Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Perfectly Joined Together

Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together. (Psalm 122:3)
Jerusalem is Zion, “the city of our God … the city of the Great King” (Psalm 48:1-2). It is where the “tribes of the Lord” go up to worship the Lord and give thanks (Psalm 122:4). It is the place of the “house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1).

The revelation of the New Testament is that there is a New Jerusalem, a heavenly city which will one day come down and join heaven and earth together as one — the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. And all who believe on King Jesus the Messiah are now citizens of that city (see Praying With Zion).

The psalm writer says that “Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together.” One translation puts it this way: “Jerusalem is built as a city whose fellowship is complete” (this is Brenton’s English translation of the Septuagint, which is an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament).

For the psalm writer, Jerusalem was more than a geographical location, it represented a relationship — the people of the Lord entering together into His presence. It is a fellowship that is complete, compacted together.

Paul writes about the Church in a similar way. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, he admonishes the Jesus believers at Corinth to be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” He wanted their attitude and behavior to reflect what was actually already true about them. And in his Ephesians letter, he describes that truth about our relationship as the body of Christ, with Christ as the head,
from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:16)
Joined and knit together. A city that is compact together, whose fellowship is complete. That is the truth about the heavenly Jerusalem and the reality of our identity in Christ. Let us, then, be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. In this way we will manifest who we are in Christ, and the unity that we truly have in Him.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Many or Few? A Surprising Answer

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
This is part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” It is a popular text for many preachers, one they can use in any number of sermons to bring a strong sense of urgency to whatever their message happens to be. Just tag on a few words about the narrow and broad ways, about how few find the narrow way that leads to life but many continue on the broad road to destruction. It plays well, especially to those who have assured themselves that they are among the few who are on the narrow way to life. And these are, after all, the “red letter” words, the word of Jesus.

However, this is not the end of the story. For not many verses later — in the very next chapter, in fact — Jesus says this:
Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 8:10-11)
Jesus had just healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-10). Being a centurion, this man understood very well the nature of authority but he also believed that Jesus had the authority to heal, and that made for a strong faith. The result is that his servant, though not even present, was healed at Jesus’ word.

Jesus commended the man’s faith. It was exactly the kind of faith He had been looking for in Israel, among the Jews, but had not found. And now here was an outsider who knew how to trust Him. But then Jesus talked about others just like this man, outsiders who would come from east and west and would be a part of the kingdom of God. Not just a few, but many would come. The Greek word for “many” here is the same one used earlier, about the “many” on the broad way to destruction. In the earlier passage, only a few would find the way to life. But here is this one, there are many who will enter it.

So which will it be, many or few? Will there be only a few who come into the kingdom of God and find life, or will there be many? We can find the answer to that by considering two things: Who is Jesus talking about, and when is Jesus talking about?

First, who was Jesus talking about? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing the Jews, many of whom, whether they realized it or not, were on a path to destruction. But in Matthew 8:10-11, Jesus was talking about those who come from east and west — the outsiders, like the Roman centurion whose servant He had just healed. Not just a few, but many like him will come into the kingdom.

Second, when was Jesus talking about? Pay attention to the tenses that are used in each case. In Matthew 7:13-14, we find the present tense: “There are many” who go in by the broad gate, and “there are few” who find the narrow one. Jesus was not necessarily foretelling the way things would be in the future but He was talking about the way things presently stood. Many of the Jews were at that time on the wrong path, one that led to destruction. But surely one purpose of Jesus’ sermon was to show them the right path, the one leading to life. For He said that He came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

Now look at the tense used in Matthew 8:11: “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This is future tense, not about the way things were at the time but about the way things will be in the future. Many will come, and many will sit down in the kingdom of heaven (the Greek text shows that both the coming and the sitting down are future tense).

There will be many, then, who enter into the kingdom of God and see life. Even among the Jews, we should not suppose that only a few will find it, for Jesus’ warning was not about what will be or must be, but only about what then was the case when Jesus began His ministry. Indeed, we can expect to see many Jews, as well, who will take their place in God’s eternal kingdom. For that appears to be Paul’s expectation as he concludes his long discussion about Israel in Romans 9-11, “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Short of the Glory

For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
Perhaps you have heard that one before. Many people have. It has been thundered from many pulpits and bellowed on a thousand street corners. Maybe you read it on a roadside billboard, or even on the side of a barn somewhere in rural America. Often the focus is on the bad news that “all have sinned,” and the problem that creates between us and God. Fair enough.

But there is also some good news hidden in that verse, and it is this: We were created to participate in the glory of God. Man was created in the image of God and according to His likeness.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
God’s plan from the beginning was for us to be like Him and to be His image in the world. In other words, we were created to bear the glory of God. Like the moon bears the glory of the sun and reflects it to the earth, we were meant to reflect His greatness and goodness to all creation.

The terrible news about sin is that by it we have “come short” of that glory. We have all “sinned.” The Greek word, hamartano, literally means to “miss the mark.” God created us to reflect His goodness, but we have done what is evil. God meant for us to show forth His righteousness, but we have done what is not right. Consequently, we have fallen far short of the glorious role He prepared for us.

But the good news is that in the Lord Jesus Christ that glory is being restored in us, as Christ lives His life through us, the Holy Spirit brings forth His fruit in us, and the Father conforms us to the image of His Son (Galatians 2:20; Galatians 5:23-23; Romans 8:29). Indeed, the mystery that has been revealed in the gospel is that Christ in us is the hope, or expectation, of glory (Colossians 1:27). And now, as Paul says, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Seventy Times Seven

In the fragmented way we often read Bible passages, we usually do not hear how they resonate together, though they may be separated by many centuries. For example, take the case of Lamech, and how he rationalized killing another man:
Then Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my speech! For I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23-24)
In the Septuagint (aka, LXX), which is an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the words for “seventy-sevenfold” are hebdomekontakis hepta.

Now contrast this with Matthew 18, where Peter asks the Lord Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (v. 21). Do you remember Jesus’ answer? “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (v. 22).

First, notice that Peter asks about forgiving his brother “seven times” (Greek, heptakis). Lamech spoke of Cain (who killed his brother, Abel, remember) being avenged “sevenfold” (in the LXX, heptakis). Peter is on to something here though he does not yet realize how far it is to extend.

But see how Jesus sets aside Peter’s limitations and says, “No, seventy times seven.” The Greek words are hebdomekontakis hepta, the same as in the old Greek translation of Genesis 4:24. These are the only two places in the Bible where this phrase is found. However, see how Jesus’ use of it brings a reversal.
In Genesis 4, Lamech’s use demonstrates how justified he felt in killing another man. “Seventy times seven” was the measure of how much his vengeance was worth. But on Jesus’ lips, “seventy times seven” is no longer about vengeance but forgiveness.

King Jesus overturns old paradigms and sets things right side up.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Lessons from Hebrews on the Nature of Faith

Hebrews 11 has often been called the “hall of fame of faith,” because of the litany of Old Testament saints and the dynamic of faith at work in their lives.
  • When Abel “offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews11:4)
  • When Noah “prepared an ark for the saving of his household,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:7)
  • When Abraham “obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:8)
  • When Abraham “dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:9)
  • When Abraham “offered up Isaac, and he who have received the promises offer up his only begotten son,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:17)
  • When Moses became of age and “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:24-26)
  • When Moses “forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:27)
  • When Moses “kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:28)
The answer, of course, is that it was all “by faith.” What does this tell us about the nature of faith?