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Surprising faith (Faith part 3)

Last week and the week before, I talked about how faith is related to trust. Ultimately it’s not a head condition, but a heart condition. As such, actions, while they don’t save you, play the primary role in giving evidence of faith. Let me be clear, performing lots of good actions will not get you saved or let you get faith. Likewise, having faith doesn’t mean you suddenly do everything correctly. Fundamentally, though, faith is rooted in grace. It is a trust, one that is sometimes irrespective of doctrine, upon the grace of God. Perhaps an example, or two, will help.

Aside from the marching around the walls and shouting, there are two interesting episodes that happened at Jericho which are mentioned. The first centers around Rahab, the pagan prostitute (Joshua 2 and 6). The second around Achan, the Israelite soldier (Joshua 7). It ended well for one, and poorly for the other. What was the difference? I would argue that it is faith.

Rahab

Unknown Artist, 17th CenturyLet’s look at Rahab, first of all. What does she know about Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. It seems relatively little. She knows that Yahweh (written the LORD, in most English bibles) is the God who led the Israelites out of Egypt, parted the Red Sea, and from this she has assumed the Yahweh is God in “heaven and on earth,” that is that Yahweh is very powerful. Note, though, she doesn’t seem to be monotheistic yet. She knows there is a God Yahweh, and she believes He is stronger than her gods, but, in all likelihood, still believes her gods exist. She also doesn’t seem to get how grace works.

It’s a terrible theology, when you think about it. She thinks she is saved because of a bargain she strikes with the Israelite spies: she hides them and so, for her to keep up the ruse, she demands they ensure their God will save her. That’s not how grace works, that’s not how God works. Also, she is a prostitute, which in all likelihood means she was tied to the pagan religion of Jericho. She’s not just in the midst of the pagan religion, she has an important role for it. She also doesn’t pray a prayer, or offer a sacrifice, or anything like that. All she does is tie a chord to hang out her window. That’s it. That’s her demonstration of faith. Yet, James (in chapter 2) commends her as a great example of faith.

And the thing is. It works. She is saved, and even moreso, is part of the lineage of David and Joseph who was called the father of Jesus. She becomes part of the covenant people with her terrible (some might say heretical) theology. What? And not only her, but everyone in the house with her. How does that work?

Achan

Now let’s look at Achan. He’s a soldier for Yahweh. He’s part of the new generation, and so had been prepping for the invasion of the holy land his whole life. He walked across the Jordan river on dry land when the people crossed into the territory. He had been told all the rules about the conquest, and he saw, firsthand, the power of God as the walls of Jericho crashed down. It is probably safe to say that he had a theology that was much more sound than Rahab’s.

Yet, in Joshua 7, we learn that in the aftermath of the battle, he performs a faithless act. Even though the people were told not to take any of the riches or spoils from the land they were conquering, because God was going to provide them their inheritance (they weren’t like other conquering nations), Achan takes some very pricey items. He could probably say the right things, but it was as though he was hedging his bets, he wanted a back up plan. So he made his own inheritance instead of trusting. And he is killed. Possibly along with his family, it turns out. What?

Surprises

So here we have two examples: someone who has a mostly pagan theology, but where God has started to make inroads and she decides to trust those few inroads, and someone who has a very good theology, who is a warrior for Yahweh and part of His covenant people. And the first is saved, along with her household, while the latter is condemned, along with his whole household. How does that work? It turns out, faith is full of surprises. Those who we would expect to be saved might not be, and those who we would think never would be saved suddenly are, and in a huge way.

And it’s not just because of a radical encounter with God. Not everyone is Paul on the Damascus road. We think that someone at the very core of the pagan culture and religion would need a radical experience. But it’s Achan who has been fed by God everyday with manna, and received water in the dessert. It’s Achan who experiences the miracles firsthand his whole life. Since he was part of the invading generation, he had never known slavery, so God had always demonstrated that He was actively for his people.

Rahab, on the other hand, just hears about it. She hears about these things and decides to take a chance. We can’t even pinpoint where her act of faith was. Was it tying the chord? Was it arguing with the spies? Lying to the soldiers searching for them? Hiding the spies? Allowing them to stay in her home and place of business (there’s a whole different thorny knot)? Or did something happen when she heard about these things in her heart? We aren’t told. Maybe faith isn’t quite so exact. Maybe she can’t pinpoint the date herself. Maybe there isn’t a moment, but a movement of transformation taking place in ways she was never aware of until they had already happened.

It doesn’t really matter. In the end she takes a chance. She trusts that Yahweh is better than what she had known. And something about that results in her salvation. She becomes part of the kingdom of God. Faith, it turns out, is full of surprises.

More than Trust, and just Trust (Faith part 2: Foundational Doctrines)

This week I’m talking about how faith is trust, but in a way more than what we typically think of trust, and what this means on a daily basis. This is part of a series of “foundational doctrines” where I am looking at the six foundational doctrines from Hebrews 6. Last week, I talked about how faith has to be more than just intellectual assent. Ascribing to a set of doctrines won’t get you saved, we saw last week, because the demons have impeccable theology. So it must be something else.

Faith as Trust

If you’ve been involved in a church for more than a few months, you have likely heard this at some point. If you grew up in the church, and especially church youth groups, you likely heard it a lot. Faith is trust. In the same way I have faith in the chair that is holding me up that it can continue to hold me up (and so relax upon it), so we trust in God. This certainly seems to be moving in the right direction. After all, the key distinction between us and the demons is that the demons refuse to rely upon God, believing they are self-sufficient somehow. They lack the basic element of trust.

Yet, it seems, that the kind of trust we usually talk about is pretty mild stuff. We usually end up couching it in terms of (again) belief. Trust is believing God can help me, we say. Trust is believing that God is for me. Trust is accepting my status as elect (ok just the Calvinists on that one). But by phrasing it in these terms we are just again putting it in terms of belief, intellectual assent. Faith has to be more than a mental state, though. If it were only about saving our minds, why would Christ need to take one flesh? No faith must be transformative of our whole being, not just our minds.

Plato’s to blame

For a long time we seem to have accepted the idea that faith is simply intellectual assent in the church. If we get our doctrines in a row, we’re good. This, it seems, was the position of Augustine. It was all about believing in the right God and believing in the right sort of things. (Except when you read the conversion story in his Confessions it seems like a lot more was involved). Similarly Luther, following Augustine, in his emphasis on justification by faith alone (a correct one I would say) disdained books like James because, as he saw it, they weren’t doing justice to faith. But his mistake was, again, conflating belief and faith.

I think we have Plato to blame for that. Plato argued that our mind was all that really mattered. He introduced a sort of dualism into our consciousness that devalued the body and elevated an ephemeral spirit that was were our identity supposedly lay. For Plato, also, knowing something, that is believing something that was also true, was as good as doing it. So if he just could make himself genuinely know the right things, his actions would follow. If his actions didn’t follow, he reasoned, he didn’t really know it because, at the moment of his wrong actions, he had managed to convince himself otherwise and thus didn’t believe it. Thus, subtly over the years, Platonism entered the Christian consciousness. And the focus was upon the immaterial and belief (which is also descriptive of Western culture on the whole).

The problem is, that’s not the message of the bible. The bible declares that the physical “stuff” of the universe is, fundamentally good (see Genesis 1). God came to redeem that world, to purify and refine it. Jesus was raised bodily because the body matters. What is more, believing something intellectually was not the same as having actions in line with it. The prophets of Israel were effective (sometimes) precisely because the people did believe, they just didn’t trust.

Full Trust

My “faith” in the chair is useless if I don’t go and sit in it. I don’t really have faith in it to hold me up if I stand the entire time. Faith requires a genuine acquaintance. A close relationship. A fully giving of our full selves. James is concerned with actions as evidence of faith because the two are no divorced. Faith as trust is relying upon God and following him. To follow him is no simple task, either. Jesus continually talks about “counting the cost” before following him. He talks about taking up your cross to follow him. In the context of trust that makes sense. We trust God because when he calls us to follow and we follow, knowing he has our best at heart, even when it is a road marked by suffering and death. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer put it “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s trust. Trust of your whole being. Trust with your life. That’s what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. To trust him completely.

Fundamentally, though, faith is about grace. Apart from grace we have no basis for trust because we know that our actions deserve the same fate as the demons. It is only because of grace that our trust is possible and ends in hope. Next week I’ll talk about the relationship between faith and grace, which is important for beginning to grasp what faith is.

What is Faith (pt 1): Foundational Doctrines

So I finally finished the first of the six foundations mentioned in Hebrews 6:1-3 last week (Repentance) after 5 posts (seven if you count the two posts on sin beforehand). This week I start in on the next one: faith. I’m currently doing a study of the book of James for Lent Readings in the morning (they post around midnight U.S. Central Standard Time) and it has a lot to say about faith. I’m going to overlap, but hopefully this series will present it more systematically.

Faith as Belief

Let’s start with the most basic understanding of faith that most people have. Faith is, in this context, another word for belief. That’s just how it’s commonly used. But clearly it can’t just be any belief. My belief in my own existence, for instance, may be incredibly useful for me personally now, but it doesn’t really seem to be a foundational doctrine in the sense that the author of Hebrews uses it. True it is foundational in different ways, and I would like other people to also believe that I exist (no I’m not a figment of your mind, but you might be one of mine), but that seems immaterial.

What about, also, the idea that faith requires a level of uncertainty? It’s not faith if we know for sure, some say. I don’t know where this idea came from (actually I have an idea and I think it has something to do with Kierkegaard), but I don’t think it is biblical. On the one hand, yes technically we can’t ever know for sure anything if by knowing we mean providing an absolute proof and account. In fact knowing something means we need to have believed it, so the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

So what criteria are we going to use to talk about this? As some people put it, what (or who) is the object of our faith? Clearly many things just won’t do. It can’t be belief that Five Guys Burgers and Fries is the most delicious, greasy mess you’ve ever had, or that Houston is the best city in America (I’ve got statistics to back it up). Instead we need to be talking about something more “religiousy” or “spiritual.”

Belief in God

Hey now this sounds like a winner. So is faith foundational because I believe in God and someone like Richard Dawkins doesn’t? Well, there are lots of potential gods to believe in. If all it takes is belief I could, conceivably, create my own god who acts how I want him to act and believe in that god. Clearly we don’t mean any god. So we mean a particular God. Alright, let’s say it’s the Christian God (I’d get there eventually, let’s just skip the other rhetoric). What is it about belief in this God that is so important?

Do we need to believe just that this God exists? Are there certain attributes we have to affirm? What about the Trinity? Is that required? While some would want to say yes, I’m not so sure it’s a requirement. Now, let me be clear, I believe that belief in the Trinity is vitally important, and it is, in a different way, foundational. However, I want to focus on the moment on saving faith for the moment. Is Trinitarian faith a requirement for salvation? I’m inclined to say no. In part because nowhere does the bible say that this is what faith is, and it is clear that pre-New Testament people were saved because of faith, yet had no concept yet of a Trinity. The bible says that for New Testament Christians, one needs to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. Alright, but is Romans 10:9 giving the totality of what saving faith is? The confession of Jesus as LORD seems to entail other beliefs as well, right?

Maybe it’s not just belief

To be sure, this entails other beliefs, but that’s not my point. Whether Jesus did or did not die is a fact. Whether he was raised from the dead is also a fact. You can believe it or not. Why should believing in one set of facts somehow make you better. My belief in the physical existence of this chair or that 2+2=4 doesn’t affect my salvation, so why should believing that Jesus was raised from the dead suddenly make me saved? Well, according to James belief by itself is pretty useless, faith has to mean something more.

Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

Belief in and of itself is not enough. That’s not the kind of foundation the writer of Hebrews is talking about. If it were just belief, says James, we’d be in trouble. The demons know more theology than you ever will. Yet there is something fundamentally different about their disposition and ours. Their knowledge is a source of fear. If we are honest, our knowledge about God should likewise cause some fear, after all we openly war against him. As Ephesians states it, we are “children of wrath.” So belief on its own can’t be the only element of faith. It seems we need something else. Next week I’m going to talk about that something else. For now, let’s call it Trust.

Side note:

If you are not a Christian and want to know more about this faith, and how it can be saving please contact me at whytheology@gmail.com (or, if you’re feeling brave, in the comments). I’ll gladly mess up the series for that kind of discussion.

Repentance Part 5 (Foundational Doctrines)

Review

Over the past four weeks I’ve been talking about repentance, the first of the foundational doctrines mentioned in Hebrews 6. (Here’s parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). I’ve spoken of repentance primarily in terms of preparation for return out of exile and into home (and how Jesus is that return). For most of the weeks I talked about how that repentance also means a confession. We must confess that we have done something wrong and can’t fix it. We must also confess that Jesus is King, and therefore we are not. We must “prepare the way” in the dessert. So we’ve confessed those things, but how do we make the “low places high” and the “high places low” as Isaiah 40 mentions?

Repentance is Making High Places Low and Low Places High

Our world is constantly changing, and we are adapting to it. We like to change with it so that we can achieve some sort of relative homeostasis, that is that we can feel “normal.” But that’s not the kind of change I’m talking about. That kind of change is rooted in trying to make sure very little feels like it’s changed. It’s safe. normal. We can understand it. fit in. be unnoticed. At least unnoticed in the “good” sort of way. But the kind of change that comes with repentance. That’s something different. Something radical. It’s going against the flow.

To acknowledge and accept that I’m not ok as I am? That’s not something people like to hear. To stand up and shout out that I’m not in charge of my own life? That looks insane. To declare to others that not only am I not in control of my life, but they are not in control either, to declare that Jesus is King, and therefore no one else is? I hope you’re wearing some sort of armor, because watch out! This type of change isn’t easy, and it definitely doesn’t go down easy.

I’m sure you’ve heard that repentance is to turn away from sin. But if you turn away from sin, you turn toward something. When people are called to repent, there’s some sort of action involved. Constructive action. Not only must you change, but the world in which you live in must change. Sin is destructive, it is counter to God’s good creative work (see my previous posts on Sin: parts 1 and 2). So if repentance is to turn away from that, it means we need to be constructive. To do something good and creative (in the sense of Genesis 1-2) in the world. So what does repentance look like?

Giving away everything to the poor.

Quitting your job because you know God has something else for you.

Building and repairing homes anonymously.

Take a chance on someone whom everyone has written off.

Speaking in love to that person with the bad reputation, when you know others will talk.

Starting a non-profit.

Changing minds.

Fighting poverty.

And disease.

And war.

Leveling mountains and filling valleys.

What? How is that possible? How do we do that? I could try my hardest for my entire life and never even make a dent.

Exactly.

Repentance is Surrender

You can’t do it.

You cannot successfully repent.

It’s impossible.

Making a straight and level path in the dessert? Who does that? That’s not possible.

And that’s kind of the point.

When we confess that Jesus is King (and I am not) we give up control. We lose ourselves.

Suddenly we’re not working in our own strength, but in his. Now the King of the World has given us the resources we need to level the mountains and fill the valleys. To create in his creation. To make something “good” and even “very good.” Not for ourselves, because we’ve already admitted we aren’t in charge, but for him and his glory. When we surrender ourselves, and follow after Christ, we can tell the mountain “to be thrown into the sea” and it will be done.

Again, it’s not for selfish gain, because we need to die. To give up ourselves. To stop living so that we can really live. And in dieing we find that Christ is the one who walked out of the grave, and we follow him to a new way of life. To preparing the way. Because this world is God’s Kingdom, and he’s on his way to claim it. To start the year of Jubilee. To start the party.

Next Week I’ll start on the next doctrine: Faith (yeah it’ll probably be in parts also).

Repentance, part 4 (Foundational Doctrines)

Click here to see parts 1, 2, and 3.

Last week I left off talking about how repentance is making the pathway straight in your hearts. The message of John the Baptizer was a call to repent. “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near!” He cried out, and all the gospel writers identified him with the “voice crying in the wilderness” mentioned in Isaiah 40. This is the voice that announces the way out of exile. That the way out entailed the making a way in the dessert. Let me talk briefly about that in more detail. You see, in Isaiah, there is the promise of an end to exile, one that was eventually fulfilled in one sense through the person of Cyrus (or Darius) who allowed the people to return to their land. Yet, as I mentioned last week, the people still felt distant and isolated from God. Exile had ended, yet they still knew they were in a different sort of exile. With the arrival of the Romans there was again the feeling of geographic exile within the land (as Rome occupied and oppressed the people of Israel), and the other, deeper exile. Because of the physical presence of the Romans, the people were expecting a redeemer, as foretold in Isaiah 40, who would take them out of exile by removing the Romans. Yet Jesus is very clear that his “kingdom does not come from this world.” If it did, it would be marked by violence, not by what is described in Isaiah.

The great redeemer of Israel, the one who ends the exile of the people of Israel, is not someone who brings about sorrow, but joy. As described in Isaiah 61, the servant ends exile because he brings about the Year of Jubilee. Israel was supposed to celebrate a Sabbath year every seventh year. Then they would not work the land, but live off the abundance given the previous year. It was set aside to honor God, who owned the land, and show their reliance upon him, and to celebrate that covenant. After every seven Sabbath years would be the Year of Jubilee. This was an even bigger party, and bigger commitment and financial sacrifice, than the Sabbath year. Because of that, we have no indication that it was ever celebrated. Even more than that, we know that one reason for the exile, as given by God, was that they hadn’t even taken the Sabbath years off (Ezekiel 20-23 and Daniel 9).

So the exile ended, but there was not the feeling of the Year of Jubilee. Instead the Israelites went back slowly, and had to fight against competing groups for their land, they remained poor, and the temple hadn’t been completed. This didn’t feel like a Jubilee at all.

The Year of Jubilee was something else. All people “return to their own land”, all debts are forgiven, all slaves are set free, all bets are off. It’s a party, and was loud and you should be able to feel the presence of God as you look back on your life and see the ways in which he has taken care of you. Most people could only ever experience one year of Jubilee in their lifetime, that is if they had ever been celebrated, and so it was going to be a big party. The return from Babylon/Persia to Israel, though, felt like a whimper. Yes the people were excited, but why did they need to make pathways straight? This is the language of preparation for a King’s entry. But Darius/Cyrus never came to visit, and certainly didn’t lead the people back. What gives?

In Luke 4, one chapter after we meet John the Baptizer with his message of repentance, Jesus gives his first sermon. Now the Jewish sermon typically consisted of someone reading from the TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible) and then giving his commentary on it. Jesus gets up, reads from Isaiah 61, then says, essentially, “here it is. I’m right here. I’m all the commentary you need on this passage.” Now yes, it doesn’t come across as arrogant, Jesus is much more eloquent than me, but his lack of in depth commentary, the fact that there are no grand intellectual insights, make his meaning clear.

Jesus is telling the people, “Look here at me. You’re exile is over. I’m the King coming to start the party. You can go home, really go home. Not to the geographic land, but to the land you were created to be in, to communion with God. You can have it right here, because I’m the king of this place, and I’m taking it back. This is your get out of jail free card. Come on home. Come with me, I’ll show you the way.”

And the people hate him for it.

They immediately become indignant, asking things like, “who does he think he is? He’s not a king, he’s just a carpenter’s son.” The problem is this: if Jesus is King, then I am not. For the people to experience the Jubilee they wanted, they needed to admit that they were not king. They needed to accept that they were not, nor could they be, the faithful servant of the LORD (Yahweh). They needed to admit they had and would continue to fail. And, quite simply, the people weren’t ready to do so.

As if to drive home the message that the kingdom, the land of promise, was not geographic but out of a relationship, Jesus brings up the widow of Zarephath, and the Syrian general Naaman, who entered into the “land” of God without being in the geographic land of Israel. Jesus is telling them that their map back home is completely messed up, it’s just something they’ve put together without knowing the area.

And the people want to kill him for it.

Jesus tells them he knows the way and he can lead them, and the people hate him. Then he pleads with them and tells them their maps are wrong, and they want to kill him. The people are unrepentant, and so Jesus leaves them. They did not prepare the way, because they thought their way was better.

So repentance is, at least in part, preparation.

It is preparation to admit that Jesus is King, and therefore I am not.

That this place I’m in is not home, but exile.

That he knows the way home, and I’m hopelessly lost.

Repentance is admitting my inadequacy and getting ready to follow.

What do you think? Do you have a hard time letting go of control? Of admitting you are wrong? Of not getting too comfortable here?

Repentance part 3 (Foundational Doctrines)

So over the past two weeks I’ve been talking about repentance and what that actually means. In the first week, I took great pains to note that repentance is more than being “sorry” for something and requires, among other things, an admission of guilt; that is, we need to admit that we have done something we shouldn’t (or didn’t do something we should) and that we cannot change that fact.

Last week, I talked about the first mention in the bible of the word “repentance” given in the context of the temple dedication, there we are assured that God will respond to genuine repentance with forgiveness. I also noted that the issue of repentance was given in the context of a future exile, which I’ll come back to this week. This week, I’d like to begin by looking at the first New Testament use of “repentance.”

In each of the synoptic gospels, very early on we see John the Baptist calling out to the people to repent. Mark’s gospel (probably the earliest): opens (after telling you this is a Gospel) with a quote from Isaiah about the servant of the LORD, and then the picture of John the Baptist:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”[c]
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”[d]

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

–Mark 1:1-4 (NIV)

Likewise, Matthew, after the genealogy and early instances in the childhood of Jesus, cuts to John, whose first words are “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2). There, he is also identified with the same quotation from Isaiah. Even John’s Gospel has John the Baptist identifying as the voice. (see John 1:23).

Why am I making this point? Well, I could go on and talk about the relationship between baptism and repentance (though I think I’ll save that until I get to baptism), instead, I want to talk about the relationship between exile and repentance.

The passage from Isaiah is related to what we call the “servant songs” of that book. As a very brief overview of the book, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah are primarily geared toward the judgment of Judah. God has remained faithful to his covenant, and the people have ignored their obligations frequently. Thus, rather than outright abandon the covenant (which God could have done), God chose to hold the people to the covenant, which can only mean exile. The people have not followed the law in the land, they have not allowed the land to have its Sabbath rest, and thus God will ensure that it happens.

Then in chapter 40 of Isaiah, a shift occurs. The book moves from progressively harsher language of judgment and punishment to open chapter 40 with the word: “Comfort.” “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people” (forgive my King James rendering). So assured is the exile by the end of Isaiah 39, that Isaiah is given a message of hope for a people in exile. Yes you are in exile, Yahweh (the personal name for God) through Isaiah tells the people, but that exile is not the end. There is hope. The “servant songs” are poetic pieces in this latter half that speak of the servant of Yahweh (the LORD) who will bring the people out of their exile and return them to the land. The land, if you recall from the Old Testament, was the covenant promise first given to Abram/Abraham and that Moses was leading the Israelites into, and out of Egypt. The theme of the land can even be traced back to Genesis 1:1, which could be translated “In the beginning God created the universe” (which would include the earth) “and the land.” So the people are told they will be brought back to the land, which is to say they will restored in their covenant relationship with God, the relationship which was intended from the very foundations of the world.

There are a few ways to interpret the identity of the servant. The first is in the immediate historical context of the seventh century BC exile of Judah, in which case the servant is the historical figure Cyrus (see Isaiah 44:28). Second, one can understand the servant as the faithful of Israel. Third, one can take the servant to be Jesus Christ. I suggest that, really, two and three can be combined, but that’s another story altogether (where the Gospels generally, and Matthew in particular, demonstrate that Jesus embodies faithful Israel, in a way that the historical nation of Israel never could), and I won’t get too involved in that today.

At any rate, this particular passage from Isaiah 40 that is quoted about John the Baptist acts as a prelude, of sorts, to the servant songs. The servant is mentioned, yet in the context of the book, it is clear that the preparations that are being made are being made for the servant (if Jesus is that servant, then it really fits that John the Baptist is making the preparations). But why is there all this reference to exile? I thought that Judah was released from exile in the Old Testament?

Yes, on the historical face of it, Judah was released form exile to return to Jerusalem and build the temple. While in the intertestamental period they were briefly a conquered people again, they achieved a rather long period of relative independence prior to the Roman general Pompey marching in and taking the territory (almost completely unopposed). So why this talk about preparation to return from exile still, when the return already occurred? It is perhaps because “the land” or promise was never, genuinely, a geographic location. God had taken the presence of his glory away from Judah (Ezekiel 10), and this absence was deeply and intimately felt. The exile was over, but the people still felt the exile.

Thus the people still awaited the end to their exile. It became clear that the land of promise was not a geographical location, but an intimate covenant relationship, though it would one day encompass the whole heavens and new earth, once they were refined and made new. It is in this context that the people wait, hoping for the return of the Glory of God, that is his unique and overwhelming presence, and it was coming in the person of Jesus (see John 1:14, where the language is very carefully chosen). In order for this exile to end, though, preparation must be made.

Thus the message of John was a call to get the pathway ready. Making the desert highway straight. It is not geographic, but in the hearts of people that the path must be made straight. I’ll pick up there next week.

What do you think? What might it mean to think of repentance as the first step to ending exile? What does it mean to encounter the glory of God?

 

Foundational Doctrines: Repentance part 2

Last week I went back to the foundational doctrines series with more discussion about repentance (see part 1). There, I talked about how repentance is more than being sorry or wishing something hadn’t happened. It is first admitting that sin has occurred and then taking action about it. One of the earliest uses of the word translated “repent” occurs in King Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple (1 Kings 8:46-51):

46 “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to their enemies, who take them captive to their own lands, far away or near; 47 and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly’; 48 and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their ancestors, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; 49 then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause. 50 And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their captors to show them mercy; 51 for they are your people and your inheritance, whom you brought out of Egypt, out of that iron-smelting furnace.

The context of the prayer includes multiple requests for God to hear the prayers of his people, generally asking for forgiveness in certain situations. There are a few key factors to pick up from repentance.

  1. Everyone sins. We know this. We know it from the bible and we know it from experience. People are flawed and we don’t pretend otherwise. Because everyone sins, everyone needs to repent.
  2. The lack of acknowledgment of sin, the lack of repentance, leads to punishment and isolation.
  3. Repentance requires a “change of heart.” This is not just a change in desire, as we in the 21st century West tend to think of it, but is instead a determined and concerted effort to realign the things most important in your life. A “change of heart” involves a determination to radically change your life and the things you pursue.
  4. Repentance involves a pleading. There is no obligation on God’s part to forgive you. That’s why we need to repent in the first place. It is manifestly unjust to seek forgiveness and thus it is entirely at the will of the one who forgives.
  5. God does respond to forgiveness. And we’ll talk about this next week.

At this point, I’d just like to finish by noting that repentance is mentioned in the context of exile, and next week I’ll also talk about why this is important.

Think about this. Have you ever completely changed your attitude to something or someone? Why? Was it a decision you made or the actions of someone else, or just happenstance? Share your story below.

 

 

Picking back up with the foundational doctrines: Repentance, part 1

Bible Study

So before my nearly three month long and unanticipated hiatus, I was going through the foundational doctrines presented out of Hebrews 6. For a quick review they were 1) “Repentance of acts that lead to death,” 2) “faith in God,” 3) “instruction about cleansing rites” 4) “laying on of hands” 5) “resurrection of the dead” and 6) “eternal judgment”

I had begun with the first one “Repentance of acts that lead to death” by talking first about the second half: sin. We looked at what exactly sin means, and how it results in death, particularly in the context of Genesis 1-3. We did this in two parts (part 1, part 2). Now we’re going to look at the first part of that verse. What does repentance mean?

It seems to little to say that repentance is just being “regretful” about something. There is an element of being sorry, but it’s not just wishing that something hadn’t happened or that you wish you didn’t do something you shouldn’t or wishing you did do something you should. At the point where repentance is needed, and it is certainly needed for everyone, it’s not just enough to acknowledge what is morally right or wrong. You can’t undo the past. You can’t change it. You can’t go back and make it better, or less terrible. The first step in repentance is admitting not only that your action (or inaction) was wrong, but that it happened (or didn’t happen) and you are solely responsible for it. Now there are such things as “corporate sins” where groups of people commit wrongs, but you cannot place blame for your part on something external to you. You and I and everyone must admit that its not our upbringing or society or where we live or our economic situation or the actions of others that determine our action. We did it. We freely chose to do something when we were fully capable of choosing not to do it (or we chose not to do something when we were fully capable of choosing it).* That’s the first bit. We have to admit something is wrong and we are responsible for it.

However, merely admitting guilt isn’t enough. Merely “being sorry” isn’t enough. One has to be willing to do something about it. The verse in Hebrews doesn’t say “being repentant” but “repentance.” It’s action, not just sorrow. Tears are little good in a world that is ripping itself apart. Next time, I’ll talk about what that action really means.

What about you? Do you have a hard time admitting that you are responsible for something, or accepting the blame when things go wrong? I know I do.

 

* I’ll have to do a post on determinism versus a free will and what that really means and why I hold to it.

Sermon on the Kingdom of God

On Sunday I had the joy to preach at what I consider my “home church,” Louetta Road Baptist Church in Spring, TX (North Houston). I think this is one of the few ways I like topical preaching. I walked through a large portion of the bible to give the beginnings of a biblical theology of the Kingdom of God. Video is below:

Foundational Doctrines: Doctrine of Sin, part 2

So in investigating the first of the “foundations” described in Hebrews 6, I suggested that we can’t understand it (repentance of acts that lead to death), until we understand that second part: what are the acts that lead to death. Last week, I talked about what sin means in the context of creation and Sabbath, God’s purpose for us. This week I’d like to examine the actually episode of the fall in Genesis 3.

After having created the world and making it good, and after preparing the garden and placing the man and woman there to tend for as part of the Sabbath, God himself rested and communed with them. The Sabbath is interrupted, however, by Genesis 3.

The narrative begins with Satan asking the question about God’s command in a negative context. In Genesis 2 God phrased the command as “you may eat freely of every tree,” except the one in the middle of the garden. Satan, though, asks in a more restrictive sense “Did God say ‘you must not eat of any tree.” Immediately this begins to frame the conversation between the woman and the serpent in terms of what God is withholding, rather than what God has provided.

Next, the woman’s response is noteworthy for the absence of the “surely” or “certainly.” She says that eating from the tree results in death, but assurance of this action is gone from her telling. It should be noted that we have no record of God telling the woman this command. The command was given to Adam prior to the creation of the woman in Genesis 2. It may be the case that Adam failed to relay the command correctly or that the woman lacked the recall, in either case, though, the presence of Adam described at the end of the sinful episode (“She also gave some to the man who was with her“) indicates that both are at fault.
The serpent picks up on this lack of certainty, and uses it in his refutation of God’s command by saying (I’ve altered the translation to highlight the parallel visible in the Hebrew) “It is certainly not the case that you will die.”

We have not yet arrived at the actual sin, but it is important to note the things that led up to the sin: 1) thinking in terms of what God is keeping us from rather than his provision, 2) Being uncertain about God’s command regarding sin and so believing someone else who sounds more certain (even though, as the reader knows, they are not certain because they are lying). Now we come to the final element which leads to the actual sin. The serpent tells them that eating from the tree will make them “like God.”

Here’s the first problem with that statement: remember the end of Genesis 1? The man and woman are created how? In the image of God. They are already like God in the important sense. So the temptation offered by the serpent is layered. It is a denial of the goodness of God’s creation (the serpent suggests they are lacking in their nature). It is an unhealthy and selfish desire for more than what God has provided. It is a denial of their central task to act as God’s image. It is a desire not to be just like God, but to be God. It is idolatry or the denial of God’s authority, or prideful lust. Whatever the case it is rebellion against God to the extreme.

Following the act, the man and the woman are now naked and feel they must hide their nakedness. This is in stark contrast to the end of Genesis 2: “The man and the woman were naked and felt no shame.” Before they can begin the act of repentance, though, they must expose their nakedness before God. They are aware that appearing before God he will see everything about them, and so they attempt to flee God. This is the opposite of repentance. And their nakedness can only be adequately covered once they own up to their sin before God.

However, they don’t actually die. Eventually they do, but does that mean they would automatically had lived forever without sin? The mere existence of a tree of life in the garden seems to indicate that is not the case. So why don’t they die? What makes sin an act “that leads to death” as the author of Hebrews describes it or something that earns death as a “wage” as Paul describes it in Romans?

In Genesis 1 and 2 the picture we see of God is that he is the source of life. One thing I have been suggesting is that sin disrupts our fellowship (i.e. the Sabbath) with God, who is the source of life. In a very real sense, we die at that moment, as detailed in the cursings of Genesis 3. Following the sin, the result is the death of Sabbath. There is death in the joy of our labors as it becomes labor, one that many have described as something eating away or slowly killing them. Joy with children and bringing them up is now intermixed with pain and suffering and strife (the “pain of childbirth” refers not only to the act of giving birth, but the entire process of raising a child. I’m sure those with teenagers can attest to that pain on some level). There is now marital strife. The closest human relationship we have on earth (wife and husband) is now mixed with striving and difficulty. The fact that things are not worse, however, is God’s act of mercy. Even in the midst of our sin, as we are being punished, God stays his hand. God continues to sustain, and rather than wiping out these relationships completely, he allows us to retain a measure of their joy. This is instructive to us, it reminds us of the dangers of our sin (through the strife) and the joys that come from God. They are intermixed to help train us. Even God’s guardian over the tree of life is not meant as a punishment, but as a saving grace. We are now in a sinful state, slowly killing ourselves by our sin. If God allowed us to eat from the tree of life as we presently are, it would not be wonderful, but horrific. We would continue to live forever as we also continue to die. A continual process of dying without ever actually completing the process is not paradise, it is hell. God needs to transform our being, from our sinful core, out. Only once we are transformed can we enjoy the tree of life. Only then can we be saved. The first step in this transformation, then, is repentance, which I’ll address next week.

What do you think? Add your thoughts below

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