Rebel Territory

One of the disagreements between the North and South during the American Civil War was the status of the Southern states. Southern politicians believed themselves to have completely severed themselves from the Union and proceeded accordingly, establishing their own government. For his part, President Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution granted states the right to secede and so, treated with the Confederacy not as a free-standing political entity but rather as an insurrection. He even went so far as to approve the formation of a “Unionist Government-in-exile” in Virginia and installed “military governors” in several Confederate states to carry on government business as if secession had never occurred. And, of course, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he exercised the authority he believed he had to free slaves throughout the Union, not just in the North. This distinction in the South’s status was no mere political quibbling. Southern ambassadors pressed their case for official state recognition before European governments even as Northern dignitaries urged foreign powers to regard the South as in rebellion.

We might see in this situation an image of the relationship between the Kingdom of God and his enemies. Though God has apparently ceded a certain amount of authority and power to “The Prince of the Power of the Air”, and though the Enemy thought highly enough of his power to offer Christ “all the kingdoms of the world” (Mt. 4:8), the absolute affirmation of Scripture is that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1).

Like Lincoln, God does not actually believe that any created reality—human or spiritual—has the authority or right to secede from under his authority. Each exorcism in the ministry of Jesus reclaimed human territory from the enemy that belonged to God.

Continuing the analogy, we might see the church as those “military governors” or as a “government-in-exile”, living in compromised territory but under orders from the true Lord of the land, to carry out his business. In Jesus Christ he has announced an Emancipation Proclamation that applies to all those enslaved in sin throughout his many territories, a proclamation he calls the church to promulgate. This seems to be the imagery at work in Ephesians as Paul exhorts the church to clothe herself in the armor of the Lord and to stand.

The earth is the Lord’s. He has no intention of giving it up. Though the advances and retreats of the Kingdom of God on earth are at times as disconcerting for the faithful as were the defeats and losses of the North during the Civil War, we should take great comfort in the fact that though we reside in rebel territory, no defeat is final, and victory has been secured through Jesus Christ.

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Back to School

In Psalm 27:11 the psalmist asks God, “Teach me your way, O LORD.” We may not often think of God as teacher, but it is a frequent them in the Psalms. Nearby Psalm 25:8 says that God instructs sinners in “the way” because He is “good and upright.” In Psalm 119, the psalm so focused on God’s word, God is repeatedly depicted as teacher, perhaps most directly in v. 68: “You are good and do good; teach me your statutes” (see also 12, 33, 66, 124, and 135).

While perhaps not common to us, this view of God is not surprising when one considers that the word “Torah”, the textual heart of Israel’s relationship with God, means “instruction” as well as “law.” We tend to regard the Torah as Law in a legal sense and therefore see God as Lawgiver and Judge. But the Hebrews saw the law as God’s divine gift of instruction for peaceful living (Deut. 4:7-8) and God as its ultimate teacher. The teaching of the Law held an important place in the life of Israel and was one of the key responsibilities of the Levites.

The view of God as teacher makes further sense when one considers the NT. One of the most frequent designations for Jesus in the Gospels is “Teacher.” This described what Jesus did—and he did a lot of teaching—but also defined his relationship to his followers. They were his students, his disciples. “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher” (Matt. 10:25). Not only was Jesus an authoritative teacher, one of the main roles that he indicated that the Holy Spirit would fill was that of teacher: “He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Interestingly, Jesus warned his Disciples against vaunting themselves over others by calling themselves teachers (as the Pharisees did) precisely because there is only one True Teacher: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8).

As God’s Word himself, Christ has much to teach us by his Spirit through the written word. God IS both Lawgiver and Judge, but it can be stifling to interact with him primarily in that way, especially in prayer. While the Psalmists certainly related to God in that way, they also presented present an alternative: Engaging with him as Teacher, his word as the instruction, and themselves as his students.

I believe the Psalmists invite us to share this perspective. We should pray with them, “O Lord, teach me your ways.” In fact, all the more so. For in Christ the curriculum has become more clear, and in the Spirit the Teacher more accessible.

Embracing Death, Transcending Death

In a 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning work of psychology, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that much human effort is spent grappling with the reality of death and attempting to overcome (deny) it. Becker traced this frustration to humanity’s duality: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever” (26).

Much of the book is given to Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud’s differing analysis of this duality and its effects. Becker discusses the ways that humans push back against this fear of death—sexuality, relationships, heroic accomplishments, etc.—and chronicles the psychological effects of most people’s recognition of their failure to cheat death. Principally, he notes, we deny death by producing various shields to block or distract ourselves from really reckoning with it, often to damaging psychological and spiritual effect.

Kierkegaard concluded that the way through this impasse is to confront directly our dependence upon the Ultimate Power, and our fundamental inability to transcend death or make our lives eternally meaningful. Becker summarizes: “One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force” (90).

The psalmists’ model just such a response. Living lives far less buffered against the reality of death than we, they confront death directly. They speak of the “cords of death”, the pit, and Sheol. “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (89:48). Their confrontation with death and the meaninglessness of life is raw and honest. Yet they do not confront death alone. Nearly as frequent are affirmations such as, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who redeems your life from the pit” (103:4).

That said, the psalmists rarely seem to have a clear picture of how God will redeem them, nor how their lives will be made meaningful in the larger scope of God’s dealings. This confidence can be seen in the final verses of Psalm 102 where the psalmist both stands in awe of God’s utter vastness and unchangeability and yet also affirms “the children of your offspring shall dwell secure.”

“Full humanness,” Becker asserts, “means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day” (59), a daunting prospect no doubt. But denial, distraction, or defiance provide no way forward. Rather, we can be schooled by the psalmists in embodying a humble embrace of our frailty trusting our transcendence of death to God’s mysterious grace.

Textual Tourism

Though most people think of him as a writer of children’s fantasy, for his familiar Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s true area of expertise was Medieval literature. In one of his studies on the topic, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he makes some comments that are equally applicable to the study of the Bible. He mentions the reader’s tendency to consult expert literature only when the reading is forbiddingly hard. “But,” he warns, “there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.” Part of the reason for this difficulty is the vast difference between the reader’s world and the world of Medieval literature, and by the same token, the world of the Bible. We all know about passages in literature or Scripture that are difficult because of the concepts or strange vocabulary that is used (Agh! High school Shakespeare!). When the vocabulary is familiar we can easily be lulled into thinking that we know what the writer is talking about. But medieval and biblical authors alike lived in very different worlds than we do and speak of common things—nature, souls, love—from perspectives very different than ours. We cannot merely read their writing through the lens of our world.

Lewis cleverly depicts the difference between readers that, recognizing the difference between worlds, seek to enter the world of the author, from those who take their world along with them in their reading: “There are, I know, those who prefer not to go beyond the impression, however, accidental, which an old work makes on a mind that brings to it a purely modern sensibility and modern conceptions; just as there are travellers who carry their resolute Englishry with them all over the Continent, mix only with other English tourists, enjoy all they see for its ‘quaintness’, and have no wish to realise what those ways of life, those churches, those vineyards, mean to the natives.”

Just as readers could take their “modern sensibility and modern conceptions” to the works of medieval which are the focus of Lewis’s book, so too readers of Scripture can come to it with their contemporary ideas. Rather than trying to enter the world of Scripture on its terms, marveling at the strange and at times incomprehensible features that we find there, we come to it with our ideas and expectations. The result is that we manage to find exactly what we expected to find in the literature. It is not Scripture and its authors that are speaking to us, but our own ideas.

There is no doubt that there can be some pleasure from reading literature this way. Lewis concludes of these readers, “They have their reward.” But when it comes to Scripture, we should wonder whether the reader, reading in this fashion, heedless of the world from which the text has come, has truly read the word the author has written. And if he has not really read the word that was written, will he really encounter the voice of God in that word? Let us not take our “resolute American Christianry” with us on our journeys on the Continent of Scripture. Let us enter that world eager to engage with its strange culture rather than settling for quaint postcards.

If it walks like a duck…

A friend recently expressed frustration at feeling unprepared in a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness concerning the deity of Jesus Christ. Under discussion was Colossians 1:15 which describes Christ as “the firstborn of all creation.” This is a convenient verse for Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, which denies the full deity of Christ. It is therefore a discomfiting verse for the Christian defending Christ’s full divinity. More to the point, many Christians can be disarmed in discussions like this because they are not as readily equipped, as many Witnesses are, to cite specific references supporting orthodox positions.

In the case of Col. 1:15 the defense is pretty simple; reading verses 16-20 makes clear that someone more than a mere human is being described. But the deeper problem is the very use of Scripture. Sadly, Witnesses use our own proof-texting methods against us, and often more effectively. But there is another approach to this question that is not only truer to Scripture but also easier to remember.

It begins with this question: What does Scripture depict God doing because He is God? So much of our focus on who God is centers on the divine attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, and so on. But Scripture is far more taken up with divine action than divine essence. In fact, God frequently refers to himself as “the God who brought you out of Egypt.” This is true of the way that we think of ourselves as well. We don’t usually trot out adjectives to describe ourselves or others; we describe who we are by what we do.

So, what does God do as God? While God does many things in Scripture, there are several key actions that are uniquely ascribed to Him. God creates. God reveals himself. God gives the law. God establishes covenants. God redeems. God forgives sin. God gives life. God judges. God reigns. These things are definitive of who God is as God and set him apart from humanity and the gods of the nations.

Can you see where this is going? That’s right. Scripture depicts Christ engaging in each of the God-defining activities. It is arguably the whole goal of Scripture to make precisely this point. Christ is the Word of the Father at creation (John 1:1-3). He reveals the Father (John 1:18). He gives a “new commandment” (John 13:34). He institutes a “new covenant” (Luke 22:20). He saves (Matt. 1:20-21). He forgives sin (Luke 5:20-24). He raises the dead (John 5:21). He will judge (Acts 17:31). He reigns (Eph. 1:20-22). He is, in short, Emmanuel – “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Christ is God because he does those things that only God can do.

Perhaps the greatest power in this approach is the fact that it focuses less on what texts say about God and Christ and more on who they are by what they have done. And ultimately, we want people to know Christ himself, not just the texts about him.

Idolatrous Word

Early in Royal Priesthood: A Theology of Ordained Ministry, T. F. Torrance addresses the tight link between the cultic role of the priest and the word of God. The divinely ordained priestly tasks were not efficacious in themselves but rather witness to God’s promise to be faithful to the covenant and gracious in forgiveness.

All priestly action within the place of meeting was by way of acknowledgment and witness to God’s testimony of himself in the Covenant. God is not acted upon by means of a priestly sacrifice. Priestly action rests upon God’s Self-revelation in His Word and answers as cultic sign and action to the thing signified (3).

However, Israel tended not only to pursue gods more in keeping with their desires but also to detach their God-given liturgical actions from the word and action of God. Torrance explains this as a “temptation to escape from direct meeting or encounter with the living God” in and through the liturgical practices. The effect is that the liturgical acts themselves become idols. Rather than signifying the gracious, covenant-keeping actions of God, they become humanity’s idolatrous acts of self-righteousness. Torrance again explains this as an effort to avoid an encounter with the divine: “The more the liturgical forms are turned into idols, the less men are disturbed by a speaking God” (5). That the sacrificial act be a repeated declaration of the Covenant God’s Word that He forgives freely though He has the right to judge is too close to the terrifying thunder and lightning of Sinai. And so the sacrificial system is domesticated by becoming human actions appeasing a distant deity.

One might be tempted to draw parallels to the view of the sacraments in some sectors of the church, and may by justified in doing so. But an equally valid parallel may be drawn to the relationship to Scripture in more Word-centric sectors of Christianity. Scripture can be centralized, analyzed, and doctrinalized and yet in such a way that it ceases to be a conduit for hearing the voice of God.

As Psalm 29 attests, when God speaks, things happen. Cedars break, fire flashes forth, forests are stripped, the wilderness shakes. And yet, in the very churches that claim to have a high view of Scripture, the Word of God rarely speaks, nor is expected to. Like a dumb idol, it says and does exactly what we expect it to. Perhaps we are equally fearful of an encounter with the Speaking God.

Ears to Obey

There is a textual curiosity in Hebrews 10. As is his practice, the author quotes from the Old Testament to make his case, in this case Psalm 40:6-8. Interestingly, he quotes from the Greek translation of the OT called the Septuagint. This is important because if you compare his quote in Hebrews 10:5 with Psalm 40:6 you will see what appears at first to be quite a difference:

Psalm 40:6b       But you have given me an open ear…

Hebrews 10:5b   But a body you have prepared for me…

To be more specific, the phrase in Psalms is literally “ears you have dug for me” in the Hebrew. Ears and bodies seem rather different! What’s going on here?

First, let’s consider why they might be different. In truth, the phrase “ears you have dug for me” is unusual even if evocative. F. F. Bruce thinks that when faced with this odd expression the translators of the Septuagint took it as a case of ‘part for the whole’, that is, “[T]he ‘digging’ or hollowing out of ears is part of the total work of fashioning a human.” Accordingly, they generalized the expression to “a body you have prepared for me.” That’s a possible explanation, though there may be more to it.

Let’s ask, “How is this phrase functioning in the psalm?” The phrase “ears you have dug for me” is set in contrast to “sacrifices and offerings.” What is the intended contrast? The psalmist is contrasting the practice of sacrifice with…what, exactly? A clue is found in v. 8: “I have come to do your will, O my God.” The psalmist is contrasting obedience to God’s will with the performance of sacrifices. This sounds remarkably like Samuel’s icy indictment of Saul when he tried to explain his failure to destroy the animals of the Amalekites as he had been instructed: “To obey is better than sacrifice” (see 1 Samuel 15).

What does this have to do with ears? There is a consistent theme in Scripture that true hearing of God’s word is shown in doing God’s word. By saying that he has been given divinely prepared ears, the psalmist is saying that God has prepared him to hear God’s word and to respond to it in action. If this is the sense, then the Greek translation’s adaptation of the phrase to “a body you have prepared for me” makes sense since obedience would be enacted bodily.

What does this have to do with Hebrews? First, we should not find it surprising that the author is using the Greek translation of the OT. The Septuagint was far more accessible in the early days of the church than the original Hebrew. Paul, for instance, quoted from the Septuagint sometimes and sometimes offered his own translation of the Hebrew. And since most of the Mediterranean world spoke Greek, the Septuagint was the preferred option.

Further, it is not surprising that the author liked the Greek rendering (whether he was aware of the original Hebrew or not) because of the way he uses the concept of “body.” The quote “a body you have prepared for me” (10:5) results a few lines later in the conclusion, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). The author understands the words of the psalm to come ultimately from the mouth of Jesus whose body—a clear reference to Incarnation—was prepared by God for the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.

So, is this a case of the author Hebrews choosing willy-nilly what translation he uses so he can make his point? Ultimately, I don’t think so. Yes, the word ‘body’ proves more useful to the author’s purpose than ‘ears.’ But the original point of the psalm was that God was not so interested in the sacrificial system as he was in whole-person obedience to his will. The author has made the point that Jesus did just that; he lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15; 7:27-28). Further, Jesus’s bodily sacrifice was a piece of that whole life obedience (Heb. 2:17-18). With the ears God had given him he heard God’s word and with the body that was prepared for him he obeyed what he heard.

In the end, there is a deep irony between the psalm and Hebrews. For the psalmist, whole-life obedience was set in contrast to the sacrificial system. In Christ, whole-life obedience culminated in a whole-body sacrifice. As Bruce writes: “Wholehearted obedience is the sacrifice which God really desires, the sacrifice which he received in perfection from his Servant-Son when he came into the world.”