Friday, August 28, 2015

And the Lord Will Redeem All Our Years

This is a song I wrote years ago (back in the 80s) based on Psalm 126. It was part of a project I did on Psalms 120-134 (aka, Ascent Psalms). I call them the “Pilgrim Psalms.” This song came to mind again as I was praying through Psalms 126-130 the other day (my practice is to pray through the book of Psalms each month — which means five psalms every day).

As time has relentlessly added to my years, I am perhaps too aware that in many ways they have not been what I wanted them to be — yet in many other ways they have been more wonderful than I could have imagined (my wife, my children and my wonderful little granddaughter come to mind here). God has done great things for me, and I am glad. And I live in the joyful expectation that there are greater things yet to come, and that the Lord will redeem all of my years.

Redeem All Our Years

When the Lord brought us back to our homeland
We were like people who dream
We had begun to believe that
It was something we never would see
And our hearts were all filled up with laughter
And our laughter was filled up with joy
And the joy inside us was singing
Of the things that were done by the Lord
Things that were done by the Lord

As the rain swells the streams of the desert
And the water brings life to the land
May the Lord look upon us from heaven
To bring life to His people again
For we’ve sown many seeds in our sorrow
And we’ve sown many seeds in our tears
But we wait for the joy of the harvest
When the Lord will redeem all our years
And the Lord will redeem all our years

Thursday, August 27, 2015

That Death Reign No More

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:17-21)
The problem Jesus solved on the cross was not that God needed someone to punish for our sin and so have his honor satisfied before he could forgive us. The problem was that sin and death reigned over us. However, Jesus did not die on the cross because death was the punishment for our sin. He did not die to overcome a penalty, he died to overcome sin and death itself. He died to overcome the very one who had the power of death, which was not God but the devil:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
Death is not a thing in itself but, rather, the absence of life, just as darkness is the absence of light. God is not the God of death, or of the dead. He is the God of life and of the living. What the devil did was draw humanity away from God and in doing so drew us away from life. Death is what happens when we are drawn away from life, and it leads to the bondage of fear. But Jesus came precisely to break the power of the devil, who holds the power of death, and indeed, to break the power of death itself, freeing us from bondage and fear.

In Romans 5, Paul draws a sharp contrast between what Adam did and what Christ did, and what each led to. When Adam turned away from God, he turned away from the source of life and so was left with death instead. His broken relationship with God soon led to broken human relationships, one with another. Through the unfaithfulness of Adam, everything became brokenness and death. But through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah, even to the point of death on the cross, God’s grace abounds to life and right relationship with God for all trust him.

“The law was brought in,” Paul says, “so that the trespass might increase.” He is talking about the Law of Moses. The law could no more create unrighteousness that it could create righteousness. But the law reveals the terrible nature and extent of sin, the depths of the brokenness of our relationship with God and each other. As Paul said earlier, “Through the law we become conscious of our sin” (Romans 3:20).

Likewise, when sin increased, it became an occasion for the even greater abundance of God’s grace to be revealed. For God was not willing that unfaithfulness and human brokenness should reign, producing death. His desire and design was that grace and favor would reign through restored relationship and covenant faithfulness, producing in us now the life of the age to come. So instead of being under the dominion of sin and death because of Adam, all who take hold of God’s abundant grace in Jesus the Messiah now have dominion in life.

That is the work of the cross. The expression of Roman wrath became the sign of God’s grace. It was where Lord Jesus broke the power of sin and death and manifested the overcoming power of God’s favor and faithfulness.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Justice, Righteousness and the Faithfulness of God

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:20-26)
The Greek words behind “righteous,” “righteousness,” “justified,” “just” and “justifies” are all different forms of the same word — used eight times in this passage. They are legal terms that pertain to covenant relationship. The same is true for the Old Testament Hebrew words for righteousness and justice.

The justice and righteousness of God is not some abstract concept about the goodness of God — although God is thoroughly good in every way — but about the faithfulness of God to the covenant he has made.  It means that God has not scrapped the promise he made to Abraham, his plan for saving the world through Israel.

In the West, we are accustomed to thinking of justice as a matter of innocence or guilt in a criminal justice system. But what Paul has in mind here is covenant faithfulness, in which the justice of God is not about retribution but, rather, always works towards the restoration of covenant fellowship. Punishing sin simply does not solve the problem because it does not restore the broken relationship.

The Law of Moses was never God’s plan to save the world, for it could never create righteousness — it could only reveal unrighteousness. It was, as Paul said to the Jesus followers in Galatia, a “schoolmaster,” a “guardian,” a “custodian” (Galatians 5:24). Paidagogos is the Greek word he used, and it referred to a servant who took charge over his master’s children to keep them out of trouble until they came into their maturity. So the Law was not a solution but a stop-gap.

Even the Law itself, along with the Prophets, gave witness to a covenant faithfulness of God which was quite apart from the Law. This righteousness was revealed though the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah to all who have faith in him. Just as both Jews as well as Gentiles were shown to be sinners, because the Law could only reveal unfaithfulness and sin, so also both Jews as well as Gentiles are justified — counted as being in right relationship — as a matter of God’s grace and faithfulness through what Jesus did on the cross.

The word Paul uses to describe this is apolytrosis, “redemption.” It is a word the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) uses for what God did when he delivered the children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 6:6). In the Exodus, it meant freedom from bondage for Israel, but the “redemption” that is now available in Jesus the Messiah is freedom for both Jews and Gentiles together. God accomplished this redemption by presenting Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement and a place of mercy for all who trust in him.

Three times in this brief passage, Paul emphasizes that God did this as a matter of his justice, his righteousness — his covenant faithfulness. Israel, God’s covenant people, was supposed to be a testimony to the nations (Gentiles) about God’s mercy and faithfulness so that the nations might turn to the LORD. But Israel herself proved time and again to be unfaithful to God. In a former time, the Law kept this problem in check, somewhat, and God tolerated this state of affairs out of mercy until the coming of Messiah. Jesus is the “Righteous Jew” in whom the promise of God and the calling of Israel finds its fulfillment.

At the cross, Jesus dealt with the problem of Israel’s unfaithfulness and the sin of the world once and for all. Instead of merely containing or tolerating the problem, God has now shown his faithfulness to the covenant, and through the faithfulness of Messiah, even to the point of death on the cross, he declares all to be in covenant rightness who trust in the Lord Jesus, whether they be Jew or Gentile.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Freedom and Forgiveness at the Cross

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace. (Ephesians 1:7)

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)
In these passages, Paul speaks of redemption, ransom and remission. They all add up to the freedom and forgiveness we have in King Jesus the Messiah, through what he did at the cross.

The Greek word for “redemption” is apolytrosis. It is a release or deliverance from bondage through the payment of a ransom. It is a compound word, and one of the words that it is made from, lytron, means “ransom.” Some early Church Fathers, taking the notion of ransom very literally, wrestled with the question of exactly to whom this ransom was paid. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa believed it was paid to the devil. Others disagreed, recognizing that the devil had no rights and nothing was owed to him. None of the Fathers understood the ransom as being paid to God.

However, the point of redemption and ransom language was not about who got paid what but about the deliverance that was brought about. The great salvation act in the Old Testament was the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and it was spoken of as a redemption. In Exodus 6:6, God tells Moses:
Therefore, say to the Israelites: “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.”
The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word for “redeem” with the Greek lytroo (from lytron), the word for ransom. Yet, who was a ransom actually paid to? Certainly not to God. He was the one who delivered his people with “an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment” — he was not paying ransom to himself. Nor was any ransom paid to Pharaoh. There was never any negotiation about a price for release. In fact, when the children of Israel departed, they stripped Egypt of her treasures. So there was never actually anyone who was paid a ransom for their freedom. God came and rescued them by the power of his own might and defeated the enemy. Yet that was spoken of as ransom and redemption. Likewise, when we read about God’s great salvation act in the New Testament, the language of redemption and ransom is not about who got paid but about the deliverance of God’s people through the defeat of the enemy.

Now let’s look at the Greek word for “forgiveness,” which is aphesis. Paul uses it only twice, in Ephesians 1:7 and Colossians 1:13, and in both cases it amplifies the idea of redemption. Paul does use the verb form, aphiemi, several times, but only once where it clearly refers to forgiveness, and that is in Romans 4:7, where he quotes Psalm 32: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” He uses it four other times but in ways that are clearly not about forgiveness. In Romans 1:27, he says, “In the same way the men also abandoned [aphiemi] natural relations with women.” We find it three times in 1 Corinthians 7:11-13, where the NIV translates it as “divorce.” In these instances, the verb form, aphiemi, is about what is put away.

The noun, aphesis, can mean forgiveness, pardon or remission, but that is a secondary meaning. The primary meaning is about release or freedom from bondage. So it is in Thayer’s Greek definitions as well as in Strong’s Greek dictionary.

Paul has much to say about sin, and though he speaks about forgiveness of sins on a few occasions (using the words aphiemi or charizomai), he has much more to say about the deliverance from sin we have through Christ. So, when the two times he uses the word aphesis, he combines it with redemption (release from bondage), it seems to me that he is using it more in the primary sense: deliverance. Now, I don’t doubt that he would include forgiveness within that, but as part of a richer dimension than we usually have in mind when we think of “forgiveness.” Not only would it mean that our sins are no longer counted against us (forgiveness) but that we also have deliverance from its power — sin no longer has dominion over us — and that is freedom.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Random Thoughts

More thoughts culled from my random file. About love, prayer and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been tweets and Facebook updates. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • The judgment of God does not come to condemn us but to transform us.
  • Breath prayer: Thank you, Holy Spirit ... for lighting my way.
  • Breath prayer: Speak, Lord ... for your servant is listening.
  • How does your worship connect with your grocery shopping, or washing your car?
  • We have a tremendous capacity for fooling ourselves. Lord, have mercy.
  • Love is persuasive where logic is not.
  • How easy it is, when we criticize the Pharisee, to become one ourselves.
  • Forgiving other is an act of faith in the God who forgives us.
  • Love that is for self alone is no love at all. For love gives of itself to others, but in self-love there is no other to whom it can give.
  • In the silence of the world nothing can be heard. In the silence of the heart nothing needs to be said.
  • In the silence of the heart there is only one voice — God’s.
  • Lord, let my words today arise from the silence of humility.
  • Love cannot demand or be demanded, it can only be freely given and freely received.
  • Love does not think about sacrifice. It thinks only of the one who is loved, and pout all it has to give.
  • Jesus let go his life so that he could be the life of God for us, and became the firstfruits of resurrection.
  • Hell is not something God does to anyone. It is something people do to themselves. In Jesus Christ, God does not send people to hell, he brings them out of hell.
  • The cross of Christ revealed his divinity as well as humanity. When Jesus died, the Centurion said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
  • The death of Christ on Good Friday was not a defeat that awaited the victory of Easter Sunday but a victory that was revealed on Easter Sunday.
  • In the wake of the Resurrection, Christ builds his Church.
  • The Holy Spirit shows us the Light by whom we see the Father.
  • The Holy Spirit Guides me, the Lord Jesus rescues me, the Father embraces me. The Three enfold me in their love.
More random thoughts …

Saturday, August 1, 2015

God Gave Them Over, That They Might Return

The judgment of God is not about retribution but about restoration. So also the wrath of God, which for Paul is revealed in the words: God gave them over. We can find several examples of God’s restorative purpose in this in the New Testament. Let us begin, first, with Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32):

A man had two sons. One day the younger son came to his father and asked for his inheritance. This was tantamount to saying that he was done with the father and that it would be just as well if the father were dead. It was a tremendous dishonor to the father, but the father let the son go with his inheritance.

The son wandered off to a far country, far way from his father’s house, and squandered his inheritance on things that are dishonorable. Soon reduced to nothing, he took a job slopping pigs, which was a shameful occupation for a Jew. He was so hungry that he would gladly have filled his belly with the pods the pigs were eating, except that they were indigestible for him. And nobody gave him anything. Then one day he came to his senses, remembering his father’s house.

How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.

So he got up and headed home to his father. The father saw him coming, for though the son had turned away from the father, the father never turned away from the son but watched patiently for his return. When he saw the son, he ran out — quite an undignified thing for a man of his position to do — and met his son, embracing him and smothering him with kisses.

The son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father hardly heard, he was so busy giving instructions to the servants: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

The father demanded no restitution for the inheritance that had been squandered. He required no satisfaction be made for the dishonor that had been shown him. What mattered was that his son, who had been lost was now found, and who had been dead was now alive. And they both greatly rejoiced together.

Another example of God’s restorative purpose is found in the book of Acts, in the gospel preaching of Stephen. In it, he reviews the history of Israel, how they had often turned away from God — and it first happened not long after God delivered them by the hand of Moses from bondage in Egypt.
That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. (Acts 7:41-42)
They turned from God to idols, and God gave them over to it. But that was not the end of the story, of course, for the history of Israel is also the history of God’s covenant love and faithfulness always seeking to reconcile Israel to himself once again. That is why Jesus the Messiah came, about whom Stephen was preaching.

We find the same principle several times in the writings of Paul. In his letter to the church at Corinth, he addressed the situation of a man who was into a form of sexual immorality that not even the pagans would tolerate — yet the Christians at Corinth we tolerating it, and the man was unrepentant (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul’s instruction to them was this: “So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

They were to put the man out of the fellowship. The purpose was not he should ultimately be destroyed but, quite the contrary, that he might delivered from his depravity and come to his senses. This discipline soon had the desired effect, for in a follow-up letter, Paul writes, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). The man repented of his immoral behavior and was restored to fellowship.

We find another example in Paul’s letter to his young protégé, Timothy, concerning two leaders who had turned away from the gospel and were teaching a false message:
Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. (1 Timothy 1:18-20)
Again, Paul does not hand them over so that they would be permanently “shipwrecked” and ultimately destroyed but that they might come to their senses and return to the message of Christ.

One more example we find in Paul, in Romans 11, concerns Israel, particularly those who had rejected Messiah and were, because of their unbelief, broken off like branches from the “olive tree,” Israel. Gentiles were grafted in through faith in Jesus the Messiah, and Paul uses that as an opportunity to provoke unbelieving Jews to faith in Jesus, too, so that they might be “grafted in” again. Paul speaks specifically to Gentile believers here:
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! (Romans 11:22-24)
The purpose was not the branches that were cut off should be destroyed but that they might be grafted in again. And Paul was confident that this is exactly what would happen: “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

Restoration was always in Paul’s heart, and indeed, that is the way it is with God, too. Though God may give someone over to their depravity, he never gives up on them, because his purpose is not retribution but restoration. He gives them over so that they might one day come to their senses and rejoice in the Father.