A Right Spirit and Clean Heart

Life_in_Tension_web“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”
(Ps. 51:10-11 ESV)

When we think of the word, holy (ἅγιος in Greek), we usually think of moral purity, which is one definition. The other primary definition is: “pertaining to being dedicated or consecrated to [set apart to] the service of God” (BDAG 61). This is also the word for saint.

The idea of holy as both separation and moral purity is fundamental in the Old Testament understanding of who God is. The Book of Genesis begins by saying: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1 ESV) In the act of creation God performs two acts of separation: non-being is separated from being and the heavens and the earth are created separate from one another. God then continues by creating other separations—darkness and light; morning and evening; dryland and water; male and female; and so on. And these separations were declared to be good.

Today, we often refer to separations as boundaries. Boundaries have the characteristics of being clear and concrete. Later in Exodus 20, when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, the law provides boundaries defining who is and who is not a member of the household of God. Members follow God’s law; non-members break the law. These laws are not imposed; they are voluntary taking the form of a covenant between the people of Israel and God. The covenant language is obvious because the commandments begin with a reminder of the benefits of participating in the covenant: “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) In other words, you were slaves, now you are free—you owe me!

In the second giving of the covenant in Deuteronomy (second book of the law), the benefits are laid out in greater detail in the form of blessings [for following the law] and curses [for not following the law]. For example, we read:

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field….” (Deut 28:1-3 ESV)

Further down we read the parallel antithesis:

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field…” (Deut. 28:15-16 ESV)

Psalm 1 builds on these blessings and curses:

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers…” (Ps. 1:1 ESV)

The job description of a prophet in the Old Testament focused on reminding people of the consequences of ignoring their covenantal obligations.

Why then did Job, who was a righteous man under the law, suffer? (Job 1:1)

One answer is that existence of evil (Job 1:9). Another answer is the foolishness of men and women (Prov 1:7). The best answer is that we born in sin and require God’s intervention to obey the law. We read:

“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another…” (Job 19:25-27 ESV)

The possibility of a redeemer is prophesied by Moses (Deut 18:15) and hinted at in God’s core values expressed immediately on giving the law in the form of forgiveness (Exod 34:7). But King David, in his prayer asking for forgiveness, most clearly sees God’s role in our moral condition when he writes:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” (Ps. 51:10-11 ESV)

David recognized that divine intervention was required for human compliance with the law.

God later intervened through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:3-10). Consequently, our moral purity rests on the work of Christ.  In Christ and Christ alone, we are blessed to live within God’s law and able in true humility to worship God.

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Be Holy For I am Holy

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

God is holy; we are not. Our tension with God often starts with guilt over this holiness gap. This gap, which is more of a chasm, points to our need for Christ because we cannot bridge it on our own [1]. The existence of this gap is explains why the gift of the Holy Spirit is foundational for our faith and for the establishment of the church. But first, let’s talk a bit more about the gap.

What does it mean to be pure in heart? The Greek word for pure, καθαρός, means “to being free from moral guilt, pure, free from sin” (BDAG 3814 (3c)). The Greek expression, pure in heart (καθαρὸς τῇ καρδίᾳ), is only here in the New Testament but arises in the Old Testament—

“Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:3-4 ESV)

—in the context of worship in the temple in Jerusalem. In view here is the holiness code of Leviticus where God admonishes us many times: “be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44).

The emphasis on the heart in English translation is somewhat misleading because the response expected is not limited to emotions, which the English infers. The Hebrew expression for heart, לֵבָב, means “inner man, mind, will, heart” (BDB 4761). This is not wordsmithing trivia. Immediately following the Shema [2] we are commanded—”You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:5 ESV)—which emphasizes this point (heart, soul, might) through repetition [3]. Jesus reminds us of this verse in Matthew 22:37 where he gives us the double-love command (love God; love neighbor; Matt 22:36-40)

The promise of seeing God, if we remain pure, is a promise of forgiveness (Ps. 51:10-11) and salvation (Job 19:27), but it is also a call to ministry. Seeing God figure prominently in the call stories of both Moses (Exod 3:6) and the Prophet Isaiah (Isa 6:5). Similarly, Paul is blinded by light in his call story which parallels the call account of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 1:28) [4]. Seeing God blinds us and threatens our very existence, as unholy beings.

The promise of seeing God is also a promise of restoration of the relationship with God, as we first saw in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:8-9), which is also a picture of heaven. For example, in the last chapter of the Book of Revelation, we read:

“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (Rev. 22:3-4 ESV)

In some sense, holiness is the mark of God on our souls, as well as our foreheads. This surprising idea is not a new idea; it is an old one. In Genesis we read:

“Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, She is my sister’? And she herself said, He is my brother. In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this. Then God said to him in the dream, Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.” (Gen. 20:4-6 ESV).

What is most surprising here is that Abimelech is a gentile, not a Jew. Yet, God works in his heart to keep him from sinning and speaks to him directly.

It is indeed ironic in this beatitude to see Jesus, a “friend of … sinners” [5], placing a high value on and teaching about holiness knowing what was to come. John’s Gospel ends with Jesus offering the Apostles a commission—”As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21 ESV)—and anointing them with the Holy Spirit—”Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22 ESV). Clearly, purity of heart was a prerequisit for ministry and the Holy Spirit brought purity of heart within their reach. Still, the Apostles had to appreciate and desire the gift.

 

[1] The exclusiveness of Christ arises, in part, because he is both God and man which is a necessity for bridging both the holiness gap and the gap between mortal and immortal beings.

[2] ”Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deut. 6:4 ESV)

[3] The unity of heart and mind (or body, soul, and mind) implies that having a pure heart is a holistic statement of purity—purity throughout our entire person or being. Benner (1998, 22) notes that when the Bible refers to a division of the person, the division is for emphasis, not to infer that the person can be divided into separate and distinct parts.

[4] The Acts 26 allusion is the most complete: ἀνάστηθι καὶ στῆθι ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδας (arise and stand on your feet; Acts 26:16 BNT) which compares with Ezekiel’s words: στῆθι ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδας (stand on your feet; Ezek 2:1 BGT)

[5] “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, He has a demon. The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” (Luke 7:33-35 ESV)

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.>.

Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

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Jesus Models Image Ethics

Life_in_Tension_web“So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord,
but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does,
that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Jesus loves image ethics.

Because we are created in the image of God, God is our model for ethical behavior. In Genesis we read:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27 ESV)

The pattern is simple—God does A, we do A; God does B, we do B. Jesus applies this pattern in the Lord’s Prayer several times. For example, we read:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt. 6:10 ESV)

The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” models this pattern. Also, we see:  “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12 ESV)

Here Jesus gets stuck and repeats himself, in case one is hard of hearing:

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15 ESV)

In six simple verses (Matt. 6:10-15), Jesus repeats this pattern four times! Does a harden heart preclude one from salvation from sin? These verses certainly hold up that possibility.

An obvious application is to reflect all of God character traits:

“…The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exod. 34:6 ESV)

If God is merciful, then we are merciful; if God is gracious, we are gracious…Notice how the fifth beatitude reverses this pattern:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7 ESV)

The inclusion of the fifth beatitude of mercy to the exclusion of God’s other character traits establishes mercy as God’s priority. Breaking the pattern through reversal also adds emphasis.

Do you want a blessing? Then, be a blessing! [1]

Simple. Clean. Convicting.

Jesus loves image ethics.

 

[1] One is reminded here of Abraham’s blessing: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2 ESV)

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Mercy as a Path to Salvation

Life_in_Tension_web“Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is no accident that we feel the tension with God over the question of mercy. We do not want to admit to our sins (or our need for forgiveness) because we spend most of our lives trying to hide our sin from other people. We deny our sin from morning to night. And it is painful, in turn, showing mercy to other people —we would much rather have them fulfill their promises and pay their debts.

Our problem with mercy is that it requires action.  We would rather talk about love because it is a squishy sort of emotion.  Easy on the action; easy to redefine; easily to confuse with.  We are always in compliance with a law of love, at least in our own minds.  Mercy requires concrete action.  Billy Graham wrote:  “What are some of the areas in today’s world toward which we can show mercy? First: We can show mercy by caring for the social needs of our fellow men…Second: We can show mercy by doing away with our prejudices…Third: We can show mercy by sharing the gospel of Christ with others.” (Graham 1955, 61-65).  Concrete. Doable. Undeniable.  Highly personal.

God’s priority is showing mercy. Jesus cites the Prophet Hosea twice [1] in Matthew after citing the beatitude:

“For I desire steadfast love [2] and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 ESV)

The heart of paganism in the church lies in trying to bribe God with sacrifices other than the sacrifice of our own hearts.  We prefer to bribe God with sacrifices (”burnt offerings”) than own up to our own sin.   Arguing that we are basically good (denying original sin), in effect, denies Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross.  That is to say, we don’t need Christ’s mercy and, as a codicil, we do not need to practice mercy with those around us. The echo of Cain’s question still haunts us: “am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9 ESV)

It is interesting that in the Gospel of Luke, the double love command (love God; love neighbor; Matthew 22:36-40) is cited, not by Jesus, but by a lawyer (Luke 10:25-28) who then proceeds to narrow the definition of neighbor [3]. He asks Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29 ESV) Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end, Jesus pulls a Jedi mind trick asking: “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36 ESV) Notice how Jesus substitutes the question—”who proved to be a neighbor” for the question—”who is my neighbor”. Jesus turns a direct object (neighbor) into a verb (to be a neighbor). To this question, the lawyer responds: “The one who showed him mercy.” (Luke 10:37 ESV)

Notice how in the story of the Good Samaritan we started out talking about love, but ended up talking about mercy? God’s identity—

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod. 34:6 ESV)

—includes both mercy and love, but mercy comes first. Jesus’ brother James makes a similar observation saying:

“For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13 ESV)

Judgment requires truth (אֱמֶֽת) which in Exodus 34:6 is translated also as faithfulness. Mercy also comes before truth and judgment. Interestingly, James has in the citation above restated Jesus’ beatitude in the negative—essentially it is now in the form of a curse—it is a curse to be judged without mercy.

The link of mercy and judgment necessarily brings us back to the atoning work of Christ. The Apostle Peter clearly linked these two ideas when he wrote:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According 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 an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Peter 1:3-5 ESV)

It is the mercy of God to provide us a path of salvation to Himself.

[1] Matthew 9:13 and 12:7.

[2] There is tension in the Greek and Hebrew texts on this word. The Greek reads mercy (ἔλεος) and the Hebrew reads love (חֶ֥סֶד).  The citations in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7 go with the Greek.  The translation of Hosea 6:6 in the English Standard Version (ESV) goes with the Hebrew.

[3] Today, the lawyer would not only try to narrow the definition of neighbor, he would narrow the definition of love.

REFERENCES

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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God’s Core Values

Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra“The LORD passed before him [Moses] and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:6-7 ESV)

God’s Core Values

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What exactly are God’s core values?

God’s core values are given in Exodus 34:6 immediately following the giving of the Ten Commandments. We know that these values are fundamental for God because they are repeated all most word for word in Psalm 86:15 and 103:8, Joel 2:13, and Jonah 4:2. Interestingly, in the second giving of the law in Deuteronomy 4:31, only mercy is mentioned.

Focus on Mercy

The emphasis in most of these passages on mercy and the de-emphasis in some passages on faithfulness (or truth) suggests that God is soft-hearted. Exodus 34:6 mentions mercy (רַחוּם), gracious (חַנּ֑וּן), slow to anger (אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם) or patient, abounding in love (חֶ֥סֶד) and faithfulness (truth) (אֱמֶֽת). Psalm 86:15 repeats all five words in the Hebrew in the same order. Psalm 103 repeats the first four values [1], but drops faithfulness. Joel 2:13 repeats the first five words, but substitutes “relents over disaster” for faithfulness. Jonah 4:2 likewise substitutes “relents over disaster” for faithfulness and swaps grace and mercy.

Interpreting the Ten Commandments

The giving of the core values right after the giving of the law is not an accident. Core values provide guidance on how to interpret law especially when conflicts arise. Law has the benefit of being concrete and establishes specific principles—this is the field of theology (the study of the nature of God). But in application circumstances are often messy and bring these principles into conflict—this is the field of ethics (the study of right and wrong action). As Christians, because we know God through the Bible and His Holy Spirit, we know the mind of God—we know his character.  Exodus 34:6 speaks directly to this question of God’s character.

Story of Jonah

The classic story of the mind of God is found in the Book of Jonah. God called on Jonah to preach repentance to the people of Nineveh. But Jonah hated the Ninevites and caught the next boat out of town going the opposite direction (Jonah. 1:2-3). Why? Because he knew God’s character. When he finally went to Nineveh and preached as God had called him, the people of Nineveh turned from their sin and begged God to forgive them (Jonah 3:9-10). Jonah responded in anger:

“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:1-2 ESV)

What did Jonah say? In prayer he cited God’s core values as a reason for running away from his assignment to preach to the Ninevites. Why? Because he hated the Ninevites so much that he did not want God to forgive them.

Jonah’s Bad Example

God’s mercy is first among his core values. When we refuse to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our neighbors, we become like Jonah selfishly trying to keep God’s mercy to ourselves. This refusal puts us in tension both with God and with our neighbors. We are in tension with God because, in effect, we deny God’s mercy and our own identity as ones created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). We are in tension with our neighbors because we have denied them God’s mercy and, potentially, their eternal salvation.  Who are the Ninevites in your life?

Jesus reminds us with a promise: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7 ESV)

Aren’t you glad that God’s core values are actually immutable character traits—part of his identity and not of a New Year’s resolution?

 

[1] Slow to anger is expressed with another expression—long nostriled (אֶ֖רֶךְ אַפַּ֣יִם)—implying the same thing—patient.

Also see:

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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Jesus: Show Mercy, Receive Mercy

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Matt. 5:7 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our tension with God is never more obvious than when we need to model ourselves after his mercy. Mercy is mentioned about 30 times in the Old Testament and all but 4 times it is God’s mercy that is in view (Guelich 1982, 88). We understand this point intuitively because Christ died on the cross for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). Christ’s atonement is a debt that we can never repay. So we will fall short no matter how hard we try and we are certainly not always in the mood even to try.

Mercy appears in many word forms in scripture, but the form used in this beatitude is used nowhere else. Merciful (ἐλεήμων) means “being concerned about people in their need, merciful, sympathetic, compassionate” (BDAG 2487). It has the same root as compassion (ἐλεημοσύνη) and mercy (ἔλεος). The word, forgiveness or to forgive (ἀφίημι), is closely related. In a real sense, mercy and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin [1], as the Psalmist writes:

“Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!” (Ps. 25:6-7)

The importance that Jesus placed on mercy shows up both in his repeated use of the term and the reciprocal form that he uses it in (France 1985,110). Jesus uses the word, mercy, in these verses:

  • “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice [2]. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13) [3]
  • “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23)
  • And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:33)

Some of Jesus’ closely related phrases are actually better known:

  • “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 7:12)
  • “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt. 6:12)

Whether it is the Golden Rule or part of the Lord’s Prayer, clearly mercy is God’s signature character trait [4], as we read during the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:4-7 ESV)

The reciprocal form of this beatitude makes it very convicting. We do not earn mercy by being merciful, but if mercy is God’s signature character trait, then we recognize His presence and blessing when we offer it and experience it.

Being created in the image of God, we identify ourselves as Christians when we reflect God’s mercy to those around us.

[1] See: Guelich (1982, 88).

[2] Hosea 6:6.

[3] Also: Matthew 12:7.

[4] “Mercy is a central biblical theme, because in God’s great mercy he does not give humans what they deserve, rather, he gives to them what they do not deserve…” (Wilkins 2004, 208)

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.>.

France, R.T. 1985. Matthew. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

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

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

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In Jesus Completeness is Restored

Life_in_Tension_web“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.” (Gen. 1:27 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Our tension with God, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, arises out of our incompleteness. We are created in God’s image, but only as a complement with our spouse, or future spouse, and then only incompletely. We remain separated from God by our unholiness and by our finitude. We yearn to complete our incompleteness; we yearn to be whole. We remain creatures of God’s creation. Yet, gardeners thrown out of the garden.

So we have reminders.

We are reminded by mere physical things: an empty stomach hungers; a dry mouth thirsts; our loneliness.

We are reminded by our limitations. We fail to keep our promises and to realize our potential.

We are reminded also by spiritual deficits. Our sin cuts us off both from our neighbors and from God. We fall short of the mark; we transgress boundaries; we fail to do the things that we should.

So we are thrown out of the garden.

Out of the garden, we feel shame and guilt.

Out of the garden, we cannot realize our destiny.

Out of the garden, completeness and holiness and fellowship with God are out of our reach.

So Jesus offers us a path back back to wholeness.

Back to restoration and healing.

Back to the garden and our destiny.

Back to our completeness and holiness and fellowship with our maker.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6 ESV)

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Fools for Christ

Life_in_Tension_web“We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure” (1 Cor. 4:10-12 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Where is your identity?

The Apostle Paul talked about being a fool for Christ. Why? Paul lived the life of an itinerant evangelist, much like Jesus himself. He traveled from place to place preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As far as we know it, he was never married or had any children. Being highly educated, Paul gave up a priestly or academic life to pursue his calling as an evangelist to the Gentiles.

Can you image attending your 30th anniversary of receiving your doctorate [1] and telling your fellow graduates:

“I am talking like a madman– with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:23-28)

Doubtlessly, Paul’s classmates were synagogue leaders, high priests, government officials, and college professors. Do you suppose that he hungered and thirsted for righteousness sake? Paul treated his hunger and thirst like his resume as an evangelist—he even refused a salary from the Corinthian church to maintain his integrity as an evangelist [2].

Yet, Paul’s life of service no doubt also put him in tension with God. Paul talked about his thorn in the flesh and struggling with God in prayer (2 Cor. 12:7-8). And he must have anguished over God’s answer to his prayer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Who brags about weaknesses? Paul did (2 Cor. 12:9). Still, you can bet that Paul struggled and anguished over God’s object lesson!

If our identity is in Christ, then we are reminded of our identity through the sacraments which both focus on objects of hunger (bread) and thirst (water/wine). Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine (John 2:1-10). Another important miracle involved multiplying bread and fish (John 6:11). Yet, after Jesus’ longest recorded discourse with the Samaritan women about living water, Jesus refers to the word of God as food (John 4:32) [3].  Clearly, our identity is in Christ and not in the sacraments or in the physical objects of hunger and thirst. When tempted by Satan to turn a stone into bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4:4)

Out of our identity, we act.

The New Testament provides numerous examples of ministering out of our identity in Christ with food and water, including:

  • “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” (Matt. 25:37)
  • “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Rom. 12:20)
  • “And he said to me, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.” (Rev. 21:6)

If the first sin of the bible was to lust after an apple (Gen 6), then it is only fitting that the mark of the disciple would be the sharing of food and drink (Matt 25:37)—modeling after the behavior of Christ himself (Rev 21:6).

 

[1] My 30th anniversary is December 13, 2015.

[2] “Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge?” (2 Cor. 11:7)  Also: “Do we not have the right to eat and drink?” (1 Cor. 9:4)

[3] “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isa. 40:28-31)

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Hunger and Thirst for God

Life_in_Tension_web“As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:1-3 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The great irony of faith is that we approach God out of our poverty, not riches. Babylon and Egypt were among the riches of nations in the Ancient Near East because of the benefits of irrigation, while Palestine was mostly poor and best known for its deserts. Yet, it is in the wilderness that we get to know God (Card 2005, 16).

What do the law and the prophets say about satisfying the hunger and thirst for righteousness?

The Law. Hunger and thirst were unknown in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis we read:

“And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.” (Gen. 2:8-10 ESV)

In the Garden of Eden was an abundance of food and water. Righteousness consisted of living in direct communion with God. Hunger and thirst arose when God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden on account of sin (Gen 3:23). Consequently, hungering and thirsting for righteousness can be seen as mourning over the sin that separates us from God.

We see this idea prominently displayed in the blessings associated with the Mosaic covenant. Seeking a renewed relationship with God is caste in terms of obeying the laws of the covenant. Moses writes:

“And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full.” (Deut. 11:13-15 ESV)

If one obeys the law, God will send rain and you gather a full harvest and have plenty to eat—be satisfied. Likewise, if one reluctantly obeys the law or disobeys the law out of disrespect for God, then hunger and thirst follow:

“Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.” (Deut. 28:47-48 ESV) [1].

Consequently, it is fair to conclude that under the law one reaps what one sows in respect to one’s relationship with God! In fact, hungering and thirsting for mere physical things, not God, is subject to judgment (Exod 17:3) [2].

The Prophets. In the law, one reaps what one sows. In the prophets, the wise are clever and the foolish are ignorant of the ways of the world. For example, we read in Proverbs:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21-22 ESV)

Because God rules over both heaven and earth, understanding the ways of the world is an aspect of wisdom that God grants to the faithful. In this case, the wise feed their enemies and offer them drink because they will feel an obligation—will they perhaps become friends?

In the prophets, we also see hunger and thirst used in a more metaphorical way. For example, Jeremiah prophesies a new, more enlightened form of leadership:

“And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jer. 3:15 ESV)

The good shepherd is, of course, Jesus himself (John 10:11-16) but here we see hunger relieved through “knowledge and understanding” rather than through physical consumption. This metaphorical view of hunger and thirst clearly shows the influence of the creation accounts and pictures heaven as a return to Eden. In Isaiah, for example, we read:

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isa. 55:1-2 ESV)

Eden is, of course, a place where water and food are abundant. And when we hunger and thirst for God’s fellowship, heaven is not far off (Rev. 22:17).

[1] This theme is repeated over and over (e.g. Deut. 8:11-16).

[2] This is, in fact, the basis for the curse for not accepting the new covenant in Christ.  Paul writes:  “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Rom. 1:28 ESV)  To be given over to one’s passions is a curse and it leads to self-destruction because both the mind and the heart are corrupted by sin.

REFERENCES

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow Experience Guide: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

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Jesus: Passionately Pursue the Kingdom of Heaven

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Matt. 5:6 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

With the fourth beatitude we move from tension with ourselves to tension with God. Beatitudes four, five, and six speak of God’s righteousness, mercy, and purity—which we can never fully attain. Our tension emanates from our finitude compared with an infinite God and our sinfulness compared with God’s holiness. Yet, we go on knowing that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:28) and redeemed by His Son, Jesus Christ, because we hunger for God’s righteousness—a precious thing in a fallen world.

The fourth beatitude taps into deep physical and spiritual needs outlined in the words: “hunger and thirst for righteousness”.  Hunger in the Greek, πεινάω, means both “to feel the pangs of lack of food, hunger, be hungry” and “desire something. strongly, hunger for something” (BDAG 5758) which bridges both physical and spiritual needs (Matthew 5:6; Luke 6:21).  Likewise, thirst, διψάω, in the Greek means both “to have a desire for liquid, be thirsty, suffer from thirst” and “to have a strong desire to attain some goal, thirst, i.e. long for something” (BDAG 2051). Righteousness, δικαιοσύνη, means the: “quality or state of juridical correctness with focus on redemptive action, righteousness” (BDAG 2004(2))

The  Gospel of John expresses this symbolism best.  Jesus says:

  • “Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35 ESV)
  • On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”  (John 7:37-39 ESV)

The theme of need runs deep in John’s Gospel.  Jesus first reveals himself to a couple of newlyweds in danger of being stigmatized for their poverty (not having enough wine; John 2:1-11). Our need is then contrasted with God’s super-abundant provision—of wine (John 2:1-11), bread (John 6:5-14), and fish (John 21:3-13).

Still, to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” speaks of extreme suffering:   the most basic of human needs have gone unmet. The laments in the Book of Psalms provide the backstory of this beatitude [1].  There we read: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1 ESV) And “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (Ps. 89:46 ESV)  [2]. It is ironic that we are able to experience God best when we wander in the desert.  As God tells Moses:  “And you shall say to him [Pharaoh], The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.” (Exod. 7:16 ESV)  In other words, God was inviting the Israelite people to rediscover the God of their fathers through adversity—this idea must have blown Pharaoh’s mind! (Card 2005, 16)

The second beatitude affirms that the expectations of human needs will be met and exceeded.  Jesus reassures the disciples later in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or What shall we wear? For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matt. 6:31-33 ESV)

Amidst our suffering and need, Jesus gives the disciples permission to pray for the simplest needs in life: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11 ESV). Jesus’ God is one  who cares deeply about his people. Even in judgment God cares for his people: the righteous are separated from the wicked by their attitude about and care for those in need (Matt 25:31-46).

[1] Christian songwriter Michael Card (2005, 19 ) writes at length about lament.  A lament has two parts.  The first part is cathartic–we pour out our hearts to God emptying ourselves of the anger, fear, hatred, and other vile emotions that we harbor.  Once this catharsis is complete, then in part two are hearts are open to remember God grace and mercy to us in the past and we are able to praise God from the bottom of our hearts.

[2] Modern atheism feeds from this painful stream. Modern atheists question God’s provision and care: if God is all powerful and all good, then the existence of suffering and evil suggests that God is either not all powerful or not good or not both—he does not exist. In contrast, Jesus testifies that those who passionately seek righteousness will be satisfied. The Greek word here for satisfy, χορτάζω, means “to experience inward satisfaction in something be satisfied” (BDAG 7954). Far from deserting us, in life Jesus suffered alongside of us, on the cross paid our penalty for sin, and in resurrection became our guarantor.  “While some continue to argue that Auschwitz disproves the existence of God, many more would argue that it demonstrates the depths to which humanity, unrestrained by any thought or fear of God, will sink.” (McGrath 2004, 184).

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.>.

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow Experience Guide:  Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs:  NavPress.

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism. New York: DoubleDay.

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