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Friday, July 30, 2010

"In" but not "of" the World

People who believe in Jesus and dedicate their lives to worshiping Jesus and following Jesus are called to be in the world. A select few, the smallest minority, are called to the isolation of life in a monastery where most of life is spent in solitude, praying alone. I think that call is as legitimately issued by God as any calling. Perhaps the call out of the world at large and into the inner world of constant solitary prayer went out to Anna, the daughter of Phanuel (Luke 2:36-38). However, most Christians are not called out of the world permanently. Most of us are called by God to serve Him in the world as witnesses who tell the story of salvation in Jesus Christ.

However, we are not the be
of the world. The grime of sin and the desperation of those lost and far from God should not rub off on believers. Rather we should affect unbelievers with the grace of God so that whether or not they turn to Christ after having met us, their lives are brightened because they experienced God's love having received if from us. The world should be a holier place because of the presence of Jesus' disciples. We disciples should not be tainted or dirtied because we've been in the world. We're here as God's emissaries. Heaven is our home and our time here should not lead us to become more worldly.

The "in but not of" discussion pertains to all areas of life. In our relationships, in our moral conduct in social environments and work environments, in casual comings and goings, and in every conceivable human interaction, Christians either live as those sent by God, or we live like those who do not know God. The "in but not of" dynamic permeates every corner of life including the arenas of money and power.

These issues are in play in a specific exchange Jesus had with men who approached under the guise of innocent seekers. Their humble approach could not hide the devious purposes in their hearts. They were spies from the scribes and chief priests and they came with a question intended to trap him in his own words (Luke 20:20-26). "Teacher ... is it lawful for us to pay taxes to emperor or not?" By lawful, they meant lawful in the eyes of God. In 6AD Judas the Galilean led a revolt against Roman occupation of the land God had promised to his chosen people, Israel. Part of Judas' platform was the notion that it was a violation of God's law to pay taxes because the taxes were engraved with an image of Caesar. Such a "graven image" violated the 2nd commandment (Exodus 20:4).

Of course the catch to this type of zealous religious commitment was that if an Israelite refused to use Roman coins and pay the tax, he would be breaking Roman law. The Romans had all the military power as their crosses of crucifixion showed. Judas the Galilean went to his death for the sake of Israelite independence (that never came). The scribes' spies in Luke 20 did not have such valor in their hearts. They wouldn't die for a cause, but they were happy to either lead Jesus to do so or to expose him as a charlatan. They were engaging in political game playing only for Jesus the consequences were potentially fatal. And the scribes - Israel's religious leaders - did not care.

In answering these insidious inquirers in Luke 20, Jesus could say, "Yes, pay the tax." In this way, he'd appear to be deferring to Rome's might. He'd lose his groundswell of support and be seen as a paper tiger who cow towed to the unclean gentiles.

Or, Jesus could say, "No, don't pay it." He'd look heroic, but word would quickly be leaked to the governor and Jesus, who was already raising eyebrows, would be seen as dangerous, subversive. In that case, his arrest would be a forgone conclusion. Jesus wasn't looking to get arrested. He never avoided or sought it. He spoke the truth about man's sin, God's love, and the community of faith he was building. He spoke that truth openly even as the highest temple officials in Jerusalem opposed him. And, maintaining his composure even before the torturers whip, he spoke that same truth after he was arrested.

Maybe that's the key for us - 21st century Christians trying to live as witnesses in the world, but as people who are not of the world. Maybe the quickest way for to point to Jesus is to speak and to live the truth (lovingly and compassionately) no matter what it may cost us.

To the questioners Jesus asked, "Whose head and title" is on the coin? The acknowledged that it was the emperor's image, and so he told them to "give to the emperor things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's" (v.25). To understand Jesus' response to this tricky inquisition, we must remember Luke's point of view. He and his readers knew Jesus was Lord, and God was god of everything. So, as powerful as he seemed to human eyes, the emperor himself was in actuality subject to God. He along with every other person belonged to God.

Jesus was not about to be painted into a corner by a coin. The most important part of his answer is the part about giving to God what belongs to God. To those spies sent by the chief priests, Jesus issued a challenge. What exactly belongs to God? Everything! So, they needed to stop trying to pick Jesus apart with disingenuous queries. They needed to step back and realize that they themselves belonged to God. They needed to give what belonged to God to God. They needed to submit their own hearts to God's glory and to God's purposes. Until they did that, they were not ready to ask Jesus questions. Until they recognized God as the ultimate and only true authority, they were nothing more than puppets manipulated by the religious leaders who sent them.

Luke's worldview, which was Jesus' worldview, was that God was and is in charge of everything. God allows humans to sin and we do. God allows the consequences of sin to play out in human society. This accounts for most of the messes we have to deal with. However, as corrupt and vile as the world can sometimes seem, God is always God and is always in control. Jesus demonstrated this by reducing the ridiculous test,
do we pay Caesar's tax or do we not pay it, by establishing a timeless truth. "Render to God the things that are Gods." They knew as do we that all things are God's. And as followers of Jesus, we must speak that truth in all places and times, no matter what may happen as a result of our saying.

Revelation 10 and the Sovereignty of God

Often my posts appear to be more theological commentary or reflection, but that's because that is how I work things out. I read, think, pray, and then God reveals things. That's what happened with this 'sovereignty discussion.' I have been in discussions about determinism and sovereignty for about 6 months now and I find Keener's observations very helpful in understanding my faith, my very understanding of God.

I have heard the phrase “sovereignty of God” floated in theological debates recently. In some cases it has become a dividing line, and dogmatic adherents of a particular position make no room for debate. You’re on their side, or you are wrong. The specific case in point regards salvation. Some insist that not only does God know in advance all who will be saved, but God determines in advance all who will be saved. God determines all who will be saved (and conversely all who will be damned to eternal Hell).

Those of this mindset declare this to be a sure sign of God’s sovereignty. If God was the sole determining influence in salvation, and if it we human beings had a voice in it by our choice to follow or reject Jesus, then it would mean God was not sovereign. We know God is sovereign because the Bible asserts this (Psalm 8:1). Thus, God is sovereign, ergo, God determine eternal destiny of all (Heaven or Hell).

I believe completely that God is sovereign, but I do not accept the reasoning that sovereignty leads to determinism. Those who do believe that draw a hard line and have trouble allowing for multiple positions in the conversation. I think God’s sovereignty does not impede human freedom to follow God or rebel against God. So, how do we discuss sovereignty without falling into this debate about determinism?

I was surprised to find very helpful teaching about sovereignty of God in Craig Keener’s commentary on Revelation chapter 10 (NIV Application Commentary: Revelation, Zondervan, 2000, p.279-285). In Revelation there are four series of seven judgments – the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven thunders, and the seven bowls. John gives a thorough depiction of what is said in the seals, trumpets, and bowls, but not the thunders. Why?

Chapter 10 begins with a mighty angel (v.1). Keener points out that angels as they are described in the book of Revelation, exert considerably more power and inspire infinitely more awe than do Greek gods. Revelation was read by Greek speaking Jews, Asians, and Greeks, all of whom would have been familiar with and heavily influenced by the polytheism of ancient Greece. These were gods created in man’s image and suspect to the same personality quirks and flaws as men and women. The angels of Revelation were otherworldly, mighty. And they all fell subject to the God of Israel, revealed in Jesus Christ. The first century reader would look at the text of Revelation 10 and think “Holy smokes! The God described here is far more powerful and awesome than anything I’ve ever heard of.” Revelation 10 points to the sovereignty of God.

So does the secret of the Thunders. We know all about the terrifying images that came when the seals were opened and the trumpets blew. We’ll hear a lot more beginning in chapter 16 when the bowls of wrath are poured out. Here is what we Bible readers get with the thunders. “When the seven thunders sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down” (10:4). In his commentary, Keener concludes, “most likely the seven thunders remain mysterious in order to teach that the hidden things belong to God” (p.281). In other words, we have to accept that there are things we cannot know until God reveals them. And if God chooses to never reveal these things, then as an act of fait and a way of submitting to the Sovereign Lord, we accept that we will never know.

Using this principle of submission before our Sovereign, I turn back to the conversation about salvation – do we choose Jesus or do we have no say in the matter? Who is saved and how it happens exactly is for God to know. We know salvation took place on the cross. How it is appropriated into the lives of individuals is God’s concern. Our God-given mandate is to be a witness to God’s sovereignty, God’s love, and to the story of God’s coming in the form of a man, Jesus of Nazareth. “God rules the future” (Keener, p.84), and we don’t need the details unless he decides we need them.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Angels and Trumpets

What would it be like if we could leaves the boundaries of space and time and journey to Heaven and listen in as God discusses with angels and within the Trinity the events of our time? What if this discussion centered around the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? How different would God’s perspective be than our own?
“The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures died, and a third of the ships were destroyed” (Revelation 8:8-9).

Might this be our way of understanding Heaven’s description of the oil spill? I don’t mean that Revelation 8:8-9 is a direct prediction, a prophecy that was fulfilled when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded. I don’t think that one moment in history in April, 2010, is the single fulfillment of prophecy. I don’t believe Revelation works that way exactly.

Rather, it seems that John was given Heaven’s perspective regarding events on earth. And he wrote as a human being trying to understand what God had shown him. The incredible visions Revelation are real pictures of how the events of the history of mankind fall into God’s overall plan. But the comparisons are not direct. John wrote within his own timeframe and in a specific literary style. He wasn’t envisioning an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He didn’t know what the Gulf of Mexico was and his version of a spill involved an overturned flask of the olive variety. The symbols and method of employing those symbols he used fit his context.

Many commentators have tried to link the prophecy of Revelation to events in 20th and 21st century Israel and 20th and 21st century America. John Wesley interprets Revelation chapter 8 in terms of the events of the history of the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean world in the 1st through 5th centuries AD. His approach (and that of many other Bible scholars, theologians, church history experts, and preachers) is the right one. John wrote in terms intelligible in John’s world. John was guided by faith and had the Roman world in view.

Thanks to the brilliance of the Holy Spirit who inspired him, he wrote words that speak beyond him. What John said goes beyond what John could know because the Holy Spirit gave his words a power no human, no matter how creative, could possess or communicate. So, John saw a vision that he understood to be the forces of heaven at work in destroying marine life in a dramatic fashion, killing 1/3 of aquatic life and sinking 1/3 of the ships at see.

Whatever it was that John saw, it accurately relayed this truth. God is all powerful – more powerful than the sea. Humankind is amazing. I can’t imaging swimming at 5000 feet below sea level. I can’t really conceptualize 5000 feet below sea level much less doing anything down there. But, human beings figured out how to go down their and drill for oil. Whether or not you think it is a good idea to do that, it’s impressive that humans can. And with the impressive depths of human knowledge, comes the ability to do great good and to do great damage as in the case of the oil spill.

However, no matter how great the feats of humans (landing a man on the moon, discovering a concoction of drugs that help someone live with aids), or the evil (the Holocaust, genocides throughout history), or the mess (Deepwater Horizon, Exxon Valdese), humanity’s power, while great, pales before God. One third of the aquatic life died (Rev. 8:8). One third of the fresh waters became undrinkable (v.11). One third of the stars were darkened (v.12). John saw God’s power on display.

God did not cause the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. British Petroleum bears the blame for that. And, it is a huge disaster and should not be understated. We must pray for the clean-up efforts and for the people of the Gulf Coast region. Those among us (“we” being we who do not live along the Gulf Coast) who are available to help with the clean-up and have the ability to offer the kind of help needed should sacrifice personal time to go and help. That’s what Christians do. At the same time, we read Revelation and stand with mouths agape at the power of God. And reading Revelation to the last chapter, we know one day that those who are in Christ will be in the Heavenly city where there will be no oil spills.