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Archive for February, 2010

Knowing God: God Only Wise

Wisdom can be a slippery word to define these days.  I suspect that most Americans would equate wisdom with intelligence or sagacity.  More practically, wisdom might be defined as the ability to make “good” choices.  Most of the time when I say that I made a “wise” choice, this is all I really mean:  It was a good one, viz., it brought about the results I sought.

Along this line of thinking, wisdom is more or less morally neutral.  What constitutes “wise” or “unwise” is largely subjective.  I could say that I was wise in lying to the police officer about my expired registration, because it spared me the displeasure of a ticket.  Biblically speaking, however, I’d be wrong.  Packer corrects this perception of wisdom in the 9th chapter of Knowing God, defining wisdom as “the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means for attaining it.”  It is “the practical side of moral goodness” (p.90).  Biblical wisdom, Packer notes, is not morally neutral.

God’s wisdom, unlike ours, is perfect, and not limited by a lack of foresight, intelligence, or moral goodness.  His choices are always the best means of realizing his perfect will.  Packer is quick to point out what the ultimate aim of this perfect will is.  This is a crucial point, given our tendency to think that any act of God which brings about personal unhappiness or discomfort is not good (i.e., unwise).  God’s ultimate aim is his glory (p.92):

[God’s] ultimate objective is to bring [humankind] to a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love – people rejoicing in the saving love God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing the responsive love of people, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel.  This will be God’s glory, and our glory to, in every sense which that weighty word can bear.

Packer lets the Bible illustrate God’s wisdom in action, through a few brief surveys of the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.  This is Packer’s springboard to the important point that our own lives can take odd twists and turns, including hardships, that God is working towards his very good ends.  Writes Packer, “We may be frankly bewildered at things that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs” (p.98).

I once heard Tim Keller remark that our own “books” have not been written yet.  In the case of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, we can look back at the story of their lives and see how God worked his great plans through them.  But when Joseph was locked up in Egypt, he didn’t have that perspective.  Nor do we, as we face trials and odd turns of circumstance.  What we do have, is the blessed assurance of God’s perfect wisdom.  Our grief, confusion, or pain, then, can always be framed with trust.  We may not know what the reasons are, but we do know what they are not:  Our suffering is not because God doesn’t care, because he’s made a mistake, because he’s forgotten, overlooked, or miscalculated.  God is perfectly wise, and therefore perfectly trustworthy through any circumstance.

As much as I’d love to close this post on the note above, I can never escape the fact that great theological propositions are often cold-comfort when we’re smack in the middle of a trial.  Most of us have had the experience of a well-meaning friend reciting Rom.8:28 to us when we’re in such a place, and most of us have had to nod politely (at best).  Belief in God’s wisdom doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, nor (I would argue) is it meant to.  What it does do is give us hope.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Without it, all suffering and confusion is ultimately unbearable.  We may hurt and weep, but we needn’t despair.  A bright future awaits all of God’s children, and we can count on it.

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To Err Is Human… or Is It?

It’s an agreed upon assumption by pretty much every person alive that no human is perfect.  Even the non-religious have some view of sin, not just that people make mistakes (like providing an incorrect answer on a math test) but that they make moral errors as well (I realize this could lead into a number of debates, but for the sake of brevity I’ll pass them by).  In Christian theology, this belief is in many ways central to our understanding of who we are (anthropology) and how we relate to God (sinners in need of forgiveness). 

Along with this belief, I’ve heard expressed many times that “if we were perfect (morally speaking), we’d be God.”  The correct assumption behind this sentiment is that God alone is perfect.  What makes humans not-God is that they are sinful.  Christian orthodoxy has always held that people are inherently sinful, even if there is not always perfect agreement on the particulars (or, more specifically, how God overcomes that sinful nature in His saving grace is seen slightly differently between Calvinists and Arminians).  All this to say, in the minds of many, what makes us human is that we, unlike God, sin.

But is this really what makes us human?  Are we ultimately defined by our sin that separates us from God?  I tread lightly here for fear that I’ll end up sounding heretical, so hear me out before you travel to Boston with a load of stones in your trunk.  I firmly believe in the inherent sinfulness of all people, and we are desperately in need of God’s grace.  But let me ask a couple questions to demonstrate where I’m going with this:

Were Adam and Eve human before the Fall?

Will we cease to be human in the New Heavens & New Earth, when sin shall no longer exist?

I think the answer to the questions are ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ respectively.  In other words, humans were human before the first sin, and will continue to be human after sin is long gone.  I’m not disagreeing that all people sin; it’s a fact of living between the Fall and the Consummation of the Kingdom.  What I’m saying is that sin is not the primary thing that makes us distinct from God.  If it were, then I’d have to wonder if we believe we will become God when our bodies are raised, creation is restored and all evil and sin are abolished.  I doubt any of us will go that far.

My point is this: to be created is human.  What separates us, and everything else, from God is that He is Creator and we are creatures.  Humans have always been created beings and will always exist as created beings. 

Let me go one step further.  If human beings are defined primarily as created beings, then what separates us from the rest of creation?  The answer is found in the very first chapter of the Bible: “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27).  What makes us human, and not some other creature, is the we alone were created in the image of God.  The Fall may have tarnished that image, but it does not remove it entirely.  When sin is completely eradicated, and “death itself turned backwards” (to borrow from C S Lewis), we will not cease to be human, but conformed to the image of Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God.

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Solomon’s Sinful Splendor

Solomon is one of the more intriguing characters of the Bible.  He was amazingly gifted and blessed by God, yet singlehandedly helped destroy the very nation he was appointed to rule (even if it didn’t fall apart until after his death).  After a rise to the thrown that Michael Corleone would be proud of (if I didn’t know any better, I’d say Mario Puzo wrote the ending to The Godfather after doing his daily devotions in 1 Kings 1-2), he asks for and is granted wisdom by God Himself, along with the promise of wealth, honor and a long life (1 Kings 3:13-14).

Because of God’s promise to Solomon, many of us might read through the accounts of his accumulation of wealth in 1 Kings 9-10 and assume this is simply a fulfillment of what God had promised him.  We might be forgiven in assuming that Solomon’s problems didn’t really start until chapter 11, with his marriage to multiple foreign women and subsequent worship of their gods.  This is, of course, one possible way to read these chapters.  But if we were more familiar with the Lord’s commands to the king back in Deuteronomy, we might not speak so highly of Solomon’s splendor.

In Deuteronomy 17:14-20, God details some of what Israel’s kings are supposed to do.  This passage ends with a command for the king to copy the law down by hand and “read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God.”  So, Solomon should have been well aware of the commands that precede this one.

One obvious command, previously mentioned, that Solomon broke is this one: “He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray.”  1 Kings 11 is pretty clear that Solomon was guilty of this one.  But there are two other commands that Solomon did not follow: 

  • “The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the LORD has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.'”
  • “He must not accumulate large amounts of silver or gold.”

Did Solomon acquire a great number of horses?  “He built up… all his store cities and the towns for his chariots and for his horses” (1 Kings 9:18-19).  “Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift… horses and mules” (1 Kings 10:25).  “Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue… They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty” (1 Kings 10:28-29).  This last reference may also indicate that Solomon disobeyed God’s command about sending his servents to get horses from Egypt, though it doesn’t explicitly state his servants actually traveled there to import them (but I’d still think this is most likely).

Did he accumulate large amounts of silver or gold?  It’d be too much to write out all the verses that indicate that he did in these chapters; it’s fair to say that Solomon managed to form quite a treasury in his time.  Again, I realize that the Lord promised him a wealthy kingdom, but given God’s commands to the king in Deuteronomy 17 and the eventual fall of Solomon, I think it’s hard not see where Solomon had crossed the line into sinful desire for wealth.

Was Solomon “all bad?”  (Are there gradations of evil?)  Of course not.  In many ways, he was a wise king.  He built the Temple, gave Israel peace, wrote thousands of proverbs and songs and dove into the exciting world of botany and zoology.  And yes, the prosperity of the kingdom was a gift from God.  But is it possible that he took a gift from God, and exploited it to his own advantage?  It seems to me that reading 1 Kings 9-11 through the lens of Deuteronomy 17:14-20 would indicate that this is the case.  In the end, he proved not to be wise in the most important matters.  The Lord warned him in 1 Kings 9:3-9 that the kingdom could be taken away and the Temple destroyed.  It was Solomon who made the destructive choices which helped lead to the downfall of all he saw built in his lifetime.  Thus, when all is said and done, Solomon is not as wise as we might think.

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Considering Lazarus

During a recent discussion in our church’s training school, I commented that in all of Jesus’ parables, he never once names any of his characters.  The people are always generic:  son, servant, master, builder, Samaritan, etc.  I was quickly corrected, however, and reminded that there is one parable wherein Jesus names some of his players.  The parable is found in Lk. 16:19ff, and is commonly called “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  You can read the full text here.

Why is Lazarus named in this parable?  Tim Keller makes the claim that Lazarus’ name is significant in that it makes the contrast between Lazarus and the rich man all the more stark:  the rich man, who by earthly standards is ‘somebody,’  has no name in the parable, whereas Lazarus, a poor man (‘nobody’), has a name.  Even more, Lazarus means “God is my help.”  Perhaps this suggests, however subtly, that the rich man is one who trusts in earthly status (i.e., wealth) for help.  Jesus is speaking among Pharisees, after all (c.f., 15:2, 16:14), whom Luke reminds us are lovers of money (16:14).  We should also note that Biblical names very often speak to the character and identity of the individual.  The poor man’s character and identity are wrapped up in God, whereas the rich man has no character or identity outside of his wealth.

Jesus’ parable ends with the Rich man’s plea to Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead so he may warn his brothers of their impending judgment.  Abraham’s reply is that “If [your brothers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if somebody rises from the dead” (16:31).  I had always taken this verse to be foreshadowing Jesus’ own death and resurrection.  Says Jesus,  “You Pharisees are so hard of heart that even if I rise from the dead, you won’t believe me.”  Fast forward to Acts 4, and you can almost hear Jesus saying, “See?”

But perhaps v.31 is referring to the actual  Lazarus whom Jesus did raise from the dead (Jn. 11:38-44).  Note again the response of the Pharisees:  Not only do they want to kill Jesus (11:47-53), but they want Lazarus dead, too (12:10).  The resurrection of Lazarus is certainly a hinge point in John’s gospel, not unlike Peter’s confession in is a hinge point in Mark (Mk. 8:27-30).  Both are centerpieces in their respective gospels, and mark the beginning of Christ’s road to the Cross.

Because of the importance of Lazarus’ resurrection in John’s gospel, some have wondered why the synoptic accounts (Matthew, Mark and Luke) do not include it.  It has been speculated that one of the reasons why the synoptics do not mention Lazarus is precisely because of Jn. 12:10, i.e., Lazarus is a marked man.  Since the synoptics could have circulated when Lazarus was still alive, the writers engaged in a “witness protection program” of sorts.  John, which is widely believed to have been written later than the synoptics, retells the story because by then Lazarus is dead.

The conservative exegete in me wants to limit the importance of Lazarus’ naming in the parable to a literary device created to contrast his character with that of the rich man.  This stays closest to Luke’s text and immediate context.  I am more cautious about taking v.31 to refer to the real Lazarus simply because it requires some speculation, however well-informed.  We could also play the “both/and” card here, and make the claim that v.31 refers to Lazarus and Jesus.  Thankfully, the referrant of v.31 brings little to bear on the point(s) of the parable itself, so I’m ultimately content to let it rest there, and perhaps add it to my list of questions to ask the Lord when I meet Him face to face, or at least to the list of reasons why I need a good commentary on Luke.

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Special thanks to Connie of Crossway for a review copy of this book.

Trevin Wax is a popular blogger over at Kingdom People, and a pastor in Tennessee.  While 99% of bloggers out there should never write a book, I was excited about this one since I’ve found his blog insightful and challenging.  I appreciate his ability to step back and examine a situation, not without bias but not allowing his biases to rule everything.  This ability serves him well in his first book, Holy Subversion.

Holy Subversion is appropriately subtitled, “Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals.”  In this book, Wax tackles modern day “Caesars” in our (Western, specifically American) society.  Throughout the book he refers to his 5 years in Romania, which gave him an opportunity to examine American culture from afar (he refers to this in an interview here).  By stepping back and looking at America, and more importantly, the American church, he saw 6 “Caesars” that plague the church and stood as a rival to the honor due Christ.

In his introduction he helpfully overviews how “Jesus is Lord” was a radical and subversive statement in the New Testament times.  After all, Caesar was lord, the one to whom all people were to bow and profess loyalty.  The earliest Christians stood against this and, thus, were deeply offensive to their neighbors, for whom allegiance to Caesar was an unquestioned part of their worldview.  Caesar no longer exists in our culture but, as Wax notes, the “powers and principalities” that stood behind Caesar still do exist in a more subtle form.  Those subtle Caesars, so ingrained to our worldview that we may easily overlook them, are given a place in our lives reserved only for the King of Kings.

I can appreciate Wax’s use of “Caesars” rather than “idols.”  The reason is simply this: an idol is never good, Caesar can be good.  There is never a good reason to own an image of another god (or the one true God, for that matter).  But a Caesar is, at least theoretically, a good thing.  Someone has to rule.  Romans 13 tells us that the Roman Emperor (Caesar) was given power by God himself.  It is what Caesar does with that power that may make him evil (and did, in the case of the actual Roman Caesars).  When Caesar claims for himself, or more crucially for this book, is ascribed by those who serve him the authority that belongs to Jesus alone, he must be subverted.   In the same way, sex, leisure, money, etc., are not inherently idols.  They do not always serve an evil purpose.  They are Caesars, gifts from God whose original purposes have been abused and distorted.  They have been given the honor due to Christ and must be subverted by those who claim allegiance to him.

The 6 “Caesars” that Wax tackles are: Self, Success, Money, Leisure, Sex and Power.  Not all of these will hit each reader with equal force, but if you feel no conviction at any point you’re either perfect or obtuse.  But not only does Wax diagnose the problem, he offers suggestions to cure our ailment.  It should be pointed out that Wax is using the term “subvert” not in the sense of overthrowing, but putting in its proper place.  Thus, being a failure is not the solution to the Caesar of Success, but having a proper understanding of the nature and purpose of success.

One major reason I like Wax’s book so much is that he avoids easy reductionism.  There are some who hear the cry “Christ, not Caesar, is King” and they merely politicize it.  “Tell Caesar Obama (or Caesar Bush, or Caesar Whoever) that we aren’t going to stand for his claims to power any more!”,  as if they can co-opt biblical truth to serve their political interests, and rarely look at their own lives to see if Jesus is truly King.

But Wax doesn’t reduce “Christ vs Caesar” to “what’s the Caesar in your life?” either.  This book isn’t simply a call for Christians to look inward (although there is that), as if spending less time watching TV or playing World of Warcraft will make Jesus Lord.  Holy Subversion asks us, the community of Christ, not just the individuals, to consider our entire worldview and challenge those aspects of our culture than attempt to claim Christ’s authority.

Wax’s goal is to reclaim “the subversive nature of Christian discipleship.”  By stepping back to look at our culture, he helpfully reveals the subtly of these Caesars (e.g., “The Caesar of Power is most seductive when it appeals to our good instincts”) and calls us to “subversive evangelism” (in his excellent last chapter).  At a short, but power packed 150 pages, Holy Subversion will benefit all who read and hear its message.

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