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Thursday, July 28, 2022

God expects Christians to be obedient, but NOT to the Torah!

Some Christian ministers insist that Christians are NOT under any obligation to keep the Law (generally understood as referring to the Torah). Other ministers insist that Christians are obligated to observe almost all of the Torah (except those parts that outline the sacrificial system, which they admit was personified and fulfilled by Jesus Christ). Indeed, for most of the almost two thousand years that have elapsed since the Christian Church was founded, the debate has been framed by most Christian theologians as one of Law vs. Grace. There are a few of us, however, who think that framing the debate in those terms presents a false dilemma, and that such a discussion is probably NOT going to change many minds on either side. In fact, based on the Scriptural evidence, I would say that both sides have fundamentally misunderstood the Christian's obligation to the Law under the terms of the New Covenant!

In more recent times, some Biblical scholars have argued that this debate over Law vs. Grace is directly attributable to the contrary views of First Century Christians - as evidenced by both the canonical and apocryphal writings which they left behind. In fact, some of these scholars believe that Paul's teachings on the subject stand in stark contrast to those of Jesus Christ and his original apostles. Nevertheless, while I find much of this kind of interpretation and speculation to be useful (even insightful at times), as a whole, I find that the available evidence doesn't support the stark chasm between Paul and his contemporaries that some of them would have us believe existed. In short, they ignore a great deal of harmony on this subject among all of the canonical writings and do NOT provide a satisfactory explanation for why neither side openly repudiated the other (and I'm certainly aware of Paul's angry and hostile language towards the Torah Christians of his day when I make that observation).

So, what did Christ and his apostles teach about a Christian's obligation to the teachings of the Torah? The Gospel of Matthew informs us that Christ came to this earth to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17). And, generally speaking, Christ accepted and embraced the Jewish traditions contained in the Torah. Sure, he challenged a few of the teachings found among those writings in his famous "Sermon on the Mount" (see the entire fifth chapter of Matthew). Even so, we are informed that Christ accepted those writings as the standard that he would have to meet to accomplish the redemption/salvation of humankind, and we are led to believe that he did just that (Hebrews 4:15)! But why did Christ have to do this for us?

For most Christians, the answer to that question is simple: Because NO ONE had EVER been able to keep the Law perfectly! As Paul told the Romans, EVERYONE has sinned and fallen short of God's glory and perfection (Romans 3:23). And, as all good Christians know, "the wages of sin is DEATH" (Romans 6:23)! Which brings to mind another question: Why had NO ONE EVER been able to obey the Law perfectly? In fact, the evidence suggests that the Law was widely regarded by the Jews of Christ's day as a necessary but impossible burden to bear perfectly.

This makes a statement attributed to Christ in the Gospel of Matthew of particular interest to this subject. We read in Matthew 11:28 "Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” Christ was proposing a new and easier way to live for God!

We are also told that he went on to inform his Jewish disciples in Matthew 23:1 "Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. 3 So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. 4 They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden." Apparently, just like today, there were a great many religious leaders who were quite willing to impose a lot of dos and don'ts on their followers which they had no intention of imposing upon themselves!

Moreover, the anonymous author of the Epistle to the Hebrews obviously viewed Christ's work in this regard as the ultimate fulfillment of what had been the "test" commandment for God's covenant with Israel - the Sabbath rest. We read in Hebrews 4:6 "So God’s rest is there for people to enter, but those who first heard this good news failed to enter because they disobeyed God. 7 So God set another time for entering his rest, and that time is today. God announced this through David much later in the words already quoted: “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts.” 8 Now if Joshua had succeeded in giving them this rest, God would not have spoken about another day of rest still to come. 9 So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. 10 For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. 11 So let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall." Clearly, Christ envisioned a Sabbath rest for his followers!

Jesus was willing to accede to all of the demands of the Jewish religious leaders (to take those burdens upon his own shoulders), but he had something much better in mind for his own followers! After all, Jesus and his followers saw him as being the one who would not only fulfill the Law, but also as the one who would magnify it and make it honorable (Isaiah 42:21). For Jesus, this involved distilling the Law down to its essence - the principles which underpinned the whole. When asked which commandment was the most important, we read in Matthew 22:37 "Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

For Christ, LOVE was the foundation of the entire Law, and the principle that he would carry forward into the terms of the New Covenant between God and humankind through him! We read in John 15:9 “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. 10 When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! 12 This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. 13 There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. 16 You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. 17 This is my command: Love each other."

A little later, along the same lines, we read in John 13:34 "So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” But was this notion absorbed by his early followers? Judge for yourself!

In Paul's letter to the saints at Rome, we hear the echo of the words attributed to Christ in the gospel accounts of his life. We read in Romans 13:8 "Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. 9 For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law." Clearly, Paul was on the SAME wavelength as Jesus on this point!

Likewise, it is equally clear that Christ's original Jewish followers had received the same message. We read in I John 2:7 "Dear friends, I am not writing a new commandment for you; rather it is an old one you have had from the very beginning. This old commandment—to love one another—is the same message you heard before. 8 Yet it is also new. Jesus lived the truth of this commandment, and you also are living it. For the darkness is disappearing, and the true light is already shining."

Continuing in the same epistle, we read in I John 3:11 "This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and killed his brother. And why did he kill him? Because Cain had been doing what was evil, and his brother had been doing what was righteous. 13 So don’t be surprised, dear brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.14 If we love our brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. 15 Anyone who hates another brother or sister is really a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them.16 We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? 18 Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions." In other words, by showing their love for each other, Christians would be demonstrating their worthiness to be associated with the name of Christ! This love would prove that they were really Christians!

Unlike the Israelites operating under the Old Covenant, a Christian's obedience to the "Law of Love" did NOT earn him/her ANYTHING. Salvation was through Christ - period! Thus, the Christian's obedience to Christ's commandment to love was just a manifestation (or evidence) of the fact that he/she had accepted salvation through him! Paul made this plain in his letter to the saints at Rome. We read in Romans 3:19 "Obviously, the law applies to those to whom it was given, for its purpose is to keep people from having excuses, and to show that the entire world is guilty before God. 20 For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.21 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. 23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood."  

He made the exact same point in his epistle to the saints of Galatia. We read in Galatians 3:10 "But those who depend on the law to make them right with God are under his curse, for the Scriptures say, “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the commands that are written in God’s Book of the Law.” 11 So it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, “It is through faith that a righteous person has life.” 12 This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.”

Did this mean that Christians weren't obligated to obey ANY law(s)? Paul answered that question in Romans 6:1 "Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? 2 Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? 3 Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? 4 For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. 5 Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. 6 We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. 7 For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. 8 And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. 9 We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. 10 When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. 11 So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sin." Once again, a Christian's obedience to Christ's "Law of Love" demonstrated that they were in fact a Christian!

The same sentiment was repeated in the epistles of Christ's other disciples. We read in Jude 3 "Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. 4 I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. The condemnation of such people was recorded long ago, for they have denied our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ." Clearly, then the Christian is obligated to obey Christ's commandment - which, once again, distilled the Torah into its essence.

This is also consistent with what we read in the epistle that is said by many scholars to represent the antithesis to Paul's brand of Christianity. We read in James 2:14 "What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? 17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. 18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” 19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20 How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?" Here again, one's faith in salvation through Jesus Christ is demonstrated by the behavior of the one who has received that salvation.

This is also reinforced by another passage from John's first epistle. We read in I John 3:7 "Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous. 8 But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. 9 Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God. 10 So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God." Hence, the Christian's obedience to Christ's commandment to love provides the evidence that that person is operating under God's grace!

So, while Christians are not obligated to follow the terms of the Old Covenant (as was determined by the church council at Jerusalem early in the First Century - see Acts 15), they are certainly obligated to reflect the fact that they have been redeemed/saved by Jesus Christ. In Paul's letter to the saints at Rome, we read in Romans 12:1 "And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect." In other words, because of what Christ has done on our behalf, our thinking - our behavior going forward will reflect the righteousness he has wrought in us! This is what God expects of all true Christians! 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Your Resurrection Doesn't Depend on Some Physical Remnant of You - It Depends on God's Memory of You!

How does a resurrection of the dead work? For many people, an image of someone emerging from a grave or the depths of the ocean comes to mind. For others, they imagine something akin to Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones - with bones coming back together and God covering them with muscles and skin, and then reanimating the reassembled corpse. Does that make sense? Is that what the Bible reveals about the resurrection of the dead? Is that why some people think that the notion of a resurrection is absurd?

Paul famously wrote the saints of Corinth that God will give us a new body in the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:37-38). Continuing his train of thought, he added: "What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever." (Verse 50) But how can God put YOU into a new body?

Herbert Armstrong taught that it was a spirit in humans that made the resurrection possible. He focused on this verse in the book of Ecclesiastes: "For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." (12:7) He put this together with a passage from Job: "But there is a spirit within people, the breath of the Almighty within them, that makes them intelligent." (32:8) Armstrong reasoned that this spirit was like a recording of everything that makes each and every one of us a unique individual, and that God would use this spirit to resurrect us. Was he right? Will God use a "ruah" (breath or spirit) to resurrect us?

Now, according to the book of Genesis, God did tell the first man: "By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return." (3:19) We also read in the book of Ecclesiastes that "The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime—loving, hating, envying—is all long gone." (9:5-6) In the book of Job, we read: "“But when people die, their strength is gone. They breathe their last, and then where are they? As water evaporates from a lake and a river disappears in drought, people are laid to rest and do not rise again. Until the heavens are no more, they will not wake up nor be roused from their sleep." (14:10-12) Hence, if we really are "like that dog Rover - when we die, we die all over," how does God retrieve the stuff that makes you and me who we are after our physical remains have completely disappeared?

David and Jesus provided a few clues about how this might work. In the one hundred and thirty-ninth Psalm, we read: "O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord." (Verses 1-4) In other words, David believed that God was aware of everything that made David - David! In similar fashion, we read in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus Christ once said: "What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows." (10:29-31) In other words, God is aware of everything that happens in the world and even knows the exact number of hairs on each one of our heads.

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that God knows the most minute details of the things that make up each and every one of us, and that God has total recall! In other words, we are kept safe for the resurrection in the mind of God - in God's memory. That kind of mind power is incomprehensible to us, but I think it makes the notion of a resurrection very plausible/understandable. What do you think?

Monday, July 4, 2022

God Bless America?

I was watching the traditional Fourth of July parade this morning in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with my family; but the pride and joy that usually accompany this event for me were replaced with a vague sense of unease and anxiety. I have always been a very patriotic person - a "real live nephew of my Uncle Sam" and a "Yankee Doodle Dandy." I served honorably in the United States Army and was a loyal member of the Republican Party for many years. I have always proudly stood there beside my countrymen with my hand over my heart for the playing of the National Anthem and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but I find that those patriotic rituals have lost much of their former magic in recent years.

I caught myself scanning the faces in the crowd this morning for their reactions to the political floats, a right-to-life group, and a couple of veterans groups; and those reactions ranged from silent anger to expressions of rapturous joy. In other words, the reality of America's divisions was inescapable - two groups of people with almost NOTHING in common! As my grandchildren danced in the street and collected the candy which was being tossed along the sides of the street from the floats and marchers, I also caught myself glancing nervously down the street several times to make sure that a rogue car on gunman wasn't barreling toward them with malice in his/her heart. I thought too about the stark contrast between the very hot weather we've experienced over the last several weeks, and the cool and cloudy morning we were experiencing for this parade. "What kind of nation and world will my grandchildren inherit?" I wondered.

In that moment, it seemed to me like all of the forward momentum of the past had been halted. It felt like anti-democratic and authoritarian impulses were threatening to sweep away everything that I have known of America in my lifetime. Even so, I could not help but be struck by the irony of the fact that many of the folks behind those authoritarian and anti-democratic impulses are motivated by similar feelings of unease. They feel threatened by the folks who would like to see America continue to become more diverse, freer, and more committed to measures to address climate change. For them, the problem isn't that America has too many guns - they don't think that we can ever have enough of them! And, just like that, it hit me again - this wide, unbridgeable chasm that exists between these two visions of America! How can these two views ever be reconciled? How can America ever regain its equilibrium and rediscover the compromise which made it great? How can such dissonance and discord ever be cured? Must one side eventually triumph over the other? If so, what will the United States become when that happens?

I still believe that the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were Divinely inspired, but I am struck by how very different my understanding of what that means is from that of some of my Fundamentalist and right-wing brethren. For me, inspiration does not equal perfection! It implies a joint venture between God and humans, and the human part is NEVER perfect. Yes, those men and women of the era of our Revolutionary War were inspired by the philosophies that grew out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but that doesn't mean they weren't also subject to the influences of Greek and Roman thought! Yes, they were inspired to say that all men were created equal and had been granted certain unalienable rights by their Creator, but they were also slaveholders and only counted three-fifths of their African brethren for purposes of representation and didn't allow them to vote to elect those representatives! And how does one find common ground with someone who believes that God ordained that White Europeans were justified in wrenching this land away from Native Americans? How does one find common ground with someone who believes that Donald Trump actually won the last election for President of the United States?

Yeah, I'm just not feeling it this Fourth of July. I wish that I could still summon that warm and fuzzy feeling, but I can't! I don't feel anything but extreme anxiety and trepidation for the future of my country. And these feelings have caused me to reevaluate the basis for my past patriotism and forced me to reexamine my priorities. For the last four or five years, I've been asking myself questions like: Is God your first priority? Does your citizenship in God's Kingdom truly take precedence over your status as a citizen of the United States? Are you really looking for another country, another city - whose architect and builder is God? Do you really mean it when you pray "Thy Kingdom come"? Are you a Christian, Democrat, Republican, Capitalist, Socialist, Nationalist, or Globalist? Can one truly be one of God's people and be such an integral part of ANY nation on the face of this earth? For me, I've decided that THIS ISN'T IT! IT'S NEVER GOING TO BE IT! There is no way to make this mess work. There is no way to make it better. For me, on this Fourth of July, I find myself praying with renewed vigor THY KINGDOM COME! What about you?