Contaminated by holiness

Recently I mentioned to a few people that in Leviticus, sin is talked about almost as a contagious disease. It makes us unclean and then we cannot approach God. Sort of like being quarantined.

In Leviticus 6, the picture is almost the opposite. It’s as though holiness is the contagion, and it’s dangerous for humans.

Here are verses 8-11:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 

Before the priest removes the ashes from the holy altar, he must don special “protective gear”. After the ashes are removed from the altar, he is supposed to take them outside the camp to dispose of them, but before he does that he has to change back out of the linen clothes, presumably to limit the contact of everyone else with the garments. Even he himself is protected from the linen clothes by special undergarments. Touching the altar “contaminates” the linen garments with holiness, and contact is kept to a minimum.

Here are verses 24-28.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on. Also the earthenware vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken; and if it was boiled in a bronze vessel, then it shall be scoured and rinsed in water.”

Once again, the point seems to be to limit human contact with the holy. Garments that come into contact with it must be washed, but only in the sanctuary area — they should not be taken outside the camp unwashed. Vessels that were used to cook the holy offerings must be either broken or at least scoured and rinsed.

Here is another passage that sounds sort of similar from Ezekiel 46:19-20.

Then he brought me through the entrance, which was at the side of the gate, into the holy chambers for the priests, which faced north; and behold, there was a place at the extreme rear toward the west. He said to me, “This is the place where the priests shall boil the guilt offering and the sin offering and where they shall bake the grain offering, in order that they may not bring them out into the outer court to transmit holiness to the people.

It also reminds me of this passage in Exodus 33:18-24:

Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.

This is all sort of strange and maybe profound.

Am I right in thinking that in Christ we are able to approach the holiness of God without fear or danger?

I frequently ponder the hiddenness of God, the way that he so rarely shows himself to people overtly. I’ve tended to assume we need to learn to see God in the ordinary. But these verses emphasize the opposite idea — the idea that God is anything but ordinary. They make it sound like he hides himself partly because he is protecting us from too direct a revelation.

How do all these thoughts fit together? I’m not sure yet … Feel free to speculate in the comments.

Genesis 12

In Sunday School this week, we looked at Genesis 12 — the last part, where Abram has Sarai tell Pharaoh that she is his sister.

One of the problems in interpreting the passage is to decide whether it is condemning or condoning Abram and Sarai for what they did. Were they lying? Telling a half-truth?Doubting God’s provision? Were they wrong? Or were they just being crafty?

Another is the general question of how to apply a narrative passage.

After our discussion (and, in most respects, before our discussion), my views are as follows.

  • One person asked, “Are we even sure that every passage has an application?” My answer is Yes, based on 2 Timothy 3:16.
  • I think the passage itself is silent on whether Abram and Sarai were right or wrong. I assume they were wrong, but it isn’t critical to interpreting the passage.
  • Someone in class said the application might be, “God can bless us even when we’re stupid!”. I think that’s sort of correct. The point of the passage is to show how God blessed Abram. The focus is on God’s blessing, not Abram’s righteousness. It doesn’t matter in the passage whether Abram should have lied or had Sarai lie or whether they told a half-truth or whatever. The point isn’t about Abram’s good or bad works at all. It’s just focused on God’s blessing.
  • The structure of the passage is interesting: it’s book-ended by two nearly identical sets of verses, in Gen 12:8-9 and 13:3-4. In between is the episode in Egypt. The effect of that is to emphasize the change that took place while in Egypt. There’s a basic before and after picture being presented. When Abram went down to Egypt he was of modest means and when he came back he was rich. So I think the main point of the passage is to explain how he got rich (Gen 13:1-2).
  • The passage follows immediately on the heels of God’s promise to Abram in Gen 12:1-3, in which he promised to make Abram’s people preeminent among all the nations of the earth. The next thing we see is God enriching Abram by using the nation of Egypt. It’s an instant demonstration of God’s favor to Abram above all the nations and even through those nations.
  • Furthermore, God promised specifically that “I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse”. (Gen 12:3). Abram visits Egypt and what happens? Pharaoh harms Abram by taking his wife, and God curses Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh repents and restores Sarai to Abram and gives him all sorts of gifts, and God blesses Pharaoh again. Again, the promise came first, then a story which instantly demonstrates it.
  • There’s more. The most pivotal event in Israel’s history was the exodus. No Israelite reader would have missed the parallels: Israel / Abram left Canaan and went to Egypt because of a famine; Israel / Sarai were taken into Pharaoh’s possession; God sent plagues on Pharaoh; Pharaoh agreed to let them go; Egypt gave them riches before they left (Exodus 12:35-36!) ; they returned to Canaan. The Genesis 12 story foreshadows the greater drama that would follow later.
  • When we read stories like this one, we are trained to look for the individual believer and try to figure out what we should imitate in his example. We see this as all about Abram, and have trouble figuring out whether this is saying we should act like Abram or act unlike him. But I suspect the Old Testament Jews would have read this as being about Israel. They would have been reading to see what this said about them as a nation. They would have been encouraged to see God immediately confirm the promises of Genesis 12:1-3 in a visible way. They would have taken heart and trusted that God still had plans for them as a nation and still was sovereign over all the other nations.
  • In the same way, I think most of the Old Testament stories are easier to understand if we see them as stories about the nation of Israel, with individual characters as part of the supporting cast, instead of seeing them as mainly about the individual characters with the nation as a part of the supporting cast.

P.S. If you want to see my latest philosophy post, on values, go here.

John 8:12-20

Here is the passage:

John 8:12-20

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

So the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying about yourself; your testimony is not true.”

Jesus answered and said to them, “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.

You judge according to the flesh;I am not judging anyone. But even if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.

Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”

So they were saying to him, “Where is your father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.”

These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; and no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.

Theme and structure of the passage

On first reading, this passage seems to be fairly unstructured. It looks like this:

  1. Jesus says something really important about being the light of the world.
  2. The Pharisees challenge his claim.
  3. Jesus spends a lot of time talking with the Pharisees about their attitudes to him and his testimony.

In other words, it looks like everyone gets distracted. It seems to be one long rabbit trail leading away from verse 12.

However, I think this first impression is deceptive. I think there is a remarkable integrity to the passage. Every piece of it is important, and it all serves to drive home the same theme, the theme that Jesus is our light.

The light that is Jesus

Jesus says that he is the light of the world, and that everyone who follows him does not walk in darkness but has the light of life. What is the practical meaning of walking in darkness or having the light of life?

I would like to suggest that the passage makes most sense if we interpret the light / darkness here in terms of our understanding of life rather than our behavior. Jesus is not saying, “If you follow me, you’ll make good decisions and not stumble.” He is saying, “If you follow me, life will make sense for you. You’ll be able to grasp its meaning. You’ll know what you are here for.”

The light of the Pharisees

The Pharisees respond by saying “You are testifying about yourself, so your testimony is not true.” Of course they didn’t mean that they knew for sure that Jesus wasn’t speaking truth; they meant that what he said didn’t count as valid testimony. It didn’t follow their rules of what testimony had to be. It didn’t prove anything for Jesus to claim it.

The Pharisees were experts at argumentation and debate. They had established procedures, based on the law and on logical thinking, for getting at the truth. They were objecting here that Jesus wasn’t meeting their standard for evidence. There were rules for submitting your testimony to a court of law or a theological body, and Jesus wasn’t following those rules.

The Pharisees didn’t think they needed anyone to be the light of life for them. They already understood what life was about. Their light was their knowledge. Their light was their methodology for establishing truth.

When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world”, they did what they always did with claims like that. They judged it by their own light. They asked, “according to our methods for finding out truth, does this qualify?” It didn’t.

The conflict

The problem was, Jesus wasn’t submitting his claim to them for their adjudication. He wasn’t saying, “if you use your already-established system for discovering theological truth, you’ll find that a part of it is Me”. He was saying that he superseded their methodology.

I teach a philosophy class in which one unit is on proofs for and against the existence of God. Some people argue that God exists, others argue that God doesn’t exist, and there is a lot of disagreement. Yet, everyone seems to agree on one thing: we humans are capable of finding out the truth for ourselves, if we just look hard enough. The default philosophical view of rationality seems to be that we can start from an unbiased, neutral standpoint, carefully sift all the evidence around us, and come to a measured and intelligent decision about God.

Scripture says differently. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 that God has deliberately worked in such a way that intellectual pride will never lead us to Him. He has set things up so that we are blinded to him by any attempt to find him on our own.

The Pharisees were making the same mistake as my philosophy students. Jesus said he is the light of the world. He said that we will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life if we follow him.

The Pharisees said, “We don’t walk in darkness right now. We already understand life. We already know how truth works. We ourselves aren’t confused: our job is to cast light on all the things that confuse other people. We know the law really well, and we know how to reason from it. Just show us your claim and we will be able to tell you if it is correct.”

Here, then, is the situation in John 8: Jesus says we can only understand reality if we follow him. The Pharisees already had a way to understand life, so they thought. They were willing to test his claim, but they didn’t realize he was actually challenging their very methodology. He was asking them to abandon their intellectual self-sufficiency.

What follows is Jesus’ attempt to get them to see that it was their very assumptions about how to decide what is true that he was calling into question.

First response: we need to see beyond the temporal

At first, Jesus sets aside the Pharisees’ concerns about method. The Pharisees were looking for proof. They should have been looking for truth. “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true.”

Why is it that Jesus is able to know and speak the truth about himself, while the Pharisees are not? Because they aren’t working with all the facts: he knows where he came from and where he is going, and they do not.

From a merely human perspective, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who said some startling things and did some amazing miracles. From the Father’s perspective, he was the eternal son of God, who had come to earth in the form of a man, and who planned to die for us, rise from the dead, and ascend back into heaven where he would rule as both Lord and Christ. Jesus didn’t tell them all these details yet, but he he hinted. He pointed out, here and on other occasions, that he came from heaven, and would one day return there.

What does this make a difference? Because what matters is not just Jesus’ three years of ministry in Palestine. What matters is the larger meaning of his life in history and in eternity. What matters is what he came to do, and where from, and what the outcome would be. If we follow Jesus as a good moral teacher only, we still walk in darkness. It is only when we follow Jesus as the the one sent from God, as the Savior, as the One whose name is above every name, that we find he is the light of life for us.

The Pharisees, though, couldn’t see the full significance of Jesus, because their perspective was limited. It had to be limited. As finite human beings, they were only aware of what was in front of them in the early first century. They couldn’t possibly know all the facts.

We are in the same boat. We just don’t know enough as humans to be able to figure out the truth on our own. We can’t find the light of life as long as we are restricted to temporal reality and ignore the eternal.

Second response: we need to see beyond the physical

Nor can we find the light of life if we are restricted to physical reality and ignore the spiritual.

“You judge according to the flesh,” says Jesus.

Sometimes when the Bible says we do something “according to the flesh” it means that our actions arise from sinful motives. Other times it simply means we do it physically (for example, in 2 Corinthians 10:3). In my opinion, that’s the interpretation that makes the most sense here. Jesus’ primary meaning isn’t, “You are judging from sinful hearts”, but “You are judging based on outward appearances.” Human knowledge, on its own, is inherently limited to physical evidence. Because we cannot get past that, we cannot make sense of life by ourselves.

Third response: we need to see beyond our own expertise

“You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone.” What does Jesus mean by judging? I think he is referring to the kind of judgment the Pharisees are engaged in: they had set themselves up as the arbiters of truth. They had appointed themselves the job of approving or disapproving everyone else’s moral and religious claims.

Jesus says, “I’m not playing your game. I have nothing to prove. I’m not interested in arguing about theological systems. I’m simply stating the truth.” Not that he couldn’t argue if he wanted to: “Even if I do judge, my judgment is true …”. It’s just that, again, in claiming to be the light of the world, he was setting aside all merely human systems of knowledge.

Fourth response: we can’t find the truth alone

“[E]ven if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.”

When my philosophy students ask whether God exists, the one thing they never think to do is to ask God to reveal himself to them. Secular reasoning often starts from the standpoint of an independent neutral observer. Whatever we can discover for ourselves, we will believe. Whatever we cannot discover for ourselves, we will reject. We are self-sufficient in our rationality. (Even neutrality can be seen as a studied independence from whoever might influence us.) I’m not saying that people actually succeed in being independent and neutral, just that they aspire to be.

The Pharisees, as religious as they were, functioned the same way. They were theologically self-sufficient. They accepted that God had given them the law, but, having received it, they wanted to work the rest of it out on their own.

Jesus, in contrast, says that he is not alone in his judgment, but is united with the Father in it.

I think it would be a mistake to think of Jesus and the Father as being two independent sources of testimony. Even though that may be the ideal in a court of law, it is not the ideal when it comes to ultimate truth. Jesus doesn’t just hold the same opinion as the Father, he forms it in partnership with the Father.

Specifically, Jesus says, his judgment is united with “the Father who sent me“. Because he is defined by where he came from and where he is going, because he is called by the Father and lives within that calling, his every judgment is shaped by that calling. He does not hold his judgment alone, for it is the natural side-effect of the Father’s creative shaping of his life.

The Pharisees are limited because their lives consist of a narrow slice of time in a small corner of the universe.They are also limited because they isolate themselves voluntarily. Their relationship to God, as they see it, is to figure out for themselves what he meant and then obey it. Even though they appoint themselves as judges of the truth on behalf of God, they never seek to discover their calling from God. They do lots of thinking about God, but don’t wonder what God thinks of them. The consequence is, they miss the experience of finding that God has led them to the truth.

Fifth response: we can’t find the truth outside of Jesus

Finally, Jesus responds on their own terms. At least he appears to: “Even in your own law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”

It doesn’t help, though, because they can’t talk to God directly they way they can to people. (And they certainly can’t interrogate him!) They want a way to evaluate truth that depends on humanly measurable factors. So they ask him, “Where is your father?”

I don’t think they were confused by what he meant – I think they knew he was talking about God. They ask “where is your father” to get him to admit that claiming “God agrees with me” isn’t really helpful evidence. Regardless, Jesus knew what he meant.

His response, though, is even more unhelpful! “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.” In other words, “You’ll know if I speak the truth if you ask my father, but to come to know my father you’ll have to trust me first.”

There is a vicious circle here. They can’t prove to themselves that Jesus speaks the truth until they are sure the Father agrees with him, and they can’t be sure the Father agrees with him until they are willing to trust what he is saying. Logic won’t help because the vicious circle corresponds to a circular argument.

This is precisely why the Pharisees are in such trouble. There just is no way to get from their methodology to the kind of trust and understanding Jesus requires. If we walk in darkness, we can’t see to find our way to the light. If Jesus doesn’t break into our lives with his truth, it will remain inaccessible to us. Only he is the light.

It would be easy to turn the first four stages of this passage into a 4 step process, a new method for finding the truth.

  • Step 1: take an eternal perspective
  • Step 2: take a spiritual perspective
  • Step 3: admit our ignorance
  • Step 4: look for help

But that only works if Jesus is in every stage. Jesus didn’t say “you don’t know where you come from and where you are going”, he said, “you don’t know where I come from and where I am going”. We can’t find eternal meaning in our own lives without first finding it in his life. We can only walk in our own relationship with Father when we find it through Jesus’ relationship with the Father. We can’t even know the Father except by knowing the Son.

The Pharisees thought they were being asked to judge Jesus’ claims. They weren’t. They were being told that everything they thought they knew was uncertain. They were being told that they were incapable of seeing truth without God’s intervention. They were being invited to find truth in Jesus. The single condition was that they stop thinking they could find truth without Jesus.

Questions

The sermon today was on John 5:31-47.

The pastor emphasized the four witnesses that testify to Jesus’ deity: John the Baptist, Jesus’ miracles, the Father, the Scriptures.

Here are some questions our family had afterwards.

  • Verse 36 says that Jesus’ miracles show that he was from God. Yet other Scriptures talk about people who are not from God doing miracles. So do miracles prove someone is from God, or not?
  • Jesus says later in John that his disciples would do “greater works” than he did. How can they be greater than raising someone from the dead? What does that verse mean?
  • What is the testimony of the Father mentioned in verse 37? Our pastor first connected it to the testimony Scripture, as mentioned in verse 39. In that case, there are only three witnesses in this passage, with the last being “the Father through the Scriptures”. Later he connected it to the announcement, “This is my beloved Son” at Jesus’ baptism. But then what does it mean, “You have neither heard His voice at any time nor seen His form”?

Our family had a really good discussion about the first two of these questions. We ended up talking about miracles, and about living with the expectation that God may still work supernaturally today.

Other questions I’ve been wondering about recently:

  • Acts 2:42 refers to “the breaking of bread”. I’ve always assumed it meant communion. A pastor a couple of weeks ago preached that it meant having a meal together. So what does it mean?
  • James 2:26 says “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” This is backwards from what I always think it is saying. I think of works as being the body — the outward form — and faith as being the thing that makes them of value to God. Works have spiritual value when they come from a believing heart. But this verse turns it around. I think it says that faith is like the body. It is just the form, the shell. When faith is fulfilled in works it becomes alive. The works that proceed from faith are what provide the life, the power, the “spirit” that animates the faith. The question is, am I right? Am I missing something? What more is there to add that would illuminate this?

I love having questions. Every question is a promise that there is more out there for me to learn.

(By the way, we did come to some satisfying conclusions about most of these questions. I just didn’t tell you what they were!)

Oh, one last thing I almost forget: Go check out my brother’s brand new website. Say something on it. You could even ask him my questions and see how smart he is :-)

Exodus 23:20-21

In Exodus 23:20-21 God says to Moses and the Israelites:

Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him.

??

When did this happen?

Why Saturday?

One of my children asked today (Easter) why God waited all through Saturday until Sunday before raising Jesus from the dead.

I think it relates to the Sabbath.

First, consider the very first Sabbath way back in Genesis 2. It says there that God set the Sabbath apart as holy because on that day He rested from all His work.

Why did God need to rest? Because He was tired? Of course not. The significance of God resting is that He was finished. He rested from all His work because it was complete. The Sabbath marked a recognition that there was nothing left to do.

What was one of the last statements Jesus made on the cross? “It is finished.”

I suspect the Sabbath after the crucifixion is meant to remind us that God’s second great work — the work of redemption — was finished with the death of Christ about 2000 years ago. Nothing needs to be added. We don’t have to mix our own good works in with what He did. He doesn’t need to be crucified again. That Saturday in the grave stands for the fact that everything had been accomplished.

A day later, the new creation began with the resurrection of Christ, the “second Adam”.

Fasting and suffering

I heard a sermon about fasting just a little bit ago. I have lots of thoughts about fasting and lots of questions too.

Generally Christians say fasting is spiritually important because:

  • Somehow the physical process makes us more attuned to the spiritual world.
  • Somehow suffering hunger weakens the hold of the flesh on our lives.

I am particularly skeptical of the last claim. I think the value of suffering is overrated.

I find this verse really convincing:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Col 2:20-23)

This says it straight out: at least sometimes “severe treatment of the body” is “of no value against fleshly indulgence”. I’ve heard there were people who flogged themselves in order to gain spiritual status or power somehow. That seems very mixed up. How is it really any different to say that the pain of hunger is what makes fasting beneficial?

There is a value to being willing to suffer. While suffering has no spiritual value of its own, it is nevertheless the side effect of some good things. That is why people can say “no pain, no gain”. For some things, if you aren’t working hard enough at them that it hurts, you aren’t working hard enough at them to help either. It isn’t the suffering itself which is beneficial, though, it’s the other stuff. If we shy away from suffering too much we can lose out. It’s in this sense that Paul said

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

It’s not that beating up on his body made him more spiritual; it’s that being disciplined means being willing to suffer for the sake of a more important goal.

Because of that it is sometimes practically helpful to resign ourselves to suffering. Once we expect it as a matter of course, we can have the will-power to keep pushing through it. I think that’s what this verse means:

Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1-2).

Often we need to suffer for others. Love usually involves sacrifice of some kind. The point of the sacrifice, though, is that it will actually help someone in some way. It usually doesn’t make my love any purer to hurt myself just for the sake of proving how much I am willing to lose.

This verse is interesting:

Then David said to Ornan, “Give me the site of this threshing floor, that I may build on it an altar to the LORD; for the full price you shall give it to me, that the plague may be restrained from the people.” Ornan said to David, “Take it for yourself; and let my lord the king do what is good in his sight. See, I will give the oxen for burnt offerings and the threshing sledges for wood and the wheat for the grain offering; I will give it all.” But King David said to Ornan, “No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the LORD, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing.” (1 Chronicles 21:22-24)

In this story, David is offering a sacrifice to express his repentance to God for having sinned. It would be evading responsibility for him to shift the burden of that sacrifice to someone else. So, again, first of all, the cost isn’t really the point; it just follows logically that if you give a gift to God, it costs you.

But it may be that in this case David is saying something more than that. He may be saying that the very cost of it is the point somehow. He may be saying that a sacrifice that hurts is worth more. If so, I think we should understand it as saying that offering something of value to him was a better expression of his desire to give to God than offering something worthless would have been. Perhaps there are times when we give someone something to show we love them, and we choose to give something that costs us because it communicates how deeply serious we are in our love.

In the case of fasting, I don’t think that suffering is the point. I do think suffering is linked to it, though.

  • First, I think fasting is often an expression of distress. Thus people often fasted when they were already suffering. (In fact, when people are suffering enough, they lose their appetite anyway.)
  • Second, in many cases in Scripture, fasting was an expression of deep repentance. It is associated with sackcloth and ashes. People are setting aside their sense of entitlement to luxury and comfort to say, “we recognize we have sinned and no longer claim happiness as our right”. The point is, though, that people who fasted weren’t seriously planning on starving to death, nor were they throwing away all their clothes when they put on sackcloth. These things weren’t suffering, exactly, they were symbols. That’s why the Scripture connects fasting not with suffering but with humiliation. In repentance, fasting was a sign of having lowered one’s pride,of having renounced one’s self-centered demandingness.
  • Third, there are other verses about fasting as an ongoing discipline (once a week, say). As a matter of practical fact, when fasting has become a discipline, it just won’t feel humiliating or painful every time. It will become a matter of course. If fasting was all about the suffering, that would remove the point of the fasting. But if fasting is a symbol, then it doesn’t have to hurt. It just has to mean the right thing.

All of which, I realize, has answered my question for me. Someone tonight said that fasting is “cutting off the flesh”. But that isn’t it – rather, fasting is the expression of having already “cut off the flesh”. If we renounce the flesh in our hearts then fasting is a natural way to symbolize and affirm that choice. If we don’t, fasting doesn’t help at all. Fasting doesn’t cause renunciation of the flesh, it proceeds from it.

Comments?

Faith and weariness

I read this yesterday:

But remember the former days, when, after being enlightened, you endured a great conflict of sufferings, partly by being made a public spectacle through reproaches and tribulations, and partly by becoming sharers with those who were so treated. For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one. Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised.

“For yet in a very little while,

He who is coming will come, and will not delay.

But my righteous one shall live by faith;

And if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul. (Hebrews 10:32-39)

I was struck by the phrase “you have need of endurance”. The people addressed in this letter had once joyfully endured persecution, but now they were getting weary of believing. Their determination was flagging. The writer exhorts them to keep hanging on until the end.

One of the things I’m struggling with these days is having faith. In my daily life, I keep encountering things that overwhelm me with fear and I just give up for a day or two. God keeps pulling me back to the place where I have to make a conscious decision to trust him again and move on in joy.

The challenges to my faith are not big things, not major persecution or anything. Just things like a class that didn’t go well, or a car that broke down and will cost more than we have to fix it, or having to confront someone about their sin when it makes me very uncomfortable to do so. What God seems to ask me to do is not just follow through but do so with confidence and joy.

The interesting thing is that having faith like that – choosing to trust and stop worrying – is exhausting for me. I find myself completely worn out at the end of the day if I’ve done well. I can’t quite figure out why. My suspicion is that fear and other strong emotions are pulling hard at me at a deep, mostly subconscious level, and I’m spending all day fighting them off without quite realizing it. Because of that, having faith these days is literally hard work.

Things ought to get easier with practice. Whatever emotional resistance I’m encountering these days will eventually be trained out of my default psychological setting, and believing with joy will come more naturally. That’s what character growth often consists of.

I think it’s interesting that faith can be tiring. I haven’t heard other Christians say they’ve experienced this, but I’ll bet a lot of them have. I think the taxing nature of faith is linked in some way to several Scriptures besides the one above, such as: Luke 22:40-46 (note v 45), Romans 4:18-21, Galatians 6:9, or James 1:2-4.

The second-born in the Old Testament

Abraham had two children, Isaac and Ishmael. Ishmael was first-born, but the line of Israel came through Isaac. Then Isaac had Esau and Jacob. Esau was first-born, but gave away his birthright and the line came through Jacob. The Jacob had a whole bunch of sons, but the one God used for his purposes was Joseph, nearly the last of the twelve.

Why this emphasis on the first-born not being the important one?

I don’t think it will do to say, “There is no significance. It just happened that way historically.” Old Testament Jewish readers, at least, would have expected the pattern to mean something important to their identity as a nation chosen by God.

Does it emphasize that being the chosen people is up to God rather than man? (Compare Romans 9:11). Or that God is more concerned with a person’s heart than his position? (Compare 1 Samuel 16:7). It can’t be straightforwardly Messianic: Jesus is definitely pictured by a first-born, not a second-born, son. (John 3:16, Colossians 1:15).

Hmmm …

Any suggestions?

Submitting to authority

[I’m back! After a two-month hiatus. I apologize for my long absence!]

In a recent post in my philosophy blog, I explored the relationship of morality to the laws and traditions of the culture we live in. I suggested there that possibly “we have no moral obligation to obey either the laws or tradition, but we have a moral obligation to be willing to obey the laws and to be willing to follow tradition, which is almost (but not quite) the same thing.”

For most of my Christian life, I would have said that we do have a definite moral obligation to obey the law. I held a pretty hard-line view of the importance of submission to authority, which I was sure the Bible supported. I would have pointed to the following Scriptural ideas:

  • The original sin by Adam and Eve was rebellion against God’s authority, and in one sense rebellion is still at the root of every sin. (Genesis 3:1-7)
  • God has placed authority over us for a purpose, and if we want to trust God we must be willing to submit to that authority. (Romans 13:1-5, 1 Peter 5:5)
  • There are specific spheres of authority in our lives and we are commanded to submit to authority in each of the relevant spheres. The spheres are: family, church, work, and government. (Colossians 3:18-25, 1 Peter 2:13-3:6, Hebrews 13:17)
  • Even when an authority figure is rejecting God, we are expected to honor their authority and wait for God’s deliverance. (Example of David and Saul. For example, see 1 Samuel 24)
  • When two authorities order us to do conflicting things, we should obey the higher authority. Especially, if obeying an earthly authority would require us to disobey God, then we must obey God instead. (Acts 5:27-29, Daniel 2, Daniel 6).
  • In addition to submission, we need to be respectful and show honor to those in authority, for the sake of their position. (Acts 23:3-5)
  • God is able and willing to change the mind of those in authority over us when we need Him to. (Proverbs 21:1 and several other verses)

I still agree with most of this, but my emphasis would be very different. Two things have changed my mind.

First, my interpretation of 1 Peter 2:13 changed. Here’s 1 Peter 2:13:

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution …

A couple of verses later, it adds:

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.

I used to read these verses as saying,

“By God’s design, you are under the authority of various human institutions. Now that you belong to Christ, stop rebelling and be a submissive person.”

Now I read them in light of the truth that we are no longer citizens of this world, but citizens of the kingdom of God. We are here only as ambassadors – foreigners who live here but whose allegiance is to another land. Therefore I take them to be saying,

“You are now free from human authority, and serve God instead. However, for the sake of His reputation, and as good ambassadors, and as those under His command, continue to humor the human systems around you by submitting to human authorities. That will serve God’s purposes best.”

The practical result is the same: obey human authority. The reason is very different: obey not because you are under human authority, but because you are under God’s authority.

So we have an indirect moral obligation to obey the laws, but no direct moral obligation to do so.

Second, I’ve begun to realize that if the Bible has, say, a gazillion warnings (by command or example) about the dangers of rebellion, it must have about two gazillion warnings about the dangers of unjust authority. Just as powerful as our desire to rebel is our desire to be tyrants.

I think a Biblically balanced view of authority will be careful to emphasize the warnings given to those in authority at least as strongly as the warnings given to those under it. It will encourage a healthy suspicion that those in positions of power will tempted to abuse that power. I believe my previous way of looking at things was too naively trusting of systems of authority.

Thoughts?