Anniversary Changes

Oak_tree_09262015This week marks the second anniversary of T2Pneuma.net which was established in 2013.  Thank you for your faithful readership!

The theme of T2Pneuma.net, as outlined in the Home page,  “is online Pastor (or Christian ministry) and related topics.  I try to write about issues from my ministry and from issues of interest to readers.” This theme will continue.  I will, however, in the coming months focus more intentionally on my writing technique.  In particular, I hope to develop the use of a more narrative style taking a page from Jon Franklin’s work: Writing for Story:  Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction. Hopefully, the quality of my writing will also improve.

My experience is  that online ministry is real ministry. The most popular posts on this blog over the past 2 years have not been the “light and fluffy” posts targeting topical issues or favorable demographics.  The most popular posts have been those that have real substance.  The number one post over past 2 years, for example, has been a hermetical study, Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s: Is There a Meaning in This Text:  The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Part 2with 171 viewings.  The number two post has been on leadership, James E. Plueddemann’s: Leading Across Cultures:  Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church with 110 viewings. Both are serious reviews of serious seminary texts.

Effective immediately, I am reducing the number of posts each week to two: a lesson on Friday and a prayer on Sunday.  The lesson will take the form of a review or a reflection. I will occasionally offer other postings, as time allows.

In the coming weeks, I hope also to roll out 2 new series.  The first will be a series of prayers that I develop based on the Life in Tension series. This is an effort to honor the attention that my prayers taken from A Christian Guide to Spirituality in English and Spanish have received over time.  The second will be a new project: a spiritual autobiography.  As this point, I have not settled on a title but I will be working on an outline and title over the next couple weeks.

The oak tree appears on the Hiemstra family coat of arms and, in this case, grows in the parking lot at Oak Marr Recreation Center in Oakton, Virginia.

Yours in Christ,

Stephen

 

Continue Reading

Persecution Can Be Transformative

Life_in_Tension_web“And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution
against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the
regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my grandparents’ home, every meal began with prayer and ended with a scripture reading. During my college years at Iowa State University, I used to travel to visit them on the weekends. At one point when it was my turn to pick a scripture passage, I read the story of Stephen. Well, sort of. I could not read the story without breaking out in tears…

The charge against Stephen was twofold:

“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14 ESV)

Stephen never disputed the charge and offered no defense. Instead, he accused the Jews of false worship and not keeping the law (Acts 7:48,53) effectively validating their charges. What drove them crazy, however, was when he reminded them of Jesus’ words during his trial:

“But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64 ESV) [1]

Jesus was paraphrasing Daniel 7:13. This was clear a claim of divinity. Stephen’s stoning was spontaneous and illegal under Roman law (John 18:31). Yet, it was approved by Saul (Acts 8:1). Persecution requires a persecutor.

By his own words, Saul was an zealous persecutor (Phil 3:6). Saul is introduced in Acts 7:58 with the execution of Stephen. In Acts 8 we are told that he not only approved of Stephen’s stoning, he led the persecution of the church in Jerusalem that followed (Acts 8:1, 3). Saul’s persecution is described with the word ravage (λυμαίνω; Acts 8:3) which suggests a path of self-destruction as in the proverb: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” (Prov. 19:3 ESV)

In leading the persecution of the church, Saul both assists in scattering the Jerusalem disciples to the regions of Judea and Samaria—fulfilling the commission of Christ in Acts 1:8. For example, we read: Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (Acts 8:4 ESV). In doing so, at his worse Saul still acts as an unwilling, unknowing instrument of the Holy Spirit. However, when Saul sets his course to oppose Christ’s commission in the scattering by going to Damascus, he meets the risen Lord who, unlike in the case of Judas Iscariot (Matt 28:5), graciously prevents him from self-destruction. Even before his conversion, the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, accomplished God’s will and his own call (Acts 9:15-16).

A spiritual bond is formed between the persecuted and persecutors. Charismatics refer to it as one of the chains of Satan because turning into our pain is a clear choice to turn away from God [2]. Forgiveness breaks this bond and makes room for God’s Holy Spirit to work in our lives (Rom 12:19). Interestingly, the Apostle Paul never forgot Stephen and mentions him in his speech before the Sanhedrin when he is arrested in Jerusalem in which recounts his own conversion (Acts 22:20). Was Paul God’s answer to Stephen’s prayer: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”? (Acts 7:60 ESV)

The Book of Acts reports that the Holy Spirit worked through persecution to establish the first gentile church in Antioch. We read:

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” (Acts 11:19 ESV)

The key word here is scattered (διασπαρέντες). The only other place in the New Testament where this word appears is in Acts 8:4: Now those who were scattered [by Saul’s persecution] went about preaching the word. The word suggests an action of the wind—in English we say scattered by the wind [3]. The word for wind in the Greek is pneuma (πνεῦμα). This word is also translated as Holy Spirit. The inference is that the Holy Spirit established the church at Antioch by means of persecution. Because the apostles remained primarily in Jerusalem at this point, God went ahead of them to establish his church in “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV), much like God has used the Pentecostal movement in our own time to reach much of the known world.

The implication here is that persecution is used by God to shake things up and to form not only individuals but also His church.

 

[1] Also see: Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:69.

[2] Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane gives us a clear template for dealing with pain (Matt. 26:39-44 ESV).

[3] The allusion here is to Luke 8:5-15, The Parable of the Sower.

Continue Reading

Prayer Day 46: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Disponible en Amazon.com
Disponible en Amazon.com

Holy Father. We praise you for your divine example of life in community. Shelter us through life’s transitions. Grant us spiritual guides for the journey who help us ask the right questions and persevere with us until we do. In the power of your Holy Spirit, teach us to accept guidance and how to offer it in grace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Padre Santo, te alabamos por Tu ejemplo divino de vida en comunidad. Protéjenos durante de las transiciones de la vida. Concédenos guías espirituales para el camino que nos ayuden a hacer las preguntas correctas y pereservar con nosotros hasta que lo hagamos. En el poder del Espíritu Santo, enséñanos a aceptar ayuda y como ofrecerla en gracia. En el nombre de Jesús oramos. Amén.

Continue Reading

Suffering Predates Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 25:8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In both the Old Testament Books of the Law and Books of the Prophets, suffering and salvation are linked prominently. Reproach and persecution are amplied by the emotional distress suffered because it is frequently very personal.

In the Law, the story of Joseph stands out. Joseph was the first-born son of Rachel whose older sister, Leah, had had six sons and a daughter while Rachel was barren. The Bible records these words when Joseph was born:

“Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, God has taken away my reproach.” (Gen 30:22-23 ESV)

Rachel was reviled by her sister, Leah, out of jealousy with a focus on her barrenness [1]. Because Rachel was also Jacob’s favorite wife, Joseph soon became Jacob’s favorite son. We read:

Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors.” (Gen. 37:3 ESV)

Jealousy between Joseph and his brothers led them to sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt and to report to Jacob that he had been killed by wild animals (Gen 37). After suffering from the hands his brothers, being sold into slavery, and sent to prison, Joseph proved himself to be a hard worker, honest man, and able leader. He is later promoted by Pharoah to be prime minister and through God’s intervention saved Egypt and his own family from starvation during a terrible famine (Gen 38-45). In effect, the son who was reviled and persecuted became the savior of the family and nation.  Does this story sound familiar?

In both the case of Rachel and her son, Joseph, the primarily cause of the raproach was not righteousness; it was jealousy—jealousy over childbearing and jealousy over favortism.

In the Law, the story of Job stands out. Job is a righteous man persecuted by Satan (Job 1-2) but reproached by his friends who doubt his righteousness. For example, Eliphaz the Temanite asks: ”who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7 ESV) Likewise, Bildad the Shuhite calls Job a windbag and asks: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” (Job 8:3 ESV) This raproach by Job’s friends goes on and on. It gets so bad that God himself gets angry at these friends and corrects their misconceptions of Job’ righteousness (Job 42:7).

In spite of the raproach of his friends and the loss of his family and fortune, God comes to Job’s rescue and rewards Job’s faithfulness. We read: “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10 ESV)

The raproach and suffering that we observe in the Old Testament arises, in part, because of differences in the ethical systems articulated. Three stand out.

First, one is righteous in keeping the law and unrighteous in breaking it. God rewards the righteous and punishes law breakers. This is, for example, the expectation of Job’s friend Eliphaz the Temanite (Job 4:7).  It is also the ethic displayed in Psalm 1.

Second, one is righteous in being wise and observing how the world really works. For example, we read: “One who is wise is cautious and turns away from evil, but a fool is reckless and careless.” (Prov 14:16 ESV) In effect, evil is not just bad, it is also stupid.  This is the dominant ethic promoted in Proverbs.

Third, righteous suffering is blessed. This lesson comes directly from Job’s experience, but we also witness this relationship in daily life. We sometimes call it differred gratification. Education and investment activities both work this way. The rub is that plans do not always work out—there is a risk of failure. However, the parable of talents teaches us that God rewards those who trust in him and punish those who refuse to (Matt 25:14-30).

As the saying goes, the cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear.

[1] The theme of woman teasing each other viciously over barrenness figures prominently in conflict between Sarah and Hagar (Gen 16:4). It also is important in the story of the birth of the Prophet Samuel. There we read: “And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.” (1 Sam. 1:6 ESV)

Continue Reading

Persecution Gets Personal

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and
utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Matt 5:11 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ninth beatitude is the capstone beatitude and it repeats beatitude eight emphatically. The parallel in Luke’s Gospel is even more explicit. The ninth beatitude also requires special attention because the first and last points in a list are in a literary sense the most important. The emphasis here is emphatic.

Tension with others is intensified in several dimensions. Notice the verbs—revile, persecute and slander (utter evil falsely)—replace persecute. And notice how the object of this vitrol shifts from righteousness to me (on my account). The tension here is intensified because what was generic persecution becomes a personal attack (Wilkins 2004, 211). The tension is also amplied by the shift from the third person (they) to the second person (you) (Neyrey 1998, 168). I suspect that Jesus was looking into the eyes of his disciples at this point. To use a military analogy, Jesus is like the commander who addresses his troops as the friends because he knows that they will watch his back as they go into battle.

The key verb here is revile (ὀνειδίζω) which means: “to find fault in a way that demeans the other, reproach, revile, mock, heap insults upon as a way of shaming” (BDAG 5316(1)). Closely related is the noun form (ὄνειδος) of the word which means: “loss of standing connected with disparaging speech, disgrace, reproach, insult” (BDAG 5318). Revile (scorn, disgrace, reproach) is used biblically in several specific contexts:

1. “She conceived and bore a son and said, God has taken away my reproach.” (Gen 30:23)
2. “If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity.” (Lev 20:17)
3. “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.” (Isa 25:8)
4. “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.” (Ps 22:6)
5. “Then I said to them, You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” (Neh 2:17)

The controlling idea here is to be left exposed to public ridicule for bareness, nakedness, or weakness—like a woman caught without clothes or a city without walls. Notice that several of these verses are messianic passages cited by Jesus himself.

Understanding the full weight of what is being said is requires a word about cultural context. Jesus is addressing disciples in a communal, honor and shame culture. Neyrey (1998, 168-169) that the beatitudes address a common theme—the poor, the hungry, and the mourning—shared by disciples having been driven out of their families and communities. The three verbs—revile, persecute, and slander—point likewise to a social stigma and explusion—someone being disinherited and driven out of the family and community.

The passage about the early church in Acts often cited as an example of unity—

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

—may actually have been time of significant stress for the disciples. Still, persecution marks one as a Christian and is therefore also a mark of salvation (Rev 22:4)

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

BibleWorks. 2015. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.10>.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Wilkins, Michael J. 2004. The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Continue Reading

Blessing Those that Persecute

Life_in_Tension_web“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Increasingly even in America, Christians find themselves the target of isolation, persecution, and even murder. During 2015 alone, a woman was jailed for publically espousing Biblical views on marriage [1], a church was the site of a mass shooting [2], and Christians were publicly beheaded by Islamic extremists [3]. These were only the most recent events. Few of us will forget the shooting of Cassie Bernall at Columbine High School for professing faith in Jesus Christ in 1999 [4]. Persecution of the faith is part of everyday experience.

From the cross, “Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)

Persecution reminds us of who we are, who we belong to, and what we are about.

Who We Are. Jesus links persecution directly to our identity saying: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:12 ESV) In effect, persecution for righteousness sake validates our faith and puts us in league with the prophets.

Who We Belong To. We are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) and undocumented workers here on earth. The Apostle Peter writes:

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:10-12 ESV)

If our identity is in Christ, people look at us differently expecting to see Christ in us [5]. If we behave like everyone else, then we bring shame on Christ and on ourselves.

What We Are About. Again, the Apostle Peter writes:

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)

Persecution is part of the mix of trials that we should expect to suffer [6].

Persecution also helps us establish priorities. Poorly focused objectives divides scarce church resources to the point that almost nothing at all is accomplished. Persecution helps us focus on Christ’ mission, not our own.

When Jesus talks about us being salt, it is attached to warning. Listen again to his words:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13 ESV)

Trampling is a good analogy for the persecution of a church that has lost its way. Its better to be persecuted for righteousness sake (1 Peter 3:17).

 

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/07/politics/kim-davis-same-sex-marriage-kentucky-governor.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charleston_church_shooting.

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/19/africa/libya-isis-executions-ethiopian-christians.

[4] http://www.cassierenebernall.org.

[5] “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isa 51:1 ESV)

[6] “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
(Rom. 8:34-39 ESV)

Continue Reading

Prayer Day 45: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Una Guia Cristian a la EspiritualidadAlmighty and loving God. We praise you for instituting and blessing our marriages. We thank you for the gift of children and for the way you transform us through and with our families. In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us the wisdom and strength to care for our spouses and our children day by day. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Todopoderoso y amoroso Dios, te alabamos por instituir y bendecir nuestros matrimonios. Te agradecemos por el don de los niños y por la manera en que nos transformas a través de y con nuestras familias. En el poder del Espíritu Santo, concédenos la sabiduría y la fuerza para cuidar a nuestros cónyuges y a nuestros niños día tras día. En el nombre precioso de Jesús oramos. Amén.

Continue Reading

Christian Paradox

Life_in_Tension_web“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live
to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we think of sin, we normally think of sin against our neighbor rather than against God. In fact, the story of the tensions of faith over the past century have mostly focused on reconciliation with our neighbor, not God. The tensions over racial and ethnic equality, classism, and women’s rights, for example, are struggles over the sin of discrimination against our neighbor—a form of pride displayed at the expense of that neighbor. The Apostle Paul said it best over two thousand years ago:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek [racial and ethnic equality], there is neither slave nor free [classism], there is no male and female [women’s rights], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28 ESV)

If our sin is against our neighbor, then what does that have to do with the atonement of Christ? Why would pursuing this righteousness lead to persecution?

In a strictly political sense, equality leads to instability. Why? Because no one is in charge. Everything is negotiated. Chaos is the natural outcome because personal and class interests are naturally in conflict and no one has the authority required to set rules and enforce law. Economists sometimes talk about competition as a transition to monopoly. Most people prefer security to equality—even if they think of themselves as democrats (small d). The more equality experienced, the greater the need for God!

In an unstable world, the swabbling would never stop. Revenge and counter-revenge have no natural end-point except death.

Jesus proposes specific alternatives:

  • “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39 ESV)
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 ESV).
  • “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matt. 5:41 ESV)
  • “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1 ESV)
  • “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21 ESV)

Refuse to defend your honor, even if you suffer shame. In other words, in all things be humble [1]. Instead of defending your honor, practice humility and pursue righteousness even at the expense of persecution and death. Evil is defeated on the cross because God himself has paid the penalty of our sin (1 Peter 2:24; 1 Cor 15:3). The resurrection vindicated the claim that Jesus is the Son of God [2].

In a context of humility, violence is avoided by refusing to pursue one’s rights and preferring to set a good example by being proactively righteous. This is not a strategy to dominant another person or for one group to dominant another, in part, because the other party (or parties) gets to choose whether or not to reciprocate. Quite the contrary, the other party (or parties) can simply chose to persecute or dominate. However, the possibility that an enemy will chose to become a friend is only logically possible if this strategy of humility is sincerely chosen.

Although Stephen was the first Christian martyr, many more followed. The only apostle that was not martyred was the Apostle John (Foxe 2001, 10). Outside of martyrdom, other Christians have given testimony through service at the risk of their own lives. For example, during a plague in Alexandria in the third century Christians refused to abandon the city preferring to remain and care for the sick. Have we followed their example?  (Kinnamen and Lyons 2007, 110).

Divine intervention is required to abandon one’s rights and live in service to others. While Christ’s resurrection points to his divinity, his life and his sacrifice point to God’s alternative. Dare we follow?

 

[1] Neyrey (1998) devotes his entire book to this subject.

[2] Jesus preferred to refer to himself as the Son of Man. Out of 189 verses in the Bible that use this term, 89 are found in Ezekiel which refer to the prophet himself. The term in Hebrew literally means “son of Adam” ( בֶּן־אָדָם (Ezek. 2:1 WTT)). In the more famous passage in Daniel 7:13, the Hebrew expression is the more familiar “son of man” (כְּבַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ).

REFERENCES

Foxe, John and Harold J. Chadwick. 2001. The New Foxes’ Book of Martyrs (Orig Pub 1563). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Continue Reading

Righteous Suffering

Life_in_Tension_web“Then the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.
I know their sufferings” (Exod 3:7 ESV).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For the Christian and for the Jew, the experience of God frequently arises in the context of righteous suffering.

Genesis begins the Bible with the creation account, but Genesis itself was written by Moses who encounters God as a refugee from his homeland and his people in the desert tending his father-in-law’s sheep (Exodus 3:1). As a man wanted for murder, Moses find himself in the presence of God consumed by grief over his sins and shamed by his inability to help his people. Here is a former prince of Egypt now tending sheep not even his own. Do you think Moses felt persecuted? Do you think that he suffered?

God gives Moses a new assignment. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exod 3:10 ESV)

Moses is not anxious. Quite the contrary. He is wanted for murder in Egypt. Going to Pharaoh entails substantial and obvious personal risk. However, God offers Moses a number of assurances. Most important among these are the words: “But I will be with you” (Exod 3:12 ESV). In the midst of our own suffering God promises to be with us.

In the Law of Moses, God promises to be with us in the midst of suffering. God’s presence is manifested two other tangible gifts: the giving of the divine name and the giving of the law. With respect to the NAME, we read:

“God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM. And he said, Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exod. 3:14-15 ESV)

The ancients believed that knowing the name of a god gave one power over that god. When God freely gave Moses his name, he was offering him what we might call the power of prayer. And God’s covenant name was significant: YHWH which in Hebrew means “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”. In common English, we might say: “I am the real deal”. The ancients were accustomed to gods made up by their leaders to serve their own political purposes [1]  A REAL GOD with REAL POWER was something entirely new.

With respect to the Law, the covenant of Moses begins with a reminder: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2 ESV). The laws that followed gave the people of Israel a clear picture of what God required of them. To our ears, this sounds like no big deal, but the problem faced by the ancients was not knowing who God was and what he requires. It is hard to pray to God if you do not know his name or know what he requires of you. Consequently, knowing God’s name and having his law may life an aweful lot easier and reduced anxiety levels dramatically.

In the prophets, suffering continues but something new appears. The Prophet Job is described as a righteous man:

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1 ESV)

Job is so righteous that God even brags about him to Satan:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8 ESV)

To which Satan asks to test him and God grants his request. Satan is given permission to take everything Job has away and to afflict horribly (Job 1-2).

What is interesting here is that the story of Job is thought to have been the oldest book of the Bible, written my Moses, and used to convince the Israelite people to follow him out of Egypt. What is new here is the first evidence of the need for a savior: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25 ESV) Even in his apparent righteousness, Job feels a need for salvation. Righteous suffering, whether by human taskmasters or Satanic oppression, pushes us to seek out and to rely on God rather than our own resources or on the law [2].

This theme of relying solely on God is repeated in the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When his friends refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol instead of the one true God, they are thrown into the fiery furnance. We read:

“And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? They answered and said to the king, True, O king. He answered and said, But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Dan 3:23-25 ESV)

Righteous suffering not only leads us to God, it becomes a testimony to others. This is the blessing.

The eighth beatitude is perhaps the most paradoxical: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV) How can we be blessed in suffering? The answer comes later in Matthew directly from the mouth of Jesus: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39 ESV)

This is the Christian paradox.

 

[1]  An example of this phenomena is found in the story of Jeroboam, ,the first king of Israel (Northern Kingdom) after rebelling against Rehoboam, the son of Solomon:

“And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah. So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.” (1 Kings 12:26-29 ESV)

[2] The Prophen Jeremiah writes: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34 ESV)

Continue Reading