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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God’s Meekness Speaks Volumes

Life_in_Tension_web“Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of tension resolving into identity suggests a learning process. This is because meekness is not a natural state; rather, meekness is a fruit of the spirit [1]. If meekness is a fruit of the spirit and Jesus is meek, does that imply that God Himself learned to be meek? What can we say from the law and the prophets about Jesus fulfilling this Beatitude? [2]

The Law. Meekness is not directly mentioned very often in the Books of the Law. However, meekness is indirectly manifested in the narratives. The image of God in the Books of the Law is that of creator, covenant maker, and, with Noah, destroyer by means of flood. The primary direct reference is to Moses who has an especially intimate relationship with God (Num 12:3).

As creator, God is pictured as a sovereign issuing decrees. The first decree is: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3 ESV) We are not told how light came to be, only who decreed it be done. God is verbal, but he is not chatty. His next statement is a declaration: “And God saw that the light was good.” (Gen. 1:4 ESV) He does not brag; he simply observes. While his ability to create illustrates God’s power, God could also be said to be meek—“…not [being] overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Creating is “no big deal” for God.

As covenant maker, God is objective and thoughtful, not vengeful and domineering. The covenant with Adam, for example, is mostly implicit. Basically, God creates Adam and Eve, gives them a mandate (be fruitful and multiply), sets them in a garden, and leaves only one limitation—don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Adam and Eve disobey God’s limitation, he does not kill them on the spot, as expected, and create 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 ESV) 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.

As destroyer, God sends a flood to wipe out humanity and every living thing—almost. The writer 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 ESV)

What we see here is a reluctant destroyer. God is moved by grief over sin to send the flood. This is interesting because we expect anger, not grief, as the motive for sending the flood—not the image of a wrathful God that some might advance. And 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 kind of prototype of the remnant of Israel later spared during the Babylonian exile. This care of the remnant is another example of a meek God choosing to exercise only a portion of his rights, like a parent offering discipline and not like a judge imposing penalties.

From this brief review of the Book of the Law, we can argue that God does not need to learn to be meek—he is already meek.

The Prophets. Meekness and humility are widely mentioned in the Books of the Prophets, especially Isaiah and Psalms, and appear in important Messianic passages. Guelich (1982, 82) observes that: “there is little or no difference between the poor and the meek in the Psalms or Isaiah”. For example,

  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 ESV)
  2. “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” (Ps. 25:9 ESV)
  3. “But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (Ps. 37:11 ESV)
  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.” (Zech. 9:9 ESV)

The association of meekness with Messianic passages suggests that meekness is understood by the writers of the prophets to be an important property of God’s image.

Fulfillment. Meekness appears in the Old Testament has both a character attribute of God and a kind of solidarity of God with his people. Elliot (2006, 123) notes that “Israel’s God was emotionally stable” and his attribute of meekness typifies this stability.  Theologians use the term, immutability, which means that God does not change [3]. Thus, when Jesus describes himself as gentle or meek (Matt. 11:29), a Jewish audience might rightly hear such words as a Messianic claim.  The stability of God’s emotions and character is part of his transcendence. It implies that there is only one, objective truth.  Why? [4]

Meekness is a fruit of the spirit for us, but for God it is just who he is.

[1] “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:19-23 ESV)

[2] Note: Matt 5:17.

[3] “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6 ESV) Horton (2011, 235) writes: “Building on a patristic consensus, Thomas Aquinas argued that God is actus purus (’pure act’), which means that there are no potentialities in God. Complete and perfect in himself from eternity to eternity, God has no potential that is not already fully realized. God cannot be more infinite, loving, or holy tomorrow than today. If God alone is necessary and independent of all external conditions, fully realized in all of his perfections, then there is literally nothing for God to become.”

[4] One God, one set of physical laws to the universe, one objective truth.

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.

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Jesus: Resolve Tension into Identity

Life_in_Tension_web“But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace.” (Ps. 37:11 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One way the tension in our life can be resolved is for it to become who were are—an aspect of our identity. When we accept the pain of life and refuse to yield to it, in some sense we come to wear it as a badge of honor.

The third beatitude is unique to Matthew: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5 ESV). What does it mean to be meek? 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 [1]. Three verses in Matthew suggest that Jesus was meek:

  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 ESV)
  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 ESV)
  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 ESV)

These three events—Jesus’ invitation to discipleship (bear the burdens that I bear), his parade into Jerusalem, and his trial illustrate his meekness. The Apostle Paul explicitly described Jesus as meek (2 Cor 10:1). The writings of the Peter and James also echo this description [2].

Neyrey (1998, 181-182) discusses 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 sermon on the Mount is full of allusions to meekness lived out. For example, 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 ESV)
  2. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (Matt. 5:37 ESV)
  3. “Do not resist the one who is evil [3]. 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 ESV)

In other words, when given an opportunity for vindication is possible through conflict, offer no response or make peace instead. The echo of identity is present here because by refusing to engage in a response, one remains true to one’s meekness rather than allowing the conflict to snatch it away.

Paraphrasing a pep talk by Jesus for the disciples, Ortberg (2012, 107) illustrates Jesus’ meekness:

“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 not weakness. It steals the thunder from one’s adversary.

 

[1] “…there is little or no difference between the poor and the meek in the Psalms or Isaiah…” (Guelich 1982, 82)

[2] See for example: 1 Pet. 3:13-17 and James 1:21.

[3] Savage (1996, 57-61) offers an interesting application of this principle of not resisting evil which he refers to as “fogging”. When one is criticized, one responds by finding something in the criticism to agree with—even if only implied. This frustrates the attacker and keeps one from becoming defensive. Jesus employs a variation on this approach when asked about taxes (Matt 22:17-22).

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.

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Living Out Poor in Spirit

Life_in_Tension_web“So 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 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The tension that we feel within ourselves as Christians arises when we live out Jesus’ teaching. Honoring the “poor in spirit” in a world that honors the powerful, the rich and the famous puts us at odds with our natural selves. Why should I be humble in a world that rewards the proud? Who wants to be “a doormat” for those around us who are already looking for places to wipe their feet?

Jesus brought new meaning to the idea of the kingdom of God. He and John the Baptist both taught: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3:2; 4:17 ESV) But John focused on judgment while Jesus emphasized forgiveness. Being forgiven by God, he permitted us then to forgive others (Matt 6:14-15). By emulating Jesus and accepting the Holy Spirit into our lives, we take on kingdom values. In our own sanctification, the kingdom of God breaks into our world. It is not, however, fully realized in us. It is only fully realized until Christ’s return [1]. The kingdom of God is already here, but not yet fully realized (Ladd 1991, 57-69).

Jesus’ disciples did not get it. When they asked the risen Christ—“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)—they are looking for Jesus to overthrow Roman rule and to re-establish the Jewish kingdom of David. This was the mandate of a kingly messiah, as one might interpret Psalm 2.

It is interesting that the kingdom focus is on sharing the Gospel and establishing a Godly community, not the modern preoccupation with love and freedom [2]. The double love command—love neighbor, love God (Matt 22: 36-40)—does not even appear in the Beatitudes. Jesus’ preeminent act of love was a sacrificial life-style that took him to the cross.  A humble person exhibits love and permits freedom (for the other ) through sacrificial living and dying [3].  Absent humility, love and freedom elevate self, not community.  Although the Apostle John speaks the most about love [4], it is the Apostle Paul who defines it.  He writes:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7 ESV)

Interestingly, Paul uses the word love, but describes what it means to be humble in loving one’s neighbor.  The heart of agape love is humility.

Behind Matthew 5:3, the focus  on Isaiah 61:1 on bringing good news to the desperately poor is a critical departure for those focused on other things. What is the good news? God through Jesus Christ has redeemed us from bondage to sin. In our spiritual poverty, we are saved from the despair of life without meaning, from the obsession with ourselves, and from the addiction to useless things—especially a self-centered, sinful life.  Instead, life is given new meaning. Sin and death do not have the final word. We are free in to live within the boundaries of God’s love for us.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question is interesting—”It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Jesus refers to two types of time distinguished in Greek, translated here as times (chronos) and seasons (kairos). Chronos time is time measured by a wristwatch or calendar while kairos time thought of as a crisis or decision moment [4].  When God breaks into our lives, it is a kairos moment.

A fitting example of a kairos moment comes in the next versus: “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 1:8 ESV) In other words, the kingdom of God will come upon you through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and in the act of evangelism. Whenever God enters our lives, we experience a crisis. The moment that you become a Christian, the kingdom of God is manifested and it is manifested in the act of evangelism.

The simplest act of evangelism imaginable is to be humble when everyone else is proud.

 

[1] 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.”

[2] Guelich (1982, 413) writes:  “The conducted demanded represents neither a radicalizing of the Mosaic Law nor the streamlining of the complex Mosaic Law by use of the love commandments but a call for conduct that corresponds to the new relationship that God now offers to his own as seen in the coming of the Kingdom…Discipleship involved more than a legalistic obedience to the Law of Moses or even the “law” of Jesus; it also involved a totally different attitude and focus of one’s life in terms of Jesus Messiah and what he came to accomplish.”

[3] Jesus appears much less interested in political freedom than freedom from sin—hence, the need for the atonement of the cross. In fact, the path to freedom comes through discipleship (John 8:31-36).

[4] For example, Matthew uses the word, love, 11 times, Mark 5 times, Luke 13 times, and John 49 times.

[5] Chronos (BDAG 7991(1), χρόνος) is translated as: “an indefinite period of time during which some activity or event takes place, time, period of time.” Kairos (BDAD 3857(3), καιρός) is translated as: “a period characterized by some aspect of special crisis, time.”

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.

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

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