human spirit and character.

It’s important to realize that lesser laws regarding circumcision, sacrifice, oaths, tithing, stoning, etc., aren’t the Law. The Pharisees had forgotten this, which is precisely what Paul, like Jesus and the original disciples, consistently pointed out.

Common Link

I think a major problem today is the idea that God gave the Law only to show how miserably mankind fails to measure up. God’s Law does do that, but its larger purpose is to restore to us His vision of who we can be. It shows direction and possibility rather than impossibility; and it’s precisely what Jesus embodies and teaches so we can see and pursue that vision.

We might also consider that the twelve original disciples were to Jesus what the twelve original tribes of Israel were to God—an ever-expanding inner circle of collaborators in His plan for the entire world. Although it started with Israel, it was always intended to include everyone—Jews and Gentiles, males and females, young and old, rich and poor, sinners and saints. (Coincidentally, this week I read an interesting article here about the Twelve. Since it fits with my post, you might like it, too.)

It’s wise to remember that Jesus never abolished the Law. What he abolished was Death. When Scripture says that Christ is the end of the Law, it means completion and fulfillment, not cessation or termination. Today’s widespread teaching that Jesus rendered the Law irrelevant is a serious flaw that blinds our faith and paralyzes blessedness.

As the writer of Hebrews said, we fix our eyes on Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). But by ignoring or minimizing the Law, it is we who render Jesus and all his work irrelevant. In his own words, he boiled the Big Ten down to two simple commands: Love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.

This is the common link I see between the OT and NT; and it doesn’t flow from perpetually miserable cranks. It’s the action of people who can cheerfully obey because they increasingly see what God sees as they prepare for bigger, grander, even more delightful things to come.

Therefore, when we trash-talk what God has made, and worse, ascribe that disdain to Him, we easily conclude that He’s either out to get us or has now taken refuge somewhere far away. It’s tough to love and admire a cosmic Sourpuss, yet that’s what we try to do. Then we say that relationship with God is difficult. That distorted view robs us of the desire to collaborate with Him in furthering His good in what He’s already created and, even now, is happily making new again.

 

English: Exterior of the Cadet Chapel on the c...

English: Exterior of the Cadet Chapel on the campus of the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s another short, interesting article at Relevant Magazine: A Natural Disaster With No One to Blame

It’s about some Evangelical groups who frequently tout natural disasters as being God’s punishment for wicked cities and nations, but are now silent about the Colorado wildfires raging through their own HQ neighborhood.

I like reading Relevant’s blogs and articles, but even better, I like reading the comments. You can keep your finger on the pulse of Western Christianity and learn a lot about what rank-and-file Christians think. From time to time, I add my own comments.

Sometimes, I love what other readers say. Other times, I’m shocked. There are Christians who seem to be as lost and even more confused than the non-Christian world (not that I have all the answers or that those who don’t agree with me are automatically “lost”).

Sometimes I want to reach out to them with a reply comment, but then realize it would take an entire book to help or make any sense. So I keep my remarks to myself, and usually, say a little prayer.

But I’ve written that book. It’s currently in the hands of an editor, which is turning out to be a surprisingly slow process. No wonder. The manuscript is just under 400 book-size pages. It might even end up as two books—we’ll have to see how it goes.

So I can’t put all that in a blog comment no matter how well-intended I am. Yet a too-short remark would only encourage flaming arguments, and there’s plenty of that going on already.

On a happier note, I hope my fellow Americans enjoy a safe 4th of July. (My understanding is that some of Colorado Springs has cancelled their fireworks displays, for obvious reasons.) Those of us who aren’t dealing with wildfires can pray for those who are—not just the victims, but the firefighters and other workers who put their time and lives on the line. For those in a position to do more, there are numerous ways to help with donations of money, supplies, or animal rescue-related concerns.

People helping people, Christian or otherwise, is neighbor love in action that contributes to God’s good and the living kingdom of heaven around us. I didn’t always think so, but I know now that’s the best fire to spread and the greatest fireworks display in which to engage and celebrate, especially in the midst of disaster.

What’s your take on the Relevant Magazine article and/or the reader comments?