So What IS God Like?

May 27, 2015

Somebody made a quirky comment about God and Jesus the other day; it got me thinking. It went something like this: “I’m a Jesus person; the God of the Old Testament needs rehabilitation, and Jesus did that.”

Aside from who/what you think might be “the God of the Old Testament,” can you see what is wrong with this statement? The comment basically states that Jesus is not the same God as YHWH of old! It also suggests that the speaker might not be truly Trinitarian.

But let’s take a look at one statement of the character of God found in the Old Testament, Psalm 145.

1          I will extol you, my God and King,
                        and bless your name forever and ever.
2          Every day I will bless you,
                        and praise your name forever and ever.
3          Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
                        his greatness is unsearchable.

4          One generation shall laud your works to another,
                        and shall declare your mighty acts.
5          On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
                        and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
6          The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
                        and I will declare your greatness.
7          They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
                        and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

8             The LORD is gracious and merciful,
                        slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9          The LORD is good to all
                    and his compassion is over all that he has made.

10           All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD,
                        and all your faithful shall bless you.
11        They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom,
                        and tell of your power,
12        to make known to all people your mighty deeds,
                        and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
13        Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
                        and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

The LORD is faithful in all his words,
                        and gracious in all his deeds.
14        The LORD upholds all who are falling,
                        and raises up all who are bowed down.
15        The eyes of all look to you,
                        and you give them their food in due season.
16        You open your hand,
                        satisfying the desire of every living thing.
17        The LORD is just in all his ways,
                        and kind in all his doings.
18        The LORD is near to all who call on him,
                        to all who call on him in truth.
19        He fulfills the desire of all who fear him;
                        he also hears their cry, and saves them.
20        The LORD watches over all who love him,
                        but all the wicked he will destroy.
21        My mouth will speak the praise of the LORD,
                        and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.

Just look at all those adjectives and verbs to describe our gracious and loving God! Doesn’t it hit you that Jesus is the same God as YHWH, God come in the flesh entirely. Jesus did not come with a purpose or intent any different from what he, as God, had been pursuing through the millennia. Any description or character we attribute to Jesus must be attributed equally to God, and visa versa: any description or character we attribute to YHWH in accordance with the Scripture must be applied to Jesus. To do anything else theologically is in error.

When Jesus introduced himself to his disciples—comments recorded primarily in the gospel of John—he identified himself as one with the Father, of one will with the Father, the one sent by his Father, not to mention the one who would send the Spirit. These Trinitarian links are extremely important to us, because here is where they point: if we get to know Jesus, we get to know God. Jesus is the face of God made accessible to mere mortals who otherwise would fall blinded before the glory of the Almighty. Jesus is the one through whom we relate to the triune God. By being so, Jesus enables us to participate in the love, power, and purposes of the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit.

But, you say, look at verse 20b: “But all the wicked he will destroy.” Didn’t Jesus say, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him”? Yes, he did! He came to save . . . he came to redeem us so that we could be made righteous and be able to stand in the presence of God who is righteous and pure. And we are saved from what? Saved from the folly of trying to find Life by another way than its Source, Jesus the Lord.

Jesus went on to say, “Those who believe in [the Son] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:17-18). There is no getting around it: some day there will be a reckoning, the standard being belief in the name of Jesus Christ as God’s Son come in the flesh. Jesus made his appearance specifically to help us see the mercy and compassion of God, which (Paul reminds us later) “draws us to repentance” (Romans 2:4). God wants us to be saved; God cares about how we are doing spiritually. God has made a great effort to introduce us to the means of salvation. All we have to do is grab hold of it!

But I presume that some will not avail themselves of God’s mercy, as hard as that is to believe (I mean, what an offer!). Some day those who have rejected Christ will be destroyed, the last chance for their salvation exhausted. While the righteous will not rejoice that some are lost because of their refusal to submit to God’s sovereignty, those who have been saved will be glad that wickedness can no longer touch them or threaten them. It is an expression of God’s mercy and compassion that he cares about the well-being of those who find shelter in him.

 

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I have heard it said, even in PCUSA General Assembly committee meetings, that God is unknowable. “God is so vast and so big that we cannot possible know or understand what God wants to do.” This is a bogus claim in the guise of humility. As I have written before, God wants to be known and has gone to great lengths to make himself known to his creation (cf. Deuteronomy 4:5–8, 32–36). Not only can we know about God—his nature and character—we can actually know God (more on that in a later post). Our investigation into God’s background is not a clandestine operation done despite some effort on God’s part to hide. No, God delights when we seek him, and he will be found by those who search for him wholeheartedly (Deuteronomy 4:29). Tuck that assurance into your heart and mind while we proceed.

As we ponder the nature and character of God, it is important first to answer the question, “How do we know?” How is it that we can actually describe—with confidence and clarity—what God is like? We know by three ways:

God’s Fingerprints Throughout Creation. The apostle Paul makes this point most succinctly in the opening chapter of Romans:

19″For what can be known about God
is plain to [all, even those who are opposed to God],
because God has shown it to them.
20Ever since the creation of the world
his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are,
have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

When I stand at the top of a ridge in the high Sierra Nevada, I am in awe of the beauty of granite, sky, and water (Psalm 8). When people pursue scientific inquiry down to the chromosomal level or up to the astronomical level, they are in touch with created things that are still smaller than the Force that put them in motion “in the beginning” (Genesis 1; Job 38). At the very least, an appreciation of nature moves us to ask, “Where did all this come from?” which is a question God recognizes as coming from a seeker.

The one who discovers, perhaps through observation of the natural world, that there must be a God behind it all has taken the first step of faith. Just the recognition of a Being not only bigger and better than we are but also greater and stronger than any other possible god has set us on a quest for truth. For ages, indigenous people around the globe have looked to the heavens and understood, perhaps wordlessly, that an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent God exists somewhere, somehow. You can read accounts of these discoveries in an old book called Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson (Regal Books, rev. ed. 1984).

God’s Revelation Specifically in Scripture. Incapable as we are for finding God without help, God has put into words—the words of Scripture—his own singular story in order that we might be introduced to him. From the beginning of time at creation all the way to a projection of the end of time, God is interested, according to the Scriptures, in sharing his great benevolence and joie de vivre with us. Testimony of God’s presence and power was accumulated with the cooperation of many human writers through thousands of years of history. Organized into 66 “books,” the whole Bible is the Word of God written, “God’s Word in human words.” Holy Scripture, comprising Old and New Testaments, submits itself as the revelation and self-disclosure of God, the journal of God’s relationship to creation and to a people of Israel, the plan God implemented to reconcile everyone to himself, and the invitation to know God and experience Life in him. Everything we need to know is found here, if not everything we want to know—there is some mystery, after all, because it is true that God is bigger than we are and “out of sight.” By saying this, I am not contradicting my previous comments, but only saying that God has revealed himself and his will to us in the Scripture to a degree sufficient for our salvation and discipleship. The Word of God points us specifically and effectively toward the One who holds the keys to our future.

Don Richardson, previously mentioned, writes in his book about how native, unreached people on desolate islands for instance, had known for generations about a God who was above all gods. When missionaries identified him as Jesus Christ, they gave thanks that they could now address God by name. And so it is for us, when we receive the scriptural testimony from God, that we are exposed to the specific revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

God’s Embodiment in Jesus Christ. The third way we know about God is by taking a very close look at the One he sent, Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know God, get to know Jesus. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus was not only holy, talented, smart, and gifted as a teacher; Jesus was God come in the flesh to save sinners:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14)

4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son,
born of a woman, born under the law,
5in order to redeem those who were under the law,
so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4f)

Jesus was not a different god than YHWH. Jesus did not come to correct excesses of an Old Testament tyrant. Jesus was and remains fully God even as he was fully human. That means, if a person wants to know God, then a person must get acquainted with Jesus Christ. If you see Jesus, you see the Father (John 14:7).

So much more to be said! Stay tuned . . .

The human lust for power is a natural outflow of Adam and Eve’s resistance to God’s authority. When a person, a group, or a nation believes itself to be any equivalent of “the center of the universe,” bad things begin to happen. Adam and Eve’s choice may seem innocent enough to modern eyes, but within a generation, murder had entered human experience. The desire of one to dominate another comes out of the irreconcilable demands of two adjacent egos vying for the center of the universe.

If a culture adopts the philosophy that all people are free to do whatever they wish, to pursue happiness on their own terms, to be in essence the center of their universe, then several things unravel:

  • people get locked into competition mode in order to win the pot of finite resources

  • politics seeks personal power above the common good

  • the basis for law erodes and it becomes impossible to protect individual rights against the libertine advances of others

  • no one can be truly happy as long as an opponent or a rival, exists

  • there will be wars

If this isn’t a picture of hell, I don’t know what is.

But it is rapidly becoming the picture of the world, including American culture, and some of its micro-systems. It would be an interesting exercise simply to read the newspaper through these lenses and count the number of stories that relate to the above list. As a side note, I would observe also that these dynamics exist within the church, including my own tribe the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Disputes over property, doctrine, and inclusivity have their genesis in human resistance to God’s authority and power.

Power in the hands of human beings who are flawed and damaged by sin can turn into exploitation very quickly. This is one reason why Presbyterians, for example, generally exert power through their governing bodies rather than through individuals. But even so, original sin permeates the system because it has infected every person involved.

Power-seeking can also turn violent, as we saw in the Waco meeting of rival motorcycle gangs this week. Power corrupts the human spirit, because people have nothing within themselves to stop its insistent march toward dominance.

This is where God comes in.

The Bible teaches, and I believe, that God is the center of the universe. More than that, the one and only most holy God is bigger than the entire creation. You can get the picture through God’s thunderous objection to Job’s complaints, in Job 38-39. By virtue of his eternal existence, his unmatched might, his complete knowledge of all reality, and his inherent goodness, God holds all authority and possesses all power to rule the universe. His is not an idle interest in the affairs of the world, for he has known and governed every person on earth and through all history. God’s care is active, personal, and effective, and no person is beyond God’s reach, whether one is aware or not.

If it is true that God possesses all power and dominion, then we mere mortals do not. This is a fact that does not depend on our feelings about it. Here is where we find relief, if we want it, for the lust for power. The god of self must stand down. The fundamental transaction requires us to give up, give in, and give to the One who is sovereign over all. A tall order for sure! Who really wants to do this, in their heart of hearts? Nobody! That’s why we’re in this mess to begin with! But if giving up, giving in, and giving to God are required, what is to be done to make this happen?

For now, let’s frame some questions that will direct future thoughts:

  1. Is God worthy of my trust?

  2. Can God help me give up, give in, and give to?

  3. Is the effort to reorient my life going to be worth it?

Stay with me in this discussion, which will unfold slowly for some. I am laying a groundwork for Christian faith.

Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminary, recounts the story that took place when he was pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley (California). A very brief report of the story appears in his book The Dangerous Act of Worship (p. 64), but he shared an expanded version in a talk a few years ago:

A gentleman came to him a bit confused and befuddled, because his wife had just become a Christian. His purpose for the visit was to get the Cliff Notes rendition of the faith—“just bullet points, please”—so he could hold his own in the nightly conversation he and his wife were having. He made it clear to Mark that he was a very busy, very successful businessman who really didn’t have time for this, so “just bullet points, please” and like, right now, so I can move on to the next thing on my list. Mark resisted the urge to hand him a pamphlet or two, and instead gave an honest reply. “I can see you are a busy and successful person, so I don’t think what you’re asking for is a good idea.” The gent, frustrated, shot back, “Why not?” Mark told him, “Look, if I were to give you some bullet points, and you were to really understand them and act on them, it would totally mess up your life. You don’t really want that, do you?” The man gets credit for honesty, because he said, “No.” And he left, and Mark wondered if he had been too hard on him.

But the businessman with the Christian wife came back a couple weeks later, looking just a little more desperate and coming across a bit more insistently, again asking for a brief outline of the Christian faith. Mark again refused, saying, “This isn’t something I can pass on to you here on the church patio between worship services.” “Well then, can I come in to see you for twenty minutes this week?” Mark said, “No, I think it would require more time than that, and besides, I have to tell you, the gospel will ruin your life as you know it. Do you really want to open that possibility?”

[Do you get what Mark was doing? Without sharing the gospel—yet—he was asking questions that he hoped would help this man to recognize his first big obstacle: his allegiance and loyalty to a way of life that made no room for God.]

The very successful and extremely busy businessman came back again, and this time for an hour-long appointment. What unfolded over the next several months was the examination and reordering of his priorities, his focus, his passion, and eventually even his money toward God and God’s purposes rather than his own.

I share this story because it made a big impression on me at the time I heard it, and its challenge has rung true. It has been a long time in my own life since this radical, initial turning—the Bible calls it repentance—took place, and it is easy to forget how life-altering it is. God met me and changed me from the inside out. But keeping at the center of my life God, around whom everything else revolves, remains a struggle to this day. What does this look like in my experience?

No, I have not sculpted idols of wood, gold, or silver, like the ones rebuked in Habakkuk 2:18-20. As mentioned last time, my possessions in competition with God are more likely to be financial or electronic or gourmet. But even more central is the Other God, the fundamentally wrong one:

The self. Myself. Yourself. Ourselves. Our self has been deified when our authority for decision-making comes only from within, what I want or how I read the situation or what is to my advantage. We do this all the time; it is as natural as breathing, which is precisely the point. Our own nature—with ourselves at the center calling the shots, keeping things in our control according to our own definitions and desires—is our snake in the grass (to borrow from the imagery of Genesis 3:1).

Let’s be clear at the outset: God does not need anyone’s faith to verify his power or authority.

God does not need my allegiance in order to be fully himself, fully divine.

But I, in one sense, dethrone Almighty God in my soul when I follow the bad habits first introduced by Adam and Eve in the garden, that is, when I

  • fail to worship God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and eternal maker of the universe and my Creator, too

  • fail to acknowledge God’s superior wisdom and gracious provision at decision-points in my life

  • fail to listen to God when I get input contrary to his Word; this static is the pervasive worldview in which we are immersed that contradicts God’s intentions

  • dismiss the Word of God as not applicable because I am special, an exception to the rule

  • allow my own emotions and desires to redefine life and happiness to accommodate them

  • think only in the short-term of what I want, rather than consider the long-term wisdom of aligning myself with what God wants.

Does any of this sound familiar? My attempts to define myself as the center of the universe, the fount of wisdom, and the deserving beneficiary of freedom without limits are not just narcissistic but spiritually dangerous. This form of idolatry, reduced to its essence, is precisely what was imbedded in our nature when Adam and Eve took the first rebellious step in that direction (Genesis 3).

So what does this have to do with God? Everything! We’ll be working on this in the next few posts, but a view of self I have described is a living denial of the claims God has placed upon us. They can be summarized with these verses from Scripture:

For you, O LORD, are most high over all the earth;
you are exalted far above all gods. (Psalm 97:9)

[God said to Job,] “Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)

[God says to us,] “Be still, and know that I am God!”
(Psalm 46:10)

All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades . . .
but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)

 

 

The Gods We Worship

May 15, 2015

My second prod to think and write about belief in God comes from my experience in Turkey and Greece, where “gods” were everywhere—or at least remnants of worship spaces, icon niches, and other ancient signs of pantheism and Greek/Roman mythology. Walking up the hill through the ruins of Delphi (Greece), we encountered the monument to Argos, the sanctuary of Gaia, and the great temple to Apollo. In Ephesus (Turkey), strolling down the main road made of marble, we saw what is left of the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven Great Wonders of the Ancient World, but represented now by only one surviving column). Hadrian and Domitian have their temples, too, giving some evidence to a Roman emperor cult.

The point is, in ancient Greece and then Rome, objects of worship, gods if you will, were present and the focal points of cult worship, treasure-building, and interpretation of life. We get a feel for what this dynamic produced, by recalling the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens:

16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace . . .. 18. . . Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? . . .

22Then Paul . . . said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . . .

29 . . . we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:16-31)

Pow! The dark backdrop of paganism provides dramatic contrast to the light of Jesus Christ, the one who has been raised from the dead and thereby having a rightful claim to supremacy over all other deities.

Yesterday, I wrote about the “nones,” those who do not believe in anything particularly. An irony of history is noted in the accusatory language directed at first century Christians, who were called “atheists” because they did not embrace the pantheon! Here we have the two extremes, those who claim no god whatsoever, and those willing to identify anything with deity.

The great contribution to the world of Judaism and Christianity is the insistence that there is only one God. Whenever pagans—be they Greek, Roman, Celtic, African, Incan, you name it—are engaged in dialogue with the Christian faith, the first step toward faith is not necessarily to meet and submit to Jesus Christ but to espouse monotheism. The idea that our fortunes and futures rest upon only one God—the Lord Almighty, the highest power with no rivals—represents a huge leap for a vast number of people around the globe. This is not only an ancient challenge, or a foreign challenge. I suggest also that monotheism is a difficult pill for many Americans to swallow.

We are people of no god or of many gods, or perhaps the wrong god. Belief in no god requires a person to self-define goodness, rightness, and meaning. Belief in many gods requires a person to keep them all appeased somehow, like the Chinese acrobat spinning several plates at a time. Many deities command our frequent and intense attention, our money, our commitments and our loyalty. I can think of a few: the iPhone, the television, our homes, our money, our places of employment. We sacrifice ourselves at their altars every day it seems, and yet we do not comprehend that this is worship of a materialistic pantheon. When we do get it, God Almighty turns our world upside down and everything has to be realigned under God’s banner.

In my next post, I will expand on the possibility of worshiping the wrong god.

And over all these virtues put on love,
which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Colossians 3:14

Paul continues his theme with the “layered look” of spiritual dressing. Imagine yourself putting on a patience undershirt, and then a kindness button-down oxford. Pull up those meekness jeans, and compassion socks. Bring it all together with a humble sweater. But now, Paul says, the entire ensemble is tied together with an overcoat of love. It is intriguing imagery, particularly contemporary. What Paul is saying here is that love (and he uses the term agape, unconditional love) is the all-encompassing virtue. Love is the general “rule” and the fruit of the Spirit (for instance) are ways that it is embodied in actual attitudes and behaviors. Love is expressed through patience, humility, and kindness.

As Dallas Willard remarked, “Love, as Paul and the NT presents it, is not action—not even action with a special intention—but a source of action. It is a condition out of which actions of a certain type emerge.” [1]

We live in an age and environment that is a bit mixed up about what love is. We confuse love with desire. We say we fall into it. Or it is strictly a feeling we cannot control. And yet, Paul in this passage (and others, such as Romans 13:19 and 1 Corinthians 13) writes about love from a completely different angle. We are to put it on over everything else good and virtuous, because love brings it all together as one piece.

But what is it, this agape love? Dallas Willard offers a definition he thinks covers the ground:

Love is an overall condition
of the embodied, social self
poised to promote the goods of human life
that are within its range of influence.
Willard—“Getting Love Right”

Love is a disposition or character that makes one ready to act towards and for another in a way consistent with the gospel (God’s love for us). Willard often said it is misplaced effort to try to love a person. Rather, our prayer should be that we become the kind of person who would love that person. “The kind of person” who can do this is “possessed by love as an overall character of life,” regardless of what is going on. So, “I do not come to my enemies and then try to love them; I come to them as a loving person.” This is why John said, “God is love.” This is God’s identity, “a loving person.” It explains why he can and does love me, even when he is not pleased with what I am doing. Love is God’s general condition, out of which comes his promotion of what is good and right and life-giving for me.

So when Paul says to “put on love,” he is asking us to enter into the state of being possessed by love. “We love, because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Knowing we are loved by God, allowing that “we are not our own; we were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19f), we are possessed by love. As we surrender our wills to God and remain open to his transforming power, he will make us loving persons from the inside out. This is a work of the Spirit, requiring our willingness and availability, and the sort of practice that demonstrates we really do want to change clothes from “unloving” to “loving.”

The question for your consideration is not, Whom should you be loving? but What are the obstacles in your heart to becoming a loving person: selfishness? pride? anger? competitiveness? indifference? impatience? hurry?

[1] What follows are some thoughts heavily relying on Dallas Willard on the subject of love, as presented in his Fuller lectures (when I took a two-week intensive with him in June 2007) and a presentation he made in September 2007 called “Getting Love Right.” I am quoting him freely.

 

A few months ago, Andy and I spent the day with a group of singers who are going on tour in June and willing to take on a couple of oldsters as ringers. At the end of a very hard-working day, we gathered at a home for dinner. The banter and cultural references were beyond me half the time; it was the sort of party that makes you say, “I really should get out more.”

Anyway, at some point during the festivities, one young woman said to someone who had been teasing, “Zorba, you are dead to me.” At the time, I recognized it as a put-down like “Get out of my face,” but its hyperbole got me wondering where those strong words came from.

One reference online points to “Old English” as the source, claiming the saying was “used to announce that the person in question was disowned or would never be ‘seen, or heard’ again.” Okay, that much is obvious, but there are not too many more clues to go by historically.

I would love to hear Dan Jurafsky, the author of The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, do a study similar to the one he launched about “tomato catsup.” Why, he asked, does every single bottle of catsup on our market shelves say “tomato catsup”? Like, is there another kind? But I digress.

The statement, “you are dead to me” begs for an historical, linguistic study. But here’s the basic meaning, I think: it is an expression of complete rejection to the point of denying the existence of the person. In the lighter moment cited above, it was used to express disinterest or social push-back. But really, on its face it is the ultimate dismissal or disowning.

I use this story to highlight the major point of the Apostle Paul’s next admonition in his letter to the Colossians:

5Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly (cf. 3:2):
fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.
7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
8But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander,
and abusive language from your mouth.
9Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self
with its practices 10and have clothed yourselves with the new self,
which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew,
circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free;
but Christ is all and in all!

We are not generally comfortable with the idea that something in our personality or practice should be “put to death.” But Paul is using that extreme language to match the urgency of the task. Hanging onto, or keeping alive, practices and attitudes that are sinful is a life and death matter.

If we have died with Christ in order to live in him, what is it that dies? We are still here, living and breathing and talking, but something within our realm of choice must die. Paul lays it out right here, pointing to the things we do, think, say, believe, or feel that are contrary to God’s way. Here’s how I read this:

Fornication (sexual activity outside of marriage), you are dead to me.

Impurity (uncleanness), you are dead to me.

Passion (troubled emotion, “drama”), you are dead to me.

Evil desire (lust), you are dead to me.

Greed (covetousness), you are dead to me.

On account of these things God’s wrath is coming on the disobedient. In other words, the fact that these sins exist is reason for God’s holy and purifying wrath to come upon the unclean. And just in case we think it is only “they” who sinned like this, Paul reminds his readers that we too followed in these ways in our former days. So now, in addition to wanting what we cannot have (the general description of those first-named sins), we are also instructed to forsake several others:

Anger and wrath, you are dead to me.

Malice and slander, you are dead to me.

Abusive language and lying, you are dead to me.

That old life and the old self with its unholy practices, you are dead to me.

Toward the end of this passage Paul points to the alternative, which we will unpack in the next study. In the meantime, friends and sojourners, these things that are “dead to me” are deadly sins, namely, they will kill your spirit if you let them get the upper hand. For those who have perhaps said, “Church, you are dead to me,” my hope is that, before pronouncing that word upon the Body of Christ, you would be able to look within and confess those attitudes and actions only you and God know about. Making this confession may help, when later we want to see the Church in a new light and our involvement in it with new purpose.

Start your work in our spirits, Lord; help us die to sin and live unto you. Amen.

 

 

My family and I have survived the white-knuckle viewing of yesterday’s Super Bowl game. You can guess, we were cheering for the Seahawks. Boo-hoo. It was a joy to watch, though, because the contest was close and the teams were a challenging match for each other. It also seemed to this rank amateur to be a clean game, with relatively few flags. Both teams racked up amazing accomplishments, and after the last two weeks I am actually glad for MVP Tom Brady’s victory. Well played.

But football is football. It is a game, played according to detailed rules. While on the field, following the rules is not only sportsmanlike, but safety-conscious. I mean, there are reasons why it is against the rules to yank on an opponent’s facemask. The rules apply for a specific time, in a specific place, for a particular purpose. It’s a great character builder, as any parent (and child) remembers of Little League or Pop Warner play. You choose a micro-universe and learn its rules, how to play on a team, respect for authority, about being a good sport win or lose.

Many would say the point of learning a game like football (especially for youth) is to learn lessons that apply to life. When the game is over, football rules are too limited and too specific to cover all aspects of life, but their lessons nevertheless become transferable concepts that are essential for wisdom. While in life, generally speaking, there is no actual ball to keep an eye on, one learns it is essential to keep one’s eye on one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength.

The Apostle Paul was, in his early life, fanatically observant of the rules of Judaism. As to the Law of Moses, he was a Pharisee, which meant that early on he was what we would call a Jewish legalist. And then, on a mission to persecute Christians, who were to his mind breaking that law, he met Christ face to face and was confronted with his misguided emphasis. [You can read all about Paul’s conversion in Acts 9.]

After Paul’s conversion, he saw the law in a whole new light. The law had been a good teacher, but limiting one’s obedience to its strict demands—which were “observed” because they were only outward, visible behaviors (like circumcision and dietary laws)—became a means for self-righteous justification. But this emphasis missed the point of God’s intention for his people, that they would receive what only he could give: grace alone through Christ alone, by faith alone, according to the Scriptures alone, for God’s glory alone. God’s action made possible a transformation of the heart, the invisible but central life-change all human beings ultimately need.

As Paul goes on in his letter to the Colossians, he talks about what measures God took to fulfill the law in Christ so that we would have life in him. I’ve underlined three actions God has taken:

Action 1: 11In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision,
by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ;
Action 2: 12when you were buried with him in baptism,
you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God,
who raised him from the dead.
Action 3: 13And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh,
God made you alive together with him,
when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14erasing the record
that stood against us with its legal demands.
He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.
15He disarmed the rulers and authorities and
made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

Just look at how many times Paul joyfully points to Christ as the source of our justification, new life, and forgiveness. It is Christ, not any other deity or fancy “philosophy” with its empty promises (referred to in 2:8) that can work our transformation from the inside out, within the heart, erasing the damning record against us, and showing up any earthly authority that would try to play god in our lives. This work on our behalf is so needed and so complete, and Christ’s accomplishment of it so decisive, that trusting him is thoroughly warranted.  

And as that internal transformation is underway, by Christ’s power and our growing to maturity in him, our lives—behavior that is visible—are gracious, loving, and consistent with “the rules” of the Kingdom of God. All of this will be further defined and described by Paul later in the letter.

Questions for the passage:

1. Circle recurring phrases in these verses. What do they say about the nature of the relationship between you and Christ?

2. What action(s) of the church are implied in the work God is doing in our lives, according to the passage?

3. What word is God speaking to you in your present circumstance in relation to the church? How does knowing what this passage teaches help you make progress in your spiritual life? in your faith community life?

In my last post, we contemplated the wonders of Jesus Christ, the very One who has known and loved us, as present and active at the creation. Thinking along these lines might be like realizing that someone you have known for years as, say, “Janie’s mom” was actually quite famous in a former life. In our relationship with Jesus, I fear that our familiarity with him may have caused us to forget the truly awesome role he has played in everything good, life-giving, and creative. He is not one among many, as perhaps the Colossians believed; and he is not just a friend. Jesus has, for all time, been God and worthy of all praise, worship, and respect.

What follows in Paul’s letter is an elaboration on the role Jesus has played to affect relationships:

18He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself
all things, whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Jesus Christ is the church’s true head. The word here is “head,” not “source” or some other word to modify the concept that Jesus functions as the authority of the church. This is important to us because the unrivaled Lordship of Jesus Christ is the fixed point, the True North, of the church’s compass. Jesus has the authority to carry out his will; it is his personality and point of view with which everything else is to align.

Imagine a body without a head: first of all, that body is now dead, because the governing functions of brain and nervous system all reside within the skull. That body has lost the sensing organs for sight, hearing, taste, and smell. That body cannot communicate verbally, cannot plan, cannot experience emotion, cannot pray or commune with God. But with its head, a body can function in a coordinated fashion, allowing all senses to work in concert to accomplish the feats a headless corpse cannot. The control center of the head is essential for the rest of the body to have its being. For the church, Jesus is that control center, so add to the list infinite wisdom, goodness, and omniscience. You can see from this illustration why the church needs Jesus Christ as head of the body.

Further, Jesus is the beginning (present before anything else came to be, the “firstborn from the dead.” This interesting phrase refers to the resurrection; Jesus was the first to be raised bodily to everlasting life after physical dying. His death on the cross sent him to be counted among the dead, but on the third day, he rose from the grave as the firstborn of redeemed and reclaimed humanity. As the firstborn, he claims the rights and privileges of “oldest son,” as mentioned before.

The reality continues in this way: Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the Christ, God come in the flesh—was and is no mere human character in a play. He embodied “the fullness of God,” that is, everything divine in nature, personality, abilities, and wisdom was found to reside in Jesus. The second Person of the Trinity declined, for a time, all the perquisites of divinity in order to be a visible embodiment of God. We humans would not have been able to withstand the glory (think light and power) of the unveiled presence of God, so Jesus “put a lid on it,” so to speak, and his disciples lived to tell the tale of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. While “the lid” held God’s glory at bay, Jesus was no less God. It was the fullness of God that dwelt in him.

Because Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, he was able to accomplish the distinct mission that only God could do to God’s satisfaction: redeem the world by virtue of the perfect, atoning sacrifice in our place. Jesus, effectively representing all of us mere mortals yet without sin, took upon himself what our sin deserved; and for the satisfaction of his holiness, out of unmatched love, and hopeful of reconciliation between alienated parties, he died and rose again.

We owe everything to Jesus. Our struggles to feel at home in a church congregation are pale compared to the glory of what our Lord has done for us and for the church universal. This means that the church—flawed and disappointing—is in as much need for the Savior as you and I are. God is still engaged in the work Christ brought to earth, the ministry of reconciliation, because the church remains at war with itself and consequently with God. The body is still uncoordinated, easily bruised, and its circulation wanting. Whether we like it or not, we sojourners are part of the Body of Christ and therefore part of what is not functioning properly. In our present (alienated) state we may be a bruised limb to which healing need be applied, but as long as the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts by faith in Jesus Christ we are still in union with Christ and a part of his Body.

As we pray for our own healing, let us pray for the healing of the church. As we pray for the church to get its act together, let us pray for ourselves, too, that we may be full participants (someday if not yet) in the church’s movement toward health and wholeness.

The high point of Paul’s presentation of God now moves from the Father (vs. 12) to the Son (vs. 13b) who, so far, is identified as the source of our redemption and the forgiveness of sins (vs. 14). What follows is a well-constructed, eloquent statement of the supremacy of Christ over creation and his unique preeminence as the world’s only redeemer.

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him
and for him.

17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Wow. Paul just puts it all out there: there is nobody who can light a candle to the rank or power of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Nobody. His emphasis, and the length of his statement (because there is more to come), suggests that this was a sticking point with the Colossians. Textual evidence points to the possibility that the little church in western Turkey might have been tempted to recognize other gods as rivals of Jesus. If a Jewish influence had caused a drift in the Colossian church, as N. T. Wright claims, then the other god would be “the Law.” If pagan doctrines-de-jour have infiltrated the church, then the other gods would be from the Greek pantheon or local inventions. In either case, the weakness being addressed is consideration of anything other than Jesus Christ being the most important and only truly powerful God known to all creation.

In the first half of the passage (verses 15-17 above), Paul describes the Lord with phrases that stretch a Jewish mindset (among his first readers), challenge a Greek-pagan mindset (the background of many church attenders in Colossae), and dethrone a modern mindset that puts the individual in sovereign position. The basic points are these:

  1. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. God is spirit, invisible, but his full glory was reflected in and by his Son, Jesus, who became visible to us as a human being. The fact that God wanted us to see his image in Jesus says something about God’s relational character, his love, and his passion to be known by those he created.

  2. Jesus Christ was before anything created came to be. “The firstborn” is a Jewish idea, representing the fact that Jesus has everything that belongs to the Father, all the rights and privileges of the oldest son, and therefore authority over everyone else to follow in the family. Specifically, before anything was created (cf. Genesis 1 and 2) Jesus already existed. The logic of this claim insists that he had never not existed. Who else can make that claim?! If Jesus was here first and lay claim to everything that followed in creation, that puts him in a pre-eminent position and us in a place of service.

  3. Everything that was created came into being in him, through him, and for him. Fundamentally, this means that nothing exists that didn’t get its life (or being) from Jesus and through his agency, and nothing has been created that wasn’t for his pleasure and use. This category is not limited to plants, animals, people, and the natural world; it includes realities, entities, powers that cannot be seen but which—in the first century and even now—claim their own counterfeit realm.

  4. The false world of illegitimate claims to power simply cannot be sustained because Jesus is before them: a sight to behold and worship. Further the false claims of pagan gods are unsustainable because Jesus—who is bigger, stronger, and wiser—holds even them in the palm of his hand. “In him all things hold together” (vs. 17b).

The prophets very pointedly challenged the prevailing pagan views by mocking the blind, deaf, and mute nature of idols made with hands. A piece of wood, even beautifully carved, cannot see. A stone, even intricately hewn into the shape of an animal, has no life and no caring in it. But Jesus, through whom even we were fashioned and shaped (also in God’s image), is heavily invested in us by his love, compassion, and mercy. In this he has no true rival.

If Jesus is Lord of all creation, then those among us who are spiritual sojourners—the unchurched, de-churched, and decommissioned Christians—must realize that in our independence we are not God. We are not sovereign over our destiny. We do not rule our world. We have not escaped the tyranny of a corrupted church or the sadness over a disappointing leader, only to be thrust out on our own to fend for ourselves. We are assured that the Lord Jesus Christ sees us, knows us, hears us, and is acting on our behalf even as he reigns over us. Detachment from the gathered church does not make us unreachable or unknowable by God. And in some mystical sense, perhaps we can acknowledge that part of what Jesus is “holding together” is our belabored souls, even when our ties to the family of God appear to be weakened or invisible.

Next post: Jesus Christ as Lord of redemption