Thursday, February 1, 2024

Literal and Figurative Expressions in the Bible

Should we take every expression in the Bible literally? Interpreters have always recognized that some expressions in Scripture are not intended to be taken literally, since the obvious meaning is a figurative one. For example, when the Book of Isaiah states that “the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear” (59:1), interpreters acknowledge this as a figurative expression that doesn’t imply that God has a literal arm or ear. And obviously, when Genesis portrays people as being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) this doesn’t mean that people are visually modeled after the deity, but rather that their human functioning is in some sense patterned after the way God functions, exercising dominion over the earth.

Portions of the Bible that are poetic (e.g., the Psalms or writings of the prophets) or in dramatic form (e.g., the Revelation to John) may not be candidates for a literal interpretation. The astute interpreter makes a judgment about what type of literature is in question before deciding what can be taken literally and what is symbolic, analogical, or figurative.

Nevertheless, there are some expressions in the Bible where what seems to be a figurative expression — and is usually taken as such — may indeed have a literal referent. When such expressions are taken literally, a new insight into the meaning of he passage may emerge. Here I am exploring two such expressions, one from the Hebrew Scriptures and one from the Gospels.

First, a believer may speak of being nurtured by the Lord “beneath the shelter of his wings.” The meaning is that the believer senses the protection and blessing of the Lord in the course of his life, as in the promise of Psalm 91:4, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” In using this expression we would not visualize God as some gigantic fowl with literal wings.

Nevertheless, in Psalm 61:4 the worshiper prays, “Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!” Here, the “wings” of the Lord are located in a specific place, the “tent” or tabernacle where the presence of the Lord is most intensely manifested. The reference is clearly to the ark of the covenant, which was set in the most holy place of the tabernacle of the wilderness, later in the Temple of Solomon. The “wings” are the literal wings of the cherubim, the guardian figures of hammered gold which faced one another above the ark as in Exodus 37:9, “The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat were the faces of the cherubim.” While it is said that the high priest alone would enter the Holy of Holies annually on the Day of Atonement, there is evidence that at times the ark was removed and returned in procession to the sanctuary (e.g., Psalm 24), so other worshipers would be familiar with its appearance.

Recognizing the literal implication of the phrase “beneath the shelter of his wings” adds an important nuance to this expression. It’s not enough for the believer to have some sort of personal, but nebulous, assurance of enjoying the presence and protection of the Lord. Rather, this sense of presence is specifically connected to the place of worship, where the Lord’s devotees have gathered to offer “a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Hebrews 13:15). Participation in the worshiping community is, or should be, the venue in which an individual believer experiences “the shelter of his wings.”

Turning to the New Testament, we find another expression that is always taken figuratively, but which has a literal geographic referent that most interpreters ignore. In Mark 11:23, Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Obviously this “faith to remove mountains” (1 Corinthians 13:2) doesn’t refer to the use of supernatural earth-moving equipment, but to the ability of our faith to challenge difficult conditions encountered in Christian life and witness.

Nevertheless, there is a specific historical nuance to this statement by Jesus. When he states, “whoever says to this mountain,” to what mountain does he refer? The scene is Jerusalem, and the largest mountain in view is the Mount of Olives to the east of the city. But there is another mountain close by, not as prominent topographically but vastly more important theologically: the elevation we know as Mount Zion or, in context, the Temple mount that adjoined it.

A well-known passage in Isaiah (2:3, echoed in Micah 4:2) declares that “many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” It was the Lord’s intention that the worship of Israel should be the vehicle through which his righteous purposes would be extended from “his mountain” to all the world’s peoples. But, as is clear from the Gospel record, Jesus was acutely concerned that this hadn’t happened. Through his proclamation of the kingdom of God he sought to remind his Jewish contemporaries of God’s interest in reaching other nations, the “Gentiles,” as well. In cleansing the Temple of the activities that were blocking Gentile access (the vendors’ booths were crowding the Temple’s outer enclosure, the Court of the Gentiles), he reminded his listeners that the sanctuary in Zion was to be “a house of prayer for all the nations” (Matthew 11:17, quoting Isaiah 56:7).

In the Scriptures, especially the writings of Isaiah, the sea can stand for the Gentiles, the nations of the world (e.g., Isaiah 60:5, “the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you”). When Jesus speaks of the “mountain” being “thrown into the sea,” we can note a specific reference to extending the worship of the one righteous God to all nations, displacing their immoral polytheism. This was to be accomplished through the faithful witness of his followers, who carried the message of kingdom of God beyond its Jewish environment into the wider Mediterranean world and beyond.

So, while figuratively dwelling “beneath the shelter of his wings” and exercising “mountain-moving faith” are expressions describing the believer’s ideal life as a follower of Jesus, they have literal implications as well. Acknowledging the specific architectural and geographic references underlying these expressions can yield additional interpretive insights.

Monday, December 25, 2023

What “World” Did “God So Love?”

Perhaps the best-known passage of Scripture is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Usually this is taken to mean that God loves all people in the world and wants them to come to him and live forever in heaven. Of course, we know that God does not love sin, which is a violation of his plan for human life. So to the extent that human cultures practice and advocate conduct or doctrine that (based on the witness of Scripture) is clearly repugnant to him and therefore sinful, God does not love that culture. Indeed, he wants to free people from enslavement to sinful cultural values, and that is what repentance (metanoia, “change of mind”) in the New Testament is all about.

So, when John (or Jesus, depending on how you punctuate the originally unpunctuated manuscripts) says that “God so loved the world,” we understand this doesn’t mean that God loved a sinful world culture. But does it mean, instead, that he loved all people in the sinful world, as is usually taught? To approach this, we need to define some terms. What does “love” mean, in the Bible? What does “world” mean in the Gospel of John?

Usually, in our culture, we associate “love” with a feeling of attraction toward someone (or something — like money). But the New Testament word for “love,” agape, has a radically different connotation. It is based on the concept of chesed in the Hebrew Scriptures. The word is variously translated in English versions as “lovingkindness,” “steadfast love,” or simply “love.”

The Torah and the Prophets often speak of the Lord’s chesed toward his worshipers, and the way the term is used shows that it refers not to the Lord’s attraction to them but to his loyalty or faithfulness because he has entered into a partnership, or agreement, with them. This agreement is often termed the covenant, a treaty or contract in which the partners have a family bond and have mutual obligations. For example, the Psalmists sometimes appeal to the Lord for deliverance on the basis of his chesed, not because they deserve his help but because that is his fatherly responsibility in the covenant.

So chesed is God’s covenant love, his faithfulness to the agreement he has made with his people — that is, his family. Obviously, if there is no covenant and no family bond, there is no application of the Lord’s “covenant love.” If the New Testament usage of agape “love” has its roots in this important biblical concept (as I am persuaded it does), then it’s not correct to state that God “loves” everyone. He loves those who have become his partners and entered into his family, and to whom he therefore has a gracious obligation.

Then, what does it mean that “God so loved the world?” And here we have to look at what the term “world,” or kosmos, means in the Gospel of John. Today, when we speak of the “world,” we usually mean the globe of the earth. But certainly God doesn’t “love” the physical globe in the same sense that he would love his family members (although as Creator he surely has an attachment to what he has made). Ancient people knew the earth was a globe (Columbus didn’t invent the idea), but when they spoke of the “world” or kosmos they did not have the globe of the planet in mind. They were referring to the human culture of the globe’s inhabitants.

But, in John’s Gospel, this term has a specific reference to the community of ancient Judaism. We know this because of the way Jesus uses the term in John 18:20, speaking to the high priest. Scripture often uses the method of parallelism, where an idea is stated in one phrase, then restated in different words in another phrase. This style is why the Bible often sounds like the Bible and like nothing else. And in John 18:20 Jesus states, “I have spoken openly to the world [kosmos]. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together.” By parallelism, Jesus is equating the “world” with the institutions of the Jewish community.

When John 3:16 states that “God so loved the world,” the meaning is that God was faithful to the people he had chosen to serve him in his call to their father Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). In spite of their lack of faithfulness to that mission to be a blessing to all peoples, God provided a way for his people to be reconstituted as “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16) through membership in the risen Jesus, and through living out in their witness the kingship of God — the “new-creation” life, the eternal life (zoe aionion, “life of the [new] aeon or age”). This was always God’s plan for people made in his own image, that through Jesus his chosen family, his covenant partners, might be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

When Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, they often say that Jesus was born so that through his death and resurrection we have a way to “go to heaven” when we die. But this is “another gospel” (Galatians 1:6-7), a serious truncation of New Testament teaching, because the “Israel” dimension is left out. Jesus announced the kingship of God, was crucified, and was raised as “both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36) with specific reference to Israel. And through what he did the “Israel of God” was raised up as the renewed family of Abraham to fulfill that calling to bless all people, inviting them into Jesus’ new-creation life — a life available to people from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Our Creator, the Analyst

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. — Genesis 1:1-4

Our Creator is an Analyst.

It wasn’t enough just to launch the “big bang,” when “what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (Hebrews 11:3). In the beginning, after the primordial plasma, there was nothing but light. But light reveals nothing if there’s nothing else to reveal. So the Creator took a further step. He “separated the light from the darkness.” As the older translations say, he divided. That’s what an analyst does, for analysis is the process of differentiating things into their components. God continued his analysis until the created order began to take shape, no longer “without form and void.”

In other words, God created information. As Gregory Bateson pointed out, information is “a difference that makes a difference.” There’s no information in sameness; information is the difference between one thing and another. That’s the principle of the digital computer. A “bit” is either on or off, and everything the computer does for us is based on the difference between what’s on and what’s off. God is the original Programmer-Analyst.

In a day of post-modern skepticism about the possibility of knowing what’s true and what isn’t, the Christian thinker needs to emulate the Creator in his digital differentiation. As Harry Blamires wrote six decades ago, “The thinker hates indecision and confusion; he firmly distinguishes right from wrong, good from evil; he is at home in a world of clearly demarcated categories and proven conclusions; he is dogmatic and committed; he works toward decisive action.” A Christian intellectual may well acknowledge nuances and “gray areas,” but works through them to a firm conclusion. He or she is like the men of the tribe of Issachar “who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).

In submission to the Creator, we pursue His analytical ways. We learn to differentiate and distinguish, in order to contribute to his purpose for human civilization. The English Old Testament begins with God’s differentiation of the created order. It closes, in Malachi 3:18, with an admonition to carry the process of analysis into the realm of human conduct: “Then once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.”

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Did Jesus “Watch the News?”

For many people today, the network or Internet news has become so full of negativity that it engenders disquiet and depression to the point that some refuse to listen to it. There are even some Christian teachers who recommend that believers avoid watching the news because it discourages living the life of faith. Instead, they suggest, focus on reading the Scriptures and listen to Christian teaching, and don’t let the CNN (the “constantly negative news”) pull you down into defeatism and fear.

While it’s clearly a believer’s responsibility to focus on the Word of God, it’s not a responsible attitude to ignore the news of the world and the nation. Christians need to be forewarned in order to be forearmed. Knowing what’s happening in politics and world affairs is important in understanding how to vote, and how best to prepare for the impact of current trends or the ill-considered policies of authorities who make unwise decisions that affect all members of the public.

Pondering this issue, I asked myself whether Jesus “watched the news.” Obviously, the various broadcast or print media we know today were not available in first-century Galilee and Judea. What people knew of “the news” was what had been circulated by word of mouth, or perhaps announced in some local gathering. But while their immediate access to the news of events outside their local milieu was limited, they could be aware of general conditions that obtained in their region, and of events that had occurred within recent memory.

The Gospel record reveals that Jesus knew of situations that were “newsworthy” in the cultural environment within which he functioned. He would have been aware, of course, because Jesus himself was a news broadcaster announcing the arrival of the kingdom of God. At the outset of his ministry he gave out the “late breaking news” that Israel’s God, seemingly silent for centuries, was back on the move. “The time is fulfilled,” he proclaimed, “and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent [change your thinking], and believe in the gospel [good news]” (Mark 1:15). For people in Jesus’ cultural environment, as for people today, the idea that the Creator God is implementing his plan for his human family is the most newsworthy, and perhaps most disquieting and ominous, developing story.

Jesus understood how rulers functioned in the pagan environment of the Roman Empire. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them,” he told his disciples. This, of course did not meet with Jesus’ approval. “It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27). The coming of God’s rule means that a new style of leadership and human interaction is to become the order of the day.

So Jesus understood, and referred to, the ways rulers and nations typically acted in the first century, as they might act today. He knew that going to war requires careful planning and an accurate assessment of the assets available to both the attacker and the defender. “What king,” he asked, “going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace” (Luke 14:31-32). World conflicts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries show the disastrous effects of ignoring this advice, but Jesus had “watched the news” and drawn a wiser conclusion. In the same vein, Jesus had observed that a nation weakened by internal conflict and division is in serious trouble. He posed this to his disciples: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:23-24). As we watch the media today, we understand that Jesus was highlighting a serious problem for any nation, including our own.

Jesus was well aware of the power and sway of imperial Rome, and how Caesar demanded allegiance, tax revenue, and even — for most people of the empire — worship. He knew how the faith of Israel adamantly condemned idolatry and rejected images, but he also knew that Jewish teachers who opposed him still possessed images of Caesar on coins they carried. When they tried to trip him with a question about whether paying taxes to Caesar was lawful for a committed Jew, he asked for a coin and was presented with one with Caesar’s image. He used that coin to expose their trickery, telling them to give Caesar his pittance but the give God what was really important — the loyalty of his covenant partners (Mark 12:15-17).

Nor was Jesus unaware of the conduct of the local Galilean ruler, Herod Antipas. It had been Herod’s rash vow that had resulted in the execution of John the Baptist, and Jesus know about his cunning ways — perhaps by report of the wife of Herod’s steward Chusa, Joanna, who was a supporter of Jesus’ traveling ministry (Luke 8:3). When some Pharisees tried to get Jesus to leave their locality by warning him that Herod wanted him killed, he replied, “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). Jesus understood that the “teaching,” or manner of life, of neither the Pharisees nor the Galilean puppet ruler Herod were what God was looking for in the people of his kingdom; he warned his disciples not to let their “leaven” creep into their outlook and lifestyle (Mark 8:15; 16:11).

Jesus knew the history of the region in which he circulated. In the well-known “parable of the talents” (Luke 19:12-27) he referred to a nobleman who “went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return,” but whose subjects “hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’” When the nobleman returned to assume rulership, he had his enemies executed. This seems to be a reference to how the first Herod (“Herod the Great,” ruled 37-4 B.C.) was made king of Judea by the Roman Senate, and then executed many of his real or suspected opponents.

More recent newsworthy events in Judea also came to Jesus’ attention. Consider this passage from Luke 13: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’” (Luke 13:1-5). This was not a warning about people’s eternal destiny. Jesus was aware of long-term trends in his nation, including a growing appetite for rebellion against Judea’s Roman occupiers. He was warning his community of the fateful consequence of an uprising against the superior military power of Caesar, and urging them to repent (change their mind) about resorting to violence. His warning went unheeded, however, and many people lost their lives in the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-70 that ended in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.

Jesus, evaluating the temper of many Judeans (including the Pharisees), saw that difficult times were ahead if they persisted in the course that would lead to revolution. He counseled his followers about what stance they should take during the coming time of turmoil: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13:8-10).

Jesus, prophetically, was “watching the news” ahead of time, like the news analysts of today who warn of the future consequences of things occurring in the present. Knowing the temper of the times, he advised his disciples to be “wise as serpents” even if they were to be, in their own conduct, “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:13).

And Jesus, himself, was in the news. Speaking later of the events of Jesus’ ministry and what eventuated from it, Paul reminded King Agrippa that he knew about it because “this has not been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). The Gospels tell us that news about Jesus’ doings was being widely reported in Galilee and Judea. Mark records that when Jesus healed the daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official of Capernaum, “the report of this went through all that district” (Mark 9:26). And when he brought a dead man back to life, Luke tells us, “this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country” (Luke 7:17).

When Jesus approached Jerusalem shortly before the Passover week that would take him to the cross, crowds of people went to meet him because they had heard about his raising Lazarus from the dead. The Pharisees, in consternation, said, “Look, the world [i.e., the Jewish community] has gone after him.” But the news about Jesus had gone beyond Judea and penetrated even the Greek-speaking Jewish Diaspora, for, as John tells us, some “Greeks” attending the feast asked Jesus’ disciple Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:17-21). When Jesus entered the city in procession many people already knew who he was and answered their questioners, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matthew 21:11).

Did Jesus “watch” the news? He was aware of current, recent, and future events in his region. Not only that, but he was in the news, and a broadcaster of the news of the God’s return to his people — the news we call the gospel.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Addressing the Decline in Church Participation

Decline in church participation is an almost universal phenomenon in the Western world, as churches find it more difficult to involve younger populations. Prosperous economies, coupled with government policies, have created a situation in which people feel less need for help from a “spiritual” or non-material source. Perhaps the most serious factor, however, is the disconnect between the world of the Bible and the world experienced by people in the twenty-first century, a world shaped by technology and by the philosophy of scientific materialism. In such a world, God is simply not on the “radar screen” of most young people.

At the same time, demographics point to an expansion of the “senior” population in proportion to other segments. Factors responsible for this include a declining birth rate, and advances in medicine. The declining birth rate has resulted from the availability of abortion, postponement of child-bearing, and reduced fertility due to environmental factors such as widespread exposure to cell phone and other wireless radiation.

Considering these factors, I am led to several conclusions. First, ministry style that is comfortable for older people does not have to mean a decline in church membership, since the percentage of older people in the community is on the increase. Tailoring the ministry style to appeal to younger people may have limited effectiveness, because that demographic group is decreasing in proportion to the whole population.

Second, renewal of the church needs to begin with the people who are already taking part in church life, and not with people who are indifferent to Christian faith. (You cannot revive the faith of someone who has no faith to begin with.) The apostle Paul indicates that unbelievers entering the Christian assembly will become worshipers if they recognize that “God is surely among you” (see 1 Corinthians 14:23-25).

This means that the first step in church renewal might be for members of existing congregations to become more spiritually sensitive and aware of the living presence of the Lord in their midst, and the effect of that living presence on the corporate life of their community. Historians of the New Testament church have concluded that the appeal of the gospel of Jesus was not so much the proclaimed message, as it was the corporate life of the body into which new believers were invited.

As a family centered on the presence of the risen Jesus, believers were committed to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Each local church was a “beachhead” of God’s new creation, which had been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The churches’ witness was undertaken as a vanguard of the fuller appearance of the kingdom of God, which is at the heart of Jesus’ own proclamation of the gospel (Mark 1:14-15). A church that functions simply as a “religious club,” without embodying this new creation in a caring and sharing family, will have little to offer to new entrants.

This does not mean, however, that the church is to become a dispenser of social services to the larger community. Of course churches need to obey the gospel imperative to help the less privileged, as a demonstration of God’s providential care for all (Matthew 5:42-45). But churches can hardly compete with tax-supported or other public agencies in providing services to those in need. It would be easy to get lost in such efforts and forget what makes the church the church. Paul wrote, “Do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and Jesus reminded his disciples, “You always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7).

Finally, churches need to consider what it is that makes them different from other organizations. Other organizations reach out to people in need and assist them, but the church is the only organization that worships. Proper attention to worship, as the offering to God of the praise that is his due, should be a priority. The ordering and content of the Sunday gathering for worship, or other worship occasions, cannot be left to chance. Worship should not be conducted in a casual or haphazard manner.

Worship is the principal way in which the invisible God is made real to people — and the great need of people in Western culture is to come to the realization that God is real. Through worship, and the life of the body that flows from worship, it becomes apparent that God is not distant, but near, and that he has a plan and purpose for those made in his own image — Jesus being the full realization of that image (Colossians 1:15). The church’s witness to the resurrection of Jesus, epitomized in its worship and in its own internal quality of life, would be the most effective path for bringing to repentance (change of worldview or mindset) the person who exists “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). In this way people can be enabled to work out their potential for successful living, under the guidance of the Word of God.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

“Christian Sacred Cow” No. 5 — “We all have our cross to bear.”

We conclude our discussion of "sacred cows" — familiar things Christians sometimes say without thinking, but which on further examination don't really square with the teaching of the New Testament. In this final example, when people are experiencing difficulties in life we sometimes hear these problems described as a cross we have to bear. It could be a serious illness, or a difficult family member (such as an alcoholic spouse), or some other stressful condition. People think of Jesus’ suffering on the cross and try to compare their own situation to what Jesus was facing. But let’s take a closer look at this comparison and ask if this isn’t another one of these “sacred cows” we need to avoid.

What was the cross of Jesus? In the ancient Roman world, crucifixion was the penalty for rebellion. A person the Roman authorities deemed guilty of defying their regime could be hung on a cross, in public view, and might linger for hours or days in painful humiliation before succumbing to a merciful death. (In fact when we speak of excruciating pain we’re comparing the pain to crucifixion.) Jesus was crucified as a rebel against Rome, actually for questioning the “sacred cows” of some leaders of first-century Judaism who got the Romans to do their dirty work for them.

But it was through the cross of Jesus, and his resurrection, that God won the victory over sin and death and opened up the possibility of new life for those who unite with him. As Paul asks the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).

I suggest that to call sickness, or family problems, or some other stressful condition a “cross” we have to bear is to cheapen the cross. Jesus spoke of “taking up our cross and following him” (Mark 8:34), but in the New Testament the cross means persecution. Unless we’re being persecuted for our faith we’re not “bearing a cross.” Paul (Philippians 3:10) and Peter (1 Peter 4:13) speak of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. But didn’t Jesus suffer enough for all of us? As members of Jesus we enter into his suffering on the cross, and also his victory over sin and death in his resurrection. The stressful and difficult situations we face aren’t equivalent to the cross of Jesus.

Sometimes our favorite songs contain “sacred cows” we need to question. “Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe.” No, we’re not children of sorrow and woe; we’re children of our Father and we take the name of Jesus as our shield against the foe. Or we sing, “I will cling to the cross, the old rugged cross” – no, we don’t cling to the cross; we cling to the risen Jesus who has overcome the cross and opened our pathway into God’s new creation.

In this study we’ve looked at five “sacred cows”: (1) “God is in control”; (2) “This world is not my home”; (3) “You never know what God will do”; (4) “I’m just an old sinner”; and (5) “We all have our cross to bear.” When I hear expressions like these I’m tempted to exclaim, “Holy Cow! — is that really true? Does that square with Scripture?” We need to be like the people Paul and Silas met in Berea who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Friday, June 19, 2020

“Christian Sacred Cow” No. 4 — “I’m just an old sinner, saved by grace.”

We continue our discussion of Christian “sacred cows” — ideas or sayings we accept without thinking just because they’ve been traditional. Like the sacred cows that roam unhindered in certain regions of India, we don’t question these statements because they sound pious, or holy, and are so widely accepted we never venture to examine them in the light of the full testimony of Scripture.

One of these “sacred cows” is the statement one often hears, “I’m just an old sinner, saved by grace.” People think saying this makes them sound humble and religious, because it would be prideful to claim they’re not sinners. But does this idea stand up to the Berean test, a thorough scrutiny and deep understanding of the Scriptures? That was the test applied by the people the apostle Paul met in the ancient city of Berea (Acts 17:10-12) who were “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”

It’s really easy to dispose of this “sacred cow,” once we remind ourselves that as believers we’re members of Jesus. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . ,” says Paul, “and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The “body,” of course, is the body of Christ, and we’re members of that body. The New Testament tells us that Jesus “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). As Paul states, “For our sake he made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). So follow the logic here: if you’re in Jesus, and Jesus isn’t a sinner, then you can’t be a sinner either.

That doesn’t mean that, from time to time, we don’t commit sinful acts. Paul often has to remind his readers — whether in Corinth, or Ephesus, or wherever — to avoid sinful conduct of one sort or another. He warns the Corinthians, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Christians can slip up once in a while; if that weren’t the case John wouldn’t have told his readers, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

But just because we don’t always measure up to the standard of godly behavior doesn’t mean we’re supposed to brand ourselves as “just an old sinner.” We were sinners before we knew the Lord, but when we were “saved by grace” we stopped being sinners and became “the righteousness of God” in Messiah Jesus. What I do on a few occasions doesn’t mark my identity for my entire life. Sometimes I drive a car, but that doesn’t mean I’m always a motorist. Every week I go the store, but that doesn’t make me nothing but a Walmart customer. Three times a day I enjoy a meal, but I’m not just an eater all the time. So for me to say, “I’m just an old sinner, saved by grace,” is to feed another “sacred cow” I shouldn’t be feeding.