Thursday, October 10, 2013

Kingdom Not of this World

In my last post on John, I mentioned briefly the way in which I understand Jesus's statement about His kingdom not being "of this world." In context, I believe Jesus was describing a kingdom which has an origin that is not of ethnic Israel, and therefore Jesus' own kingship is not of ethnic Israel either, which Pilate had asked Him about immediately before. Jesus' response was to clarify that He is a king, but He is not a king in the sense which Pilate had asked concerning uniquely Jewish character and limitations (i.e. "are you the King of the Jews?"), as though being a descendant of David, the King of Israel, limits is His kingly domain and origin to geopolitical Israel.

In response to this perspective of mine, I imagine that someone reading this post might object, arguing that Jesus spoke of a "world," not a Jewish territory, and therefore Jesus was contrasting this present world in which fallen humanity lives (the cursed world prior to the promised consummation of all things) with another "world" that is not essential to this present world (whatever that looks like). My response to such an objection is two fold: first, I have a difficult time understanding why some christians have a fascination with imagining other "worlds," as though the Scriptures actually talk that way, using the term "world" in the same ways they imagine. I especially find this emphasis upon an imaginative duality of "worlds" to be odd considering the dominating emphasis of Scripture upon restoring this present world. And so, even the concept of "dual worlds" seems, in my mind, to be misplaced and even unnecessary. Second, such a duality of emphasis is not the way John uses the term "world" all throughout his own gospel, nor is that the way Jesus used the term in the immediate context surrounding His discussion with Pilate. 

As we saw a couple posts earlier, Jesus' discussion with Pilate takes place in the center of a much larger narrative, in the center of chapters 18 & 19. In the preceding pericope, Jesus uses similar language, arguing before the High Priest, saying,  "I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together" (18:20). Here, I think it is clear that "the world" is intentionally parallel with those meeting places of Jews. Jesus began with a reference to the world, but he clarifies further about where in "the world" and to whom in "the world" he spoke publicly. He spoke "in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together." In fact, as far as John's gospel is concerned, there are very few places where Jesus is not found teaching Jews, speaking in "the world" of first century Judaism. John's gospel just so happens to be the only gospel in which the majority of Jesus' ministry takes place in Jerusalem, and I find it incredibly unlikely that John's audience would not have noticed that. All three synoptic gospels portray Jesus teaching outside Jerusalem and finally traveling to Jerusalem at the very end of His ministry. But John portrays "the world" in which Jesus ministered very differently. In John's gospel, Jesus is portrayed as "tabernacling" among His people in "the world" of Jews, especially in the world's capital, Jerusalem. And in John 18:20, Jesus describes this ministry, primarily located in Jerusalem, and more broadly with Jews, as speaking "to the world." In my mind, "the world" to which Jesus made reference about the origin of His kingdom is directly connected with a very Jewish cosmos.

But still there are those who may argue differently, insisting that I'm missing the point (or some excuse like that). A few recent examples come to mind, actually. Not too long ago, an acquaintance of mine told me that Jesus' kingdom does not presently reign over this fallen world, but instead consists of some qualitatively different reality, a reality that is "heavenly" and reigns over a qualitatively different "world" (whatever that means). One result from this view is that our citizenship in Jesus' kingdom consists of this same duality, a duality which does not actually reign over this fallen world. Indeed, through such a view, the kingdoms of this world are presumed to not become subservient to the Kingdom of our Lord, which seems to me to conflict with the dominating themes of Scripture that speak of dominion and victory in and over this world for the people of God.

In another recent discussion, a christian man told me that Jesus' words to Pilate about His kingdom were referring to where Christians ought to focus their attention at all times. He even went so far as to say that Jesus' words are "all the support needed for where our concern should be." In other words, he believed that according to Jesus' words to Pilate, and only Jesus' words to Pilate, Christians should be concerned with things going on in a location that is not "of this world" (ek tou kosmou). Of course, I questioned the arbitrariness of that interpretation. As far as I understood things at that time, I considered Jesus words to be very similar to words which He has spoken just a couple chapters earlier, in His high-priestly prayer. In John 17:14-16Jesus referred to Himself and His disciples in a similar way as He did with His kingdom before Pilate. There His disciples are said to be not "of the world" (ek tou kosmou). I interpret that as meaning of a "wordiness" akin to the Jews who repeatedly rejected Him throughout John's gospel. Certainly what Jesus did not mean was that His disciples were not located within this present fallen world. That would be absurd because Jesus was in this fallen world as He prayed that prayer. And also, He couldn't have meant that His disciples were to have no direct transformational influence upon this present fallen world, because in the very next verses Jesus prays that they would impact the world in which they are sent. Jesus says, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth." Whatever kind of "world" we think Jesus was sending His disciples into, whether it's a particularly Jewish territory antagonistic to Jesus' message or a region encompassing all the earth, Jesus' point remains the same: He sent them into the "world" to have a transforming affect upon it. The earthly emphasis of Jesus is really difficult to avoid, especially given the much larger context of John's gospel. 

But still some might say, 'Well, what about Philippians 3:20, in which Paul says that "our citizenship is in heaven"?'

To answer that question, I will link to a blog post of John Barach which begins with a lengthy and helpful quote from N.T. Wright, and then follows through with some further thoughts about "citizenship in heaven." That blog post can be found here. Enjoy.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

No guilt found in Him (John 18:28-19:16)

Continuing where I left off in John's gospel, we finally arrive at the central section of chapters 18 & 19. As shown below, John structures this section in a seven-point chiasm, with the center focusing upon Jesus' coronation as King. All seven points are easy to distinguish as well, primarily because the most noticeable literary feature of this section is its frequent movement from outside to inside and back outside again, repeated twice (as seen below):

John 18:28-19:6

A)  Outside the Praetorium  (18:28-32)
   B)  Inside the Praetorium  (18:33-38a)
      C)  Outside the Praetorium  (18:38b-40)
         D)  Pilate takes Jesus, punishes Him, crowns and clothes Him as "King of the Jews"  (19:1-3) 
      C')  Outside the Praetorium  (19:4-8)
   B')  Inside the Praetorium  (19:9-11)
A')  Outside the Praetorium  (19:12-16)

There are many ironies found within this central section, only a few of which I have time to list below in this post, but two great ironies come immediately to mind: first, ever since Jesus' arrest in the garden began in chapter 18, no one has been an advocate of Jesus' kingship, but in this section, John portrays Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, as being a ruler over the Jews, a "world ruler" of sorts, able to apply the heaviest punishment upon evildoers, the punishment of death; and in John's narrative, this world ruler is the only sincere advocate of Jesus' Kingship. This is especially noticeable when set in contrast with the second irony, that the chief priests refuse to enter the Praetorium where Jesus and Pilate privately discuss His kingship. John even tells us why they refused to enter the Praetorium. John says that " was early, and they [the Jewish Leaders] themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover" (John 18:28). It was because of their own misunderstanding and distortion of God's Law that a firm belief developed about God disqualifying them from eating the Passover lamb, had they entered "unclean" space among the Gentiles. These kinds of man-made traditions were so precious that their eyes became blinded to who Yahweh really was, and by the time their Messiah arrives on the scene, they cared more about slaughtering and eating a literal lamb in God's sight than they did betraying and slaughtering the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29, 36).

The way John compacts all of this together in chapters 18 & 19 is really interesting. Jesus has been arrested in a garden, examined in a courtyard, and now he's dragged out into the world, outside the courtyard, to be crowned by a world ruler and presented back to the Jews as "your King" (John 19:14). The "chief priests" (18:35) accuse Jesus of "doing evil" (18:30) in order to justify handing Him over to this world ruler to die (18:31-32). They would crucify Jesus themselves, but empirical Law won't allow them to do so (18:31). John also makes a point of telling us that this day of crowning and slaughtering Jesus was also the "Day of Preparation of the Passover" (19:14). So then, while the chief priests stay back in the "courtyard", they think they are spared from defilement in preparation for Passover; but little did they know that by handing Jesus over to Pilate they were defiling themselves by handing over the Lamb of God with hands full of innocent blood.

The narrative gets even more interesting once we see what goes on inside the Praetorium. While the chief priests stay outside, Pilate engages in two private discussions inside with Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus if He is the King of the Jews (18:33), which is an odd question in and of itself unless rumors had already spread throughout Judea about Jesus being the King of the Jews. Jesus' response to Pilate's question is also kind of odd. Instead of answering with a simple 'yes' or 'no', Jesus responds in a way which makes Pilate affirm His kingship (18:36-37). Pilate also asks Jesus what evil He has done to deserve being handed over by the chief priests, and Jesus responds, again somewhat oddly, by talking about His kingdom. By affirming that He has a kingdom, He infers that He is a King. By affirming that His kingdom is not "of this world" (ek tou kosmou), He is inferring that His kingship originates outside of and rules beyond Jewish aristocracy. In other words, Jesus answers Pilate's question negatively about being the "King of the Jews," while at the same time maintaining positively that He is indeed a King who has a Kingdom that is not of Jewish, or "this-worldly" origin. Jesus even repeats Himself, clarifying some of what we might consider to be ambiguity of meaning, saying that His kingdom is "not from this world" (18:36). In the second discussion with Jesus, Pilate asks Jesus where He, not His kingdom, is from, and Jesus gives no answer (19:9). Pilate informs Jesus that he has the authority to crucify or release Him, but Jesus reminds Pilate what it means for His kingdom to not be "of this world." Jesus informs Pilate that he would have no authority over Him unless it had been given to him from above (19:11); therefore Pilate is really off the hook as far as ultimate authority is concerned, and the Jewish rulers have the greater sin for preparing Him for slaughter.

Pilate then offers to release Jesus in the place of an insurrectionist named Barabbas. Pilate doesn't want to be the "bad guy," and so he declares Jesus' innocence and then appeals to the Jewish rulers to choose between Jesus and Barabbas. By appealing to the Jewish rulers to make a decision, the blood is on their hands. Interestingly, the name Barabbas means "son of the Father," but when given the choice between releasing a false son of the Father or the true Son of the Father, the Jewish rulers choose the false "son." This irony only adds to the contrast between Pilate's intentions and the chief priests. After each discussion inside, Pilate goes outside to defend Jesus, declaring Jesus' innocence publicly three times, saying "I find no guilt in Him" (18:38; 19:4, 6, sections C & C' above). By seeking to release Jesus, Pilate takes upon himself the role of a high priest, releasing a scapegoat on the day of atonement, the day in which Jesus would atone for the sins of the world. By publicly confessing Jesus' innocence three times, John also portrays Pilate as a type of Peter who makes a greater confession in all three places where Peter had the opportunity to, but instead denied his Lord. As a greater confessor, Pilate is portrayed as a "good guy" who, above all the people in chapter 18 & 19, seems to actually treat Jesus as a true King, a true world ruler whose authority is not vested in Jewish aristocracy. Pilate wants to release Jesus and He knows there is something significantly wrong with the situation he is in. He knows Jesus doesn't deserve death. He knows Jesus is considered a king of sorts in the eyes of some Jews, and so he shames Jesus by scourging and presenting Him before the Jews in mock-coronation fashion. Jesus is crowned with thorns and arrayed in a purple robe, a royal robe of glory worn by people of nobility. Jesus is even mocked by Pilate's officers, hailing Him as the "King of the Jews." Over and over again Pilate wants to release Jesus, but the Jewish rulers won't stop pressuring him until Jesus is slain. By handing Jesus over to Pilate, along with his repeated declaration of there being no blemish of evil in Him, the chief priests are portrayed as the ones who prepare the paschal lamb to be slaughtered on the Day of Preparation.

Toward the end of all these events with Pilate going inside and out, again and again, John tells us that Pilate finally brings Jesus out and sits down upon a "seat of judgment" in a place called "The Stone Pavement." Here the Greek is ambiguous, leaving at least the grammatical possibility that Pilate sat Jesus down in the "seat of judgment." Regardless of who actually sat down in the judgment seat, whether Pilate or Jesus, the overall scene of Jesus with Pilate, two "world rulers" together, at the judgment-seat is really the main picture John is portraying for us. Here at the judgment-seat, John tells us that the place of this final scene of judgment was called "The Stone Pavement." In Greek this "Stone Pavement" is lithostroton, and is found elsewhere in Scripture, and in a passage that would be very familiar to first century Jews. In II Chronicles chapter seven we find Solomon dedicating the Temple, and in verse 3 Yahweh is described as descending in glorious fire upon His House with the people of Israel bowing down with their faces to the "stone pavement" (lithostroton) before Him. In John's narrative, the King of the world stands before Israel, scourged and bloody, crowned and robed in purple, but they won't bow down with their faces to the stone pavement before Him. They act as though they are in the judgment-seat, saying things like "He ought to die because He made Himself the Son of God" (19:7). When faced with a choice of releasing a "son of the Father," they release an insurrectionist. When faced with acknowledging their king on the stone pavement, they cry out, "We have no King but Caesar!" (19:15). When faced with a choice of remaining clean and eating the Passover or defiling themselves by crucifying the Lamb of God, they shout, "Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!" (19:15). The rulers of Israel think the Son of God ought to die, even though there truly was no guilt found in Him. They think they're purging leaven from their house in preparation for Passover, but what they're actually doing is leavening another lump. They think they're preparing for the angel of Yahweh to pass over their house, but what they're actually doing is preparing the blood of the Lamb to be spread upon the doorposts of new "house" prepared by His Father, a house made of disciples of Jesus, filled with the Spirit of God and fed with the flesh and blood of Jesus, fed with true meat and drink indeed.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Yahweh's Chosen Servant: Matt. 12:15-21 (section D3)

Continuing where I left off in this series of Matthew's Gospel, we come now to the final section in the center of the larger narrative structure. This section (Matt. 12:15-21, section D3) reads as follows:
Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
 my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
 I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, 
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
 until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the nations will hope."
As mentioned in an earlier post, chapters 11-12 form one unit, and that unit centers on the theme of rest for the people of God. In chapters 1-4 we learn about the beginnings, birth, and exodus of the Son of God, but at the same time we learn that Jesus is really fulfilling the beginnings, birth, and exodus of Israel, God's "firstborn son". In chapters 5-7, after passing through the waters of baptism and entering into the wilderness, we find Jesus, as a new and greater Moses, ascending a mountain to give the people of Israel the Law. Afterward, in chapters 8-9, Jesus descends from the mountain to heal the people of Israel as many times as Israel fell in the wilderness (i.e. ten times; cf. Num. 14:22), and in Mosaic fashion we find Israel wandering in that wilderness like "sheep without a shepherd" (9:36; cf. Num. 27:17), whose burdens are carried by a greater Joshua. After that, in chapter 10, we find Jesus, the greater Joshua, commissioning and resting His authority upon 12 apostles, instructing and sending them into the land in preparation for future conquest. Finally, having reached chapters 11-12, Jesus and his disciples travel into the land, pronouncing woe after woe for the inhabitants who hate God, but also promising rest for those who put their trust in Him. It is in the very center of all this that we see the rise of Israel's Servant-King, Jesus.

When we looked at the rest of chapters 11-12 in detail, I pointed out that Jesus travels on the day of rest --the Sabbath-- to the synagogue of the Pharisees who are hostile to the gospel of His kingdom. After being harassed outside their synagogue, we then looked at His entrance into their synagogue, and there we found the Pharisees conspiring to destroy Him because He healed a man on the Sabbath, which was contrary to the traditions that held them in power. After that we arrive to the narrative before us. We arrive at a point when Jesus, aware of his enemies' plot to destroy Him, withdraws from their synagogue. It is at this point when we learn that "many followed Him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make them known." It seems that in context the "many" who followed Jesus came from the synagogue of the Pharisees. In other words, when faced with a choice to follow Jesus (who bears the burdens of Israel) or the Pharisees (who lay heavy burdens on them, Matt. 23:4), many Jews openly choose Jesus over the Pharisees. Like Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue (Matt. 9:18-26; Mk. 5:22; Lk. 8:41), the people within the synagogue of the Pharisees are beginning to recognize that Jesus' yoke is easy, his burden is light, and he's even willing to carry it along with them, whereas the Pharisees weren't willing to carry Israel's burdens at all (Matt. 23:4).

In chapters 11-12 we also find Jesus as a greater David, protecting the borders of Israel and providing rest for those who are perishing from the harassment of God's enemies. But during this time of rest we find out for the first time in Matthew's Gospel that the established rulers of Israel don't want the rest Jesus has to offer; instead they seek to put Him to rest, to harass, trap, and cause Him to perish. However, like we find in the rise of the Davidic kingdom, opposition to the King doesn't keep the gospel of the kingdom from advancing. That is because Yahweh sent His Son into the world to inherit the world as a kingdom for Himself. He was sent to die for the world so that a new world --a new Israel united to Him-- would resurrect with Him. Yahweh's purpose in sending His Son was to save the world, not to destroy it, and by saving it the increase of His kingdom, power, and glory on earth shall have no end. In this section of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus even receives a taste of what it will be like for the future nations to hope in Him. Even when Jesus withdraws from the synagogue of His enemies, whom we now knows are conspiring to destroy Him (Matt. 12:14), an exodus of many more disciples follows in His train. Instead of opposition from the world diminishing His Kingdom, His enemies bring Him even more attention and popularity.

After this Sabbath exodus Jesus does something else, only this time what he does is not entirely unheard of. This time He orders His new disciples not to make Him known, just as He did earlier with the two blind men who followed Jesus from Jairus' house (Matt. 9:30-31). But why do this? Why not tell all of Israel that their King has come, and that the increase of His kingdom shall have no end? (After all, Jesus is King whether the rulers of the land like Him or not.) 

The answer to this has something to do with Matthew's reference to Isaiah 42:1-4, and the fact that, as the King, He is on a mission to bring justice and victory to the nations. Because it would be in His name that the nations of the world would hope, He did not come to contend his regal authority. Instead He came to assert His regal authority by modeling what truly Godly authority looks like. He came as the King to save the perishing sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:6; 15:24), but He didn't come quarreling and making all kinds of commotion in the streets, as Isaiah says. He came to model faithful and compassionate service to the house of Israel (Matt. 9:36). For those Israelites who might have expected His voice to be heard in the streets like they did with John the Baptist, the message of Isaiah as quoted describes the character of His ministry well. He didn't come, bearing the burdens of Israel, healing withered hearts and hands as a form of self-aggrandizement. He came to take Israel's illnesses and diseases and carry them upon Himself because the people were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd, no longer being able to bear the weight of the burden placed upon them by the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 8:17; 9:36).

When the Pharisees opposed Jesus, attempting to trap and destroy Him, Jesus also doesn't fight back the way we might expect Him to. Instead we find a humble Servant who is willing to lay down His life for His sheep. We find a gentle Servant who won't even break a bruised reed in His way (Matt. 11:29). Even at the point when the Pharisees fan the flame of controversy in their synagogue, Jesus makes no attempt to quench that flame either. Instead we find Jesus withdrawing from there, letting the fires which they started continue to smolder. This is because Jesus knows what the Father has in store for Him. He knows the great commission which His heavenly Father has sent Him to perform. Yahweh's Spirit is upon Him, and He will proclaim justice to the nations --the justice of reconciling the world to God-- until He brings justice to victory; and in His name the nations will hope. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Faith is not resignation

In his commentary on 1-2 Kings, Peter Leithart provides some very helpful pastoral insights concerning the prophecy of Ahijah against Jeroboam’s son in 1 Kings 14. He writes:
Faith is often confused with resignation. The prophetic word comes, cutting like a double-edged sword, and we respond with tight-lipped silence. This is not faith. Faith responds to God’s word, not with silent submission, but with confession, praise, earnest and anguished petition. Faith responds with the desperate cries of a Job, the “my God, my God” of David and Jesus, the “how long, O Lord?” of the Psalms. God’s word is not the end of a conversation, but an invitation to renew conversation. God does not judge and condemn to send us slinking away in resigned silence. God judges and condemns so that we can give our “amen” to his judgment, humble ourselves, and be saved. Ultimately, the issues go to theology proper: the Triune God, the God whose life is an eternal conversation, does not create a world as a stage where he performs soliloquies before a respectfully hushed audience. God creates the world and humanity to enter into a dialogue. Ahijah delivers a devastating oracle to Jeroboam, but that is an invitation to repentance, as is Elijah’s oracle to Ahab (1 Kgs. 21). The text gives us a hint, if only a hint, that the end is not set out by the beginning, that there is yet hope for Israel.

Commenting on the way passages like this speak to Christians today, he concludes:
Jesus’s death, unlike the death of Jeroboam’s good son, does not spell the end of things, but the beginning of things, because Jesus’s death is followed by his resurrection. Jesus’s death is not an inverted Passover that leads to destruction, but a true Passover that liberates the people of God. Through Jesus, the guilt that plagues us from the past is forgiven, and through forgiveness and the renewing power of the Spirit the world is opened—Israel is opened—to a future for which none had dared to hope. This simply is the gospel, the good news that ends are not straight-line extrapolations from beginnings; this is the gospel, that the end reverses the beginning, as tears are washed away, the curse removed, the dead raised. The world is not condemned by its beginnings to a certain ending, for there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
That is the gospel we celebrate at the Lord’s Table: this is the blood of the new covenant, Jesus says, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. At the table, we are renewed in covenant, freshly forgiven, so that the past can be put behind us. At the table, we celebrate the opening of a new future, for Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.2

1.  Leithart, P. J. (2006). 1 & 2 Kings (p. 107). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
2.  Ibid., p. 109

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Trinitarian Emperor

In 1 Kings 1-10 Solomon is set up to be a great ruler in the land, a greater Joseph whom Yahweh raises up to glorify His name in all the earth so long as he remains loyal to Yahweh. Solomon receives great wisdom as requested, and with that wisdom he expands his dominion, glorifying Yahweh. But by the end of chapter ten and the beginning of chapter eleven, when Solomon is much older, we see that glory fading as history repeats itself. Instead of Solomon remaining the greater Joseph, he becomes a greater Pharaoh who knew not Yahweh, forsaking His commands and His wisdom (Deut. 17:14-20). 

Solomon's fall is described in a triadic fashion, breaking three express commands of Yahweh in a row. He begins by multiplying gold and silver unto himself, as the wisdom of Yahweh had forbidden (Deut. 17:17). He multiplies so much gold for himself that silver devalues greatly in comparison (10:21), and this is quite a feat considering that year after year he received silver in abundance as well (10:22, 25, 27, 29). But Solomon doesn't stop with precious metals. He then moves on to multiply horses and chariots for himself as well (10:26), which was explicitly forbidden by Yahweh in the Torah (Deut. 17:16). By multiplying horses and chariots for his kingdom, a standing army of the kingdom was in the making along with the rise of Solomonic imperialism, even though the Torah nowhere allows Israel to build or keep a standing army. The further Israel would stray from Yahweh's wisdom, the more likely a standing army would be used offensively and tyrannically, policing other nations, instead of minding one's own business (or, I should say, minding Yahweh's business). An imperialism which forsakes Yahweh as its Emperor is the worst form of imperialism, conquering by warfare and bloodshed instead of wisdom and industry. Yahweh's Law taught that warfare and bloodshed are acceptable primarily a means of self-defense and ought to be considered a last resort after terms of peace are offered (Deut. 20). But when Solomon builds the empire and forsakes Yahweh, we can expect future generations of warfare and bloodshed to ensue. And that is what we find scattered throughout first and second Kings.

Not only does Solomon's imperialism rise from these two excesses forbidden by God, he goes one step further --a third step-- by multiplying wives unto himself as forbidden by Yahweh (Deut. 17:17), many of whom were foreigners and strangers to Yahweh's covenant

After completing this triad of forsaking Yahweh, Solomon is described for the first time in a negative light, as doing what is evil in the sight of Yahweh, which is a description that follows all of the idolatrous kings over future Israel. Solomon is even indicted for leading God's people into another triad of idolatry by "worshipping Ashtereth the goddess of the Zidonians, Chemosh the god of the Moabites, and Milcom the god of the children of Ammon" (1 Kng. 11:33). This indictment for betraying the Word of the Lord is also portrayed in a triadic fashion, as not walking in Yahweh's ways, not doing what is right in Yahweh's sight, and not keeping Yahweh's statutes and Judgments as did David his father (1 Kng. 11:33). Last of all, we are told that this triadic description of triadic idolatry leads Israel into a third and final triad of Yahweh's judgment. Yahweh "stirs up an adversary unto Solomon, Hadad the Edomite" (v. 14), and "another adversary, Rezon the son of Eliadah... an adversary to Israel all the days of Solomon" (v. 23-25),  "and Jereboam the son of Nebat," Solomon's servant and ruler over all the house of Joseph (v. 26-28).

At the end of Solomon's life we learn that he reigned over Jerusalem for forty years (v. 42), which is, providentially, a number repeated throughout Scripture as a time of testing from Yahweh. By allowing Solomon to reign for forty years, we learn something great about Yahweh's providential reign over history. First we learn that He tests even the wisest of men over time. Second, we learn   that sometimes it takes the wisest of men to make the most foolish decisions. Third, we learn the wisdom of waiting upon the Lord. By studying 1 Kings 1-11, we wait with anticipation to learn if Solomon in all of his wisdom would maintain the greater wisdom of Yahweh, the greater wisdom that once, long before Israel was even a people, blessed and prospered the kingdom of Joseph along with the seed of Abraham. 

By turning away from Yahweh, His word, and His Spirit, our anticipation of a great and glorious empire is met at the end of the story with a trinity of curses that fall upon the house of Israel, essentially dividing the kingdom against itself, causing it to falling down not long thereafter. By turning after the idols of land, our anticipation of Solomon's own greatness, too, is met in spades. He becomes exceedingly great in what we see him worshiping: a false god, a idolatrous leader, and a Pharaoh under which Israel would need a great exodus. Only by turning back to Yahweh in faithful obedience would a trinity of blessing for Israel result. But as we learn from the following chapters in the book of Kings, no one turns back to Yahweh without His gracious provision of a King after his own heart, who rules according to His Word and Spirit. We learn that only a trinitarian Emperor can save an empire from a trinity of false leaders, false worship, and false hope.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Prayer that shapes us

Let’s face it. People pray most often when they either want something from God or when their ritualistic family traditions kick in—like praying before a meal. The way they often pray is also predictable. They express their thanks to God for nice weather, good food, and friends to enjoy it with, and they ask God to bless them with more good things to enjoy, amen. This isn’t automatically a bad thing, nor should it be discouraged. But how and why someone prays is indicative of some thing, and therefore that thing, if it is not good, will need some healthy changes. Let me explain some ways in which these indicators can become more obvious to us.

For the Christian, prayer is not merely a ritual. It is a way of life. It is a tradition that shapes our life, molding the way we think and behave into godliness, working in us to show a greater family resemblance with our Heavenly Father. When the Christian prays for nice weather, good food, and friends to enjoy it with, he (or she) should be doing it as heartfelt communion with and love for their Heavenly Father, who cares about why they enjoy it. It should not be prayer for the sake of prayer, any more than it  should be ritual for the sake of ritual. But often times it is. This is because a life of prayer is unavoidably ritualistic, and some people don't incorporate an appreciation of what God cares about into their daily rituals. Whether they reflect self-consciously upon God's feelings or not, their rituals are shaping their life. Their rituals are shaping their complacency. Their prayer-life is shaping their dependence upon self and their dependence upon God.

Proverbs 28:6-9 speaks a little about this way in God shapes our life, even through prayer: 

A)  Better is a poor man who walks with integrity than a rich man who twists two paths together
  B)  The one who keeps the Law is a discerning son, 
    C)  but a companion of gluttons shames his father.
A')  Whoever augments his wealth by profiteering and exacting interest gathers it up for him who has pity on the poor
   B')  The one who turns away his ear from hearing the Law, 
      C')  even his prayer is completely detestable.

When it says that “Better is a poor man who walks with integrity than a rich man who twists two paths together,” the comparison is between those who are financially poor and those who are wealthy, and Wisdom says one path is better for both of them; and that path is the way of integrity, the way of keeping God's instructions. Only a fool would earnestly desire to become completely impoverished, choosing to sleep on wet sidewalks and beg for crumbs out of dumpsters, especially when given plenty of opportunities to gain an honest amount of wealth through productive labor instead. Therefore the wisdom of this proverb takes for granted that kind of foolishness in order to focus upon what is better for both, whether one is, incidentally, the poorest of beggars or richest of merchants. If the poor man is better for walking with integrity, how much better would a rich man be if he too walked with integrity, keeping God's laws in all of his business? This proverb, therefore, is contrasting more than just a lifestyle of poverty with a lifestyle of riches. It’s contrasting lifestyles which attempt to have fellowship with God. One lifestyle walks self-consciously with integrity in God’s sight, and one does not. One desires to twist two paths together, a path of blessing and wealth with a path of profiteering and usury. One desires to keep God’s instructions, while the other does not.

The parallel between keeping God’s instructions and walking with integrity is even more obvious from the proverbs that follow. The very next proverb refers to a glutton and the fact that such a sinfully selfish disposition is a shame to one’s father, but “the one who keeps the Law is a discerning son” (v. 7). From this we learn that the ritual formality of law-keeping cannot merely be a checklist of commandments to obey or ignore. Rather, it’s a way of thinking about God’s involvement in your life, and His desire for your relationship with Him to be evident in the sight of others who, like you, are also made in God’s image. Otherwise, why would the proverb contrast shaming a father with being a discerning son, or gluttony with law-keeping? It seems that the author of this proverb considered the two parallel illustrations as one unified concept. 

Understanding how to be a son who honors his father comes from learning how to keep the Law as our Heavenly Father intended it to be kept. By learning our Heavenly Father’s Law, we learn how to be a gloriously discerning son—a son who understands the glory of God manifested in honoring one's father. The son who dishonors his father is the glutton. The glutton is the one whose desires are focused upon satisfying the self far more than others. The gluttonous son shames his father because the son’s desire is not to glorify and honor his father; the glutton's desire is to glorify and honor himself, plundering others—even his own father—to fill his own coffers. If the son’s desire were to honor and glorify his father, he would be self-sacrificial and other-oriented in his lifestyle. This is what God’s Law endorses; gluttony is not. 

Since gluttony and plundering the goods of others is not what God’s Law endorses as a way of life, how do you suppose one of those lifestyles would impact one’s prayers? Do you suppose that a life like that—a life of disobedience or neglect of obedience to God—filled with an abundance of traditional prayers at dinner time, is going to please God? The next two verses give us the answer.
Whoever augments his wealth by profiteering and exacting interest gathers it up for him who has pity on the poor. The one who turns away his ear from hearing the Law, even his prayer is completely detestable.

If a Christian multiplies his wealth in a gluttonous manner, that will not keep God from exacting justice for the poor. God will ensure that such sinful deeds  ultimately accumulate toward the greater good of the oppressed. Because gluttonous gain does not honor God, God promises that He will give that wealth to another who will be generous to the poor. The glutton's sinful gain will become the reward of those who pity the poor. God will judge between those who plunder and those who are plundered. 

This revelation of God's character leads us to the sobering reality that even if a Christian were to pray for greater blessings, greater wealth, greater prosperity—as people often do—God promises to shape our lives through such prayers. If they honor their Heavenly Father by hearing and praying according to His Law, those prayers will please Him. But if they turn their ear away from hearing His Law, even their prayers will be detestable in His sight. Either way, God shapes their life through prayer. For many people, a God like this, who detests all haters of His Law but yet allows plundering of others to exist, might seem capricious and ungracious. But for those who take God's holy character seriously, and consider His revelation of wisdom greater than their own, they know that He knows what is best for all men, and they trust in Him when  He speaks to them. They even trust in what He has to say about their prayer life because they want Him to be the one who shapes them through it. They know God's not capricious. They know God is very reliable. That's why they don't want to turn their ears away from hearing His infinitely wise Law--because God has revealed himself as their Father therein, a Father is who is first and foremost merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth (Exodus 34:6). They don't want to turn their ears away from hearing His instructions because in doing so, even their prayers are detestable to His ears.

If you have concerns about your prayer life, and you want to know if some healthy changes need to be made to your prayer life, let me encourage you to consider the following exercise and apply these questions to your own prayers from this past week (or month):

Within the past week (or month) did you ask God to bless you (e.g. your food, your time with friends, your job, etc.)? If so, why did you ask for thatWhat was your motive in desiring his blessing? Did you ask because you always ask for that at prayer-time? Did you put much thought into that request? Did you consider what pleased God before you asked Him for a blessing? 

What about your thankfulness too? Did you thank God in prayer for certain things this week? What were they and why did you thank Him for those specific things? Did you thank Him merely because that’s the ritual you often perform at prayer time? Did you thank Him because without thanking Him you would feel awkward (or selfish) while asking Him for stuff afterward? At any time did you thank Him because His provision helped you serve Him more faithfully? At any time did you thank God for His provision because it helped you glorify Him as you provided for others in need? 

And what about unanswered prayers? Have any of your prayers recently seemed to be unheard by God? At any time did you thank Him for answering prayer by not giving you what you initially wanted? Or have you been presuming that God wants what you want?

As I mentioned at the beginning, the way in which people pray is indicative of some thing, either good or bad, and if that thing is not good, some healthy changes to one's prayer life are unquestionably in order. Thankfully, in Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church, we catch a glimpse of what some healthy habits of change ought to look like. In Philippians 4:6-9 Paul writes: 
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

For Paul, prayers and supplications to God are supposed to dwell upon certain things, and by dwelling on certain things and then offering them back up to God in prayers and supplications, our lives are shaped into a vessel fit for his honor and glory. For us to be molded into glorious vessels, we must learn pray in a way that is lawful; and for it to be lawful it has to be thoughtful; and for it to be thoughtful it has to be conditioned through a focus upon what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, and worthy of praise. Thankfully Scripture is replete with examples of such God-honoring lifestyles of prayer. Paul prayed three times for the Lord to remove a "thorn in his flesh," and he stopped praying for it's removal once he realized the Lord wanted that thorn to remain in order to keep him from exalting himself (II Cor. 12:7-10). Likewise, in Luke 18, Jesus tells a series of parables about prayer, and among them we find a tax collector who humbles himself, and even beats his breast praying, "God be propitious to me, a sinner." Because of his humility, the Lord hears and exalts him (Luke 18:9-14). 

We also find a widow who won't stop petitioning her judge for justice (Luke 18:1-8), and so the judge answers her because of her persistence; and that persistence is likened unto the "elect who cry to God day and night." Such likening with the prayers of the elect is appropriate because it reminds us that God is a judge who listens to our cries because He cares about justice. According to James, God cares about justice so much that when brethren confess their sins toward one another and pray for one another, He brings healing (James 5:16). Have you ever felt miserable because your prayers weren't being answered by God? When was the last time you confessed your sinful, damaging attitude about your brother to your brother? When was the last time you confessed your sins of dishonoring your wife to your wife? In first Peter 3:7, the apostle Peter says that if a husband doesn't dwell with his wife in an understanding way, giving her the honor she deserves, then his prayers will be hindered and God will not hear. And if God does not hear, the husband ought to fear.

The wise life of prayer takes all of this to heart, giving it to our God and Father because, like Paul's example, it is teachable and submissive to the will of the Lord, even when it's not exalted. The wise life of prayer is also persistent like the widow seeking justice, and also confessional, not only with God, but toward their neighbor as well, which openly demonstrates trust in a judge who hates the injustice of sin but is compassionate enough to forgive all those who walk with integrity, keeping His Law. The wise life of prayer is what brings true peace of mind, the kind of peace which the gluttonous heart cannot discern, the kind of peace which surpasses all worldly comprehension. The wise life of prayer is, ultimately, Father-honoring prayer. When wise Christians express their thankfulness to God for the mundane—the nice weather, good food, and friends to enjoy it with—they ask for God's blessing so that they will honor their Heavenly Father. When they pray to enjoy His honor, He remembers and honors their prayers. Amen.