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Martin Luther: What does it mean to have a god?

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People talking today about the 10 commandments often loosely quote* the reformer Martin Luther saying, breaking any of the commandments is always a result of breaking the first – i.e. idolatry – or trusting in and worshiping someone or something other than the personal God who gave Israel the 10 commandments.

Background to the 10 Commandments

The first time the 10 commandments appear in the Bible is when God gave them to Moses. Israel had just dramatically escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The introduction to the first commandment mentions this, even though it is often left out.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” – Exodus 20:2

The 10 commandments are not a list of morals foisted on children or society so they can become blessed by God in some way. God gave them to Israel AFTER he rescued them. The laws govern the relationship and identity of Israel AFTER their escape from slavery. You could say, first God rescues/saves someone, THEN he calls them to follow him as a student (the bible word used is “disciple’).

If you say breaking the 10 commandments is the reason someone is immoral or going to hell, or that keeping them gets you into heaven, you are getting things back to front in more ways than one.

Luther’s Comments on the First Commandment

Luther mentions a few things to unpack his idea that breaking any of the commandments is a result of breaking the first.

“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress … upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.”

In other words, Israel fled from the suffering of national slavery and exile because they wanted to freely enjoy and celebrate being identified with the God of their ancestors.

Luther goes on to explain how this idea of “god” works where we look for enjoyment, freedom and identity.

“… one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one.

… He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.

… whoever trusts and boasts that he possesses great skill, prudence, power, favor friendship, and honor has also a god, …

… the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts.”

What does it mean to have a god?

According to Luther, it means the same thing for ancient Israel as it does now. What do you think gives you the freedom to enjoy and celebrate something?

Unless your “god” demands that you exclude everyone from your experience, you will probably influence others to share in the same experience. Maybe you do it via posting pictures of your version of happiness – family, beautiful scenery, favourite food, the ideal job.

Maybe you do it by telling everyone about your mad weekend at the club/resort/shopping centre/casino/stadium. Or if you’re a bit keen, maybe you do it by “sharing the good news” in some other way.

Luther said to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts. That defines how you understand things like safety, significance and success.

God is not known today by obeying 10 commandments. God is known in the historical person of Jesus. One of Jesus’ first followers connected that with the first commandment:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
~ 1 John 5:20-21

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* The origin of the loose quote is derived from Luther’s booklet, “A Treatise on Good Works” and his commentary on the Large Catechism. Both of these are available in public domain via the Project Wittenberg website.

 

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Leviticus your neighbour

No, it’s not a naughty word, nor is it the title of a film about the life of Nelson Mandela😉

It’s the 3rd book of the Bible. It’s one of the bits with all the gory sacrifices and (seemingly!) obsolete laws and rituals.

This time of year, many Christians make resolutions and plans to read through the Bible in the coming year. It’s a commendable goal and regular bible reading (& study, in context, history and genre etc) is part of the life of anyone who is serious about knowing, believing in, trusting and living for God. However in an average reading plan, of a few chapters a day (8-15min) many people come unstuck somewhere around the end of January.

Why? Well there are many reasons; lack of discipline, lack of encouragement, overwhelmed by the task, or as is often the case… they hit the book of Leviticus and balk. The stories in the 1st book, Genesis give the background to all those Sunday School lessons with which many are familiar. Tales of Egypt and the amazing crossing of the Red Sea in the 2nd book, Exodus is an easy read, because, after all, most of us have seen the movie and we know the story. Right?

But the 3rd book… What on earth has blood, guts, and weird definitions of cleanliness got to do with the ‘golden rule’ and loving my neighbour and all that stuff Jesus spoke about? Curiously, the first time that is taught in the Bible is, in that same 3rd book, Leviticus 19:18, which says,

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD. (NIV)

Leviticus told the people of ancient Israel what it meant to be God’s people and how that showed up in their day-to-day life. All that blood mentioned, acted as a divider and separator. It represented a distinction in what required special care (through isolation and an ancient version of immunisation and quarantine) and what was a common everyday experience.

I have spent many occasions teaching through this 3rd book, Leviticus. I still haven’t done so to the extent that I covered off everything – especially some of the saucy parts that cause lots of arguments😉 Nevertheless it’s a book that I keep coming back to as a key part of grasping the religion of Israel and how their worship was understood and practiced. It also has some integral connections to Biblical ethics and a lot of things Jesus taught. If you’re embarking on a yearly Bible reading program, I encourage you to have another go at reading the book of Leviticus. There’s only 27 chapters, read 3 a day and you’ll knock it over in 9 days. Give it a shot.

If you’re still thinking or wondering about a plan to read through the rest the of the Bible, here’s a page with some links that might help out.

Bible Gateway Reading Plans

 
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Posted by on 04/01/2016 in Bible, Jesus, Reading, worship

 

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Not all intentions are equal

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Constantly maligned, often verbally abused, bashed, beaten, left for dead, sold into forced slavery, framed and falsely accused by an employer, forgotten and taken advantage of by peers, … but then … in what would today make a regular (and predictable) plot line of a book or movie about the rise of the underdog, he arises, proves himself, gets promoted to prime minister and quite literally saves several nations. At the height of his success and newly received power he has the chance to face his childhood abusers and tormentors. Justice, as most would understand it, is at hand. But Joseph decides to turn away from the expectations of others. He does not allow his past to define and control him now or dictate his future. He will not be restricted by the expectations of others, especially the bullies.

The Joseph story has a strong emotional appeal. Those facing physical abuse, psychological manipulation, trauma, financial loss, unwarranted ill-deserved threats and intimidation find an alternate and uplifting perspective in Joseph’s words when he has the opportunity to confront his bullies.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” Genesis 50.20

The trap that snares modern applications of Joseph’s words is when God’s intentions are superficially equated with an abuser and tormentor. To say God “intends” someone to be abused to carry out his purpose maligns his character while simultaneously elevating the character of the bully.

A full parallel to Joseph, (as the saviour & redeemer of nations) is arrogant. The underlying principle is to respond in kind. The nature of torment and harassment is to dominate, manipulate and control through a façade of power (physical, financial, social). Those without self-respect, (like substance addicts who seek gratification in getting a fix by any means available), derive their own value through the debasement of others. Any, they can find.

Joseph’s brothers attacked and left him for dead (and later sold into slavery) to elevate themselves in the esteem of their father. They saw Joseph as a threat to their financial security and their control over their father’s wealth. The motivation is one of the oldest and most common: Bullying to gain/keep power for pleasure. Bullies, whether they profess to be Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Secularist, Communist, all have the same thing in common: a deviance that derives pleasure from inflicting suffering on those they can (try!) to dominate and control.

Joseph’s conclusion is not a trite escapist cliché. The mistreatment of those with depraved motives does not define him. It clearly took incredible strength of will, but Joseph chose not to surrender to his brother’s agenda. He suffered. It cost him immensely: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, socially, financially and geographically. But whether he was to live or die, it would not be on their terms.

Many who defy the agenda of abuse, torment, harassment, bullying and intimidation don’t experience the same subsequent prosperity as Joseph. Their resilience will erode the bully’s agenda, pleasure and power. But Joseph is not defining himself by their downfall anymore than he is allowing their torment to control his outlook and purpose. He decides not to play by their rules. He doesn’t play their game at all. The pay off in Joseph’s case was a reward from Pharaoh – a temporal King of kings. A pay off today comes when I realise that the bully isn’t my King and doesn’t have the last say in my value, purpose and destiny.

I realise, all too painfully, after having relocated, 6 months ago, away from a source of deviance and loss, that this is too easy to say and much harder to live out. It takes courage and, well, old-fashioned intestinal fortitude (i.e. guts!). Maybe things will “turn out for the better”. Regardless, the flaccid façade of the bully will be deflated and another King reigns, upright and more properly, in their place.

 
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Posted by on 27/10/2015 in Bible, church, discipleship

 

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Forgiving the untrustworthy or trusting the unforgiving

the secretary

One of recurring themes of the Older Testament or first part of the bible (written before the time of Jesus) is found in the way the writers and speakers referred to Moses’ character creed of God found in the book of Exodus 34:6-7.

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Both supporters and opponents to the Bible have said much about what this means and implies about the character of the God of the Bible. One thing both will agree upon is that this is a particular reference to the unfolding story of the nation of Israel. As Israel’s story develops, forgiveness is one of the major features displayed by God towards the people he rescued from slavery in Egypt. Also, as a people group or nation, they were held to a higher standard of accountability as the ones who represent God.

When Jesus arrived on the scene, he taught how this applies to all people who follow God. If they represent him, they will experience his forgiveness, but will also have to live by a standard of justice and fairness. A standard, when they become mature enough, they will be expected to apply to each other. If you are going to be a God follower and enjoy the benefits of forgiveness, then you need to lead the way in integrity and honesty.

Jesus is quoted as recommending his people be indiscriminate in their forgiveness towards each other. He is also quoted providing a summary of how to be fair in addressing and dealing with each other’s failures and indiscretions. (mentioned in the last two posts.) Both of the quotes are simple and brief. They aren’t meant to be exhaustive processes but provide overarching principles.

Integrity requires that indiscretions be dealt with openly and publicly, not ignored or handled secretively. Forgiveness does not equate to fully entrusting someone who has not proven trustworthy. But how does this framework deal with trusting people upfront, i.e. those that haven’t (yet?) knowingly wronged you? Should you trust them? Is everyone to be trusted until proven untrustworthy along the same line of innocent until proven guilty?

This is especially relevant in a Church or Christian context. Is it healthy to have a slightly cynical attitude or suspicious concern towards a Christian leader until you get to know them better? For many people who have been hurt and betrayed by ruthless, dishonest leaders slight cynicism becomes overriding bitterness and hatred. This kind of distrust is found in other areas of life as well, for instance the endemic hatred of politicians or disrespect for police. Trying to come up with some superficial version of a solution only entrenches people in their bitterness and pain and makes others vulnerable to being exploited by the next corrupt leader. But there might be an indicator that can warn you off and help you avoid a dangerous situation.

This is found in a quote from Peter, one of Jesus’ followers. When describing trustworthy leaders who represent Jesus, Peter mentions they are “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock”. He goes on to mention “God opposes the proud.” There’s the warning sign. If you encounter a leader who thinks he’s above everyone else, then, as I’ve said before, “Get out of dodge!

In an interview to become pastor of a church, the leader (or secretary) of the group said to me, “My name is *Barry, I’ve been a Christian longer than you’ve been alive. What are you going to teach me?
At the time, I was a little nervous about the interview, but it did cause some alarm bells to start ringing. I should have run away from that job as fast and far as I could!

Sometime later, when, as the Pastor of that Church, I was explaining why I had ‘told the church‘ about the sinful actions of an ex-member who had been harassing and threatening my family, that same leader shouted, “You should have asked me first. I am the secretary and I am more responsible for the welfare of this church than you or any other pastor.

The alarm bells were screaming! But it was too late. This leader was being the opposite of what Peter was describing. In his mind, he, not God, was the most important person. He epitomized the reason that many people continue to leave Churches with hurt, hate and distrust of proud, arrogant and dishonest leaders.

He displayed the opposite kind of character Moses recorded in Exodus. He was a roaring lion seeking to devour anyone who stood in his way. So while I may forgive him, I certainly cannot and will not trust him. His behaviour and actions do not represent God and I do not need to allow him to affect my view of God’s character. I can take the anxiety he caused through his actions and commit that to God, who will not hold him guiltless for his injustice. The lion will become impotent.

wetsecretary*not his real name

 
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Posted by on 30/08/2015 in Bible, church, leadership

 

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The truth about trust

Trust_No_One_tagline

The 1994 Season One finale of X-Files featured the tag line “Trust No One“. It was a warning of the inevitable deceit and betrayal awaiting anyone gullible enough to buy into cover ups perpetuated by authorities about the real causes of unusual and paranormal activities investigated by the show’s characters each week.

As a meme it represents cynicism that eschews personal transparency and vulnerability. It often covers the frustration and pain suffered by those who have experienced betrayal, deceit and abuse first-hand.

A contrasting response promoted by some says that you can and should have faith in people, give them the benefit of the doubt and trust them. This is a well-intentioned attempt to avoid negativity and anti-social cynicism.

In my last post I outlined the simple starting point for an approach Christians follow when addressing one another when they sin. The approach is based on a brief quote by Jesus, mentioned in the book of Matthew, about one of the ways people of the Church represent God. The goal in that quote is forgiveness and restoration of relationships. A similar quote is found in the book of Luke, also stressing the importance of forgiveness.

Jesus said to his disciples: … “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Like the Matthew quote, this is brief and doesn’t cover every possible aspect or scenario. It doesn’t mention what consequences might apply for different types of sins. The context, in Luke, is the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. We can never put God in our debt. A humble follower of God will never consider anyone else in their debt either, whether through wrong-doing or otherwise. The Genesis story of Lamech, a descendent of Cain, comes to mind. Lamech insisted that anyone who injured him would receive seventy-seven times the vengeance. Here Jesus says, “No.” It’s no wonder the apostles with Jesus responded with a plea to increase their faith.

It is one thing to forgive. It was freely received, so ought to be freely given. It is another altogether to trust the forgiven one. Forgiving someone who has done wrong against you does not require that you trust them or freely allow yourself to be harmed by them again.

For example, if I owe a bank $5000 and I can’t afford to repay it. They may choose to forgive the debt and write it off. I will no longer owe the amount. They will not prosecute me for not paying and won’t pursue the payment. However, if I was to come back the next day and try to borrow another $5000, or even just $1000, the bank will not trust me to repay them and won’t lend me the money.

In the same way, if someone has hurt, offended, harassed, bullied, intimidated or abused you. You may, if you choose, forgive them and not seek to prosecute them or have them charged for the offense. You are not required to entrust yourself to them only to risk them repeating the offense. The Apostle Paul wrote of how he evaded capture and attacks. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can to survive and keep going forward in your life is to run away from those trying to hurt you.

This doesn’t mean you’re not forgiving. It means you’re not trusting the person or people to hurt you again. Women and children should never to be told to stay in an abusive relationship or to trust an abuser. The abuser may have said sorry. The abuser may be genuine in their remorse and regret for their action. But while forgiveness is given freely, trust is not.

How do you know if or when the person is trustworthy? Maybe you never will. But you have no reason to feel as though you have failed in some way because someone else has not yet proven trustworthy. Go back to the bank example again. In some cases after failing to meet a loan payment, you will need to wait seven years or longer and then show evidence of positive changes to your saving and payment habits before the bank will talk to you about borrowing. Someone who has “borrowed” your trust in the past and not repaid it isn’t in your debt in the same way you are to a bank. If they can’t show evidence of positive change then you have no obligation to “loan” your trust to them.

You don’t need to be as cynical as Agents Mulder and Scully, but you don’t have to believe everyone either. They are not in your debt, and you are definitely not in theirs. The truth is out there.

 
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Posted by on 26/08/2015 in Bible, church, Jesus

 

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Tell it to the church

sheepandgoatsMatthew 18:15-20 has a summary of the traditional process referred to by Christians as a method for addressing and disciplining one another when they sin. The method outlined starts with an individual, one on one approach and then as/if/when escalation occurs it moves the discussion into a more public sphere.

Generally it follows the trajectory of:
1. You see a wrong doing and approach the person privately
2. If, after private consultation, the wrong doing continues, you have another consultation, this time with witnesses
3. If, the matter continues after this, a public action takes place

It is a relatively simple approach that combines privacy, sensitivity and common sense. Many commercial managers and community conflict mediators follow a similar method. For instance a company performance management model follows this almost exactly: An employee will receive a warning, then a meeting with HR, then they are dismissed.

The stated intention is not to shame or discriminate against an individual for lack of conformity. Sadly though many managers have used the “three-strikes” approach to justify removal of unwanted employees and even sadder, many Churches have used the approach to excommunicate unsavory parishioners.

However the aim is a restoration. When restoration fails, the result is that the person is released (or dismissed!) from any organization when they, through their actions, show they no longer want to belong or be identified with their company or, in the case of the Christian, their church.

The summary given in Matthew’s gospel isn’t a detailed process and it doesn’t cover every possible aspect or scenario. The context indicates the inevitability of people straying and stumbling (vv.6-14) and the necessity that forgiving each other plays in identifying each other as co-recipients of God’s forgiveness (vv.21-35). But it doesn’t specify the exact detail, timing and process to follow in every single case.

The emphasis (of vv.18-20 in particular and the broader context of vv.6-35) centres more upon the identification and association of people with the “Father in heaven.” The conduct and association of God’s people, the Church, should reflect and represent the “Father” as though he, himself, is endorsing their actions. If something or someone is not reflecting this ethic, they are dissociating themselves with both the people of the Church and the “Father in heaven.”

For this reason there is a heavy burden for the people of the Church in how they relate to each other as representatives of God. Being harsh and unforgiving presents a view that God is spiteful, hateful and intolerant. Being indiscriminately accommodating presents a God that is unjust and lacking integrity. e.g. Consider the racism promoted in some parts of the USA that were or are sponsored by Churches or the involvement of Church organizations in the Stolen Generations of Australia’s past. Or on the other extreme, the Church choosing not to intervene in domestic violence or prosecute child abusers on the grounds of being “forgiving.”

In any of those examples, a Matthew 18 approach is insufficient. There are plenty of other Bible passages (and indeed civil laws!) that make it clear that no tolerance ought to be given to abusers. The Church ought not let Matthew 18 justify inaction when a woman or child is being hurt. (Or many other instances of “sin” that are too often excused in the name of “forgiveness.”)

The Matthew 18 passage doesn’t go into any detail or make any recommendation of how, where or when (precisely) you “tell it to the church”. The overall context of the chapter is public association, identification and reflection of the ethic of God the Father, and indicates, for the sake of transparency and integrity, the Church is told in an open forum. There may, of course, be instances, where for the sake of sensitivity towards a victim, that an announcement be handled tactfully. However, the church ought not be reluctant exposing an offender for the sake of their own corporate embarrassment.

Especially in the case of violence, abuse, harassment, intimidation and bullying where an offender has previously been warned off. Tell it to the Church and … well … if they don’t listen or act … maybe identifying with God the Father is not their priority. The church is not a kids petting zoo, get out of Dodge.

 
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Posted by on 21/08/2015 in Bible, church, Hermenutics, leadership, ministry

 

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The Revelation will not be televised

One of the quickest ways to start an argument, … er, um … lively debate, among Christians is to bring up the book of Revelation. For some reason great charity and flexibility is accommodated on a whole host of bible teachings and topics but if you step out of line with your view about this book, look out! Heretic! Liberal! Fundamentalist!

Most believe and accept that Revelation combines literary genres and most agree that apocalyptic is the major genre. But what is apocalyptic? For some Mad Max or Zombie Apocalypse come to mind and, sadly, that is usually reflected in how they teach the book. For others a more scholarly definition might be used where apocalyptic isn’t necessarily about a nuclear holocaust. It’s a story involving supernatural symbolism. Apocalyptic books (like Daniel in the Old Testament or works such as 1 Enoch and The Apocalypse of Abraham) gave a minority audience, under duress or persecution, reassurance to hang in there and anticipate vindication. The books rely heavily on symbolism and cultural allusion to get the point across. A close idea in concept today might be the way comedians use satire, innuendo and double entendre to ridicule politicians. In the West of course they aren’t subtle because they’re not going get crucified upside down or thrown into a colosseum and ripped apart by wild animals. But, in the first century, the way to get your point across that the little guy can stand up to the man, is via an apocalyptic narrative.

Revelation fits this method. It’s a story; it involves lots of cultural and religious symbolism; the recipients were facing constant danger; it uses coded satire and parody to portray oppressive authority figures who get their comeuppance. Reading it this way, instead of as a codified prediction of microchips, atomic bombs and bar code technology gave a sense to Christians in Asia Minor that the abusive intolerant Roman officials and sectarian Jews didn’t have the last say in how the world will turn out.

Today instead of parodying Rome the writer might have included media infotainment personalities and lifestyle reality show comperes. After all, these are the dominant figures that control the opinions and mood of the public. Today going against the tide of popular opinion as perceived and broadcast in mainstream media will result in ostracism, exclusion and derision. Don’t believe me? What’s your view on changing marriage laws? How about the solution to management of boat people? Now, what’s your real view compared to the one you “share” with your workmates? Well, of course they’re the same, aren’t they? You’re not a racist bigot after all, are you? Well, not so long as you stay quiet about the idols and altars of the MSM.

And behold I was seated in lounge and the TV came on and I looked into heaven and heard the introductory theproject_panel1_300fanfare and I heard the voice of the great host say, “Sit down and I will show you news, done differently, and you will know what to think about the things you have seen.” There was a panel in the centre of the vision with four great co-hosts each one beautifully styled and surrounded by a great audience. The audience clapped and cheered every time the co-hosts spoke. One of the co-hosts was a comedian who belittled the prime ministers and presidents of the world with his razor wit. Another, next to him had the face of a maiden and laughed at all the comedian’s jokes. The third was a special guest brought into the studio to be a foil for the fourth co-host. Night and day the fourth co-host asserted his dogmatic opinion. His opinion was superior to all others and no other opinions would be tolerated, not on his watch and not in his country. And the audience members all bowed to the wit and charm of the co-hosts and surrendered their will to those who sat at the news desk for the co-hosts are all-knowing and none dared disagree with them. Their words are all-powerful, just and true.*

Revelation is not about zombies with microchips in their foreheads. It’s a satirical parody of the infotainment masters of the first century. Their dominance of the ratings wars will not last and their coronation will not be televised.
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* Check out Revelation Chapter 4 to see how the original author did it.

 
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Posted by on 28/03/2014 in Bible, Culture, Hermenutics, Just for fun

 

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