Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Why Sin Goes Beyond Rule-Breaking

Sit up straight, eat your vegetables, do your homework, use ten sources for your paper. Don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t text and drive, don’t plagiarize.

Rules – some people view them as providing reassuring order and stability, and others see them as creating stifling restrictions. In reality, rules play a necessary role in essentially every area of life, but they also possess inherent limitations.

One of the biggest limitations regarding rules derives from their inability to cover adequately any area of significant complexity. For example, a marriage relationship cannot be reduced to a list of rules. A second major limitation relates to the first. An excessive focus on rules can cause them to become an end in themselves, drawing attention away from the bigger picture they were intended to serve. Think of some of Jesus’ charges against the Pharisees, such as tithing herbs to the neglect of weightier matters of the law, or dedicating something to God and thus neglecting to care for their parents.

The Bible contains many rules, of course, and not just in the Old Testament. The most common word for these rules in the Old Testament is torah, normally translated “law,” but more literally meaning “instruction.” Both testaments contain plenty of instruction, most notably due to the perspective found in the following proverb:

There is a way that appears to be right,

  but in the end it leads to death.

            –Proverbs 14:12

Due to this deficiency, the Old Testament praises the law highly, sometimes even effusively (see, for example, Psalm 19; 119; Deuteronomy 1-11). Both Jesus and Paul, despite their legitimate conflicts with the Pharisees over the law, make it clear that the law is good when approached properly.

These general observations about rules serve to introduce an exploration of the meaning and nature of sin in the Bible. The common tendency to reduce sin to the violation of rules can trivialize the biblical notion of sin. In addition, it distorts our understanding of how we combat sin in our lives and in the world.

I plan to explore the more substantive aspects of sin according to the Bible, with a goal of understanding better the roots of the human “problem,” as well as the path by which we draw closer to God’s will for our lives.

Throwing Out the Poor with the Bath Water

The old expression “throwing the baby out with the bath water” refers to getting rid of something good or fundamental in the process of trying to get rid of something bad. Perhaps the saying does not apply perfectly to the plight of the poor at present, but it addresses one significant aspect of it.

On a public policy level, helping the poor, like other important issues, has fallen victim to the partisan divide that makes meaningful dialogue among our political leaders virtually impossible. Liberal policies have proven ineffective in alleviating poverty at best, and counterproductive at worst. Conservative alternatives suggest that improving the overall economy will solve the problem of poverty for anyone willing to work. Such an approach both ignores the truth about who are the major beneficiaries of an improved economy and suffers from a shortsighted view of the nature and causes of poverty.

Difficult economic times make government aid programs inviting targets for cost cutting. While many of these programs contain serious flaws, simply reducing or eliminating them carries devastating consequences for many of our poorer neighbors, at least in the short term. The many Christians who support such cost cutting must not take the consequent impact on the poor lightly.

One could certainly argue that any attempt to alleviate poverty through government programs will inevitably come up short for a variety of reasons. The magnitude of the problem in a country like the U.S., however, not to mention the worldwide situation, requires the mobilization of vast resources. At least at present, government involvement in assisting the poor remains vital, even with its shortcomings.

To throw out the poor with the bath water of flawed public policies will surely not escape the notice of the God who promises to hear the cries of the poor. Christians who try to hide behind the abuses of those who play the system because “those who don’t work shouldn’t eat” need to remember at least two things. First, “the system” bears a great deal of responsibility for the current problem. Second, attempts to toss out the cheaters will literally toss out babies and children as well.

In the longer term, my hope is that the church will build on growing insights into healthier ways to help the poor and model a better way forward. I personally have little confidence in government’s ability to do more than minimize some of the consequences of poverty. Churches and Christian organizations have frequently done little better in addressing the root causes of poverty. Increasingly, however, this situation is changing. A tremendous opportunity thus exists for the church to bear witness to the kind of redemption God intends as it walks alongside its poorer neighbors day after day and year after year.

In the meantime, we may have little choice but to: 1)Advocate for the best of the flawed government policy options for the poor; and 2)Step up efforts to address the deeper issues of poverty and combat the counterproductive effects of shortsighted programs.

 

 

The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Conclusion)

 As we wrap up this exploration of “the fear of the Lord” in the Bible, let’s recall a couple of key observations from the first two segments. First, both the Old and New Testaments affirm fearing God as a virtue. Second, the Old Testament ties fearing God closely to loving God, as well as other surprising elements such as finding forgiveness, refuge, and hope in him.

Some consider the notion of fearing God objectionable, but we don’t have to begin with subjective responses. The Bible simultaneously commends fearing God and raises its own issues with the surface appearance of what fearing God means. In other words, we have a problem if we understand “the fear of the Lord” as being afraid of God, because the Bible points us in a different direction.

What’s Wrong with Fear?

What, we might ask, is the problem with fear in the first place? On the one hand, fear plays a valuable role in protecting us from very real dangers. In so doing, it steers us away from paths that lead to painful consequences.

On the other hand, fear tends to serve as a short-term and self-focused motivator, which greatly limits its usefulness. The fight-or-flight instinct that fear triggers can save us in situations of physical threat, but it harms us by shutting down our capacity for skills such as reasoning and empathy in less life-threatening contexts.

In addition to fight and flight, fear can also cause us to freeze. The third servant in the parable of the talents took his large amount of money and buried it because he feared the master’s wrath should he lose it. Ironically, it was this fearful response that exposed him to the anger of his master.

Fear also hinders meaningful relationships. After the first sin, Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God due to their fear (Genesis 3:8-10). Their sin was serious, but God had to draw them out before their relationship could move forward. When we are afraid of someone, the way of avoidance is understandable, but it allows no room for restoration of the relationship. The fear of the Lord, on the other hand, draws us to him.

Whereas passages like Deuteronomy 6 and 10 connect the love and fear of God, John contrasts them:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.                                    –1 John 4:16b-18

Notice that John does not identify the object of fear in this passage. He does connect it, however, with judgment and punishment. This concern sounds much like that of the servant in the parable of the talents, whose self-oriented “feelings” of fear led him not to please his master, but to disappoint and anger him.

A Definition?

In the end, it is difficult to provide a simple definition of “the fear of the Lord” in the Bible. It is easier to say what it is not. In seeking a positive definition we must acknowledge that the gap between God and humanity, due both to his incomparable nature as Creator in general (see Isaiah 40:10-26) and his holiness in contrast to our sinfulness (see Isaiah 6:1-5), underlies the fear of the Lord. Yet this fear also forms an appropriate response to his forgiveness and the hope he provides, as we have seen.

In the end, we should understand the fear of the Lord in a way that calls us not to run from him in terror, but to approach him humbly and gratefully. We stand in awe of his power and holiness, but also of his patience and mercy. We surrender our attempts at self-justification to his gracious provision. We submit our puny power and goals and wisdom to his will. For this reason, the fear of the Lord is “a fountain of life” (Proverbs 14:27).

 

 

 

The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Part 2)

In the first part of this post, we saw that the Old Testament, rather than contrasting the fear of God with the love of God, closely connects them (along with obeying the commandments). This connection, in conjunction with other factors we are about to explore, makes it difficult to reduce “the fear of the Lord” to being afraid of God.

Look to the Parallels

Most of the instances of “the fear of the Lord” in the Old Testament appear in the poetic writings, especially Psalms and Proverbs. One of the key features of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, in which two lines are closely tied together. For example:

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

                        –Psalm 19:1

In this verse, the second line restates the first. Another common type of parallelism contrasts the two lines, as with the following:

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

                        –Psalm 1:6

When a poetic text speaks of “the fear of the Lord” (or comparable language), that with which it is compared or contrasted should prove highly instructive as to how the biblical writers understood the meaning of fearing God.

Consider these examples:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,

but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

                        — Proverbs 1:7

Do not be wise in your own eyes;

fear the Lord and depart from evil.

                        — Proverbs 3:7

But with you there is forgiveness;

therefore you are feared.

                        — Psalm 130:4

How abundant are the good things

that you have stored up for those who fear you,

that you bestow in the sight of all,

on those who take refuge in you.

                        — Psalm 31:19

The Lord delights in those who fear him,

who put their hope in his unfailing love.

                        — Psalm 147:11

Blessed are those who fear the Lord,

who find great delight in his commands.

                        — Psalm 112:1

To parallel “the fear of the Lord” with a spirit of humility and openness to instruction is helpful but not particularly surprising. More striking, however, is its connection with God’s nature as one who forgives (Wouldn’t God be more fearsome if he was unforgiving?), who provides a source of refuge, whose unfailing love inspires hope, and whose commands bring delight.

It would be possible to substitute “love” for “fear” in these last few parallels. In fact, this substitution would probably make more sense to a contemporary reader. The fact that this is the case reaffirms the close association between loving God and fearing God in the Bible.

A brief examination of these parallels further demonstrates that defining “the fear of the Lord” as being afraid of God does not fit the biblical evidence. Interestingly, some words of Jesus in the New Testament appear to challenge this conclusion.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

                        –Matthew 10:28

Notice, however, the words that immediately follow:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

                        –Matthew 10:29-31

Jesus is attempting to encourage disciples who fear sharing the same kind of persecution directed toward him. He does so through a touching reference to “your

Father’s care.” As in this passage, the call to fear God is actually a means of removing fear. Since the call not to fear is the most frequent command in the Bible, it would be surprising if “the fear of the Lord” were to mean, “be afraid of God.”

Next: Some closing thoughts on the limitations of fear.

The Surprising Relationship of Fear and Love in the Bible (Part 1)

Am I supposed to fear God or love God? Is this an either/or proposition, and if not, what does it mean to fear God? Many Christians have been led to think that they should resolve this tension through the following dangerously oversimplified contrast: the Old Testament calls for believers in God to fear him, whereas the New Testament calls for a response of love instead.

One problem with this “solution” is that the New Testament also appeals to “the fear of the Lord” several times (see Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; 7:1; Ephesians 5:21; 1 Peter 1:17; 2:17-18; Revelation 19:5). In addition, the greatest command, to love God with all one’s being, appears in Deuteronomy 6, a passage we will consider below.

The main problem, however, remains our view of what the problem is in the first place.  We tend to view the fear of God as a negative, whereas the Bible views it in a highly positive way. The wisdom writers in the Old Testament, in particular, view it as the essential foundation to wisdom (see, for example, Job 28:28; Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7).

Let’s begin, however, by going back to Deuteronomy 6, where verse 4 exhorts Israel to love God with all their heart, soul, and strength. In the opening verses of the chapter, however, Moses precedes that exhortation with these words:

These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.

Notice that this passage not only places fearing God in close proximity to the call to love God wholeheartedly, but it also places fearing God in an interesting relationship to the commands of God. We often consider fear as a motive for obeying God, because if we don’t keep his commands we will be punished. In Deuteronomy 6:1-2, however, the commands are given “so that” we may fear him “by keeping” his commands.

 Another significant passage from Deuteronomy ties together loving God, fearing him, and keeping his commandments:

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

                   –Deuteronomy 10:12-13

At a minimum, passages such as these demonstrate that fearing God and loving him are seen in the Bible as non-contradictory. When we bring obeying his commands into the mix as well, we are beginning to make progress toward a healthier understanding of the fear of the Lord (as well as the love of the Lord). Rather than contrasting these ideas, the Bible ties them closely together. In fact, one could argue that the various phrases in Deuteronomy 10:12-13 are essentially saying the same thing in different ways.

Another observation may prove helpful in this connection. Our first reaction to words like “fear” and “love” is to think of them as emotions. We struggle, therefore, when we are called to “fear” God or to “love” our enemies. Those feelings may seem inappropriate (especially the latter). Furthermore, how can we feel something as a result of a command?

On the subject of loving our enemies, consider the language of Exodus 23:4-5:

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.

These verses describe love of enemy, but they do not use the word “love.” They command us to behave in a certain way toward an enemy, not to feel a certain way. This perspective is true in general in the Bible. It might sound hypocritical to us because we don’t think we should do something if we are not “sincere.” Hypocrisy has to do with motive and intent. If we have the proper motive and intent, we do not have to feel warmth for others in order to act lovingly toward them. An increase in loving feelings typically comes as a result of loving actions, not the other way around.

 Next: Positive associations with fearing God in the Bible and an attempt at a definition of “the fear of the Lord.”

The Bible Is Not Flat!

The earth is not flat, but the massive data affirming this reality has not deterred members of the Flat Earth Society. The Bible is not flat either, but this reality has not deterred many from reading it that way. What does a “flat” reading of the Bible mean, and why is it a problem?

My first Bible was a King James Version. I’m old enough that in my early years few alternatives existed, but not so old that the language of the KJV matched the language of my daily life. My issue here, however, is not with the archaic way the KJV speaks (which was appropriate, of course, for the time when it was written), but with another factor more relevant to the question above.

Many Bible students realize that today’s chapter and verse divisions in the Bible were not part of the original text. The chapter divisions were added in the 13th century, and verses in the 16th century. The KJV, unlike more recent versions, presents the text of the biblical books as a series of chapters, each containing a string of seemingly free-standing verses. In books like Psalms, the reader observes no indication that this portion of the Bible is written as poetry. In narrative texts, one finds no paragraph divisions.

Although subsequent Bible versions have improved the formatting of the text, the historic influence of the King James Version may have contributed to an unfortunate legacy of approaching the Bible more like a dictionary than what it is in reality: a collection of diverse literary works. To use the Bible as if it were a repository of answers to be looked up by chapter and verse creates a dangerous pattern that lies at the heart of a flat reading. Such a reading ultimately does more damage than the belief in a flat earth. (Ironically, this approach to the Bible has probably contributed to the belief in a flat earth, just as it contributed to the belief that the earth is the center of our solar system.)

Perhaps the best way to elucidate the meaning and danger of a flat view of Scripture is by describing some areas to which we must be sensitive if we are going to avoid this danger and read the Bible more appropriately.

1)Genre

Genre refers to a category that reflects common characteristics. In the realm of music, for example, classical, bluegrass, blues, and hip hop describe different genres. A straight news story represents a different genre with different rules than an editorial. When we encounter familiar literary genres like these, we tend to change gears instinctively as we read.

Not only does the Bible use some less familiar genres, such as law, wisdom, and apocalyptic, but even some of the more familiar ones, like narrative, operate differently at times from our equivalents. Most seriously, we fail too often even to consider the issue of genre when we read the Bible. We cite a proverb or a passage from Revelation or Romans as if they all convey truth in the same way.

To read the Bible as if it consists of a single shapeless genre results in a flat reading that obscures many nuances of God’s revelation.

2)Context

Two aspects of context carry relevance for the way we read the Bible. The first is literary context, which refers to the relationship of a given verse or passage to the text around it. This context extends all the way from the immediately surrounding verses to all of Scripture. We have all heard people protest that their words were “taken out of context.” The words of the Bible have often suffered this fate.

A second dimension of context deals with the time, place, language, and circumstances into which God revealed himself. He has not given us a collection of timeless truths, but words delivered to people in particular times and places. In so doing, God met them where they were. This gracious and necessary approach, sometimes called contextualization, requires those of us from different times and places to recognize that the Bible was not written directly to us.

To read the Bible as if a given passage can be understood and applied apart from its surrounding literary and cultural context results in a flat reading that obscures many boundaries of God’s revelation.

3)Theology

The way we read the Bible shapes our theology, which is simply our understanding of the larger message of the Bible. The more extensively and appropriately we read the Bible, the healthier should be our theology. Interpretation of particular passages and our theology ideally will interrelate with one another in a positive way. Our biases and blind spots, however, hinder this process.

As we grow in theological understanding (which involves our life response to the text as well as our intellectual study), we come to appreciate some important dimensions of the Bible. We recognize progressive revelation, the way in which God’s will is revealed with increasingly clarity as it comes to its fulfillment in Jesus (see Matthew 5:17-18; Hebrews 1:1-2). We also find certain emphases that give different weight to aspects of God’s revelation (see Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:8; Matthew 22:34-40; 23:23).

Another issue with which our developing theology confronts us is the tensions that exist within Scripture. We wrestle, for example, with divine sovereignty and human free will, or the staggering love of God and his judgment. We often seem to be more eager to resolve these tensions (because they make us uncomfortable) than is the Bible itself. Unfortunately to resolve them to our satisfaction flattens the more complex texture of Scripture.

To read the Bible as if every passage or issue addressed carries equal weight and every tension is a problem to be resolved results in a flat reading that obscures the complexity of God’s revelation.

Avoiding a flat reading of the Bible will not resolve every interpretive disagreement, but it will put us on a much healthier path, one that respects the way God chose to shape his revelation to us.

Training for Reigning

This is another post sparked by one of Phillip Camp’s sermons. Phillip preached this Sunday on the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25. He noted that the distinction between the commended and rejected servants in this parable has to do fundamentally with the different ways they view the master. Fear tends to paralyze, which is what leads the servant who considers the master harsh to bury the significant amount entrusted to him.

Before leading the discussion on this sermon in our Sunday night gathering, I decided to look at the comparable Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27. Interestingly, Luke introduces this parable by noting that Jesus told it to those who “thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” A parable that speaks of a master going on a journey of indeterminate length before returning to settle accounts obviously seeks to shift these hearers’ focus in a different direction.

Jesus’ correction of this misperception raises a couple of important questions. Why is there a delay before the kingdom comes in its fullness? Why does Jesus stress the faithful “investment” expected of servants to whom much has been entrusted? The first question is particularly difficult to answer completely, but the two taken together point to the graciousness of God in allowing us to participate in his larger purposes. To entrust something of great value to another is deeply affirming, especially since God’s human servants have regularly proven untrustworthy.

In both Matthew and Luke, the master entrusts servants with significant material wealth. In both gospels, this wealth is described as small in comparison with what will be given to those who prove faithful. Matthew says the master invites these faithful servants to enter into his joy and puts them in charge of many things. Luke tells us that the master places them over a number of cities in proportion to the return on their investment.

The delay between Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom and his return to consummate it extends grace not only to his flawed servants, but also to those who have not embraced the redemption Jesus came to make available. Consider one additional benefit of the delay: while we serve as God’s agents in embodying the kingdom and its redemption, we are being prepared – as were the servants in the parable – for “greater things.”

God originally intended for humanity to reflect his benevolent reign within the creation (see Genesis 1:26-28; 2:5, 15). We have failed to live up to that calling, not only in the garden, but repeatedly ever since. Yet God has not given up on his original intention. We get a glimpse of our role in God’s future in a couple of passages from Revelation:

Revelation 5:10

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,

  and they will reign on the earth.

 

Revelation 22:5

They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light And they will reign for ever and ever.

Whatever we have at present (abilities, opportunities, resources) comes as a gift from God:

1 Corinthians 4:7

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why to you boast as though you did not?

In these gifts we see God’s generosity. If we use them in a way that glorifies him and serves others, we embrace our “training for reigning” in the future. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he says that “whoever has will be given more” (Matthew 25:29). In other words, we do not truly “have” something unless we recognize its source and purpose. Living with this awareness, on the other hand, prepares us for our greater future service. Every servant in the parables received something, so the “have-nots,” are those who squander and ultimately lose God’s gifts by either fearfully burying them or greedily hoarding them.

As for the exact nature of our future reign, we might confess with John, “what we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2). He goes on to say, however, “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” We will in some sense share in his eternal reign over the renewed creation if we faithfully and bravely participate in his current reign. We participate now by investing what we have received in ways that anticipate God’s future within the present creation.

The Redemption of Jacob

In my last post, I briefly considered the unlikeable character of Jacob, a scheming deceiver from the womb whose very name reflects his nature (a self-fulfilling prophecy?). How strange that this man, despite the hardships caused by the way of life he has chosen, becomes the father of twelve sons who form the foundation of God’s covenant people.

Jacob even becomes the namesake of this covenant people, but primarily through his new name, not his original one. God’s changing of Jacob’s name to Israel helps us understand the redemption of Jacob, as well as our own.

As we discussed in the previous post, the prophet Jeremiah’s use of a wordplay on the name Jacob to describe the surpassing deceitfulness of the human heart (Jer. 17:9) establishes a connection between Jacob and the rest of us. Most of us do not deceive others on the same scale as Jacob, but the root problem of self-deception resides within each of us.

As we (perhaps reluctantly) consider how Jacob’s walk with God parallels our own, we should notice first God’s pursuit of Jacob. God confirms his general covenant faithfulness, and Jacob’s distinctive role in that covenant, on two significant occasions. The first occurs when God reveals himself to Jacob in a dream as the deceiver/deceived flees from his twice-wronged brother Esau. The second involves Jacob’s unusual wrestling match with a “stranger” on the evening before his fearfully anticipated reunion with his brother.

The first encounter at Bethel perhaps reassures Jacob somewhat, but otherwise does not appear to impact him substantially. Over the course of his struggles during his “exile” with his uncle and father-in-law Laban, however, both Laban and Jacob become increasingly aware of God’s presence with and blessing upon Jacob.

What truly marks the turning point for Jacob, however, is the exhausting and ultimately incapacitating wrestling match. In the end, when Jacob comes to the end of his own strength and realizes he is not up against an ordinary opponent, he can only cling and ask for a blessing from God. It is in this context that Jacob’s new name, Israel (“struggles with God”), makes sense. Only by clinging to God as the source of blessing can one prevail in the inevitable struggles (internal and external) to find one’s true place in the world.

Strikingly, however, Jacob appears to revert to his old ways in short order. After a positive reunion when Esau comes out to meet him, Jacob proposes to take a different route the rest of the way home due to his large family and young children. Although Jacob expresses his intention to meet up with his brother again, due to lingering fear or some other reason, he does not join Esau at the end of his travels.

Jacob’s life, in a sense, is ours “writ large,” but the end of our story remains open. In typically less dramatic and obvious ways, God pursues us with the intent to bless us and, through us, to bless those around us. We might superficially acknowledge God and his good intent. Trusting God to work in this way, however, challenges our insecurities, provoking our tendency to take charge and obtain what we want with little concern for the negative impact on ourselves and others.

At some point, though, we come to the end of ourselves and recognize that we ultimately cannot control God, the world, others, or even ourselves. Yet self-deception allows us to deny these realities if we are determined to do so. Even if we face the truth we inevitably revert to old ways from time to time, especially under stress.

Jacob not only highlights God’s use of the unlikely to accomplish his purposes, but he also illustrates the winding path of redemption. Overcoming the Jacob in us does not happen suddenly, but over the course of time. Thankfully, God’s relationship with Jacob also affirms his covenant faithfulness and patience with us.

The Jacob Factor

Jacob plays a vital role in the biblical narrative of God’s redemption, despite the fact that he does not serve as the greatest role model in his relationship with God. Nor do his deceiving, cheating, scheming ways endear him to us on a personal level.

Sadly, however, this dimension of Jacob’s character lives on in the rest of us. When Jesus describes Nathanael as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47), he singles out this new disciple as an exception to the rule.

Deceit works on at least three inter-related levels. A person can be deceived, practice self-deception, and deceive others. Jacob may have experienced all three. As his struggles demonstrate, a habit of deception as a means of gaining advantage over others reveals that one is deceived and/or self-deceived. Jacob’s life certainly stands in contrasts with the faith of his grandfather Abraham.

In Jeremiah 17:9, the prophet explains the root of Jacob’s problem – and ours:

The heart is deceitful above all things,

and desperately sick;

who can understand it?

This verse contains a significant link to Jacob that is not evident in translation. Most Bible students know that Jacob’s name derives from the word “heel,” reflecting the way he grabbed the heel of his twin brother Esau in an apparent attempt to emerge from the womb as the firstborn. Esau refers to this wordplay after Jacob had gained both the birthright and blessing (Gen. 27:36).

In the verse above, uses the same root for Jacob’s name. Most translations, as above, render the word “deceitful.” Jeremiah’s lament reveals that, as deceptive as Jacob was, the greatest deceiver is not “out there” but “in here,” that is, in the human heart.

In the Bible, the heart refers to our inner nature, including our thoughts and desires. The heart is dangerously deceptive because it is dangerously subject to deception. When we recognize this fact, we can no longer reduce sin to a list of rules. We can’t focus on simply learning the rules and mustering enough willpower to keep them.

By exploring the heart problem underlying human sinfulness, we can better understand how to combat what separates us not only from God, but also from one another, and even our own true self.

In future posts, I will reflect on the causes and results of our deceitful hearts, as well as ways we can become more closely attuned to the heart of God. Feel free to offer your own insights or requests for issues to be discussed.

Living In the Present But Not Of the Present

In John’s Gospel, Jesus provides insight into his surprising approach to the kingdom of God, which befuddled his opponents, his Jewish followers in general, and even his own inner circle of disciples. As he stands before Pilate, Jesus explains that his disciples do not take up arms and fight because his kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). In the previous chapter, Jesus had prayed for his disciples in anticipation of his death. A central theme of that prayer is Jesus’ desire for his first disciples – and all subsequent generations – to follow his lead as one sent into the world but not of the world (see John 17:6, 11, 14, 15, 16, 18).

The ongoing call for Jesus’ disciples to be in the world but not of the world challenges us both in terms of understanding and practice. Part of the problem derives from the various possible meanings of “world.” On the one hand, John’s Gospel famously proclaims that God sent his Son into the world out of his great love for it. This love extends not only to the human inhabitants of the world, but also to the creation as a whole (see Romans 8:18-23).

1 John 2:15-16 helps us understand the sense in which we are not to be “of the world”:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

We are not to love “the world” or be of “the world” in the sense of the current fallen state of God’s creation. This calling is difficult because we are part of that fallen creation. At present, our corrupted desires tend to divert us from our calling to glorify God through a benevolent stewardship of his creation. Instead, we vainly seek to satisfy our selfish appetites as consumers of the creation.

The next verse of 1 John 2 provides a slightly different lens through which we might understand being in the world but not of the world: “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” A similar idea appears in 1 John 2:8, which speaks of the truth that “is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”

We live presently in “the overlapping of the ages,” during which we recognize by faith that the darkness of the present fallen order remains but is passing away, because the light of the in-breaking kingdom of God has already begun to shine. Genuine followers of Jesus reflect this light because those who are in Christ are already part of the new creation: “The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Revelation 21:1-5 mirrors the renewal language of 2 Corinthians 5:17 when describing “a new heaven and a new earth.”

When we combine these passages with Romans 8, as mentioned above, we see that followers of Jesus share in the redemption of the larger creation that Jesus set in motion. The present age/order is passing away, not the world in the broader sense.

The title of this post – Living In the Present But Not Of the Present – reminds us that Scripture speaks into the present fallen world, but it also reveals something about God’s intent for creation before the entrance of sin, as well as his vision for his creation after he completes his redemption. We can only live in the present, but we are called to do so in light of our roots in the original creation and our future in God’s new order.

The challenge for looking back to the pre-fallen world is that we possess such a small amount of revelation with which to work, and we have no personal experience in such a world. The first chapters of Genesis, however, pack into a few words a great deal of foundational insight about the nature of God and his intention for his creation, including humanity’s place in it. These insights stand in stark contrast to the flow of human history from the ancient Near East to today.

As we trace God’s unfolding work of redemption in most of the rest of the Bible, we see his calling of a covenant people to serve as witnesses to the rest of humanity of the future toward which history is moving. Passages like James 1:18 and Revelation 14:4 refer to God’s people as a kind of “firstfruit” of his new creation. In other words, just as Israel offered the first produce of their harvest to God as an offering in anticipation of the larger harvest to come, so Christians serve as the first evidence of God’s ultimate new creation.

When we examine the Bible’s visions of God’s new creation, as in Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:6-9; Revelation 22:1-4, we find a picture of peace, justice, and fruitfulness that transcends the fallen divisions built upon race, gender, nationality, and ideology. To live in the present but not of the present requires us to acknowledge our role as witnesses and firstfruit of a future that returns us to and perhaps extends God’s original creation intent. We must engage the present order, but not on the terms and by the means that only further fuel the present divisions.

Participating in partisan power struggles and flexing our political muscles reflect neither the path nor the destination toward which God is moving. Following Jesus’ example of selfless love and healing, and embodying redemption and reconciliation, on the other hand, position us more appropriately as witnesses and firstfruit of God’s new creation.

Post Navigation