Prune, Intensify, and Apply

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. 

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent 

has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. 

For it is better that you lose one of your members 

than that your whole body be thrown into hell.

 (Matt 5:27-29)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Sixth Beatitude focuses on a clean heart—“Honored are the pure in heart”—but, how can I remove the impurities? Jesus provides three methods: pruning, intensifying, and applying.

Prune

Jesus gives us two metaphors of pruning—cutting away unnecessary or unwanted growth to make a plant stronger and more fruitful (John 15:2). The first metaphor involves eyes: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) The second metaphor involves hands: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt 5:30) In both metaphors, we remove sin from our lives by pruning.

The eye gouging and hand chopping metaphors could also have been heard by Jesus’ audience as a messianic call to arms. When the Prophet Samuel anointed Saul messianic king of Israel, he said to him: “And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies.” (1 Sam 10:1) Notice the hand metaphor in this blessing. Saul’s first act as king was to save the besieged city of Jabesh-gilead from an Amorite king whose condition for surrender was: “On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.” (1 Sam 11:2) Understanding the story of Saul, Jesus’ metaphors might be interpreted as saying: stand on your own two feet.

Jesus’ pruning metaphors imply that sanctification—casting off sin and taking on godliness—is serious business: eyes and hands are parts of the body—parts of us—that are not easily discarded. If the threat of sin were trivial, then a better analogy might have been to trim your nails or cut your hair. But if sin threatens both our physical and spiritual lives, then amputation is an acceptable option and the analogy is not hyperbolic.

Intensify

Jesus widens the scope of commandments under the law by drilling into the motivation for breaking them, intensifying the scrutiny given to sin. For example, when Jesus talks about adultery, he focuses on the lustful look that corrupts the heart, not the sinful act that follows. As evangelist Billy Graham (1955, 78) reminds us:  “What does this word adultery mean? It is derived from the same Latin root from which we get our word adulterate which means corrupt; to make impure or to weaken.” If sin begins in the heart, then sanctification must strive for purity of heart, and not only avoiding sin, but pursuing godliness, as the Apostle Paul writes:

But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:20-24)

The likeness of God, of course, refers to the divine image in creation, as implied in the word, godliness, used by Paul in admonishing Timothy: “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7).

Apply

In the Jewish mindset, it makes no sense to separate heart and mind or faith from action, as we read in James:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (Jas 1:22-25)

As a devote Jew, James would almost certainly share Jesus’ conviction that unity of person (heart and mind) implies unity of faith and action (Dyrness 2001, 81). In fact, the gap between what we say and what we do is a good measure of the amount of sin in our lives. After all, Jesus was the first person in scripture to use the word, hypocrite, to mean two-faced—saying one thing and doing another (Matt 23:25). Prior to Jesus, an hypocrite was just an actor on a Greek stage.

Unity of faith and action is, of course, a divine attribute, as we see in the life and work of Jesus Christ. In life, Jesus modeled God’s sinless nature for us (Heb 4:15). In death, Jesus redeemed us from our sin (Gal 3:13). In resurrection, Jesus gave us the hope of salvation (1 Cor 15:20). And, in ascension, intercedes for us before Almighty God (Rev 22:3). Following the ascension at Pentecost, Jesus conferred on the church and on us the Holy Spirit to assist us in overcoming our sinful nature (John 16:7–8).

Because part of our sinful nature is to focus only on ourselves, it is helpful to distinguish self-help efforts from sanctification. Self-help focuses on us while sanctification focuses on modeling Christ.

So when we act in unity of faith and action, we echo the Trinity:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut 6:4-5)

In this manner, we model God’s sinless nature to those around us. Modeling Christ, we must prune, intensify, and apply if we are to be pure in heart and see God.

References

Bridges, Jerry. 1996a. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996b. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Dyrness,William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

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

Prune, Intensify, and Apply

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/HangHome_2020

 

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Jesus Models Image Ethics

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101

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)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The creation account in Genesis offers an ethical framework that Jesus employs repeatedly in his teaching, as in Genesis:

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)

Because we are created in the image of God, our behavior should likewise follow God’s behavior—a kind of image ethic. For example, when God blesses us, we should bless others (Gen 12:3). This behavioral pattern is simple—God does A, we do A; God does B, we do B—and this pattern appears several places in Jesus’ teachings, such as in the Lord’s Prayer where we read:

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

The phrase “on earth as it is in heaven” models this pattern while the phrase—“and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12)—reverses the pattern because we know God’s will.

In discussing forgiveness, Jesus pauses to repeat himself, for emphasis:

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)

In six simple verses (Matt 6:10–15), Jesus reverses this pattern (we do A, God does A; we do B, God does B) four times when God’s will is well known (God is merciful so he obviously forgives), as when God’s character traits inform us.

Accordingly, an important application of this pattern is to reflect and anticipate all of God character traits:

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

If God is merciful, then we are merciful; if God is gracious, we are gracious . . . Among the fruits of the Spirit, the Apostle Paul lists:

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22–23)

Almost all of God’s character traits are found on this list, albeit kindness only hints at mercy.

Do you want a blessing? Be a blessing! (Gen 12:2)

Simple. Clean. Convicting. Jesus loves image ethics.

Jesus Models Image Ethics

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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

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

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/HangHome_2020

 

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Show Mercy, Receive Mercy

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Honored are the merciful, 

for they shall receive mercy. 

(Matt 5:7)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Mercy highlights our tension with God because our flesh delights neither in practicing mercy nor in offering it. Rather than practice mercy, we prefer people to keep their promises and pay their bills; rather than ask for mercy, we prefer to pretend that we are sinless. Born in sin, mercy draws attention to our lack of holiness and our finitude, highlighting our tension with God.

Mercy is one of God’s signature character traits  (Wilkins 2004, 208; Guelich 1982, 88). It appears in the Golden Rule, in the Lord’s Prayer, and, most significantly, in a short list of God’s attributes given to Moses immediately after 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)

The Sinai context here is important because God exposes his character traits to Moses as a set of core values to be used to interpret the law correctly. Experienced lawmakers know that laws taken out of context can be misinterpreted and they frequently publish commentaries to assure proper interpretation. To interpret God’s character correctly, start by recognizing that God is merciful. God demonstrates his mercy in that Jesus willingly died on the cross to save us from our sins—our atonement through Christ confirms his divinity precisely because it exemplifies God’s mercy (1 Cor 15:3).

Mercy appears in many grammatical forms in scripture, but the adverbial form used in the Fifth Beatitude is used nowhere else. This form can be used to declare or be presented as a cause (Wallace 1996, 460–461). Merciful means “being concerned about people in their need, merciful, sympathetic, compassionate” (BDAG 2487) and is derrived from the same root as compassion. Mercy and forgiveness appear as two sides of the same coin (Guelich (1982, 88),  as we read:

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 Psalmist talks about mercy, love, and goodness, which together constitute forgiveness.

Jesus repeatedly talks about mercy, as when we read:

1. Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice (Hos 6:6). For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:13,12: 7).

2. 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)

3. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? (Matt 18:33)

Jesus clearly values mercy more than legal compliance or punishment. He also talks about mercy using other words or phrases, as in:

1. 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)

2. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt 6:12)

In the first example of the Golden Rule, he uses the reciprocal form (do as you would have them do) also used in the Fifth Beatitude (give mercy, receive mercy) suggesting through parallel construction that a parallel concept is also being discussed (France 1985, 110).

The reciprocal form of the Fifth Beatitude makes a convincing case for mercy. Mercy is not earned by being merciful, but mercy suggests God’s presence and we are blessed when we offer it.

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.

Show Mercy, Receive Merc

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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

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Lament over Sin

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Those who sow in tears 

shall reap with shouts of joy! 

(Ps 126:5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Second Beatitude says those who mourn will be comforted, but what does God mourn for? In Genesis, God grieves over human wickedness:

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. (Gen 6:5-6)

Human sin grieved God so much that he sent the flood, sparing only Noah, his family, and two of each animal (Gen 6:7-8).

Books of the Law

Elsewhere, studies of the word for mourning used in Matthew 5:4 in the Greek, associate it most often with grief over death. For example, Abraham mourns over the death of his wife, Sarah (Gen 23:2), and Joseph mourns over the death of his father, Jacob (Gen 50:3).

By contrast, studies of the word for crying used in Luke’s Beatitude (Luke 6:21) in the Greek, associate it most often with prayer in the midst of suffering. For example, a significant point in the life of Moses arose when as a baby he cried lying in the basket floating in the Nile. On hearing Moses’ cry, the daughter of Pharaoh is moved to rescue and to raise the child as her own, disobeying her father’s edict to drown all Hebrew baby boys—including Moses (Exod 1:22; 2:6). Later, Moses cries to the Lord in prayer to heal his sister, Miriam, who has been afflicted with leprosy, and she is healed (Num 12:13). By contrast, crying in the sense of whining or self-pity evokes God’s anger (Num 11:10).

Books of the Prophets

The focus of mourning shifts in the Books of the Prophets from death of a person to anguish—crying out over the fate of the nation of Israel (e.g. Jer 8:18–19).

Israel cried out to the Lord in anguish primarily because of the ups and downs of leadership in the four hundred years after the nation left Egypt. During these years Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt and Joshua led them into the Promised Land with strong charismatic leadership. But leadership weakened as they entered a period of the judges when, as today, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judg 17:6) During the time of the judges, a cycle of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration became the normal pattern (Younger 2002, 35). The turning point in this pattern arose when the people turned and cried out to the Lord to keep his promises:

And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, and return to the LORD your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. (Deut 30:1–3)

In the Book of Judges this pattern of sin, trouble, revival, and restoration is repeated at least five times (Judg 3:9, 15; 4:3; 6:6–7; and 10:10). 

Later during the period of the exile of Judah to Babylon, mourning becomes prominent as the first of two parts in a lament. A lament starts with grief, but ends in praise. Jeremiah, the Mourning Prophet, wrote  the  Book of Lamentations; we also read many lamentations in the Psalms, as in: 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Ps 130:1–4)

The heart is first emptied of bitterness; then, it opens to God (Card 2005, 19). This lament form also appears in the Second Beatitude, where Jesus says—“Honored are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matt 5:4).

This mourning over sin, godly grief, appears as Jesus begins his journey to the cross (2 Cor 7:10). In the same way that God mourned over sin when preparing the great flood, Jesus mourns over the hardness of heart of the Pharisees on the Sabbath:

And he said to them, Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill? But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, Stretch out your hand. He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. (Mark 3:4-6)

Here when Mark writes about the hardness of heart, he is comparing the Pharisees to Pharaoh (Exod 4:21).

The narrative in Mark 3 is also significant because it explicitly links human suffering to sin and God’s grief. Mark 3 “is the only passage in the gospels where Jesus is said to be angry. (Elliott 2006, 214). Jesus gets angry, because “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) and he cares about the well-being of people more than he cares about Sabbath observance (Lester 2007, 14–16, 106).  Because Jesus cares about suffering people, we should too.

Reference

Card, Michael. 2005. A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. Colorado Springs: NAVPress. Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel. Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Younger, K. Lawson. 2002. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges and Ruth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Lament over Sin

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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

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More Humility: Monday Monologues, Podcast on March 9, 2020

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Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020 (Ken Burtram Photography)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on humility. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

More Humility: Monday Monologues, Podcast on March 9, 2020

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

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

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Mission Statement: Monday Monologues, Podcast on February 24, 2020

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Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020 (Ken Burtram Photography)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on the Mission Statement. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Mission Statement: Monday Monologues, Podcast on February 24, 2020

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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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The Beatitudes: Monday Monologues, Podcast on February 10, 2020

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Stephen W. Hiemstra 2020 (Ken Burtram Photography)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a  prayer and reflect on the Beatitudes. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.Beatitude

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

The Beatitudes: Monday Monologues, Podcast on February 10, 2020

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Corner_2020

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The Beatitudes

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 

Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, 

for his wrath is quickly kindled. 

Blessed are all who take refuge in him. 

(Ps 2:11-12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Beatitudes poetically introduce Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), which sets priorities, redefines honor among disciples, and commissions his disciples. The sermon offers the lengthiest statement of Jesus’ teaching and the early church cited it more frequently than any other passage in scripture (Guelich (1982, 14). As an introduction, the Beatitudes interpret the Old Testament in ways that surprised his disciples then and continue to surprise us now, suggesting that the Beatitudes deserve careful study.

Gospel Context

In both Matthew and Luke, the Beatitudes appear immediately after Jesus calls his disciples and addresses the disciples, serving as a preamble for the sermon that follows.

The sermon addresses the disciples personally, much like Jesus’ earlier call to ministry—“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matt 4:19). This is not a passive call to be spectators, but an active call for disciples who will share in his suffering, at a time when the arrest and beheading of John (who baptized Jesus) was still fresh in their minds (Matt 4:12; 14:10).

Suffering—extreme tension—is an obvious theme in the sermon both because of John’s recent death and because of the ongoing threats to Jesus’ life that began even before his birth (Matt 1:18-25; 2:1-13). Suffering, we learn in the Beatitudes, is part of being a faithful disciple and we know that the disciples got the message because ten out of the eleven faithful disciples died a martyr’s death (Fox and Chadwick, 2001, 10).

Literary Context

The Beatitudes take their name from the Latin translation (beati) of the Greek word for honor (μακάριος) which means “humans privileged recipients of divine favor” or “favored, blessed, fortunate, happy,  privileged“ (BDAG 4675, 2, 2a). Jesus repeats μακάριος nine times.

The Bible uses repetition for emphasis—twice is emphasis; three times is highly emphatic; and nine times is unprecedented. This emphatic repetition reinforces the sermon’s content. The sermon in Matthew pictures Jesus as the new Moses issuing a new law of grace on a mountain (like Mount Sinai), while in Luke the sermon presents both blessings and curses (woes), a pattern associated with covenantal law (Deut 28). In other words, the literary style and content of the text are both attention-grabbers for a Jewish audience.

Old Testament Context

Jesus’ repeated use of μακάριος in the sermon alludes to Psalm 1 in the  Greek translation (most familiar to first century readers), where it says:

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; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. (Ps 1:1-2)

Psalm 1 pictures God’s shalom, a call to holiness, and integration (the opposite of tension) within ourselves, with God (through obedience to the law), and with others with an amazing economy of words. Other references to μακάριος speak, not of integration, but of tension, such as political tension (Psalm 2) and affliction (Isaiah 30). In Isaiah 30, for example, God makes an interesting promise to those that wait for him:

And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. (Isa 30:20)

The teacher here is the Messiah who blesses those who suffer “the bread of adversity and the water of affliction”—a poetic phrase meaning persecution, while the word for teacher (‎מוֹרֶ֔יךָ) also means early rain, a form of blessing in a desert region like Israel.

Commissioning Purpose

In his sermon, Jesus redefines the meaning of honor, an important, but neglected, translation of μακάριος (Neyrey 1998, 164). If Jesus had wanted to convey the idea of blessed—the usual translation of μακάριος, then the more conventional word in Greek would eulogetos (France 2007, 161). Honored is a more appropriate translation  because the ancient world had an honor-shame culture where even a small insult requires an immediate and sometimes deadly response—Jesus forbids such responses. When Jesus taught forgiveness, enemy love, and turning the other cheek, he radically confronted the honor-shame culture, where masters had honor and slaves had mostly shame.

Dishonor in the ancient world Jesus redefined as honor among his disciples. Jesus said:

Honored are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:11–12)

In other words, heavenly rewards follow from earthly persecution. In a culture obsessed with glory and honor—especially family honor, the preferred translation for μακάριος here is honor, not blessing. It is more consistent with the rest of Jesus’ sermon and less consistent with the law of Moses with blessings and curses as in Psalm 1.

The Beatitude

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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Tension with Others

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101You have heard that it was said, 

You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 

But I say to you, Love your enemies and 

pray for those who persecute you, 

so that you may be sons of your Father 

who is in heaven. (Matt 5:43-45)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we become Christians, tension with others can arise in two ways. First, when we draw closer to God, the gap between the biblical values we are growing into and the cultural values we are leaving behind widens, and people notice. After I started seminary, for example, I noticed that some of my saltier friends stopped using profanity in my presence. Second, because God loves people, when we draw closer to God and become more like Jesus, we cannot help but love people too (John 13:34–35). Although sanctification creates a gap between us and others, God’s love flowing through us works to bridge this gap (Jas 2:15–16).

Abraham and Lot

Consider the story of Abraham and his nephew, Lot. God blessed Abraham and then revealed plans to destroy two sinful cities, Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:17–20). Set apart from the world, Abraham then prayed to God to spare the cities for the sake of the righteous living there (Gen 18:23–32), presumably including his nephew, Lot.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Lot showed no problem living in Sodom or compassion for his neighbors. Quite the contrary, Lot displayed bad judgment in choosing to live in Sodom (Gen 13:10) and only left Sodom on the urging of angels sent to retrieve him (Gen 19:16). Lot’s wife found it even harder to leave Sodom and disobeyed the angels by looking back at the flaming city (Gen 19:26).

Reflecting on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the church can position itself relative to culture in three ways: working to redeem the culture like Abraham, inattentive to the culture like Lot, or beguiled by the culture like Lot’s wife. Jesus commends Abraham’s approach (Luke 9:52–56), but the grace extended has limits, as Jesus instructs his disciples:

And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. As you enter the house, greet it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. (Matt 10:11–15)

The disciples are to offer peace (that is, to preach the Gospel) to everyone for the sake of others willing to listen, but those unwilling to listen should have their wishes respected (Matt 10:14).

The Gap

The gap between others and ourselves is the focus of the last three Beatitudes:

Honored are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Honored are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Honored are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Matt 5:9-11)

In these Beatitudes, Jesus neither denies, nor excuses, nor runs away from persecution. Instead, he treats persecution as a ministry opportunity—“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44)—and he offers consolation for those suffering it. The implication is that tension with others is the norm, not the exception, for Christian disciples

Tension with Other

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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

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Tension with God

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? 

And he said, Who are you, Lord? 

And he said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 

(Acts 9:4–5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of tension with God surprises many Christians for at least three reasons. The first reason is that the church’s focus on the humanity of Christ and off of the divinity of Christ cloaks the urgings of the Holy Spirit leaving us ignorant of our distance from God. The second reason is that a focus on conversion and off of sanctification—the process of nurturing our faith—leaves us living secular lifestyles ignorant of God’s will for our lives. A final reason is that our indifference to sin blinds us to our true selves in Christ, to our neighbors, and to God.

It is not an accident that each of these three reasons is highly theological because postmoderns mostly avoid theology—a fourth reason which may be why tension with God may come as a surprise. The postmodern focus on the emotional content of faith and off of the implications of these three theological trends hides our tension with God and quietly robs our faith of its power, like a vacuum cleaner that has been unplugged. Oblivious to the tension, Christians are lulled into believing in a kind of tension-free, ersatz Christianity that provides individualized services, such as childcare, and generally promises to insulate them from the problems of life without substantial obligation. When life’s problems arise, their ersatz Christianity provides no substantive guidance for dealing with them, leading people to become angry with God, and leave the church. It is accordingly helpful to review the reasons that people are unaware of the tension between them and God.

Humanity versus Divinity of Christ

Our secular society questions Christ’s divinity but has no problem with Jesus’ humanity. If Christ is only human, then Jesus is no more than an interesting teacher, the church becomes another interest group, and conversion is as mundane as joining another club. If Christ is not divine, then Jesus’ teaching has no claim on us (1 Cor 15:17) and we can simply ignore any tension with God that Jesus’ teaching might signal.

Conversion versus Sanctification

Over the centuries, Christian leaders have debated the priority of conversion over sanctification. For example, Jonathan Edwards, often praised as the great American theologian, advocated that church members have a personal relationship with Jesus—a fruit more of sanctification than of conversion—only to have his Northampton church dismiss him in 1750 (Noll 2002, 45). If sanctification can be thought of as a series of conversion experiences whose consequence is a closer relationship with God, then tension with God can be seen as a sign of progress in spiritual formation and maturity.

Think about the tension with God in the life of the Apostle Paul. When God told Ananias to go and baptize Saul, he questioned God’s intentions:

But the Lord said to him, Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. (Acts 9:15-16)

Paul was called as a Christian and an Apostle to the gentiles and to suffer for the Name. Do you think Paul’s calling created tension in his life, with God, and with others? Paul himself described the life he gave up as a Rabbi and a Jew as rubbish (Phil 3:8) compared to what he gained as a believer. Still, he met every sort of affliction during his  ministry (2 Cor 11:23-28) and struggled with an unanswered prayer—a thorn in the flesh—a euphemism perhaps suggesting a grievous sin over which he was not victorious (2 Cor 12:7). 

The point in this example is that if tension with God is a challenge even for the spirituality mature, then being unaware of our tension with God signals spiritual immaturity or, worse, spiritual lethargy. 

Ignorance of Sin

Spiritual lethargy starts with ignoring sin, which even a hardened atheist should worry about. Sin can be: doing evil (sin), breaking a law (transgression), or failing to do good (iniquity). Sin cuts us off from ourselves, from our neighbors, and from God, which leads to tensions in all three dimensions. Ignoring sin is like driving too fast on an icy road or throwing dirty sand in your gas tank—it can hurt others and messes everything up, including our relationship with God.

God’s forgiveness through Christ sets us right with God and relieves our guilt, but does not in most instances reverse the effects of sin on our person and on others. God can forgive the murderer, for example, but that does not bring the dead person back to life or relieve the perpetrator of punishment under law.

Tension with God is more critical than tension in a human relationship, because our existence depends on God—it’s like a diver at a depth three hundred feet discarding an air tank because life itself is threatened. Sin cuts us off from God, but when we it the channels of communication with God open and we can perceive the promptings of the Holy Spirit. When we obey the Spirit’s promptings we join God in his ongoing creative work in the world and become more sanctified like Jesus, which involves pain and sacrifice. In turn, our sacrifices signal to God, to those around us, and to ourselves that our transformation in Christ is real (2 Sam 24:21-25).

Jesus honors disciples who faithfully pursue godliness:

Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Honored are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Honored are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt 5:6–8)

Notice that these Beatitudes mirror attributes that God uses to describe himself—”merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)—and offer a key to growing as divine image bearers. These admonitions remind us that God is interested not so much in what we do as in who we become (Fairbairn 2009, 67).

References

Fairbairn, Donald. 2009. Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Noll, Mark A. 2002. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tension with God

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/Corner_2020

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