Friday, July 8, 2016

The Christ Life is Not Sin Management
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 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. (Romans 7:14-17)
Paul’s letter to the Jesus followers at Rome addresses a rift between Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers in Jesus. He shows that they are all in the same boat: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Sin is the brokenness of our relationship with God, and every sinful act reveals the brokenness of that relationship, not only with God, but with each other and even within our own selves. This was the problem for both Jews and Gentiles.

The Jews had the law of Moses and the Gentiles had the law of conscience, yet both suffered from the same problem, the problem of sin management. In Romans 7, Paul shows us how this played out. It is not a pretty picture, but an important one. But before he gets into it, Paul first tells us that we have “died to the law” through the body of Christ (that is, through his death on the cross) so that we may belong to Christ, whom God has raised from the dead (v. 4). Does this mean that the law itself was wrong or sinful? No, not at all. Rather, it was through the law that sin became apparent as the destructive thing it is (v. 7). But it also became an opening for sin to rise up and show its ugly, broken self. Paul then offers an example with the Tenth Commandment: “Do not covet.” It is a very good law, and we should be better people for it. But watch what happens:
But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. (Romans 7:8-11)
Call it the “law of unintended consequences.” The law of God was not intended to be an occasion for sin, yet that is what it became because of the darkness of the human heart. Sin, the brokenness of our relationship with God, “seized the opportunity” — notice that Paul emphasizes this by saying it twice — and showed itself out in relationship with others. The problem was not the law of God but sin itself, our own brokenness. And now Paul begins to describe the desperate plight:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 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. (Romans 7:14-17)
Paul sees a terrible disjointedness at work: wanting to do what is good but not doing it; not wanting to do what is wrong but doing it anyway. Not because the law of God is bad but because of the bondage of our brokenness. Paul speaks of it as being sold into slavery, and it is a terrible bondage. There is no understanding it. Jesus prayed even for those who were crucifying him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Now notice carefully the conclusion he draws at this point, for he will say it again just a few verses later: “It is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.” The brokenness has consumed him and is beyond his control. It is not merely a matter of volition, of choosing good rather than evil. It is, rather, an incomprehensible helplessness he expresses here.

Up to this point in Romans 7, I think, what Paul has had in mind is the Jew in relation to the law of Moses. Perhaps he was drawing from his observation of fellow Jews as well as from his own experience and recognizing the common experience. But now, I believe, he turns his mind to the Gentile, who did not have the law of Moses but had the law of conscience. So he continues further down the rabbit hole to show that the case is no better for them. It’s the same story all over, and Paul comes again to the same conclusion:
For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but 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. (Romans 7:18-20)
Neither Jew nor Gentile have the advantage over the other. They are both enslaved by their broken condition and neither law nor conscience are of any benefit in helping them manage it. There is a terrible disconnect between what God created us to be and what our turning away from God did to us.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. (Romans 7:21-25)
It is a wretched condition he has portrayed for us, one that desperately cries out for deliverance. But the good news of the gospel is that there is deliverance. God does not leave us in this terrible condition but delivers us through the Lord Jesus Christ. “Thanks be to God!” Paul is now ready to talk about this deliverance, which is the substance of Romans 8. But first he recaps the problem in a single sentence: “So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.”

At this point, I would like to pause a moment. There are many Christians who have believed and taught that what Paul details in Romans 7 describes the Christian life. If that is so, then ours is truly a very sorry lot, a life of frustration and defeat that leaves us as prisoners and slaves. And it demonstrates the problem of sin management. Surely it is not for this sorry slavery that Paul gives thanks to God. Rather, his thanks and praise is for the deliverance we have in Christ.

So now, let’s proceed to the next verse, which is the beginning of Romans 8. The chapter divisions were not in Paul’s original letter but were added many centuries later. On one hand, I am sorry there is a chapter division here because people often tend to put a mental stop at the end of a chapter, and to stop at the end of Romans 7 would leave us hanging. Yet on the other hand, I am glad for the division here because there is a night and day difference between the life Paul describes in Romans 7 and the one he reveals in Romans 8. Romans 8 is the stunningly and unexpectedly gracious solution to the terrible problem detailed in Romans 7.

Let us, then, step over into Romans 8. Because this post is already longer than usual, we will look at only the first two verses for now, but that will be quite enough to make my point:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2)
There are a few important things we can observe here. First is the word, “therefore.” If refers us to what has been said previously. Here, it connects us to Paul’s answer to the question, “Who will deliver me from this body that is subject to death?” The answer: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And now Paul begins to explain that answer: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Whatever the desperately dreadful experience was that Paul described in Romans 7, there is now absolutely no condemnation awaiting us. It was never any condemnation that came from God anyway but was the brokenness of our own turning away from God. When we turned from God, we turned from the source of light and life. All that was left for us then was darkness and death. But in Jesus Christ, we are delivered from that.

Paul takes it further. How is it that there is now no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus? “Because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” In Jesus Christ, we have received the life of the Spirit and are set free from both sin and death.

So now we are not only not condemned but, more than that, we are set free. Apart from Christ, there was imprisonment to the law and slavery to sin. But in and through Christ, we have become dead to the law and are made alive to God — set free to live by the Spirit of Christ.

The Christ life, then, is not a sin management program. Such programs are nothing but chains and checklists and are doomed to failure because they are based on our own ability — and apart from the life and power of God, we are completely helpless. But the stunning revelation that changes everything for us is that the Christ life is Christ himself living in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, revealing Abba Father to us, in us and through us.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth

“Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a phrase often associated with “hell” in the popular religious imagination. It is found seven times in the New Testament, six of those in the book of Matthew, but all of them from the mouth of Jesus. What does this phrase mean? And does it really have anything to do with hell?
  • But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:12)
  • They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:42)
  • And throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:50)
  • Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:13)
  • He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:51)
  • And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:51)
  • There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. (Luke 13:28)
Weeping and Gnashing
What do these words mean, and what does this phrase indicate? Let’s look first at the “gnashing” of teeth. The Greek noun is brugmos; the verb form is brucho, to “gnash.” There are several instances of these words found in the LXX (the Septuagint, ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament). It is not used to indicate remorse, or the suffering of torment, or the pangs of hell but is a symbol of anger and often depicts snarling or growling.
  • “God assails me and tears me in his anger and gnashes [brucho] his teeth at me; my opponent fastens on me his piercing eyes.” (Job 16:9)
  • “But when I stumbled, they gathered in glee; assailants gathered against me without my knowledge. They slandered me without ceasing. Like the ungodly they maliciously mocked; they gnashed [brucho] their teeth at me.” (Psalm 35:15-16)
  • “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash [brucho] their teeth at them.” (Psalm 37:12)
  • A king’s wrath is like the growling [brugmos] of a lion.” (Proverbs 19:12)
  • “The wicked will see and be vexed, they will gnash [brucho] their teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.” (Psalm 112:10)
  • “All your enemies open their mouths wide against you; they scoff and gnash [brucho] their teeth and say, ‘We have swallowed her up. This is the day we have waited for; we have lived to see it.’” (Lamentations 2:16)
In none of these verses does the use of brucho or brugmos indicate remorse. They all indicate anger.

In the New Testament, in addition to Jesus’ use in the Gospel, we find the verb brucho in Acts 7:54, where it indicates the anger of the Jews at Stephen’s preaching, just before they stone him. “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed [brucho] at him with their teeth.” Here it is used very literally but still as an expression of intense anger.

The word Greek word for “weeping,” klauthmos, can certainly mean remorse, as it does in a few instances in the LXX. But more often than not, it indicates a lament that is not about remorse. Remorse is regret about one’s own action, but lament is about loss or calamity that has befallen. It is not the silent weeping of one bravely holding back tears; it is the dramatic wailing of one who has suffered great loss.

But what is the cause of the angry lamentation and seething rage we find in the New Testament examples? Is it loss of heaven or consignment to eternal perdition? No, it is something very different and close to hand. It does not depict a post-mortem, other-worldly condition but a now ancient event. It is not about hades, the realm of the dead, but about gehenna, an historical judgment. In every instance, this “weeping and gnashing of teeth” has to do with the kingdom of God.

The Kingdom of God
The burden of Jesus’ preaching ministry in Matthew was that the kingdom of God had now come into the world. His parables were all about the kingdom, and his miracles were a manifestation of the presence and power of the kingdom. His Sermon on the Mount was, from beginning to end, about the kingdom.

Toward the end of his Sermon, Jesus warned, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Remember that he was addressing Jewish listeners and was particularly critical of the Pharisees. There was a “narrow” way that led to life — which in context of the kingdom of God would be participation in the kingdom — and few would find it.

But there was also a “broad” way that was headed for destruction, and many would follow that path. Understand, also, that the “many” and the “few” of whom he was speaking was particularly in reference to the Jews. For just a handful of verses later he speaks of those who find the kingdom, and this is where we find the first reference to “weeping and gnashing.”
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8:11-12)
Notice that there will be many, not few, who come into the kingdom. They come from east and from west. They are not of Israel or Judea. They are not Jewish but Gentile, which is to say that they are from the surrounding pagan nations. Many of these would come and take their place at table in the kingdom of God.

But what of the many Jews who followed the broad way to destruction? They were the natural subjects of the kingdom and to whom all the promises belonged? They would be thrown out. They would not have any part in the kingdom that should have been theirs. These are the same who, in Jesus’ parables, are thrown into the “blazing furnace” (Matthew 13:42, 50), thrown outside, “into the darkness” (Matthew 22:13; 25:30), and assigned “a place with the hypocrites” (Matthew 24:51). In each instance, they are enraged, wailing and seething in anger.

The End of the Age
This “weeping and gnashing,” Jesus said, would occur at “the end of the age.” In Matthew 24, Jesus tells us about when that would be. He had just been in the temple, where he had pronounced a series of “woes” to the Scribes and Pharisees. He wept over Jerusalem, whom he had longed to gather under his protection — but they refused. And he foresaw what they were unable or unwilling to see: “Your house will be left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:37-39).

As he departed from the temple, the disciples came marveling about the immensity and grandeur of the temple complex. But Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

The disciples were curious. Confused. Concerned. They came to him later, on the Mount of Olives, and asked him about it. “When will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” They were not asking him about three different things but about one thing three different ways. They wanted to know when the temple would be destroyed. This, for the Jews, would be tantamount to the end of the world. But the disciples were now associating it with the sign of Christ coming in the glory and power of his kingdom. The end of their present age would mark the beginning of the new age of the kingdom.

The rest of Matthew 24 is Jesus’ answer to their question. Both the city of Jerusalem and the temple were to experience terrible destruction, as would all who were in them. It would be the end of the age — and it would happen within their generation (see verse 34).

Jesus’ prophecy was fulfilled in the summer of AD 70, when the Roman armies that had laid siege for three and a half years finally reduced the city and temple complex to bloody rubble. This was the destruction to which the “broad” way of Matthew 7:13 led. The Jewish temple system was no more. The Jews who would not follow the “narrow” way of the kingdom, and of Messiah, God’s Anointed King, had Jerusalem ripped from their hands. And there was much “wailing and gnashing” of teeth in the days that followed.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Random Thoughts

Thoughts culled from my random file, gathered from my Twitter tweets, Facebook updates and Instagrams. About divine love, relationship with God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • The good news of the gospel is that King Jesus the Messiah, whom God has raised from the dead, is Lord of all. Follow him.
  • Intimate relationship with God is the seedbed for every pure desire.
  • Jesus said that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. If you want to know what is in your heart, stop and listen to your mouth.
  • Sometimes the breakthrough we need the most is the breaking of our hearts.
  • We change the world by surrendering to the passion of God.
  • We are as close to God as we are ever going to be. In him, we live and move and have our being. We just do not yet realize how close that really is.
  • We do not truly understand the meaning of a thing until we find Christ within it.
  • A prayer for writers: Lord, give me grace today to write what is true. Amen.
  • I am always in need of the mercy of God ... especially when I think I am doing alright.
  • The revelation of Jesus Christ transforms us. We become what we behold.
  • Today I silence all the voices that speak out against me. The blood of King Jesus declares much better things over me.
  • Today I am living out of the new creation and ignoring the remnant echoes of the old.
  • Give up the vain struggle to overcome sin. It has already been overcome by Jesus the Messiah. Dwell on him.
  • Lord, fill me with the desire for You. Fill me with a desire for the things You desire. Then fill all those desires. Amen.
  • Repentance is turning to God, away from dependence on everything that isn’t God. Everyday is a good day to repent and learn to trust God more.
  • Christ is best revealed in us not by our perfections but by our helplessness.
  • Christ fully embraces my brokenness and heals me with his love.
  • The whole world is a sacrament that everywhere presents us with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Lord, let me be emptied of everything but You, that I may be truly filled. Amen.
  • The change we really need does not come from psychological techniques or spiritual disciplines but by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit.
  • How blessed it is to realize our helplessness, for then we can hope in God and trust His love.
  • How blessed it is to acknowledge our sin, for then we can hope in God and trust His forgiveness.
  • When we choose to forgive, we are allowing God to love another through us.
  • Forgiveness is choosing to trust that, whatever wrong we may have suffered by another, God will make us whole. It begins with the words, “I forgive,” and continues as often as the need arises in our heart.
More random thoughts …

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reading with the Church Fathers (Part 3)

Jesus taught that the Law and the Prophets are about him. That is how the early Church Fathers understood the Old Testament, rejecting interpretations that were inconsistent with the revelation of God in Christ, as presented in the New Testament and the sacraments. This often entailed setting aside literal interpretations as unworthy of Christ.

An important and often disturbing issue that regularly comes up concerns the violent passages in the Old Testament. Though there have been several strategies to mitigate the magnitude of physical violence indicated by a literal reading of these passages, there remains much that does not square with the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Church Fathers, therefore, found Christ in the Old Testament Scriptures through non-literal interpretations, as did the New Testament writers. In this post, we will see how they understood two of the most prominent scenarios: the violence texts found in the book of Joshua, and the instruction given to Saul to slay all of the Amalekites.

There are several scenes in the book of Joshua that indicate divinely-sanctioned violence. By a literal reading, it sounds like genocide, the total destruction of a people. Origen addresses these in his Homilies on Joshua. He does not take them literally but as Christ defeating our spiritual enemies. Concerning the violence done to the cities of Lachish, Libnah, and Hebron (Joshua 10), Origen says:
But one who is “a Jew secretly,” that is, a Christian, who follows Jesus, not as the son of Nun but as the Son of God, understands all these things are mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. He affirms that even now my Lord Jesus Christ wars against opposing powers and casts out of their cities, that is, out of our souls, those who used to occupy them. And he destroys the kings who were rulers in our souls “that sin may no longer reign in us,” so that, after he abolishes the king of sin from the city of our soul, our soul may become the city of God and God may reign in it, and it may be proclaimed to us, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Homilies on Joshua, by Origen. Translated by Barbara J. Bruce. Homily 13, p. 125)
Concerning the things that followed after Jabin, in Joshua 11, Origen says:
Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches. For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,” and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, “Not avenging your own selves,” and, “Rather, you receive injury,” and, “You suffer offense”? In short, knowing that we do not have to wage physical wars, but that the struggles of the should have to be exerted against spiritual adversaries, the Apostle, just as a military leader, gives an order to the soldiers of Christ, says, “Put on the armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm against the cunning devices of the Devil.” And in order for us to have examples of these spiritual wars from deeds of old, he wanted those narratives of exploits to be recited to us in the church, so that, if we are spiritual — hearing that “the Law is spiritual” — “we may compare spiritual things with spiritual” in the things we hear. (Homily 15, p. 138)
1 Samuel 15
Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3)
This was the word Samuel brought to King Saul. By a literal reading, Saul was to completely destroy the Amalekites. There was to be no mercy. Every man, woman, all the children, including infants, were to be slaughtered along with all the cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys. Saul carried out this command. Mostly. But he left alive King Agag. And he took some of the choice sheep and cattle and offered them in sacrifice before the Lord, though it was not his place to do so.

When Samuel came and discovered Saul’s failure to obey completely, he was very displeased and said to him, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams ... You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!” (1 Samuel 15:22, 26). Then Samuel had Agag brought before him, “and Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal” (v. 33).

How very different this sounds from the image of God that is perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. But how did the Church Fathers understand this passage through Christ? Most of them did not address the question of violence but focused on the spiritual issue of obedience to the Lord. There is, however, this from Maximus the Confessor, in his second hundred of his Two Hundred Texts on Theology:
53. Saul is the natural law originally established by the Lord to rule over nature. But Saul was disobedient: he spared Agag, king of Amalek [cf. 1 Sam 15.8-16, 13], that is, the body, and slipped downward into the sphere of the passions. He was therefore deposed so that David might take over Israel. David is the law of the Spirit — the law engendering that peace which so excellently builds for God the temple of contemplation.

54. Samuel signifies obedience to God. So long as the principle of obedience exercises its priestlike office within us, even though Saul spares Agag — that is, the earthly will — yet that principle in its zeal will put him to death [cf. 1 Sam 15. 33]: it strikes the sin-incited intellect and puts it to shame for having transgressed the divine ordinances. (from The Philokalia, translated by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Vol 2, p. 150)
Notice that Maximus does not take this as a literal slaughter of Agag but as controlling the passions between of body and soul. Agag is a symbol of “the earthly will” as opposed to obedience to the will of God.

The Church Fathers repeatedly took the meaning of these kinds of passages to be spiritual in nature, not about physical slaughters but about Christ and the conflicts of the soul.

Part 1 | Part 2

Friday, June 17, 2016

Reading with the Church Fathers (Part 2)

We have been looking at how the early Church Fathers understood various Old Testament passages. A literal or historical reading often presented a portrait of God that contradicts the revelation of God presented in Jesus Christ, who is the “exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3). This creates a tremendous theological problem, and some early Christians, following the lead of Marcion, rejected the Old Testament altogether.

The early Church Fathers were well aware of the problem but were unwilling to resolve it by rejecting the Old Testament as Marcion had done. Instead, they read the Scriptures through the revelation of Christ and the gospel, as presented in the New Testament. It was Christ himself who said that the Old Testament Scriptures are about him. But Christ is not plainly presented in the Old Testament as he is in the New, so a plain reading simply will not do — it does not conform to the intended purpose of the Old Testament, which is to present Christ.

The Fathers, then, understood the Old Testament through metaphorical, symbolic and allegorical readings. Now we will look at a few more examples.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
By a literal reading, this prescribes what sounds very much like a genocide — not just the defeat of an enemy but the total destruction of an entire people. No treaty, no quarter, no mercy. But is this how God is portrayed in Christ, or how Christ is portrayed in the New Testament? The Church Fathers certainly did not think so. John Cassian, in his Conferences, reads this passage in a figurative way and understands the seven nations not as seven actual nations to be annihilated but as vices to be completely eliminated.
These are the seven nations whose lands the Lord promised to give to the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We must accept the fact that, according to the apostle, all the things that happened to them in a figure were written for our instruction. The reason that they are said to be much more numerous is that there are more vices than virtues. Therefore in the list they are counted as seven nations, to be sure, but when it is a question of destroying them they are said to be innumerable. (Conference 5)
Psalm 137:8-9
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
By a literal reading, this sounds like God blesses the wanton and calloused destruction of Edom (the “daughter” of Edom) and even the brutal killing of infants (or children, or perhaps young men). But a literal reading contradicts what Christ teaches us: to love our enemies. So a literal reading was set aside by the early Church Fathers, who interpreted this text along these lines:
And David, pitying her, says, “O wretched daughter of Babylon.” Wretched indeed, as being the daughter of Babylon, when she ceased to be the daughter of Jerusalem. And yet he calls for a healer for her and says, “Blessed is he who shall take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” That is to say, shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ, who by his fear and his rebuke will break down all actions against reason, so as, if any one is seized by an adulterous love, to extinguish the fire, that he may by his zeal put away the love of a harlot and deny himself that he may gain Christ. (Ambrose, Concerning Repentance)

For “the little ones” of Babylon (which signifies confusion) are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who “dashes the little ones against the stones”; and he is therefore truly blessed. God may therefore have commanded people to destroy all their vices utterly, even at their birth, without having enjoined anything contrary to the teaching of Christ. And he may himself have destroyed before the eyes of those who were “Jews inwardly” all the offspring of evil as his enemies. (Origen, Against Celsus)
Isaiah 63:1-6
Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.” Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress? “I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing. It was for me the day of vengeance; the year for me to redeem had come. I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm achieved salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me. I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.”
Again, by a literal reading, this sounds like God rejoicing to destroy Edom in a rage of revenge and blood-lust. But again, this is not at like God as portrayed by Christ and the gospel. But see how very differently the Fathers understood this passage by a Christ-shaped reading.
The only-begotten Word of God ascended in the heavens with his flesh united to him, and this was a new sight in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded seeing the king of glory and the Lord of hosts in a form similar to ours. And they said, “Who is this that comes from Edom [that is, from earth], in crimsoned garments, from Bosor.” But “Bosor” is to be interpreted as “flesh” or “anguish and affliction.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 41)

And does not also the Holy Spirit, speaking in Isaiah, testify the same thing concerning the passion of the Lord, saying, “Why are your vestments red and your garments as from treading the wine press full and well-trodden?” For can water make vestments red, or is it water that is trodden by the feet in the winepress or forced out by the press? The mention of wine is placed there, indeed, that in the wine the blood of the Lord may be known and that which was afterward manifested in the chalice of the Lord might be foretold by the prophets who announced it. The treading and pressing of the winepress are also spoken of, since wine cannot be prepared for drinking in any other way unless the cluster of grapes is first trodden and pressed. Thus, we could not drink the blood of Christ unless Christ had first been trodden on and pressed, and unless he had first drunk the chalice of which he should also give believers to drink. (Cyprian, Letter 63)

And, if they marvel and say, as in Isaiah’s drama, “Who is this that comes from Edom and from the things of the earth?” or “How are the garments red when he is without blood or body, as of one that treads in the full winepress?” — if they say this, then set forth the beauty of the array of the body that suffered, adorned by the passion and made splendid by the Godhead. Nothing can be lovelier or more beautiful than that. Will you think little of him because he humbled himself for your sake? Do you conceive of him as less because he girds himself with a towel and washes his disciples and shows that humiliation is the best road to exaltation? (Gregory of Nazianzus, On Holy Easter, Oration 45)

They call the red land “Edom,” and “Bosor” to the flesh; they were amazed at the ineffable beauty of the one wrapped in earthly and fleshly apparel, such as to drive those who looked to love. The blessed David is mindful of this beauty: “Fair and beautiful among the sons of humankind.” That Edom means flame-colored is affirmed in the Song of Songs by the bride, who cries, “My beloved is red and white.” Christ’s nature is twofold. Therefore, white means the inaccessible light of divinity, red the human appearance. For this is the time for these who were brazen to receive retribution and for those unjustly enslaved by them to get their freedom. He calls “arm” the power of righteousness, for he guarded spotless and free from sin the nature that he assumed. We who have benefited from this good work and have been delivered from that bitter slavery, let us sing praises to the author of these things. He was the one who underwent the battle and provided us with the gift of victory and peace. Let us hope that we can enjoy this victory until the end, by the grace of the one who has conquered. (Theodoret of Cyr, Commentary on Isaiah)

In order, however, that you might discover how anciently wine is used as a figure for blood, turn to Isaiah, who asks, “Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bosor with garments dyed in red, so glorious in his apparel, in the greatness of his might? Why are your garments red, and your clothing as his who comes from the treading of the full winepress?” The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if he were already on his way to his passion, clad in his fleshly nature; and as he was to suffer therein, he represents the bleeding condition of his flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the winepress, from which the laborers descend reddened with the wine juice, like men stained in blood. (Tertullian, Against Marcion)
For the Fathers, this was not the blood of physical enemies but of Christ. This is the passion and humility of the cross; not Christ taking the life of the Edomites in a bloody rampage but Christ giving his own life, shedding his own blood for our sakes. Some also saw, in the opening lines, a depiction of Christ ascending into heaven, risen and victorious.

Of course, the Fathers were not infallible in their interpretations. But the point is that they were reading the Old Testament in ways that are consistent with Christ instead of in literal ways that contradict him.

Part 1 | Part 3

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reading with the Church Fathers

As we saw in the last post, the New Testament authors found Jesus throughout the Old Testament — not by a plain, literal reading of the text but by figurative, metaphorical and allegorical readings. The early Church Fathers followed this same pattern of interpretation. The examples of this are as numerous as the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, over the next few posts, we will focus on a few of them. We will first consider them from a literal or historical reading, then we will look at how the early Fathers understood them through a Christ-centered, gospel-centered reading.

Psalm 41
This psalm came up in my devotional reading this morning. By a plain, historical reading, it is about David and his experience of God. But the Church Fathers understood it as about Christ and the gospel. Theodoret of Cyr makes an observation in this psalm that is generally applicable to all the psalms: “Since the Lord says, ‘for the Scripture to be fulfilled,’ and shows the present psalm applies to him and no one else, I consider it rash and presumptuous to develop another explanation not applicable to him” (Commentary on the Psalms).

Ambrose comments on the superscription as it is found in the Septuagint version of this psalm. “He who had perished in Adam had to be restored in Christ. That is why we have, at the head of the psalm, ‘To the end,’ because Christ is the end to which all our hope is directed” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms).
Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the LORD delivers them in times of trouble. (Psalm 41:1)
Gregory of Nyssa says of this: “The Word defines blessedness for us in another way than at the beginning. For in the first psalms, to depart from evil was blessed, but here to know the good more fully is pronounced blessed. Now the nature of the good is the ‘only-begotten God,’ ‘who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor.’ The Word here predicts his ‘poverty’ in the flesh, which is pointed out to us through the Gospel account, pronouncing the one who has recognized that ‘poverty’ with understanding blessed” (Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms).
I said, “Have mercy on me, LORD; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” (Psalm 41:4)
Theodoret of Cyr understands this as Christ identifying with us in our poverty, suffering and sin: “I am the one who is poor, he is saying, who embraced voluntary poverty, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who makes my own the sufferings of human beings, who though having committed no sin offers the prayer for human nature as nature’s firstfruits” (Commentary on the Psalms).
My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die and his name perish?” (Psalm 41:5)
Here, Augustine says: “He died, but his name did not disappear; far from it. Rather was his name sown like seed. As the grain was dead, the harvest sprang up. No sooner had our Lord Jesus Christ been glorified than people came to believe in him far more strongly and in much greater numbers; and then his members began to hear the same mutterings that their Head had heard” (Expositions of the Psalms).
When one of them comes to see me, he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander; then he goes out and spreads it around. All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me, saying, ‘A vile disease has afflicted him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.’ Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me. (Psalm 41:6-9)
Theodoret sees in this the false charges brought against Christ as he stood before Pilate. Ambrose and Augustine see Christ’s betrayal by Judas, as do Arnobius the Younger and Diodore of Tarsus.
But may you have mercy on me, LORD; raise me up, that I may repay them. I know that you are pleased with me, for my enemy does not triumph over me. Because of my integrity you uphold me and set me in your presence forever. (Psalm 41:10-12)
Theodoret says: “All this was said on the part of the nature assumed, which was involved also in the passion. Since, then, the assumed nature remained free of all wickedness, it was right for him to say, ‘But you supported me for my innocence and confirmed me in your presence forever’” (Commentary on the Psalms).

Second Kings 2:8-14
This passage also came up in my devotional reading this morning. By a literal, historical reading, it is about the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and the to left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied. “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours — otherwise, it will not.” As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. (2 Kings 2:9-14)
The simple narrative is that Elijah parts the Jordan River by striking it with his mantle, then they both passed between the waters to the other side. There is a brief conversation about Elisha receiving Elijah’s spirit. Then a chariot of fire suddenly appears and Elijah is conveyed to heaven in a whirlwind. Reading through the lens of Christ and the gospel, however, the Fathers see that there is much more at work in this account.

Origen understands the parting of the Jordan and crossing to the other side as baptism, just as Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:2, understood Moses leading the children of Israel between the waters of the Red Sea as baptism:
We must note in addition that when Elijah was about to be taken up in a whirlwind as into heaven, he took his sheepskin and rolled it up and struck the water, and it was divided on this side and that, and both crossed, that is to say, himself and Elisha. He was better prepared to be taken up after he was baptized in the Jordan, since Paul, as we explained previously, called the more incredible passage through water a baptism. (Commentary on the Gospel of John)
He understands the “spirit” of Elijah in regard to John the Baptist as a precursor of Christ:
And this also we have brought forward, because of John having come before Christ “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” in order that the saying “Elijah has already come” may be referred to the spirit of Elijah that was in John; as also the three disciples who had gone up with him understood that he spoke to them about John the Baptist ... And likewise, by Elijah, in this place, I do not understand the soul of that prophet but his spirit and his power; for these it is by which all things shall be restored, so that when they have been restored, and, as a result of that restoration, become capable of receiving the glory of Christ, the Son of God who shall appear in glory may sojourn with them.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew)
Bede the Venerable, in his Homilies on the Gospels, understands the whole narrative as a rich typology of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the imparting of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the institution of the sacraments of the Church. This is a longer passage but provides a very good example of a Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament.
The prophets proclaimed the mystery of the Lord’s ascension not only by their words but also by their actions. Both Enoch, the seventh from Adam, who was transported from the world, and Elijah, who was taken up into heaven, gave evidence that the Lord would ascend above all the heavens …

Let your love take note, my brothers, how the symbolic event agrees point by point with its fulfillment. Elijah came to the river Jordan, and having laid aside his cloak, he struck the waters and divided them. The Lord came to the stream of death, in which the human race ordinarily was immersed, and laying aside from himself for a time the clothing of flesh that he had assumed, struck down death by dying and opened up for us the way to life by rising. The change and decline of our mortal life is properly represented by the river Jordan, since the meaning of Jordan in Latin is “their descent,” and since as the river flows into the Dead Sea, it loses its praiseworthy waters.

After Jordan was divided, Elijah and Elisha crossed over on dry land; by his rising from the dead the Savior bestowed on his faithful ones the hope of rising too. After they had crossed over the river Jordan, Elijah gave Elisha the option of asking for what he wanted. The Lord too, after the glory of his resurrection had been fulfilled, implanted in his disciples a fuller comprehension of what he had promised previously, that “whatever you ask in my name, I will do.”

Elisha asked that the spirit of Elijah might become double in him. The disciples, thoroughly instructed by the Lord, desired to receive the promised gift of the Spirit, which would make them capable of preaching not only to the single nation of Judah, which he himself taught when he was present in the flesh, but to all countries throughout the globe as well. Did he not pledge the double grace of his Spirit when he said, “A person who believes in me will himself also do the works that I do, and he will do even greater ones than these”?

As Elijah and Elisha were conversing together, a chariot with fiery horses suddenly snatched Elijah as if into heaven. By the chariot and fiery horses we are to understand the angelic powers, of whom it is written, “He makes the angels his spirits and his ministers a burning fire” (Elijah, being an ordinary human being, had need of them to be raised up from the earth). The Lord too was suddenly taken up as he was speaking with his apostles and as they were looking on; although he was not assisted by the help of angels, he was served by an angelic band of companions. He was truly assumed into heaven with the angels also bearing witness to it, for they said, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven.”

When Elijah was raised up to the heavens, he let the cloak with which he had been clothed fall to Elisha. When our Lord ascended into heaven, he left the mysteries of the humanity he had assumed to his disciples, to the entire church in fact, so that it could be sanctified by them and warmed by the power of his love. Elisha took up Elijah’s cloak and struck the waters of the river Jordan with it; and when he called on the God of Elijah, were divided, and he crossed over. The apostles and the entire church took up the sacraments of their Redeemer that had been instituted through the apostles, so that, spiritually guided by them and cleansed and consecrated by them, they too learned to overcome death’s assaults by calling on the name of God the Father and to cross over to undying life, spurning the obstacles of death.
Though we may not be accustomed to reading the Old Testament in this fashion, the Church Fathers were. But it is important to note that they were not undisciplined or unlimited in their approach. Their understanding of the Old Testament did not venture outside the boundaries of Christ and the gospel. All was understood within that framework.

Part 2 | Part 3

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Reading the Old Testament with New Eyes
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:45)
On the evening of his resurrection, the Lord Jesus encountered two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were downcast and did not recognize who he was. Jesus asked about what they were discussing and the cause of their disquiet. They explained. Then Jesus said to them:
“How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
That same evening, Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples back in Jerusalem and said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Luke adds, “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).

Jesus taught that the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms — which is to say, the Old Testament Scriptures — are about him. In his Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). To the unbelieving Jewish leaders, he said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:39-40, 46).

The author of Hebrews shows us the same thing when he quotes Psalm 40:7 and applies it to Jesus. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come — in the volume of the book it is written of me — to do your will, O God’” (Hebrews 10:7 NKJV). The entire Old Testament, the “volume of the book,” is about Jesus.

This has profound implications for how the Old Testament Scriptures ought to be interpreted. For one thing, it means that any reading of the Old Testament that contradicts the revelation of Jesus Christ in the New Testament is a misreading. For another, inasmuch as Jesus is the “exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3), that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in him in bodily form (Colossians 2:9) and that whoever has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9), then any reading of the Old Testament that portrays God in a way that contradicts how God is portrayed in Jesus Christ is likewise a misreading.

The manner in which we read the Old Testament will differ from how we read the New Testament. In the New Testament, Christ is presented plainly in the text. In the Old Testament, Christ is just as present as in the New, but not as plainly. We need to read the Old Testament in a different way, through the eyes of Christ.

After the Emmaus disciples had been with Jesus, they asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). This was something they had not experienced before. The Greek word for “opened” is an intensive one and means to open thoroughly and completely. It is the same word used about the disciples in Jerusalem later that evening, when Jesus “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” Now they could see in the Old Testament what had been there all along, that it is all about Jesus.

We do not find Christ in the Old Testament by a plain, literal reading of the text. But a non-literal reading of the Scriptures was nothing new, not even among the Jews of Jesus’ day. But what changed for the disciples was that now they understood the Scriptures through Christ. We can find examples of this in the New Testament Scriptures.We have already noted that the author of Hebrews applies Psalm 40:7 to Christ. In a plain reading of that psalm, it is not about Jesus or Messiah but refers to David’s desire to keep all the Law of God. But the author of Hebrews now reads it with new eyes, as presenting Christ.

For another example, Matthew 2 tells us about Joseph taking Mary and Jesus down into Egypt and bringing him back to Judea after the death of Herod. Matthew records, “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matthew 2:15). The prophet he quotes is Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” By a plain, literal reading, Hosea 11:1 refers to God delivering the children of Israel out of Egypt, an event we know as the Exodus. But Matthew understands it as a reference to Christ.

There are many other examples we could turn to, but in Galatians 4, Paul gives us a theological understanding of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and her handmaid, Hagar, and he explicitly identifies it as an allegorical reading.
For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic [allegoreo]. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar — for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children — but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Galatians 4:22-26 NKJV)
Paul tells us the meaning of Sarah and Hagar. They are two covenants. Hagar is Mount Sinai; Sarah is the Jerusalem that is above. Paul was not reading this back into the Old Testament, inserting theological ideas that were not already present in the Scriptures. They were there all along, and Paul simply discovered what was inherent in the Scriptures by reading them through Christ.

The disciples and the New Testament authors understood the Scriptures in a non-literal way because they were reading them with a Christ-centered understanding. Next time, we will look at how the early Church Fathers followed this same understanding.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Get Out of Hell Free?

There are many Christians who are offended at the thought of post-mortem conversion — that repentance and faith might be a possibility after death for those who had none before, so that they might turn and know God and be rescued. “They should receive a ‘Get Out of Hell Free’ card?” they chide.

“Get Out of Hell Free” is a mocking crude way to put it, but there it is, and it shows us something of the mentality of these offended ones. They assume that those who did not have the foresight to repent during life ought to suffer the torments of hell forevermore after death. It is too easy, they think, to repent once one has experienced that infernal place.

Leave aside that they often have a very unbiblical idea of hell. For them, hell is some sort of imprisonment — an eternal jail — imposed by God upon the wicked for having rejected God. Leave aside also the crudeness of the “Get Out of Jail Free” card analogy and let’s think about it for a moment. Would that not also be the same thing God has done for all who turn to God in this present life? Are such not considered to be rescued from an infernal existence in the age to come?

Why, then, should they be offended at the thought that God might offer the same for those who experience torment in the age to come? Is it somehow more difficult to repent in this present existence than it is for those who are suffer torment in the next? That would seem to cast timely repentance as some sort of meritorious work. But repentance is always a gracious gift from God. Otherwise none of us should ever be able to break free from our bondage to self and turn to God.

Now think for a moment about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This son treated his father very shamefully then went off to an alien country far from home. There he squandered his inheritance on an immoral life. A terrible famine came and left him in a desperate situation. But then, Jesus says, “he came to his senses.” He remembered his father’s house and the goodness of his father. He was ashamed of how he had acted. He repented, got up and returned home.

And what did the father do? Did he say, “No, you don’t get a ‘Get Out of Famine Free’ card. Your repentance was too easy and came too cheaply”? Quite the opposite, the father saw him coming in the distance — he had been watching for his son all along, you see — and ran out to meet him. He embraced him as his son, receiving him fully and completely into his house. Then he threw a great feast in celebration, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

But the father’s older son was upset by all this and thought his father far too gracious and forgiving of his younger brother. He wanted to shame his younger brother — and his father, as well — but the father would have none it. “We had to celebrate and be glad,” he said, “because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (I have written more about the Parable of the Prodigal Son here.)

Should we suppose that God is any less gracious than the father in Jesus’ parable, that he would ever turn away anyone who turns to him in faith — even if it be from the bowels of hell? But of course, the question remains: Is post-mortem repentance even possible? My answer is that it is not only possible, it is inevitable. The reason I believe this is the New Testament tells us how everything will be in the end. There are several Scriptures that indicate this, but I will focus here on two. The first one is found in Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. This will be universal; there will be no being of whom this is not true and no realm in which it is not so. The language of knee bowing and tongue confessing is not the language of what has been coerced by force or threat or anything else. It is about what is freely and willingly offered, worship freely given. In another letter, Paul tells us that no one can confess Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The confession that Jesus is Lord is the language of faith inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The second Scripture is 1 Corinthians 15:28, where Paul describes the final state of all things and tells us that God will be “all in all.” That is an all-inclusive statement and leaves nothing and no one out.

Because every knee will one day bow to Christ and every tongue confess him as Lord, and because God will finally be “all in all,” it seems quite apparent to me that even those who have not turned to God in this present life will have opportunity to do so in the age to come — and will indeed do so. For God, who knows the end from the beginning and what he has purposed to do in Jesus Christ, has told us what that purpose is and how it will all be in the end.

Call it “Get Out of Hell Free” if you must, though that is a crude depiction and betrays a man-centered understanding rather than a Christ-centered one. But I will speak of the eternal love, grace and mercy of God that pursues us even in hell.