God’s Meekness Speaks Volumes

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Now the man Moses was very meek,

 more than all people who were on the face of the earth. 

(Num 12:3)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Because meekness is more a fruit of the spirit (Gal 5:19-23) than a natural state, we must learn to be meek. If Jesus is meek, does that imply that God learned to be meek? What does the Old Testament suggest about God’s meekness?

The Books of the Law

Moses is described as meek. Because he has an especially intimate relationship with God (Num 12:3) and we all are drawn to people who share our values, Moses’ meekness may infer that God may also be meek. Narratives about God as creator, covenant maker, and destroyer by means of the flood of that floated Noah’s ark together suggest that God himself is meek.

Creator

As creator, God is pictured as sovereign issuing decrees, such as: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) How light came to be, we are not told; we are only told that God decreed that it be done—God is verbal, but he is not chatty. God then declares: “And God saw that the light was good.” (Gen 1:4)—God does not brag; he meekly observes. While his ability to create illustrates God’s power, God is—“not overly impressed by a sense of [one’s] self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). In other words, creating is “no big deal” for our meek God.

Covenant Maker

As covenant maker, God is objective and thoughtful, not vengeful and domineering. The covenant with Adam, for example, is mostly implicit because God creates Adam and Eve, gives them a mandate (be fruitful and multiply), sets them in a garden, and leaves only one limitation—do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Adam and Eve disobey God’s limitation, he does not replace them with another couple; instead, God punishes (curses) them and sends them out of the garden. But before they go, like a mother preparing her child for the first day of school, “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” (Gen 3:21) While God was perfectly in his right as covenant maker to be harsh with Adam and Eve, in fact, he treated them gently—another indication of meekness.

Destroyer

As destroyer, God sends a flood to wipe out humanity and every living thing—almost. The author of Genesis records God’s motivation as follows:

The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Gen 6:5-8)

The key words here are: regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart; God is moved by regret and by grief over sin—not anger—to send the flood, which is not the image of a wrathful God that some advance. In spite of the flood, God is careful to spare Noah, his family, and a pair of each of the animals. The ark with Noah, his family, and the animals is a prototype of the remnant of Israel later spared during the Babylonian exile (Isa 54:9).

Choosing to exercise only a subset of his rights with the remnant—like a parent offering discipline, not a judge imposing legal penalties—is another example of a meek God. These examples of God as creator, as covenant maker, and as destroyer give us a picture of a God who does not need to learn to be meek, because he was already meek when he created the heavens and the earth.

The Books of the Prophets

The words, meek and humble, appear throughout the Books of the Prophets where Guelich (1982, 82) observed that: “there is little or no difference between the poor and the meek in the Psalms or Isaiah” (e.g. Isa 61:1). This observation makes perfect sense because the nation of Israel spent much of that period as slaves exiled in Babylon and meekness is referred to often, as in:

1. There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD… but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isa 11:1–5)

2. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. (Ps 25:9)

3. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. (Ps 37:11)

4. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zec 9:9)

The appearance of meekness in these messianic passages suggests that the prophets considered meekness a divine attribute.

Fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets

The meekness that appears in the Old Testament is both a character attribute of God—part of his transcendence—and a kind of solidarity between God and his people. Elliot (2006, 123) notes that “Israel’s God was emotionally stable”; God meekness typifies this stability, which has led theologians to coin the term, immutability, meaning that God’s character does not change (Mal 3:6; Horton 2011, 235). Thus, when Jesus describes himself as gentle or meek (Matt 11:29), a Jewish audience might rightly hear such words as a messianic claim.

Consider the converse—what if God’s character evolved and was not immutable? What if God changed his mind and did not tell us? In such a changing world, the promises of the Bible could also change at any time—which part of the Bible is still true? What if the atonement of Christ was no longer sufficient? The possibility that God’s character could change is unnerving. 

God’s meekness is just one aspect of his immutable character. Truth is another closely related character trait (Exod 34:6). God’s immutable character implies that only one, objective truth exists. Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) The implication is that God’s immutable character anchors stability in the physical and spiritual realms providing credibility also to the authority of scripture.

We hear meekness as typifying God’s immutable character which provides a foundation for our faith. For us, meekness is a fruit of the spirit, but, for God, it is just who he is.

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.>.

Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

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

Horton, Michael. 2011. The Christian Faith: A Systemic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

God’s Meekness Speaks Volume

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Meet_2020

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Resolve Tension into Identity

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101But the meek shall inherit the land and 

delight themselves in abundant peace. 

(Ps 37:11)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One resolution of life’s tensions is that they are absorbed into our identity, defining our self-image, relationships, and expected actions and reactions. A pastoral identity, for example, implies spending time with God, interpreting scripture, praying with others, preaching the Gospel, and offering comfort to everyone; these activities are expected of pastors and are an essential part of pastoral training. Likewise, training in humility makes us meek, part of our identity as disciples of Christ.

Meekness is Unique

The Third Beatitude is unique to Matthew: “Honored are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5). Meek means to: “…not [be] overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentle, humble,  considerate” (BDAG 6132). Meek is like applied humility (poor in spirit)—a character trait of being  humble (Guelich 1982, 82), suggested by at least three verses in Matthew:

1. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt 11:29)

2. Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden. (Matt 21:5)

3. And the high priest stood up and said, Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? But Jesus remained silent. (Matt 26:62-63)

In these three events—Jesus’ invitation to discipleship, his humble parade into Jerusalem, and his silence while on trial—Jesus exhibited his meekness. Sedler (2003, 92) observes that “anything Jesus said [at his trial] would have been twisted, turned, and rejected.” Jesus’ meekness is also observed in the writings of the Apostles Peter, James, and Paul (e.g. 1 Pet 3:13–17, Jas 1:21, and 2 Cor 10:1).

Honor and Meekness

In his writing, Neyrey (1998, 181–182) describes honor in meekness in these terms:

It can indeed be understood as grounds for praise for refusing to be a victim…according to the choreography of honor challenges, the ‘meek’ person could be one who makes no honor claims (e.g. Matt 21:5), or, more likely, one who does not give a riposte [response] to challenges and does not respond in anger to insults. In this light, a ‘meek’ person disengages entirely from the typical honor games of the village…failure to seek revenge.

The implication here is that the meek person choses wisely to remain silent, especially when speaking would escalate conflict with another person.

The problem of escalation is referenced in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said:

1. Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt 5:22)

2. Let what you say be simply Yes or No; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matt 5:37)

3. Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matt 5:39–41)

Meekness as a Strategy

Savage (1996, 57–61) suggests a strategy of not resisting evil, “fogging,” that involves finding something in the criticism to agree with to frustrate the attacker and to avoid becoming defensive, as when Jesus responses when asked about taxes (Matt 22:17–22). More generally, the meek person will refuse to pursue vindication, offer no response when baited to act imprudently, or just make peace. We are to preserve a humble identity by refusing to argue, belittle, or engage in a response to harsh words. In other words, defend your meekness with silence and humility.

Ortberg (2012, 107) illustrates Jesus’ meekness in imaging a pep talk that Jesus might have given the disciples:

Here’s our strategy. We have no money, no clout, no status, no buildings, no soldiers…We will tell them [Jewish and Romans leaders, Zealots, collaborators, Essenes] all that they are on the wrong track…When they hate us—and a lot of them will…we won’t fight back, we won’t run away, and we won’t give in. We will just keep loving them…That’s my strategy.

Meekness is a strategy, not a weakness, that identifies us as Christians, advances the kingdom, and steals the thunder from our adversaries.

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.>.

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.

Ortberg, John. 2012. Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Savage, John. 1996. Listening and Caring Skills: A Guide for Groups and Leaders. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Resolve Tension into Identity

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Meet_2020

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Living Out Poor in Spirit

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101So when they had come together, they asked him, 

Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel? 

He said to them, It is not for you to know times or seasons 

that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 

But you will receive power 

when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, 

and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem 

and in all Judea and Samaria, 

and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:6–8)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The First Beatitude—Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven—pairs humility in tension with power. Humility makes room in our lives for God but pride pushes God out. Guelich (1982, 262) writes: 

This tension between the Kingdom present and the Kingdom future, between the fulfillment and consummation of God’s promise of salvation for human history, applies not only to history but to the experience of the individual.

Ladd (1991, 57–69) sees the kingdom of God as already here, but not yet fully realized.

Kingdom of Heaven

The obliqueness of the First Beatitude arises because the phrase, kingdom of heaven, is a circumlocution (a round-about way of describing) for the name of God. In Jewish tradition, the covenant name of God (YHWH) is holy and can only be properly used in the context of public worship; in other contexts, other words—such as kingdom of heaven, LORD, or, simply, the Name—are substituted out of respect for the holiness of God’s name. With these substitutions, the First Beatitude might accordingly be rewritten: honored are the humble, for God will come into their life.

Understanding the First Beatitude sheds light on another distinctive teaching of Jesus. Jesus and John the Baptist both taught—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17)—but John focused on judgment while Jesus focused on forgiveness. Because forgiveness leaves space for God’s judgment and humility makes forgiveness easier, both forgiveness and humility work to make room for God in our lives (Matt 6:14–15).

Humility in the Old Testament

Humility signals that God is welcome in our lives, as the life of Abraham illustrates. Abraham was clearly hospitable, a kind of humility (Gen 18:2–5), and God blesses him: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3) God’s blessing is clearly meant to be shared—Abraham is blessed to be a blessing to others. God blesses Abraham with His presence, with sharing His plans for the future (Gen 18), and with offering His provision and protection in spite of Abraham’s obvious duplicity (Gen 20). 

The importance of humility is most clearly stated in God’s response to King Solomon’s prayer dedicating the first temple in Jerusalem:

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chr 7:14)

Here we see that humility is a precondition for God’s presence, forgiveness, and healing.

Space for God

Pride, the opposite of humility, may also be an occasion for God’ to enter our lives, as is revealed in Jesus’ response to the disciples’ impertinent question in Acts 1:6-8,cited above.

In his response, Jesus tells the disciples that they cannot usurp God’s sovereign authority and then, like a good leader, refocuses their attention on the mission. In his explanation of the mission, Jesus refers to the two types of time, translated here as times (χρόνος; “chronos”) and seasons (καιρός; “kairos”). Chronos time is time measured by a wristwatch (or calendar) that might be thought of as is a season of waiting on the Lord. Kairos time is a moment of divine revelation, a crisis for us when everything changes.

When we humble ourselves, we invite God to enter our lives, which can be a time of blessing, forgiveness or healing. When we do not, God acts sovereignly to accomplish his plans, with or without us.

REFERENCES

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

Ladd, George Eldon. 1991. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdman.

Living Out Poor in Spirit

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Lent_2020  

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15. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webHumble Lord,
Help us to rest in you—to bear the burdens that you bore, to exhibit the grace that you exhibited, And to extend the peace that you extended. Clear our cluttered minds, still our restless hearts that we might—refuse to be victims, refuse to point the finger, and resolve to roll up our sleeves.  Heal us of our anxieties, restore us to the person you would have us be that our identity would reside in you alone—through the power of your Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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