What Is the Key to Understanding the Bible Correctly?

My wife and I drove to Chicago the other day. We had an interesting conversation about Christianity, the Bible, and faith during the drive. This conversation started with my wife saying she was over the Bible. Even though she had read it since she was a teenager, she was done with it. She was tired of how people were reading it and the meanings the were drawing from it. I completely understood what she was saying because I have even felt that way somewhat recently.

What did she mean?

Basically, people use the Bible to support what they already believe.

The Bible has been used to support capitalism and socialism.

The Bible has been used to support slavery and freedom.

The Bible has been used to support monogamy and bigamy.

The Bible has been used to support complementarianism and egalitarianism.

The Bible has been used to support war and non-violence.

The Bible has been used to support heterosexuality and homosexuality.

The Bible has been used to support Jews and Israel and to hate Jews and Israel.

The Bible has been used to support white supremacy and black liberation.

Pretty much whatever idea or ideology people have had they have found a way for the Bible to support.

What is going on here?

How are people able to do this?

They read the Bible literally.

They read a verse, a passage, or even just part of a verse and claim that these words literally support what they already believe no matter what the context of the verse says. And, even if the context does support their idea or ideology, they only take the text at literal, face value.

This is a significant problem.

I cannot stress how big of a problem this is.

So, what is the key to reading the Bible correctly?

Jesus gave us two commandments that perfectly sum up how we should read the Bible.

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22.37-39)

In order to understand the Bible correctly, your reading of it must be grounded and rooted in love. If love is not the very foundation of every single thought you have regarding the Bible, then you are going to take away the wrong ideas from it. If a thought, idea, ideology, or viewpoint that you come up with from reading the Bible does not look, feel, and sound like love to every single person, then that thought, idea, ideology, or viewpoint is wrong.

The temptation for everyone who reads the Bible is to use love for the foundation of their reading but only for the people who look or think like them.

It’s not a coincidence that Jesus addressed this to.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5.43-45)

If your understanding of the Bible, if your reading of any part of the Bible, does not result in love for those who you deem your enemies, then you are reading the Bible incorrectly. Your enemies are anyone you marginalize or ostracize. Your enemies are all the people that you think are going to hell. Your enemies are anyone that you treat as less than you.

Paul picked up on this very idea of Jesus. In Romans 12, Paul summarized the love for enemies and Jesus’ sermon on the mount in his own words. Paul also told us that we are all one. There is no Jew or Greek, rich or poor, male or female in Christ.

In other words, love brings everyone together, particularly those that are deemed to be antagonistic or opposite to each other.

So, if your reading of the Bible cannot and does not result in love bringing everyone together in Christ, then you haven’t yet discovered the key to reading the Bible correctly.

Can the Bible Be Both Literal and Inspired?

I find it odd that those that most vociferously proclaim that the Bible is the inspired word of God also insist that the Bible should be read literally. But, for me, reading the Bible literally and as an inspired book is a complete contradiction.

How so?

Typically, when someone says that the Bible should be read literally they mean that we should read the text by strictly adhering to exact idea conveyed by the words on the page. In other words, there can be no deviation from what the words mean, what the author intended, and what the one meaning of those words and intent is.

I understand that for these same people, the Bible is inspired because it the authors were divinely influenced to write what they did. Some even believe that this divine inspiration gave the authors the exact words to use.

Therefore, these people believe that the Bible can be both literal and inspired.

However, for me, this fails to account the actual idea and meaning of inspiration. Something is inspired when it moves the intellect and emotions. Inspiration influences and suggests, but it does not dictate. Dictation is literal. Inspiration breathes life into something. Life never has a singular meaning. Rather, it is varied and complex.

We speak of art, music, books, poems, etc. as inspired.

Why do we call works of art inspired?

We call works of art inspired because there is a meaning that is deeper than what is directly seen or heard. Inspired works of art are not to be taken literally, as if they are they are to convey one word, one thought, one meaning only. Rather, works of art move and influence the heart and mind to see deeper, opening up meanings and possibilities. Perhaps even thoughts and ideas that the artist did not originally intend.

Inspiration means that there is more than what is obvious. Or, in contrast to many who believe the Bible should be read literally, there is more than the “plain” meaning of the text.

Paul stresses these very ideas about inspiration – that the meaning is more and deeper than what was originally written – throughout his letters. Just read 2 Corinthians 3 and 4. Or, read the the analogies and allegories Paul uses to make Old Testament passages relevant to his audience. Paul interprets the scriptures creatively.

For Paul, there seems to be a range of meanings to the Old Testament, as long as those meanings serve the word that he was occupied with (Acts 17), which was that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, die, and be resurrected. This was the one thing Paul had a habit of teaching everywhere we went.

The Bible is inspired when the Holy Spirit breathes life into it. This breathing into the words that are written by the Holy Spirit may have happened at the time the words were written. But, more importantly, the breathing into the words by the Holy Spirit happens each time we read the words of the Holy Bible with the Holy Spirit as our teacher. The inspiration of the text happens on a moment by moment basis. The inspiration of the text has happened every day for the last 2,000 years, it is happening now, and it will continue to happen into the future.

When we truly understand God, it is not surprising that the reading of the Bible can be inspired when the Holy Spirit breathes into it.

What is the first thing the Bible says about God?

“In the beginning, God created…”

God is a creator.

God is an artist.

Creation, art, happens through inspiration.

But, God’s creation, his art, can never be captured by a single, literal meaning of words on a page.

What is God’s ultimate artwork, his true masterpiece?

It’s not the Bible.

Ephesians 2.10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The Greek word for workmanship is poeima, from which we get our word poem. Go back to the creation story in Genesis 1. In that chapter, the only portion of text translated as poem is the portion where God creates man, which I find fascinating.

We are God’s poem. We are God’s masterpiece. We, not the Bible, are truly what is inspired by God. When the Holy Spirit breathes into us, then we read the Bible in new and creative ways that make the text have meaning for our time and our culture.

Paul says that we are living letters. We are living witnesses to the Christ. For us today, Christians are to be living Bibles for the world around them.

So, can the Bible be both literal and inspired?

For me, the answer is no.

Literalism kills inspiration.

Does God Cast You Out of His Presence?

“For because of the anger of the Lord it came to the point in Jerusalem and Judah that he cast them out from his presence.” – 2 Kings 24.20

This verse really jumped out at me when I read it the other day. Judah had repeatedly disobeyed God. And, Zedekiah, the current king, had done what was evil in God’s sight. So, the author of 2 Kings wrote that God’s anger was such that the situation had reached the point where God was forced to cast Judah out of his presence and out of the land of Israel.

And, this is exactly how most of us view God in our own minds and lives. We sin. And, then we sin again. And, we believe God reaches a point with us that, because God cannot tolerate the presence of sin nor can he look upon sinners, God is forced to cast us out of his presence.

But, did God really cast Israel out of his presence?

And, does God you or sinners out of his presence?

In reality, Judah had been conquered by the Babylonian empire. And, they needed a way to explain what had happened to them. As was common in the culture at the time, they explained their being conquered by God casting them out of his presence for their disobedience, wickedness, and evil acts.

In reality, we drive ourselves away from God just as we do from any person in any relationship when we fail to treat the other with love. Yet, we try to explain our broken relationship with God as God casting us out of his presence because we have been bad. We explain our not being in God’s presence as God casting us out.

I will grant you that Jesus concludes one his parables by saying, “And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” (Matthew 25.30) Similarly, in Matthew 8.12, after seeing the faith of the centurion, Jesus says, “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness,” which is to say cast out of God’s presence. But, these two somewhat vague and/or obscure references by Jesus are the only time we see anything like what was written in 2 Kings 24.20.

Instead, over and over and over in the gospels we see Jesus casting out demons, not people.

Let me repeat that.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus, and therefore God, casts out demons, not people.

“That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.” – Matthew 8.16

“And the demons begged him, saying, ‘If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.'” – Matthew 8.31

“And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel.'” – Matthew 9.33

“And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.” – Matthew 10.2

“And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” – Mark 1.34

“And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” – Mark 1.39

“Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled.” – Luke 11.14

“But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” – Luke 11.20

“And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.”‘” – Luke 13.32

“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world [Satan] be cast out.” – John 12.32

Jesus, and therefore God, casts out demons, not people.

I cannot find one instance where Jesus cast a person out of his presence. People, like the rich young ruler, may have walked away from Jesus. But, Jesus did not cast him out.

In fact, instead of Jesus, and therefore God, casting people out of his presence, people cast Jesus, and therefore God, out of their presence. This is revealed in the crucifixion and the fact that Jesus was crucified outside the city.

Jesus did not cast the woman at the well in John 4, traditionally presumed to be a sinner because she had five husbands, out of his presence. Instead, Jesus revealed himself as living water and the Christ to her. And, this woman became the first witness of the Christ in John’s gospel.

Jesus did not cast the woman caught in adultery in John 8 out of his presence. Instead, Jesus refused to condemn her while redeeming her.

Jesus did not cast Mary Magdalene, traditionally presumed to be a prostitute, out of his presence. Instead, “Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.” (Mark 16.9) Whether or not Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, she was a sinner like the rest of us. Yet, Jesus did not cast her out. Instead he cast seven (the number of spiritual perfection) demons out of her.

Jesus did not cast the Gentile woman, a Syrophoenician by birth, and therefore a sinner, out of his presence. Instead, Jesus cast the demon out of her daughter.

Jesus did not cast out sinners. He ate with them and drank with them. Jesus was ridiculed by the religious elite, who routinely cast sinners out of their presence, because he did this. This is why Jesus was said to be a friend of sinners.

In John 6.37, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Do not think that the Father has only given some people to Jesus. The Father is the creator of all human life. All people are his children. This is exactly what Paul said in Acts 17.26-28. And, eventually all will come, or return, to Jesus as pictured in the parable of the prodigal son and Paul’s confession that every knee will bow and gladly confess Jesus as Lord.

Further, Jesus said, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons.” (Mark 16.17) If we profess to be believers, followers of Jesus, then we are to cast out demons, not people.

Let me repeat that. If we are believers in and followers of Jesus, then we are to cast out demons, evil spirits or attitudes, not people.

This does not mean that others will not drive themselves out of relationship with us, just as we all at one time have driven ourselves out of relationship with God. But, we should always be working, in some way, perhaps even just prayer, to cast the demons out of people to redeem them and restore them to right relationship with God and us.

True Worship: The Cultivation of Life

“But if you say to me, ‘We trust in the Lord our God,’ is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem?'” (2 Kings 18.22) These were the words of the Rabshakeh, part of the court of Syria, to Eliakim, Shebnah, and Joah. The Rabshakeh was challenging Judah on their trust in God because Hezekiah was calling Judah to worship God at the altar in the temple in Jerusalem.

The implication of statement by the Rabshakeh is that Judah (and all the nations at that time) believed there was one, and only one, way to worship their God, or gods. In Judah, you had to the temple in Jerusalem. There was only one site you could worship God. You could only present certain offerings or sacrifices for thanksgiving, peace, purification, cleansing, or atonement at the temple in Jerusalem. The book of Leviticus is all about the rules and regulations of worshiping God in one specific way.

In other religions, there may be rules about how to pray – certain positions, certain directions, certain times, certain words that need to be repeated. Others require specific activities or specific foods to be eaten on specific days. So, for every religion, including Christianity, there is only one way to worship to God.

Is that true?

Is there only one way to worship God?

Are these religious practices and rites even truly worship?

For most Christians, worship is simply singing songs to God, particularly slower songs. If you asked, I’m sure most Christians would disagree with that, but their words betray. Worship leaders lead people in song. Only the singing part of a service is referred to as worship. Or, “The worship was really good today” is said in response to the singing used good songs or had an electric quality to it. But, in truth, singing songs has nothing to do with worship.

True worship is the cultivation of life.

In John 4, the woman at the well said to Jesus, “Sir I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” The woman, who was a Samaritan, believed that there was one mountain in Samaria where God could be worshiped. However, she also knew that those who lived in Judah said you could only worship God in Jerusalem. Worship as tied to specific places with specific practices.

But, Jesus responded, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus told the woman worship wasn’t about a specific place. This also meant that worship wasn’t about a specific practice or rite because that’s what the specific places were for. Worship could be done anywhere. But, it had to be in spirit and truth because God is spirit.

Jesus wasn’t saying that if we sing in the Spirit we are worshiping God in the spirit.

God is spirit.

In John 6.63, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

Romans 8.10-11 says, “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness, If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

God is spirit means that God is life. The Spirit gives life.

This is why Jesus said, “For I have not spoken on my authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment – what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.” (John 12.49-50) Everything Jesus said and did was about bringing forth the life of God.

Have you ever noticed how little the gospels focus on Jesus practicing the Jewish religion? How little time is spent telling us about the religious practices of Jesus?

But, the gospels continually tell us about Jesus bringing life to people – all people. Jesus brought life everywhere he went. Jesus worshiped everywhere in every situation to everyone because he did the one commandment his Father gave him and he knew that one commandment is eternal life.

To worship God in spirit is to worship God in life. We think of worship as singing or specific religious practices, but the Greek word for worship (proskyneo) means falling down, giving reverence, prostrating oneself before. Jesus isn’t talking about our physical position. However, he is talking about the attitude of our hearts. To worship is to lay down our own lives, to lose our own lives, so that we can give life to another.

True worship is creating the conditions for life in others.

Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4.11-12, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” Paul is saying he has lost his own life, laid it down. He carries about the death of Jesus in him in order that others may have life. Paul’s whole life, once he had turned away from breathing murder, was about cultivating life in others.

True worship is the cultivation of life.

Jesus is the image of God. He was the true Adam, the fulfillment of man. But, how was the first man, the first Adam, supposed to worship God?

There were no instructions about a temple, sacrifices, or any other religious practices. But, God did give mankind a command. In Genesis 1.26, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God is not saying that man should rule, plunder, rape, and pillage the earth for his own benefit. No, man should have dominion over the earth in God’s likeness and image.

But, what have we come to know about God’s image and likeness in the creation?

He creates and brings life – to everything. The entire chapter is about creating life, expanding life, cultivating life. This is the command that God gave mankind, who was created in the image of God. So, it is no surprise that it lines up with the command the Father gave Jesus, who is the image of God.

Or, consider Genesis 2. Verse 8 says, “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed.” Verse 15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Again, there are no commands about temples and religious practices – things we consider worship. But, the job God gave man was to work and to keep a garden – to cultivate life. The words work and keep are the same Hebrew words that are used about priests and their activities in the temple. To work and keep the garden – to cultivate life – was to worship God.

Perhaps this is why Paul said, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3.5-6) The imagery is of gardening. The Lord assigns who plants and waters, who works and who keeps the garden. The Lord assigns the tasks of cultivation. God brings the growth. God brings the life.

Are these tasks of working and keeping only “religious” in nature? Are they things having only to do with temples and churches, preaching and leading “worship?”

Colossians 3.23 says, “”Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” How do we work for the Lord? We cultivate life. So, whatever we do, do it to cultivate life. Everything we do is worship if we are doing it to bring life in others.

Therefore, Jesus said that apart from him we can do nothing. In other words, apart from Jesus we cannot bring life to anything. But, with Jesus we have the Spirit flowing in us and through us. And, the Spirit gives life.

How do we know what we are doing is worshipful? How we do know what we are doing is cultivating life?

We just need to ask ourselves one thing. Is what I am doing producing the producing the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? If the answer is yes, then we are cultivating life and worshiping God.

Worship is not religious practices.

Worship is not singing songs in church.

Worship is a kind word to someone.

Worship is gentle hand of help to someone in need.

Worship is art that inspires love in the hearts of mankind.

Worship is work that meets the needs of other.

Worship is bringing peace to a stressful situation.

As Jesus said, “‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'” (Matthew 25.34-40)

Why Was the Cross Necessary?

Everything is separated and identified by the cross. Everything that aligns with the cross can be identified as Christian. Everything that does not align with the cross, that does not conform to the cross, cannot be called Christian.

What do we mean by “the cross”?

And, why was the cross necessary?

The cross is simply a symbol for Christ crucified. Or, in other words, the crucified God. It’s not so much the cross that is important, as there were numerous people crucified by the Roman empire. However, just one, and only one, of the people crucified by the Roman empire – Christ Jesus – gives the cross its meaning, its importance, its symbolic value to the Christian faith and life.

As I blogged my way through the Bible last year, the cross – that is the crucified Christ, the crucified God – took central focus. By the end of the year, the crucified Christ became the focus of every passage of scripture for me.

Jesus taught that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and enter his glory. He taught that it was necessary for the Christ to die and rise from the dead for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The gospel of Mark says that it was the one thing that Jesus taught plainly to the disciples as he made his way to Jerusalem. Jesus only taught this plainly after the disciples had identified him as the Christ. And, each time he taught it plainly was the result of the disciples’ misunderstanding of what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ.

In addition to this being the one thing Jesus taught plainly, the necessity of the suffering of the Christ – the necessity of the crucified Christ – was the word that occupied Paul, according to Acts 17. This word of the crucified Christ was the one thing Paul made a habit of preaching and proving through the scriptures everywhere he went.

So, after two months of not blogging as I researched how to repair my health from a near massive heart attack , I found myself half way around the world with the opportunity to speak at the Sunday service in the church of two of my closest friends (two people who I consider my family). Of course, I chose to speak about the necessity of Christ suffering, dying, and rising from the dead for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. I repeated this over and over and over during the message.

As I spoke, I sensed that some of the leaders in the church were not following me. Later, one of my friends told me that my message was not really understood. It wasn’t because of any language barrier. Rather, the misunderstanding was because the necessity of Christ’s suffering, dying, and rising from the dead was not what people were used to hearing. Further, as my friend and I discussed the message at lunch, the real misunderstanding came from what this word meant for us today. I did not really address this in my message so the misunderstanding was my fault.

But, upon my return home, I began reading The Crucified God by Jurgen Moltmann. I’m just into the second chapter, but I have been flooded with words and thoughts that convey the meaning of the cross, the crucified Christ, Jesus’ plainly taught message for us today. The following is an extended passage from the second chapter of The Crucified God.

“For ultimately, in a civilization which is constructed on the principle of achievement and enjoyment, and therefore makes pain and death a private matter, excluded from its public life, so that in the final issue the world must no longer be experienced as offering resistance, there is nothing so unpopular as for the crucified God to be made a present reality through faith…Before there can be correspondence and agreements between faith and the surrounding world, there must first be the painful demonstration of truth in the midst of untruth. In this pain we experience reality outside of ourselves, which we have not made or thought out for ourselves. The pain arouses a love which can no longer be indifferent, but seeks out its opposite, what is ugly and unworthy of love, in order to love it…

“The cross in the church symbolizes the contradiction which comes into the church from the God who was crucified ‘outside’…The symbol of the cross in the church points to the God who was crucified not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in the place of the skull, where the outcasts belong, outside the gates of the city. It does not invite thought but change of mind. It is a symbol which therefore leads out of the church and out of religious longing into the fellowship of the oppressed and abandoned…Where this contradiction in the cross, and its revolution in religious values, is forgotten, the cross ceases to be a symbol and becomes an idol, and no longer invites a revolution in thought, but the end of thought in self-affirmation…

“To make the cross a present reality in our civilization means to put into practice the experience one has received of being liberated from fear for oneself; no longer to adapt oneself to this society, its idols and taboos, its imaginary images and fetishes; and in the name of him who was once the victim of religion, society and the state to enter into solidarity with the victims of religion, society and the state at the present day, in the same way as he who was crucified became their brother and their liberator.”

So…

Why should we preach the message of the cross, the necessity of Christ suffering, dying, and rising from the dead?

What is its relevance for us today?

This message reveals and arouses a love within us that leads us to seek out those that are not like us, those that are opposite to us, those are deemed unworthy and unlovable, so that they can be loved.

This message takes us to where God is…outside the gates, outside the city, outside religion, outside the society, outside the state, outside the wealthy, outside the privileged…and puts us in the place of those abandoned and forsaken by religion, society, and the state.

This is the message that reveals God’s love for the abandoned, the oppressed, the sick, the poor, the tired, the downtrodden and creates that love of God within us when we suffer with Christ, participating in the fellowship of his sufferings as Paul says.

This message takes us out of religion, out of church, our of established patterns, structures, and traditions and puts us in the place of the strange, the unfamiliar, and the uncomfortable.

And, this message takes us to the one and only true God.

This message leads to a change in our minds of who God is.

The cross of Jesus Christ revealed God as the one who suffers with you and not the God who causes you to suffer.

The cross of Jesus Christ revealed God as the one who dies for you and not the God who causes you to die.

The cross of Jesus Christ revealed God as the one who comforts the forsaken and abandoned and not the God who forsakes and abandons you.

This changed mind about God leads us to pick up our own cross, to follow Christ outside…the gates, the city, society, the state, religion, the church…to meet “the victims of religion, society and the state at the present day.”

Just who are those victims of the present day?

The poor. People of color. Homosexuals. The homeless. The dirty. The diseased. The mentally ill. The imprisoned. And many more.

Once we have experienced the change, the restoration, that only the cross, the crucified Christ, who necessarily had to suffer, die and rise from the dead, we always carry the death of Jesus in our bodies so that we can bring life to others. We suffer with Christ by abandoning our identification with the world, with society, with religion, with the state. We suffer the rejection of what it means to be normal, approved and like by the powers, to be with those that are deemed not normal, disapproved and not liked by the powers that be.

Just as Jesus did for us.

This is how God was reconciling the world through Christ.

And, this is how God now makes his appeal to the world to be reconciled to him through us, Christ’s ambassadors.

There truly is no other message that needs to preached and heard.

There is no other message that is Christian.

Should We Be Serving or Leading?

Judges 9.8-15 is known as the parable of the trees. I see the essence of this parable as serving and not be being served. This is just how Jesus described himself in Matthew 20:28, saying, “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Notice that the parable starts with the trees went out to anoint a king over them. In Jesus’ day, Israel was on the lookout for a king that would stand up to the Roman empire. They wanted a king that would win their freedom back for them. John 6.15 says that when Jesus perceived that the crowd of 5,000 wanted to make him king by force, he withdrew to the mountain by himself.

The great mass of people want a king. They will make someone a king over them by force if they have to. The people will even try to make God a king over them by force, forcing God into their own image of what a king should do for them, which is typically fighting and killing their enemies.

The trees command the olive tree, “Reign over us.”  But, the olive tree says, “Shall I leave my abundance, by which gods and men are honored, and go hold sway over the trees?”

The trees command the fig tree, “Reign over us.” But, the fig tree says, “Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit and go hold sway over the trees?”

The trees command the vine, “Reign over us.” But, the vine says, “Shall I leave my wine that cheers God and men and go hold sway over the trees?”

Each tree – the olive, fig, and vine – refuses to reign over the people. They refuse to be served by the people. These trees refused to be served because they were compelled to serve instead. Each of these trees produced fruit that blessed God, gods (the powers and principalities in the New Testament), and men. These fruits had to be eaten, consumed, by others so that their essence – abundance, sweetness, and cheer – could serve them just as Jesus said we had to eat his flesh and his blood and drink the living water that he gave so that he could serve us.

Each of these trees refused to “hold sway” over the trees. Nuwa is the Hebrew word for hold sway. It also means to tremble, to roam around, to cause to move and fro, to make unstable, to shake up, to disturb. By continuing to serve by offering their fruit, the olive, fig, and vine trees refused to make others tremble, needlessly move about, unstable, or disturbed.

Almost every person I think about in leadership, particularly governmental leadership, eventually succumbs to “holding sway” over the people who are know there to serve them instead of the leader serving the people. It’s largely true of the church as well. Just watch how often you see leaders being served – being fed, given the special seats of honor, etc. – instead of serving others.

Finally, trees command the bramble, “Reign over us.” The bramble has no fruit to offer the people. It can only offer that the people take refuge in its shade. But, the bramble is a bush. It doesn’t have much shade to offer. Because the bramble is relatively low to the ground, to get in that shade would require on to get low and probably be right up against the bramble’s branches. But, those branches have thorns. So, to get in the bramble’s shade you are probably going to get pricked by its thorns. And, the bramble will devour you if you don’t make you offer of it being king in good faith, perhaps total and complete power. Doesn’t this sound like many, if not most, of the people we tend to put in power ad the people that actually want to be in power?

So, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be servant, and whoever would be first among you must be our slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It’s not about leading, exercising authority over others, getting people to go a certain direction.

It’s about serving, meeting people’s needs, and letting them choose the direction they should go.

What Does the Land of Canaan Symbolize?

For the past couple of days, I have been reading the book of Joshua. Joshua is the account of Israel finally entering the promised land, Canaan, after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. When I first began reading the Bible, I thought Canaan symbolized heaven. So, we have a story of God leading his people of Egypt, the world or the earth, and into Canaan, heaven. In between, is the wilderness, our journey through this world once we are saved as we try to make it to heaven. I’m sure I’m not the only one that has believed this. But, as I have become more familiar with the story of the Bible, I believe something different now.

So, what does Canaan, the promised land, symbolize if it does not symbolize heaven?

Rest.

The Greek word for rest is katapauo. Almost every use of the word is in the book of Hebrews.

Hebrews 3.11 says, “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” This is actually a quotation of Psalm 95.11. This verse is about a people who have hardened their hearts and rebelled against God on their day of testing in the wilderness. Because the people always went astray in their hearts, God said they would not enter his rest. The writer of Hebrews goes on to ask who it was that rebelled? Was it not those led out of Egypt by Moses? Weren’t these ones with whom God was provoked? Weren’t these the ones whom God said they could not enter his rest?

Then, in Hebrews 4.8-10, the writer of Hebrews ties the idea of rest together with Joshua leading Israel into the land of Canaan. “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Joshua led the people into Canaan, but he did not give them rest because Israel did not cease from its works.

Even though those that rebelled in the wilderness failed to enter God’s rest, which is to say they died in the wilderness without entering Canaan, Hebrews 4.1 says, “the promise of entering his rest still stands.”

So, what is God’s rest then?

Hebrews 4.3-4 says, “For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, “They shall not enter my rest,”‘ although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: ‘And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.'” This is a quotation of Genesis 2.2. The Lexham English Septuagint says, “God completed in the sixth day his works that he did, and he ceased on the seventh day from all his works.” The Greek word for ceased is the word katapauo, the same word the writer of Hebrews uses.

God’s rest is a ceasing from creative activity. God worked, or created, on the first six days, but he ceased, or rested, from creating on the seventh day. We know that God’s rest related specifically to God’s creative work not all of God’s work though. John 5.16-17 says, “And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.” For Jesus and God, the seventh day, the Sabbath, was not a day of doing nothing, doing no work. They both still worked on the Sabbath. But, they no longer did creative work.

What is significant about creative work?

When you create something, you own it. It’s yours. You can do whatever you want with it.

On the seventh day, God ceased from that kind of work. God was now sharing his creation with mankind. He was making man a partner with him in taking care of the creation.

So, for you and me to enter God’s rest is for us to rest, or cease, from our own creative works. We are stop trying to make something that is our own, something that we can use for ourselves, and do with it whatever we please. Oh, we still have work to do. Lots of it. But, the work is to ensure that have everyone has a satisfactory portion of God’s creation. That is the concept of peace, shalom.

In Canaan, this was symbolized by each tribe receiving their inheritance of the promised land. And, no family was to lose their inheritance as all their land was to be restored to them every Jubilee. No one was ever to be without their portion. For the first Christians, this was fulfilled in Acts 2.32, 34-35, which says, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

They had entered God’s rest, Canaan.

Are There Reasonable Exclusions for Following Jesus into War?

The more I read the Bible, the more I see Jesus standing out.

As I have read Deuteronomy recently, I noticed so many little allusions, foreshadowings, prophecies, glimpses, etc. of Jesus. Any time I see these in scripture it stirs my soul. But, none of these were significant enough, or catch my attention enough, to write a blog post.

Until I got to Deuteronomy 20.

The start of this chapter describes a time when Israel is going out to war with its enemies. The enemies will have all kinds of horses and chariots, and their armies will be much larger than their own. However, Moses tells Israel to not be afraid of them because God is with them. And, Israel has already seen God bring them out of Egypt.

Once the people have gathered for battle, the priest is come before the people and say, “Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart be faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.” (Deuteronomy 20.3-4)

After the priest speaks to the people, then the officers of Israel’s army come before the people gathered for war. The officers give the three people outs from having to go to war – if they have a new house that has not been dedicated, a vineyard they planted but haven’t enjoyed its fruit, and a betrothed wife they have not taken.

“Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to this house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.'” (Deuteronomy 20.5-7)

All of these exclusions for sending a man to war against his enemies seem perfectly reasonable. In fact, these sorts of exclusions from military service still exist today in many countries.

But, as I read the passage in Deuteronomy my mind jumped to the time someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” To follow Jesus is to go to war. Not a war with planes and tanks and guns and bombs.

But, it is a war against the principalities and powers. Ephesians 6.11-12 says, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Those that follow Jesus do this “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3.10)

It is also a war against every thought in our own minds against God. “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10.3-5)

So, when this individual said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” he was saying that he would a combatant in this war until all things were put under Jesus’ feet and all things were summed up in Jesus.

But, unlike Moses who wrote that there were three legitimate excuses for not going to war, Jesus gave three examples of illegitimate excuses. That is, if you want to truly follow Jesus into the battle. In each of three examples, there is either a statement that the individual will follow the Lord anywhere and/or a reason the individual must do something else first. The reasons seem, well, perfectly reasonable. And, the reasons are similar in nature to the exclusions that Moses gave.

“As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Yet another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'” (Luke 9.57-62)

If you want to truly follow Jesus, to go to war against the principalities and powers, to take down our own thoughts and strongholds against God, then there is nothing else that can come first. There are no reasonable exclusions to this military service. It is an all or nothing proposition.

Is God’s Love Balanced by His Justice?

Deuteronomy 16.19, 20 says, “You shall not pervert justice…Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

As I read this verse the other day, I thought it was a very accurate description of how many Christians today view God. For these Christians, the thinking seems to be that God is just. Therefore, justice is going to be served by God, whether in this life or in the next. Justice is someone being punished, getting what they deserved, for their sins. In other words, justice sounds like, “Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

I see two reasons many western Christians think this way about justice. The first is our legal system. The system is designed to exact some sort of punishment, not restitution and reconciliation, for crimes committed. We fail to recognize how much this influences our thinking about God and Jesus and how they act in the world. Second, much of western Christianity is dominated by the thinking of John Calvin. Calvin was a lawyer. Not coincidentally, whether Calvin himself intended it or not, we have made Calvin out to make a big deal about justice.

As a result, many Christians set God’s justice on an equal footing with God’s love. For these Christians, when someone says that God is love, a typical retort is to say that God is just too.

But, is that true?

Are we to know God as love and as justice?

Is God’s justice like our justice?

Or, is God’s justice moderated by his love because God’s love supersedes any justice he brings about?

My answers would be no, no, no, and yes.

For starters, 1 John 4.8 and 16 both say, “God is love.” Nowhere in the Bible does it say God is just. God’s very nature, his very being, is love. But, we must know that God’s very nature, his very being, is not just – at least in the sense that almost all of us think of justice.

God’s actions flow out of love not out of justice.

Consider the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8.1-11. Yes, this woman was being treated unfairly by the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus pointed out that they were sinners just like the woman was. But, have you stopped to consider that there was an unmentioned wife in the story? Was it just that the woman (and the man by the way) caught in adultery got away unscathed, unpunished? Should not there been some sort of justice for the wife who was cheated on?

Or, consider the parable of the workers in Matthew 20.1-16. The workers started at different times during the time, but they all got the same pay. Some of these workers clearly did not think this was just. But, it did reveal God’s love.

We can see that love supersedes justice in other ways too.

Jesus’ two great commandments that the all the law hangs on are about love, not justice.

God so loved, not wanted justice for, the world that he sent Jesus.

Jesus said he gave us a new commandment to love one another as he loved us. That’s how we are to love one another, not do justice.

God showed his love, not justice, for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us.

Nothing can separate us from God’s love, not justice.

Love, not justice, is the fulfilling of the law.

Love, not justice, is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not arrogant, is not rude, does not insist on its way, is not irritable, is not resentful, does not rejoice at wrongdoing, rejoices at the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and never ends.

We are to pursue love, not justice.

We are controlled by the love, not justice, of Christ.

The only thing that counts is faith working through love, not justice.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Justice is not mentioned.

God is rich in mercy because of the great love, not justice, with which he loved us.

We are to be rooted and grounded in love, not justice.

We are to know the love, not justice, of Christ that surpasses knowledge.

We are to walk in love, not justice.

Yet, there are Christians that would say I have been brainwashed by love. They would argue that God’s love is balanced by his justice.

However, God, Jesus, the scriptures, are all about love, not justice. The scale is decisively tipped in favor of love. Everyone of the love, not justice statements above is straight from scripture. And, there are a whole lot more to go with them.

Love will bring about reconciliation, not punishment. Reconciliation is God’s justice.

 

We will never be able to lay down our own lives and pick up our own cross if we continue to insist that justice is on equal footing with love.

Are You Following a Man-Made System or Jesus?

We have a choice to make. We can follow a man-made system. Or, we can follow Jesus.

How do we know whether we are following a man-made system or Jesus?

Simply consider how you are being watered.

Consider Deuteronomy 11.10-12.

“For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the Lord your God cares for. The eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”

In these verses, we can see Egypt as a symbol of life following a man-made system and Canaan as a symbol of life following Jesus.

In many ways, the land of Egypt was like the land of Canaan. In both places, dirt, water, seed, and sun combined to produce fruit. Similarly, following a man-made system can look very much like following Jesus.

But, there is one critical difference between Egypt and Canaan – how they are watered.

The fields of Egypt were in very flat land. Therefore, they were watered in one of two ways. The first was the annual flooding of the Nile River. Once a year, the Nile would overflow its banks and water the fields of Egypt. But, for the remainder of the year, the fields were watered by a system of canals. The Egyptians had to dig out and maintain these canals. Further, the water was “pumped” through the canals by foot pedals. The Hebrew of Deuteronomy 11.10 literally says, “where you sowed your seed and water it with your feet.”

The fruit of the fields of Egypt was dependent on a man-made system to get water. But, this was not the case with the land of Canaan.

In Canaan, “the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” The produce of Canaan was not reliant upon a single annual flood from a great river. Instead, God watched over the land throughout the year and provided rain as necessary. Instead of being flat like Egypt, Canaan was full of hills and valleys to direct the water where it needed to go. Further, Deuteronomy 8.7 says, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills.”

Unlike Egypt’s fields that were dependent on a man-made system of canals, Israel’s fields on “the rain from heaven,” or the Spirit who is given by Jesus.

In John 4.10, 13-14, Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water…Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Notice the similarities in Jesus’ language to the passages in Deuteronomy. Jesus’ words from his conversation with the woman at the well are the reality of how we are to be watered just as the fields of Canaan were to be watered.

We learn more about this living water in John 7.37-39, which says, “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”‘ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”

What is the living water that flows out of our hearts?

The Spirit.

Where does the Spirit come from?

Heaven.

Jesus gives the spirit as rain from heaven to water our life.

Notice that in order to receive this water you must go to Jesus. Jesus says, “Let him come to me and drink.” But, those following a man-made system do not go to Jesus.

Where do those following a man-made system go?

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5.39-40)

Those following a man-made system depend on scripture only. They don’t actually go to Jesus to receive the Spirit, living water, the rain from heaven. This scripture-only dependence treats scripture like the land of Egypt – flat. Everything in the scripture becomes equally important. But, this flat reading of scripture requires a man-made system of canals and foot-powered pumps to force water, or life, through them.

However, those following Jesus understand that scripture is full of mountains and valleys. Some portions of scripture are closer to God than others. Some portions of scripture more fully reveal God than others. Therefore, some portions of scripture are more important than others.

So, while Egypt and Canaan have many similar features, their source of water, and therefore life, are completely different. One is man-made. The other comes from heaven. Only the Spirit can show us the difference.