Sunday, October 31, 2010

quote of the week, october 31-november 6, 2010

The book that this passage comes from is, in my opinion, a must-read for anyone who loves the combination of theological and philosophical musings interwoven through recipes and cooking instructions marked by a peculiar reverence for God and profound appreciation of His creation - and all with unparalleled wit and sarcasm:

One might have hoped that, with so gracious a creature as wine, even the most ardent religionists and secularists would have made an exception to their universal custom of missing the point of things. But alas, between teetotalism on the one hand and the habit of classifying it as an alcoholic beverage on the other, they have both lost the thread of delight.
Consider first the teetotalers. They began, no doubt, by observing that some men use wine to excess - to the point at which, though the wine remains true to itself, the drinker does not. That much, I give them: drunks are a nuisance. But they went too far. Only the ungrateful or the purblind can fail to see that sugar in the grape and yeast on the skins is a divine idea, not a human one. Man's part in the process consists of honest and prudent management of the work that God has begun. Something underhanded has to be done to grape juice to keep it from running its appointed course.
Witness the teetotaling communion service. Most Protestants, I suppose, imagine that it is part of the true Reformed religion. But have they considered that, for nineteen centuries after the institution of the Eucharist, wine was the only element available for the sacrament? Do they seriously envision St. Paul or Calvin or Luther opening bottles of Welch's Grape Juice in the sacristy before the service? Luther, at least, would turn over in his grave. The WCTU version of the Lord's Supper is a bare 100 years old. Grape juice was not commercially viable until the discovery of pasteurization; and, unless I am mistaken, it was Mr. Welch himself (an ardent total abstainer) who persuaded American Protestantism to abandon what the Lord obviously though rather kindly of.
That much damage done, however, the itch for consistency took over with a vengeance. Even the Lord's own delight was explained away. One of the most fanciful pieces of exegesis I ever read began by maintaining that the Greek word for wine, as used in the Gospels, meant many other things than wine. The commentator cited, as I recall, grape juice for one meaning, and raisin paste for another. He inclined, ultimately, toward the latter.
I suppose such people are blessed with reverent minds which prevent them from drawing irreverent conclusions. I myself, however, could never resist the temptation to read raisin paste for wine in the story of the Miracle of Cana. "When the ruler of the feast had tasted the water that was made raisin paste...he said unto the bridegroom, 'Every man at the beginning doth set forth good raisin paste, and when men have well drunk [eaten? - the text is no doubt corrupt], then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good raisin paste until now.'" Does it not whet your appetite for the critical opera omnia of such an author, where he will freely have at the length and breadth of Scripture? Can you not see his promised land flowing with peanut butter and jelly; his apocalypse, in which the great whore Babylon is given the cup of the ginger ale of the fierceness of the wrath of God?..." (Capon 2002 [1967]:89-90, emphasis original)

Capon, Rober F. (2002). The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, 2nd Ed. New York, NY: The Modern Library. (Original work published 1967)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

united by faith

"Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, "As I swore in My wrath, they shall not enter My rest," although His works were finished from the foundation of the world." (Hebrews 4:1-3)

Are we content with merely hearing the Word of God? Perhaps, to a certain degree, we should admit, if not strive for, contentment upon solely hearing His Word. For, the divine speech is always a reminder that an all-holy God initiates a loving, communicative relationship with His creation, overcoming our sinful predicament and separation from Him; He condescends to us, speaking to us according to the rules of our language, so that we might be transformed, sanctified, and endowed with an understanding of His. But, if contentment means that when we only "hear" we are there satisfied, not to be led unto transformation, then we have not truly heard. This type of hearing is not the "one thing [that] is necessary" which Mary chose (see Luke 10:38-42). For, when it comes to the living Word of God, the type of hearing that goes no further has only registered an auditory response, instead of allowing the divine speech to run its proper course and penetrate to the depths of the body, mind, and soul. As this passage in Hebrews reminds us, we have not genuinely heard the words of God until it is "united by faith" (Hebrews 4:2). This combination (hearing + faith) results in "profit," because it results in transformation, obedience in love, and a desire to be drawn into the eternal Person whose living words bring us sweet relief and entrance into rest.

In the last chapter, we saw that the writer of Hebrews unites (to some degree or other) the concept of belief with obedience, and unbelief with disobedience. So, for example, the chapter ends by conjoining the second of these pairs:

And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:18-19, emphasis added)

That is, God disallowed entrance for those who were "disobedient" (v. 18), but the inability to enter was also predicated upon their "unbelief" (v. 19). With this in mind, the author introduces a third related concept that will reappear later in this epistle as a rather significant theme, that of "faith" (4:2). And, as we might expect, possessing faith is akin to belief and obedience, while lacking faith corresponds to unbelief and disobedience.

Now, I don't want to give the false impression that each of these terms (faith, belief, obedience) and their negative counterparts (lack of faith/faithlessness, unbelief, disobedience) are purely synonymous. Still, depending upon our own unique preconceptions and contemporary understanding(s) of these, we may or may not be surprised that they must have at least some degree of overlap in their meanings, which, for the epistle to the Hebrews (and other NT books), makes their use at times interchangeable. Consider the following points derived from the example of the Israelites in the wilderness:

If we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, we are not to harden our hearts as did those in the wilderness (3:7-8)

Those who did harden their hearts went "astray in their hearts" and "did not know [God's] ways" (i.e., they disbelieved and were disobedient) (3:10)

Those who disbelieved and disobeyed aroused God's anger and did not enter His rest (3:11)

God swore that those who were "disobedient" that they would not enter His rest (3:18)

But, they were not able to enter because of "unbelief" (3:19)

And, "they failed to enter because of "disobedience" (4:6)

With their example in mind, we are to "take care" that we don't have "an unbelieving heart" that causes us to "fall away" (3:12)

Also, their example cautions us against following the same "disobedience" (4:11)

Those in the wilderness "heard" the Holy Spirit's words, but their hearing was not "united in faith" (4:2)

In contrast to the "disobedien[ce]" (3:18) and "unbelief" (3:19) among those who did not enter because "hear[ing]" was not "united with faith" (4:2), those "who have believed" do "enter" into God's rest (4:3)

Again, if I am being redundant, it is for the purpose of inculcating a simple truth: faith and belief and obedience are perhaps more intimately wed than we are accustomed to consider. It is all too easy in, for example, a systematic approach to theology (which I am not against), that we engender a tendency to construct rigid, separatist conceptual boundaries around notions whose boundaries actually overlap. This is further problematized if we are not careful with the manner in which we define concepts and terms. So, one very helpful way to define something is to say what it is not. But, if we assume lacking relationships among concepts such as "faith," "belief," and "obedience" then we may incidentally define these in a manner such as "faith, whatever it is, is not in any way belief and is not in any way obedience," or "belief, whatever it is, is not in any way obedience and it is not in any way faith." Though this can method can be initially helpful in our understanding, we can take it too far and create strong conceptual divisions that are not intended by the biblical authors themselves. One of the salient features of these passages in Hebrews, then, with regard to faith and belief and obedience (and their opposites), is that (in a biblical framework) we cannot pretend to possess one without the other if indeed we desire to actually enter into the rest that God has both promised and invited us to enter into. As I cautioned above, these are not completely synonymous, and we do have a burden to make explicit the way(s) in which they correspond to each other. But, despite this, it is clear that the writer of Hebrews wished that the primary audience (and now to us by extension) understand the relatedness of these concepts and how they factor in to our ability to enter or not enter into God's rest.

From this portion of Hebrews, there are at least two significant reasons why any Christian should see the relatedness of these concepts as important. First, we are in some sense just as susceptible to "falling away" as were the Israelites in the wilderness. For this reason, Hebrews encourages us to "fear" so that we do not in any way "come short of" the promise to enter into God's rest, which is still available through Jesus Christ. It is not sufficient to say that we have merely heard the "good news," because hearing is ineffective unless it is "united by faith" (4:2). The content of the Good News is made more explicit now that Christ has come, but the action of hearing can be done by believers and nonbelievers alike. Only those that believe have, by God's grace, united faith with hearing, which is evidence that we believe the Gospel with utter conviction of its truth - and this faith and belief leads to obedience in love. Conviction is not genuine if, when provided the opportunity, it does not lead to action. The one who hears and believes in faith evidences a holy desire to do the will of God because they are constrained by the love and strength that He provides while perpetually trusting in Him and being sustained by Him. Second, if (and only if) we "have believed" (in the biblical sense), we do enter into God's rest (4:3), even though we have a call to "be diligent to enter that rest" (4:11). For the one who believes toward obedience, whose hearing is united by faith, there is a present experience of God's rest that is not diminished, but rather completed and augmented by the future reality when we will know Him just as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12). While we must take care to understand the differences between faith, belief and obedience, we also ought to give proper priority to their relatedness, so that we can truly enter into the Sabbath rest that God has promised to those who love Him (see James 1:12; 2:5).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

quote of the week, october 24-30, 2010

This gem from Puritan writer John Owen is perhaps especially relevant, given the present focus on the Epistle to Hebrews and, moreover, given Hebrews' Christological emphases:

Lovely in his person, - in the glorious all-sufficiency of his Deity, gracious purity and holiness of his humanity, authority and majesty, love and power.
Lovely in his birth and incarnation; when he was rich, for our sakes becoming poor...
Lovely in the course of his life, and the more than angelical holiness and obedience which, in the depth of poverty and persecution, he exercised therein; - doing good, receiving evil; blessing, and being cursed, reviled, reproached, all his days.
Lovely in his death; yea, therein most lovely to sinners; - never more glorious and desirable than when he came broken, dead, from the cross. Then had he carried all our sins into a land of forgetfulness; then had he made peace and reconciliation for us...
Lovely in his whole employment, in his great undertaking, - in his life, death, resurrection, ascension; being a mediator between God and us, to recover the glory of God's justice, and to save our souls, - to bring us to an enjoyment of God...
Lovely in the glory and majesty wherewith he is crowned. Now he is set down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; where, though he be terrible to his enemies, yet he is full of mercy, love, and compassion, toward his beloved ones.
Lovely in all the tender care, power, and wisdom, which he exercises in protection, safe-guarding, and delivery of his church and people, in the midst of all the oppositions and persecutions whereunto they are exposed.
Lovely in all his ordinances, and the whole of that spiritually glorious worship which he has appointed to his people, whereby they draw nigh and have communion with him and his Father.
Lovely and glorious in the vengeance he taketh, and will finally execute, upon the stubborn enemies of himself and his people.
Lovely in the pardon he hath purchased and doth dispense, - in the reconciliation he hath established, - in the grace he communicates, - in the consolation he doth administer, - in the peace and joy he gives his saints, - in his assured preservation of them unto glory.
What shall I say? there is no end of his excellencies and desirableness; - "He is altogether lovely. This is our beloved, and this is our friend, O daughters of Jerusalem." (Owen 1966 [1657]:77-78; as quoted in Packer 2006:104-105)

Owen, J. (1966). Communion with God: The Works of John Owen, Vol. 2. Banner of Truth. (Original work published 1657)

Packer, J. I. (2006). A Puritan perspective: Trinitarian godliness according to John Owen. In T. George (Ed.), God the Holy Trinity: Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 91-108.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

quote of the week, october 17-23, 2010

Consider now with yourself, how unreasonably it is pretended that a life of strict piety must be a dull and anxious state. For can it, with any reason, be said that the duties and restraints of religion must render our lives heavy and melancholy, when they only deprive us of such happiness, as has been here laid before you [that of false and superficial happiness apart from God and His ways]?
Must it be tedious and tiresome to live in the continual exercise of charity, devotion, and temperance, to act wisely and virtuously, to do good to the utmost of your power, to imitate the Divine perfections, and prepare yourself for the enjoyment of God? Must it be dull and tiresome to be delivered from blindness and vanity, from false hopes and vain fears, to improve in holiness, to feel the comforts of conscience in all your actions, to know that God is your Friend, that all must work for your good, that neither life nor death, neither men nor devils, can do you any harm; but that all your sufferings and doings that are offered unto God, all your watchings and prayers, and labors of love and charity, all your improvements, are in a short time to be rewarded with everlasting glory in the presence of God [...]? (Law 2009 [1728]:135)

Law, William. (2009). A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers. (Original work published 1728)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

a healthy fear

"Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it." (Hebrews 4:1)

Certain attitudes are indeed antithetical to the Christian life and our renewed mindset in Christ. Hatred, anger, and jealousy may be among the more obvious and commonly accepted to belong to the category of attitudes that the Christian ought to reject. Furthermore, these are typically unambiguous given the appropriate context. That is, while we may exhibit these qualities more often than we like, and while we understand that with God there is abundant forgiveness and mercy towards us despite these things, we never encounter a Scriptural exhortation along the lines of "Therefore, let us hate..." or "Therefore, let us be angry..." and so on and so forth. But what of fear? Many of us are quite familiar with St. John's beautiful statement that "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love" (1 John 4:18). Is fear, then, never appropriate for the Christian? If we are, in and through Christ, drawn into a loving relationship with the Triune God, is any and every existence of fear a sign that we are not yet truly "perfected in love"? Can there be such thing as a healthy fear? The short answer to this last question, and one that I feel is warranted by Scripture, is "yes." A healthy fear can exist in the heart of a Christian who has been perfected in love and, therefore, is without fear. Now this of course sounds like a blatant contradiction, which is my intention. But, rather than stopping here and accepting it as such, perhaps we might be able to conclude that it is instead a paradox whose purpose is to thrust us upon the living God in whom we trust in love that is verily perfected without fear.

Now, I will assume that for the present purposes it is understood that the type of "fear" under discussion is not the more reverence-like "fear" as in "the fear of the LORD," which is, for example, "the beginning of wisdom" and "knowledge" (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7). Rather, the fear that I have in mind is closer to the concept of "being afraid" - and it is this type of fear that Christians are often discouraged from entertaining. And this is with good reason in many cases, but the questions we are undertaking are whether it is right to reject it wholesale, and what consequences may arise if we do or do not. Recall again the fact that we do not find exhortations to hatred or jealousy in Scripture. Instead, we encounter the exact opposite - we are called to love and not be jealous. And this latter point is similarly applied to fear, as we saw in 1 John 4:18. But, the seemingly odd thing is that we are actually called to fear in certain instances and contexts. For example:

[W]ork out your salvation with fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12)

[C]onduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth. (1 Peter 1:17)

And, in addition to these, we find yet another explicit exhortation to fear in Hebrews: "Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it" (Hebrews 4:1). The unescapable reality that the writer of Hebrews urges us towards is that a healthy type and amount of fear will serve as a successful deterrent of "unbelief" that inhibits us from entering God's rest (3:19).

But how do we reconcile this with 1 John 4:18 and other plentiful examples in Scripture that teach us not to fear? The answer is, I believe, found in balance that comes from a living relationship of loving dependency upon God and His eternal faithfulness. We need to fear because we can deny Him; we need not fear because He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:11-13).

The truth that Christ's inability to deny Himself gives us cause not to fear is the express purpose of what John is writing in his first epistle. We can see this by expanding upon the immediate textual context. John writes:

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also. (1 John 4:15-21)

One of the main points that John conveys in this passage is that because of God's nature - perfect love- we abide in God and His love (and He in us) if we believe "the love which God has for us" by confessing His Son, Jesus. Therefore, "we may have confidence in the day of judgment" and need not ever fear that God will somehow fail to uphold His faithfulness - an ontological impossibility because it is likewise related to His immutability. But this confession of ours, as Hebrews clearly illustrates, is something that we "must hold fast" to, not because we are ultimately faithful, but because God is and ever will be (Hebrews 10:23; see also 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Hebrews 4:14). In the epistle to the Hebrews, the writer reminds us of those who fell in the wilderness because we are really no different than they in terms of the susceptibility to disbelieve and disobey. We must fear lest we become overly self-confident and not, therefore, utterly reliant upon the grace and faithfulness of God.

Still, as with many things, this can be taken too far and, if we do, it will be damaging to our spiritual health. Even in light of the aforementioned exhortations toward healthy fear, nowhere in Scripture are we expected to have our lives marked by an excessive state of fear that consumes our thought and, ultimately, our being. Excessive and unbridled fear borders upon denying the faithfulness of Christ and such fear indeed is "not perfected in love." The danger that results if we fear too much is that we fail to admit the reality of God's power to keep us unto salvation. The danger that results if we fear too little is that we fail to take into account the gravity of our sin and our potential to follow the example of the Israelites who fell in the wilderness. For the Christian, fear, even the healthy type (and, perhaps especially the healthy type), is a temporary attitude that, when exercised in a right and living relationship to the ever-faithful God actually keeps us closer to Him. Exercised properly, it keeps us mindful, when necessary, that in the present time a promise is open to enter God's rest, and we must "fear lest [... we] come short of it" (4:1). But we need only fear "while [the] promise remains," or, as St. Peter puts it "during the time of [our] stay on earth" (4:1; 1 Peter 1:17). In the life of the world to come, fear has neither place nor substantive meaning for those who have confessed the Son of God. In the interrum, however, it can indeed bind us closer to Christ and the promise of rest that we have through Him. And, if ever we are prone to take this further than we ought, we need only remember that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is indeed blessed, and:

[A]ccording to His great mercy [He] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for [us], who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed at the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5, emphasis added)

"He who began a good work in [us] will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). Fear is then to be had in light of the eternal and infinite faithfulness of God. Paradox? Maybe. Contradiction? No.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

quote of the week, october 10-16, 2010

In a chapter on "the Christian attitude of sancta sobrietas," or "holy sobriety," the late Dietrich von Hildebrand writes the following on "an existence based on illusions," which I will here quote at length:

A danger of religious illusionism attaches, in particular, to some Christians' proclivity towards disregarding - leaping over, as it were - the reality of man's terrestrial situation. To be sure, our glance should be directed to eternity; we should consider everything sub specie aeternitatis and accord a primacy to everything that is relevant to eternity and extends to its sphere. Indeed, we must ask with St. Aloysius, "What does this mean to eternity?" Yet, we must not take on a pose of dwelling already in eternity, nor simply pass over the status viae. For we must always abide in truth which we cannot due unless we realize our metaphysical situation as a whole, taking into account both our being ordained to eternity and the fact that as yet we are dwelling on this earth.
This disregard may produce its bad effects in two alternative directions. Either our mode of experience becomes ungenuine, and we dwell in a "psuedo-sublimity"; or else, we fall into debasing and banalizing the supernatural: we drag it down, unintentionally, into an atmosphere entirely of this world [...].
The error of "skipping" the terrestrial phase is typified by the attitude which some Christians take toward the cross. They imagine it to be particularly virtuous or pious behaviour if, at the death of a beloved person, they remain entirely calm and evince little or no pain - since the deceased has won eternity, and chosen the best part. They do as though they were themselves already dwelling in eternity. Again, the alternative holds: either they will develop a kind of false, morbid, foggy idealism, or else, they fall into a shallow, matter-of-fact resignation, a banal routine composure (a cheap substitute for true Christian serenity and peace of mind), becoming thus wholly insensible to the gravity and greatness of death. The fact is that they have lost the sense of the true proportions of our metaphysical situation, the true correlation of earthly life to eternity. The false familiarity they affect with eternity will either seduce them into a thin and pale idealism, an attitude of "floating in the heights," or it will lead to an implicit desubstantialization of the meaning of eternity, a "short-circuited" assimilation of its aspects to the sphere of earthly affairs. In either case, the distinction is blurred between eternity and the earth, and a denatured idea of the supernatural takes the place of its true conception. Instead of our actual transformation into a supernatural mode of being, it is the supernatural that we bring down to the level of natural concerns. (von Hildebrand 1963 [1948]: 370-371)

von Hildebrand, D. (1963). Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude of Mind. Garden City, NY: Image Books. (Original work published 1948)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

with the object of obedience

"For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me." For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief." (Hebrews 3:7-19)

St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1109 AD), often recognized for his ontological argument for the existence of God, coined the phrase in Latin credo ut intelligam, or "I believe so that I may understand." It is an intriguing proposition, and one on which I must admit to vacillating with regard to accepting. Still, I bring it up here to segue into the epistle to the Hebrews and use its formula as the basis for another proposition that encapsulates the thrust of much in Hebrews 3. Namely, I believe so that I may obey. As I have mentioned in a previous blog, sometimes there exists an extreme tendency in parts of Christianity to view belief and obedience as conceptually and practically antithetical. These are, clearly, distinct concepts. But, we do err if we fail to recognize the degree (however large or small that may be) of semantic overlap shared between these two terms, especially as it pertains to biblical usage. The intimate relationship between belief and obedience for those who are in Christ, with unbelief and disobedience as sharp contrasts, is clearly evinced in chapters 3 and 4 of Hebrews. The following examples illustrate these relationships:

1) We are to "take care" that we do not have an "unbelieving heart" (Hebrews 3:12)

2) God swore to those who were "disobedient" that they would not enter His rest (3:18)

3) Yet, their inability to enter was predicated on "unbelief" (3:19)
4) Those who "believe" enter into God's rest (4:3)

5) Those in the wilderness did not enter because of "disobedience" (4:6, 11; compare this with point [3] above)

6) Numerous exhortations toward particular actions implicate "obedience" (3:12, 13; 4:11, 14, 16)

The descriptions and exhortations found in these passages are entirely unambiguous: the Christian ought to seek, by the grace that God provides, to be characterized by belief and obedience. For, if we, as members of Christ's body, claim one then this will necessarily entail the other. Although we are by no means perfect, in terms of our aim neither obedience without belief nor belief without obedience profit anything. The question we might ask is why obedience is so important for the believer. The answer is that it relates directly to our identity in Christ.

This notion of Christian identity is made explicit in the phrase "For we have become partakers of Christ" (3:12). As Christians, we are claiming to be united with Christ, having been made one with Him by Him, partaking of His Body by "eat[ing His] flesh" and "drink[ing His] blood" (John 6:54). But this unification necessarily involves a process of transformation wherein we must be changed to be made more like Christ, the process that is typically termed "sanctification" by Protestants, and "deification" by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians (see John 17:21). As Jesus Himself declared, those who "come" to Him "will never hunger," and those who "believe" in Him "will never thirst" (6:35, emphasis added). Moreover, if we, drawn by the Father, "believe" in Jesus Christ, we will have "eternal life," and if we "eat" of His "flesh" and "drink" of His "blood" we will be granted "eternal life," for "the bread that [Jesus] give[s] for the life of the world is [His] flesh" (6:44, 47, 51). Therefore, believing in Him unto eternal life (that He both won and gives), consuming His body so that we are transformed by partaking of Him, has the effect that we abide in Him, and He in us (6:56).

At this point, especially as it pertains to the Johannine passage, we have clearly established that belief inheres to our identity in Christ, but what about obedience? Importantly, Jesus returns to the profound notion of "abiding in Him" when He is alone with His disciples before He goes to be crucified, in the section of John that is often referred to as "the upper room discourse" (John 13-17). After proclaiming that those who "believe" in Jesus "will do greater works" than He, and stating multiple times that if we truly love Him we "will keep His commandments," Jesus invites His disciples to both "abide in" Him and have Him "abide in" them (14:12, 15, 21, 23-24; 15:4). The language Christ uses harkens back to John 6, but, significantly, His invitation is related to both unification and the production of "fruit," which is obedience - "keeping" and obeying His words and His commands (15:4, 5, 10). Our claim to abide in Christ is validated by belief that produces obedience.

The lurking danger behind all this is our sinful propensity to see our obedience as a means of attaining righteousness rather than admitting to imputed righteousness through Christ. We must always remember that our ability to obey and our producing the "fruit" of good works and obedience is never purely our own. This not only keeps our pride in check, but it is an encouragement that we can be strengthened by, knowing that God Himself is granting us His ability to "work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in [us] both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13). This is why Paul writes to the church at Ephesus:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Obedience and works do not save us, and even the faith we have is a "gift of God." This is why He alone is to be worshiped and glorified for the salvation that He wrought through Jesus Christ our Lord. But, we should never lose sight of the fact that "we are [God's] workmanship," and that He has "created [us] in Christ Jesus" with the object of obedience. And these works God Himself has "prepared beforehand"; all that is required of us is that we humbly "walk in them."

With these thoughts in mind, we return to the passage at hand in Hebrews 3:14-19. Prior to these verses, the author has explicitly urged the readership towards steadfastness and obedience in contrast to the example of unbelief and disobedience of the Israelites in the wilderness who were refused entry into God's rest, the Promised Land (3:6-11). Then, the writer cautions believers to guard against an "unbelieving heart" and "encourage one another" as co-members of the body of Christ. But why should we do such things? Why should we "encourage one another" so that we will not be "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin"? Essentially, because such hardening and disbelief is contrary to the reality that Jesus Christ has obtained for us now. Jesus became God in human flesh, He lived a perfect, sinless life, He suffered, bled and died, He rose again - all for the glory of the Father and to invite us to believe in Him so that we might abide in Him and, thus, obey Him in love: if we love Him, we will keep His commandments; if we keep His commandments, we will abide in His love (John 14:15; 15:10).

For this reason the author of Hebrews refers to a present reality: "we have become partakers of Christ" (Hebrews 3:14, emphasis added; see also 3:6). Still, this, too (as with verse 6), is paired with a conditional that pertains to obedience:

[W]e have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me." For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief. (3:14-19)

If we are humble and willing to obey in love, knowing that it is not truly our own doing, but Christ in us, we will realize that we have been empowered to obey as a result of our identity in Christ. However, we must choose to obey in love, and we must choose "Today," so that we are not deceived by the intangible tomorrow that belongs to a temporal framework we are not guaranteed. "Today," the Holy Spirit is speaking. "Today," we hear His voice. "Today," we must not harden our hearts as those who "provoked" God in the wilderness, never to enter His rest. "Today," we must not be "disobedient." "Today," we must not be characterized by "unbelief." "Today," God is working in us to do these things - His good will and His pleasure - so that we might walk in the good works He has wondrously and beautifully prepared for us. "Today," we believe so that we might obey, and obey in love.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

quote of the week, october 3-9, 2010

It is not necessary to have either a keen intellect or great knowledge to go to God, but simply a heart resolved to apply itself to Him and for Him, and to love only Him. (Lawrence 1994 [1692]:73, emphasis original)

Lawrence, Brother. (1994). The Practice of the Presence of God. (R. J. Edmonson, Trans.). Orleans, MA: Paraclete Press. (Original translation published 1985; original work published 1692)

Saturday, October 2, 2010

one to another: the corporate Christian life

"Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, "Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as when they provoked Me, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, where your fathers tried Me by testing Me, and saw My works for forty years. Therefore I was angry with this generation, and said, 'They always go astray in their heart, and they did not know my ways'; as I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest.'" Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." (Hebrews 3:7-13)

At times I am rather perplexed at those who fell in the wilderness, not to enter into the rest of Canaan. These individuals and their ancestors had spent years (actually, centuries) as slaves in Egypt, yearning and longing for redemption that seemed to never arrive. Then, they hear of a man named Moses, along with his brother Aaron, whom God had raised up to deliver His people out of bondage. They witnessed plague after plague upon the Egyptians, while the Israelites remained unharmed. They witnessed how God worked through Moses so that Pharaoh would allow the Israelites to go and worship their God, the One True God. They witnessed how God protected them from Pharaoh and his army even after he granted them leave. They witnessed the miracles of God at the hands of Moses when he made the Red Sea as unto dry land for them to cross over to the Sinai Peninsula. They received God's protection and provision as He cared for them and met their needs, even providing their daily bread that came down from heaven in the wilderness. They witnessed the effects of the presence of God upon Mt. Sinai as God met with Moses and revealed to Moses His commands for the well-being of the people and for His own glory. And all this was firsthand witness; they saw the works of God with their very own eyes.

But, despite all this, they doubted the Lord, they questioned his benevolence and His presence, and they tested Him (see, for example, Exodus 17:1-7). As Hebrews states, quoting Psalm 95, the people "provoked" God and "tried [Him] by testing" Him, even though they "saw [His] works for forty years" (Hebrews 3:9; Psalm 95:9-10). The concrete horribleness of their prior experience that endured for generations began to vanish in their minds and they longed, at times begging, to return back to Egypt, back to enslavement. They feared when Moses delayed upon the mount as He met with God on behalf of the people who did not want to draw near to Him, and created idols to worship, proclaiming a golden calf that was fashioned by their own hands to be their strong redeemer out of Egypt. They disbelieved in the ability of God to fulfill His promises when they saw those who dwelled in the land of Canaan and their fortresses, ignoring God's works when He saved them from Pharaoh's destruction. Virtually every Israelite that God had tenderly brought out of Egypt, cared for and protected, failed to enter into God's rest because they refused to admit His providence, presence, and listen to His voice, although they ungratefully received His goodness and provision. They saw God's glory and the signs He performed both "in Egypt and in the wilderness," but they rejected Him and His ways, shunning His voice. Therefore, "[He] swore in [His] wrath" that they "should not enter [His] rest" (Numbers 14, especially vv. 22-23; Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 3:11).

What should this tell me when I find that I am so perplexed about these people and these events? It tells me that I perhaps still do not understand the depravity of my own heart, which is in constant need of renewal by Christ. Apart from the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord, my heart is "deceitful above all else and desperately sick;" like the Israelites whom God led out of Egypt, and like the scribes and Pharisees that demanded signs from Jesus, so I, too, crave signs and wonders even while refusing to listen to the voice of God (Jeremiah 17:9; Matthew 12:38-2). Still, even if I may know part of this deceitfulness, What, then, is the remedy? How do we Christians overcome the proclivity to, as the great hymn declares, "wander" and "leave the God [we] love"? In the above portion of the third chapter in Hebrews, we find that the answer is threefold (though bear in mind that these points are really quite related): 1) we must listen to God's voice and respond by obedience in love, 2) we must guard our hearts against unbelief, and 3) we must encourage one another as co-members of the body of Christ.

As we have discussed beforehand, the epistle to the Hebrews is rather unique in the New Testament in terms of its use of Scripture. That is, it is unique in the manner in which it attributes authorship to scriptural passages. In chapter 1, for example, we read that God the Father has spoken in times past, and this concept is reinforced by attributing divine authorship to the psalms which are quoted. Thus, the human author, though quite important, is typically ignored in Hebrews in order to emphasize the fact that God has spoken and is speaking, and this pattern does not appear with the same frequency outside of this book in the New Testament. In the second chapter, we see two types of Old Testament quotations: one in which the human author is dismissed (2:6), and another where the speech is attributed directly to Christ (2:11-13). In the present passage under consideration, we find yet another means of attribution of authorship wherein it is said that the Holy Spirit is speaking: "Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, 'Today if you hear His voice'" (3:7, emphasis added). As a result, we get a glimpse of every Person of the Triune God actively participating in God's Self-revelation through Scripture, a Trinitarian pattern that pervades the epistle to the Hebrews. This gives us blessed assurance to believe, trust, and appropriately respond to the Word of God that is being spoken.

The disbelief on behalf of the people in the wilderness that was evidenced at the waters of Meribah was but one demonstration of a constant mindset of refusal to listen to and obey the voice of God. And, it was ultimately their resolute disbelief and unwillingness to "know [God's] ways" that resulted in God's disallowing their entrance into the Promised Land, into His rest. We too, as believers in Jesus Christ, await the rest of God, the rest that Joshua could not grant (Hebrews 4:8-9). For this reason, we must "be diligent to enter into that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience" as the men and women who disobeyed in the wilderness (4:11). We must hear and obey the voice of God the Holy Spirit who exhorts us toward "Today," allowing the Word of God to render its proper effect of reaching toward and transforming the depths of our being, even unto "the thoughts and the intentions of the heart" (4:12). We are indeed of the house of the Son of God "if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm unto the end" (3:6). For this reason, if we are not to follow the example of going astray, as did those in the wilderness, if we are to not have "an evil, unbelieving heart," we must first listen to the God who has spoken and is still speaking, urging us to "Today," inviting us to respond now (and continually) in belief, and obedience in love (3:7, 10, 12).

In addition to actively listening to the words of God, we must guard our hearts against unbelief. Again the writer of Hebrews provides a strong exhortation that moves us toward action: "Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God" (3:12). Although it is indeed true that "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ," we must bear in mind that in a sense we can "hear" God's words and yet fall short because we do not allow it to penetrate our innermost being (Romans 10:17). This is not something we can generate ourselves, we must continuously depend upon God Himself, and the strength and grace He provides through the Comforter that He has sent to dwell within us. The Israelites that fell in the wilderness were not deaf to the audible characteristics of God's words being proclaimed through Moses. Rather, they did not "hear" because they were unwilling and allowed their "hearts" to be "hardened" (Hebrews 3:7; Psalm 95:8). But God has "sealed us" and given us "the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge"; if we are to not "fall away from the living God," we must guard our hearts against unbelief by being washed continually by His Word, which by the New Covenant that Jesus Christ has Himself inaugurated, is written directly on our hearts (2 Corinthians 1:22; Hebrews 3:12; Ephesians 5:26; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16; Jeremiah 31:33).

The third way in which we can overcome our propensity to wander lies in the very nature of the body of Christ. In order that we not become "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin," the writer exhorts the readership to "encourage one another day after day, while it is still called 'Today'" (Hebrews 3:13). Again, reference is made to Psalm 95 by invoking the temporal present, but another crucial element is the implicit notion of corporate communion that necessarily inheres to the Christian life: "encourage one another." This is a theme that recurs later in Hebrews, since the communal aspect of Christianity relates directly to the spiritual health of both the whole and the individuals that comprise it (10:24-25). Individual belief and responsibility are indeed paramount, but we must be careful not to overemphasize these aspects by (unintentionally) negating or diminishing the corporate nature of the Christian life. The call to "encourage one another" necessarily implies that there are others to both encourage and be encouraged by; barring extreme circumstances, lone Christianity is neither supported nor advocated by biblical texts. Instead, we repeatedly encounter the opposite in the New Testament, for example:

[D]o not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:4)

And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another. (Romans 15:14)

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13)

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)

[B]e subject to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5:21)

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Collossians 3:16)

Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

Perhaps, then, it should not surprise us to see emphasized this "one to another" ministry among the members of the body of Christ, the Church. These three principles we encounter in this passage of Hebrews all relate to the greatest commandments: love God and love one another (knowing that it is not possible to leave out one and in truth fulfill the other). We have a responsibility toward both God and toward each other, by God's grace believing His words and "encourag[ing] one another day after day," that is, continuously (Hebrews 3:13). Sin is ever deceitful, and so are our very own hearts if we will be humble enough to acknowledge this, inviting God to transform every facet of our being more and more into the image of His Son. God is indeed gracious to reveal Himself and to speak to us, inviting us into the sublimity of a relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ, "whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end" (3:6). But we cannot forever afford to delay; "Today" will not be such for much longer.