Friday, May 18, 2018

Oriented Toward Light

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. (Psalm 103:11)
How high are the heavens above the earth? It is more than we can comprehend. Yet that is how great God’s love is for those who fear him. But it is also how great God’s love is for those who do not fear him. For God is love. Love is not something God has, or a choice God makes; it is the nature of God to love, for love is what God is in his very being. For God to ever cease to love anyone to the fullest would be for God to cease to be God.

There is no difference, then, between the love God has for those who fear him and those who do not. It is the exact same love for both. But the difference is in how each perceives or experiences that love. Those who fear God, that is, who turn toward him, love him, trust him and walk in his way, they experience the love of God for what it truly is. But those who turn away from God, who love themselves above all others, and walk in their own way, the way of the world, they experience God’s love very differently. God’s love is the same for them as it is for the others, but their understanding is distorted, so the love of God seems to them a torment and a condemnation.

They walk in darkness, and the light of God’s love shines brightly. Like coming out into the sunlight after a long while in the dark, it can be somewhat painful, because our eyes are not used to the splendor of the sun. We want to shade our eyes and return to the darkness. But if we let the light in, our eyes gradually grow accustomed and we begin to see clearly.

The light of God is a judgment upon darkness — not upon us but upon the darkness within us. God comes to enlighten our darkness, to banish it from us so we can see with unhindered eye the absolute goodness of his divine glory. The love of God comes to heal us, to cast out the fear and hatefulness that causes us to turn away from God and from each other, and even causes us to despise our own selves.

Christ is the True Light who has come into the world to give light to everyone. He is the love of God fully revealed to the world, even when we were caught up in the hatefulness by which we crucified him and each other. Through Christ, God has “qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 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 1:12-14). This is the good news of the gospel.

In 1 John 2:8, we read that “the darkness is passing, and the true light is already shining.” It is as we turn to Christ and let his divine light penetrate our darkness and his love penetrate our hearts that we begin to experience the light and love of God as they truly are. And also the truth of who we really are, for it was for light and love and life — fellowship with the Divine — that we were created in the beginning.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Trampling the Fear of Death

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)
For the past couple of posts, we have been looking at the relationship between sin and death, particularly at the question of whether we are mortal because we sin, or we sin because we are mortal. My understanding of Scripture is the latter, that we sin because we are mortal. (See Whereupon All Sinned and The Sting of Death.) But how is it that mortality leads to sin? I think Hebrews 2:14-15 provides a clue.

First, let’s notice what the author of Hebrews identifies here as the problem that is solved by the death of Christ. It is not sin but death, which is to say, the power of death, and the power of him who holds the power of death. It may come as a surprise that the one identified here as holding the power of death is not God but the devil. But God is not the one who kills.

God has the power of life, not of death. Death is nothing in itself; it is the absence of something. Just as darkness is nothing but the absence of light, so death is nothing but the absence of life. Christ is life, and when he encounters the power of death, as he did at the cross, it is “game over” for death. There is simply no contest.

In Revelation 1:18, Christ says, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” But what does he do with those keys? In Revelation 20, both death and Hades (the place of the dead) are cast into the “lake of fire,” but before they are, they are emptied out.

At the cross, Christ broke not only the power of death, but also the power of the one who held the power of death, that is, the devil. In 1 John 3:9, we read that Christ came to destroy the works of the devil. This, too, happened at the cross and was revealed in the resurrection when Christ broke the gates of Hades and set its captives free.

Now, let’s look at how the author of Hebrews describes what the power of death and of the devil does: It causes us to fear, and that fear leads us into bondage. But Christ has broken that power so to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

Fear of death is a terrible bondage, causing people to do all sorts of things to avoid it, or else to get all the pleasure they can out of this life before they meet their inevitable end (supposing that death has the last word). It is fear of death that whispers in us, “What shall we do? How shall we survive?” Jesus speaks to this deep anxiety in his Sermon on the Mount:
So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
We live in bondage and the fear of death when we do not know we have God as our loving Father who takes care of us in every way. It causes us to live as orphans, believing we must make do for ourselves in whatever way we can. Fear of death blinds us to the truth: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8:15). “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 4:7).

There is an illuminating scene toward the end of the comedy movie, Moonstruck. It is a brief conversation between Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) and Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello).
Rose: Why do men chase women?

Johnny: Well, there’s a Bible story ... God ... God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. Now maybe men chase women to get the rib back. When God took the rib, he left a big hole there, where there used to be something. And the women have that. Now maybe, just maybe, a man isn’t complete as a man without a woman.

Rose: [frustrated] But why would a man need more than one woman?

Johnny: I don’t know. Maybe because he fears death.

[Rose looks up, eyes wide, suspicions confirmed]

Rose: That’s it! That’s the reason!

Johnny: I don’t know ...

Rose: No! That’s it! Thank you! Thank you for answering my question!
Fear of death is a terrible bondage. But Christ rescues us from it, having delivered us from the power of death and of the devil — and so from the power of sin. He did this:
  • By the Incarnation, in which he fully participates with us in our humanity (and we participate with him in his divinity).
  • By the Cross, where he experienced the full measure of our mortality, destroying the power of death and the works of the devil.
  • By the Resurrection, shattering the gates of Hades through the victory of his death, binding the strong man — the devil — and liberating captive humanity.
  • By his Ascension to the right hand of the Father, leading captivity itself — death and Hades — captive, showing himself as Lord and victor over them. And being emptied out, they are finally cast into the “lake of fire.”
  • By Pentecost, where he poured out upon all people the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit by whom we cry out “Abba, Father,” so that no longer need we live in fear of death or of anything else.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Sting of Death

https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/6067723012/
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. (1 Corinthians 15:56)
Last time, we looked at the question of what Paul meant in Romans 5:12, on whether universal sin resulted in universal death, or conversely, it was universal death that resulted in universal sin (see Whereupon All Sinned). That brief study brought to mind another passage where Paul speaks of the relationship between death and sin. It is at the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s extended discussion of Christ and the resurrection. In verses 55-56, Paul taunts death, the defeated foe: “‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:55-56).

The Greek word for “sting” is kentron and refers literally to the sting of creatures such as bees or scorpions. This sting of death is sin, Paul says (metaphorically, of course). Commentary on this verse usually seems to have the sting, sin, as the cause of death. But would that not be like saying that the sting of a bee is what causes the bee? Is it not rather the bee that causes the sting? So when Paul says, “The sting of death is sin,” is he not saying that it is death that causes sin rather than sin that causes death?

Besides this passage, kentron appears two other times in the New Testament. In Revelation 9:10, it is used of the sting of scorpions. “They had tails with stingers [kentra], like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.” Again, should we suppose that the sting was what caused the scorpion to be? Rather, it is the scorpion that produces the sting. But what the sting does produce is a temporary torment.

The other occurrence of kentron is in Acts 9:5, where Saul (Paul), heading to Damascus to hound the Christians there, encounters the risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus says. Saul asks him, “Who are you, Lord?” and receives the answer: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (NKJV). The word for “goad” is kentron. A goad was used for prodding oxen or other beasts of burden. In this case, something was prodding Saul, trying to move him in the right direction, but Saul was resisting, and it was painful for him. (This bit about kicking “against the goads” does not appear in the oldest manuscripts of this passage but it does show up in later ones, and so is instructive for us about what kentron means.)

If we translate kentron as “goad” in 1 Corinthians 15:55-56, we have: “Where, O death, is your goad. The goad of death is sin.” The direction of causality should become apparent: it is not the kentron that produces death, but death that produces the kentron. What is the kentron death produced, and toward what does it prod? Sin.

So, it is not our sin that causes our mortality; it is our mortality that prods us or stings us with sin. Sin is brokenness of relationship, the alienation we experience toward God, each other, the rest of creation and even within our own selves. Death took full advantage, revealing itself as sin.

Next time, we will look at an important clue to how that happens — and how Christ delivers us from it.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Whereupon All Sinned

Therefore, just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned. (Romans 5:12 DBH)
Here is a very interesting rendering of this verse, particularly at the end, presented to us by David Bentley Hart in his recent translation of the New Testament. Other translations end it with “because all have sinned” (for example, NASB, NIV, NKJV, ESV, CSB, LEB). Hart’s version, “whereupon all sinned,” is substantially different from that. The difference is in whether Paul poses universal death as the result of universal sin (“because all sinned”) or whether he puts it the other way around, that universal sin is a consequence of universal death.

The Greek text at this point is εφ ω (eph ho), a preposition followed by a pronoun. It is found no more than six other times in the New Testament:
  • “Jesus replied, ‘Do what you came for, friend.’ Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him” (Matthew 26:50 NIV). We may put it as the Context Group Version does: “[Do] that for which [eph ho] you have come.”
  • “And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein [eph ho] the sick of the palsy lay.” (Mark 2:4 KJV). The Greek text used in most modern versions does not have eph ho but uses a different word that is translated similarly.
  • “Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God” (Luke 5:25). The Context Group Version has, “and took up that whereon [eph ho] he lay.”
  • “For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4 NIV). Both Robertson’s Word Pictures and Vincent’s Word Studies translate the phrase as “Not for that [eph ho] we would be unclothed.” Perhaps eph ho works okay as “because” here, but that is not so clear.
  • “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which [eph ho] Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me” (Philippians 3:12 NIV).
  • “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it” (Philippians 4:10 NIV). In this and in other versions, it is difficult to find eph ho in back of it, but Young’s Literal Translation locates it more clearly for us: “And I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at length ye flourished again in caring for me, for which [eph ho] also ye were caring, and lacked opportunity.”
“For which,” “wherein,” “whereon,” “for that” — Hart’s rendering of eph ho as “whereupon” in Romans 5:12 seems quite in line. In his notes on this verse, Hart points out that, “Typically, as the pronoun [ho] is dative masculine, it would be referred back to the most immediate prior masculine noun, which in this case is θανατος (thanatos), ‘death,’ and would be taken to mean (correctly, I believe) that the consequence of death spreading to all human beings is that all became sinners.”

This reading, however, does interfere with a certain theological bent in the West, one influenced by the Latin version of the New Testament. In the Latin version, Hart’s reading, “whereupon all sinned,” would not be possible.
First, it retains the masculine gender of the pronoun (quo) but renders θανατος by the feminine noun mors, thus severing any connection that Paul might have intended between them; second, it uses the preposition in, which when paired with the ablative means “within.” Hence what became the standard reading of the verse in much of Western theology after the late third century: “in whom [i.e. Adam] all sinned.” This is the locus classicus of the Western Christian notion of original guilt — the idea that in some sense all human beings had sinned in Adam, and that therefore everyone is born already damnably guilty in the eyes of God — a logical and moral paradox that Eastern tradition was spared by its knowledge of Greek.
But we must also consider the context here. The idea that death came to all because all sinned seems to contradict the verses that immediately follow.
To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone's account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come. (Romans 5:13-14)
Sin was in the world before the time of Moses, when the Law was given. But notice: where there is no Law, sin is not charged against anyone. From the time of Adam to the time of Moses, then, sin was not charged against anyone. And yet, death still reigned upon all during that period. Everyone died, though not all sinned.

But how can this be if death came to all because all have sinned. The Western theory of “original sin” (more like, original guilt) is that all sinned in Adam and are therefore guilty of sin. Even if they have not actually committed any sin, they are nonetheless judged guilty. This is not what Paul says in Romans 5:12-14.

From both the context and how the words eph ho are normally used elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears that in Romans 5:12, Paul is not attributing the sin of all as the cause of the death of all but, quite the opposite, that it is the mortality that pervades humanity that causes all to sin.

The good news of the gospel is that through the Cross and the Resurrection, Christ has delivered us from the power of death and, therefore, from the power of sin.