The Ethical Image of God

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple FaithBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ethical image of God is a hot-button issue today because of the proclivity of many pastors and Christians to view God exclusively through the lens of love, as we read repeatedly through the writings of the Apostle John: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Matthew’s double love command is likewise frequently cited:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?  And he said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:36-40)

The Greek word for love (ἀγαπάω) is the same in both cases and means: “to have a warm regard for and interest in another, cherish, have affection for, love” (BDAG 38.1). Agape love provides little help in understanding God’s character because of the wide scope in Greek usage. More useful is focus on the word depend (κρέμαμαι) in Matthew 22:40, which means: “to cause to hang [like a hinge].” (BDAG 4395.1), because the law and the prophets hang on love, but they also inform love’s meaning. The law and the prophets inform Matthew’s use of the word, love.

Covenantal Love

In the Old Testament God interacts with his people primarily through the giving of covenants. After a second giving of the Ten Commandments, we find God revealing his character to Moses:

“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” (Exod 34:6)

The word translated “steadfast love” here (חֶ֥סֶד; hesed) means: “obligation to the community in relation to relatives, friends, guests, master & servants, &c.; unity, solidarity, loyalty” (HOLL). The context makes it clear that the type of love in view here is not a generic agape love, but a more specific covenantal love focused on keeping one’s promises. We honor God and our neighbor by treating them with respect and keeping our word, especially when it hurts. This is a heart-felt relationship, but it is more than just a warm, fuzzy feeling. 

The fact that love is not the first characteristic of God, mercy is, reinforces the idea that love requires an interpretation beyond the warm and fuzzy agape love that so many cherish. When we say that Jesus died for our sins, we experience his love by means of (or through the instrument of) his mercy. The point that mercy is more primal than love is also reinforced in Jesus’ Beatitudes: mercy is listed; love is not (Matt 5:3-11). When we experience God’s love through his mercy, covenant keeping love, not warm and fuzzy agape love, is in focus.

The Hermeneutics of the New Covenant in Christ

This interpretation of love in Matthew makes particular sense because Matthew views the new covenant in Christ in terms of five commandments. The first commandment is to honor the law and the prophets (Matt 5:18-20). The second has to do with stepping out in faith (Matt 14:2829). The third instructs the disciples not to obsess about spiritual experiences (Matt 17:9). The fourth instructs then disciples not to pic nits with the law (Matt 19:16-21). The five commandment is the double love commandment already mentioned (Matt 22:36-40). 

If this set of commandments seems obscure, what we see is Matthew struggling to interpret the new covenant in Christ in an Old Testament framework of specific rules. By contrast, the Apostle John sees the new covenant in terms of the person of Jesus, which is hermetically harder and leads to competing visions of the person of Christ. Whose Jesus are you going to accept? 

Matthew’s double love commandment gives us a better idea of how to interpret the person of Christ because it “hangs” on our understanding of the Old Testament. It also pre-empts attempts to adopt a licentious interpretation of God’s love inconsistent with Old Testament teaching.

References

BDAG – Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition.  Copyright © 2000 The University of Chicago Press. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker based on the Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und für frühchristlichen Literatur, sixth edition, ed. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, with Viktor Reichmann and on previous English Editions by W.F.Arndt, F.W.Gingrich, and F.W.Danker. This edition is an electronic version of the print edition published by the University of Chicago Press.

HOLL – A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Based upon the Lexical Work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, edited by W.L. Holladay. Copyright © 1997 by Brill Academic Publishers.

The Ethical Image of God

Also see:

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

A Place for Authoritative Prayer 

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/Transcendence_2018

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Blessed are Those that Hunger and Thirst

FPCA_crossBlessed are Those that Hunger and Thirst

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Luncheon for the Soul,Wednesday, August 10, 2016, Trinidad Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia

Welcome

Good afternoon. Welcome to the Luncheon for the Soul. My name is Stephen Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church and also a Christian author. In our sermon today, we continue our study of the Beatitudes

What are your priorities? Our Beatitude today says that we should hunger and thirst for God’s justice.

Invocation

Let’s begin with prayer.

Holy Father. Thank you for your presence among us this morning. We are grateful that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially obvious in this time and this place. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears that listen. In the previous name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Scripture lesson

Today’s scripture lesson comes from Matthew 5:6. It is the fourth Beatitude and a part of the introduction of the Sermon on the Mount. Hear the Word of the Lord:

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

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.

Introduction

In 2013, I graduated from seminary y wrote my first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality. My Book was written but I had no contracts in the business of publishing, not an editor, nor publishing contract. Consequently, I needed to attend a conference and talk to the publishers. Normally, business of this sort requires a lot of preparation; at a minimum, I needed to have business cards that describe my office, position, and contract information. All of these things were problematic for me because I was a new graduate, was out of work, and only had a book to sell and was unknown.  What would I do? (2x)

What was my answer to the problem of not having business cards? Without work, I began to write about my priorities: slave of Christ, husband, father, volunteer pastor (or as Paul said: tentmaker), author, and speaker. At first, I felt ashamed of myself because I was unemployed, but my business cards grew to be a topic of conversation, especially with my kids and their friends. Suddenly, I had an opportunity to talk about priorities in life with them in a fresh, new context and with other folks too.

These priorities—God, husband, father, work—are important because if you alter the list of priorities he, or drop any, bad things can happen. What would happen, for example, if I put my work in place of God on this list and lost my job? Or, perhaps, what would happen if I substituted my wife in God’s place and she left me? These examples are not very hypothetical because the primary reason for suicide among American seniors is the loss of a job and the primary reason for suicide among young people under the age of twenty five is loss of a significant other. Bad things happen when we hold inappropriate or disorganized priorities.

In the fourth Beatitude, Jesus said:

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

Context

What do you hunger and thirst for? For what are you passionate?

This theme of deep needs—hungering and thirsting—is in contrast with the provision and abundance of God in the Gospel of John. There, Jesus reveals himself first to a young couple who throw a wedding party without sufficient wine to meet community standards for hospitality—it’s like today not have clothes appropriate for eating in a stylish restaurant with your family after a funeral. In this context, Jesus provided the wine.

In our context, our weaknesses are contrasted with the super-abundance of God in the Gospel of John—abundance of wine in the wedding at Canaan (John 2:1-11),abundance of bread when Jesus fed the five thousand (John 6:5-14), and the abundance of fish when Jesus revealed himself to the Apostles for the last time in Galilee (John 21:3-12). This every day food illustrates the trade mark  generosity of  God that we saw for the first time in the Garden of Eden where there was neither hunger nor thirst. And there, we had a very intimate relationship with God himself.

Do you feel the deep symbolism here in the fourth Beatitude? Are you passionate today for God? As Jesus said:

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

Analysis

Whether you are passionate about God or not, our passions reflect the priorities in our lives. Our emotions protect our feelings, our identities, and our priorities. In other works, we get angry about the things that we feel are important.

In theology, this concept is known as the “cognitive theory of emotions” (2X) (Elliott 2006, 31) and the idea is that even God becomes angry only (2X) his law has been transgressed. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” (Rom 1:18 ESV)

Therefore, our emotions reveal the real priorities in our hearts.

Do you  hunger and thirst for God before all things? (2X)

Post script

In my story mentioned above, I printed my business cards with my priorities—slave of Christ, husband, father, tentmaker, writer, and speaker—and atended a conference where I met a Publisher who offered a contract to publish my Book. In the end, I did not accept this contract, but instead began to publish books independently with my own business.

Closing prayer

Let’s pray.

Holy Father:

In our finitude, our sin, our brokenness, we yearn for your righteousness, oh God. As the hungry grasp for bread and as the thirsty cry for water, we search for your justice where no other will do and no other can be found. Your Holy scriptures remind us that you are ever-near, always vigilant, and forever compassionate. Through the desert of our emotions and in the wilderness of our minds, bind our wounds, relieve our pains, and forgive our sins. Through the power of your Holy Spirit grow our faith even as our strength fails us. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

References

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

 

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Blessed are the Meek

Blessed are the Meek

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Luncheon for the Soul, Wednesday, July 13, 2016, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia

Welcome

Good afternoon. Welcome to Luncheon for the Soul. My name is Stephen Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor from Centreville Presbyterian Church and a Christian author. Today we continue our study of the Beatitudes.

In the Beatitudes, we see that the promises of God are anchored in his unchanging character and we know this because God remains forever meek.

Invocation

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father. Thank you for your presence among us this morning. We are grateful that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially obvious in this moment and in this place. In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears to listen. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Scripture

Today’s scripture lesson comes from the Gospel of Matthew 5:5. This is the Third Beatitude and a part of the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. Listen for the word of God.

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5 ESV)

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Introduction

A famous confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees begins with a difficult question: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Matt 22:17) If Jesus answers yes, the Hebrews will be mad at him. If he answers no, he will have legal difficulties with the Romans. This question does not have an obvious answer.

Jesus answers:

“Show me the coin for the tax.  And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, Whose likeness and inscription is this? They said, Caesar’s. Then he said to them, Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22:19-21)

In other words, Jesus redefined the question and challenged them to deepen their faith in God—in whose image they were created—and not to focus on political things that they cannot change.

The story of the response of Jesus to the difficult question is an example of a concept known by experts as fogging.[1] Fogging is an answer that responds only to the part of the question that you agree with. In this example, Jesus continues the conversation about taxes but he changes the focus to the coin used to pay the tax. The coin offers an opportunity to give a lesson about God without falling to a political trap and without appearing defensive in front of his opponents.

This last point is important for us because every day we talk with difficult people and fogging is a technique to remain civil during a conflict when it is much easier to become emotional or to feel the stress. It is useful because when we have an appropriate answer to a difficult person, we are not victims; we are not defensive; we are Christians that respect and utilize the wisdom of Christ. It is also an example of how to be meek like Jesus in our everyday life—meek is not weak or as Jesus said:

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt 5:5)

Context

The Third Beatitude appears only in Matthew and in the Greek, the language of the Old Testament, meek means: “… Not [being] overly impressed with a sense of self-importance, gentle, humble, considerate” (BDAG 6132). Meek is like the character of a person who applies the concept of “poor in spirit”, which we find in the First Beatitude, and which is shown not less than three times 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) [2]
  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)

These three events—the invitation of Jesus to be disciple, his humble entrance into Jerusalem, and his silence during his trial—demonstrate the humility of Christ. The humility of Christ is also observed in the writings of the Apostles—Peter, James, and Paul.

From all of this evidence, it is obvious that humility is very important to Jesus in the New Testament. But, no one normally wants to be humble—we have to learn to be humble.

Is it possible that God also learned to be humble? (2X)

Analysis

This curious question over the God changes during the period of the Bible is very important in today’s theological conversations because if God changed during the history of the Bible, then he can change in our time as well.

I will be very brief. Here I will use an argument from the law and the prophets, like Paul and many other rabbis.

Point One: God acts as someone very meek in spite of the sin of Adam and Eve.

In the Books of the Law we see that God looks meek and gentle. For example, in Genesis before “God sent him [Adam and Eve} out from the garden of Eden” (Gen 3:23), “God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen 3:21) like a mother prepares her kids for the first day of school. God had every right to zap them both and create new people, but he did not do that. He did not do that because he had compassion on them and made provision for them, in spite their sins and against his own rights and power. In this context, God appears meek.

Point Two: God is humble like his good friend, Moses.

Here in the Books of the Law, only Moses is described as humble, as we see in the Book of Numbers, where it is written:

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

But, many times friends share very similar personal characteristics. Consequently, the implication is that probably God is also meek like his very good friend, Moses.

Point Three: The Books of the Prophets describe the Messiah as meek.

The Books of the Prophets are all the books of the Old Testament that are not among the Books of the Law. Here we find that humility is a characteristic expected of the Messiah. The most famous example was cited above in Matthew and comes from the Prophet Zachariah:

“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)

It is obvious also in the prophets that humility is a characteristic of God reflected in his people, as an important part of his image. For example, we see in the Psalms:

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

And we find in the Psalms our Third Beatitude, in so many words:

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

Therefore, we see in the law as in the prophets that God was meek and he did not need to learn to be meek because he was already meek in creation. This is very good news because the character of God does not change over time and is immutable yesterday, today, and always.

The implication is that, just like the character of God is immutable and does not change, the Bible is also reliable and the promises of God are good forever. Thanks be to God!

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty Good, Beloved Son, Ever-present Spirit, we give praise because you do not change and offer your gracious love and consolation in painful times and times of loss. Cleanse our hearts of evil passions that lead us to sin and lead us to violence against other people. Give us a character that is deep in your wisdom. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen.

 

[1]  See: Savage (1996, 57-62).

[2] Also: “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)

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.>.

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

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Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

Art by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)
Art by Sharron Beg (www.threadpaintersart.blogspot.com)

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Luncheon for the Soul, Wednesday, June 15, 2016 Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia

Welcome

Good afternoon. Welcome to the Luncheon for the Soul. My name is Stephen Hiemstra. I am a volunteer pastor from the Centreville Presbyterian Church and a Christian author.

Today’s message focuses on a question: In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Prayer

Let’s pray.

Heavenly father.  Thank you for your presence among us this morning.  We appreciate that your word still moves our hearts and stimulates our minds. Make your presence especially obvious in this moment and this place.  In the power of your Holy Spirit, open our eyes and give us ears that hear. In the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.

Scripture

Today’s text comes from the Gospel of Mathew 5:3. This is the first Beatitude and a part of the introduction to the Sermon on the Mount.

Hear the word of the Lord:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV)[1]

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Introduction

In October 2014, I was invited to offer comments on my Book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality, at the Mubarak Mosque in Chantilly, Virginia on the day of Eid.[2] In the Islamic Calendar, Eid is a day as holy as Easter on the Christian calendar and it celebrates the sacrifice of Abraham of his son, Isaac, by means of their own sacrifices of domestic animals, such as sheep.

This invitation made me very nervous. As a Christian, what would I say about the Christian faith to a group of Muslims? Consequently, during the three days before Eid, I began a period of prayer and fasting and asked God what I should say to the Moslems.

God responded to my prayer, but he said nothing about my invitation. Instead and much better, God gave me the inspiration to write a new book, Life in Tension, which I hope to publish later this summer.

In this example of answered prayer, I spent three days in prayer and fasting. In this way, I was open to her a word from God and God responded.

In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Analysis

Our text today gives another answer to this question, but this text is a bit more interesting and also more complicated in the context of the Bible. Listen again to today’s text:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV)

Every Word in this Beatitude is interesting for different reasons, as we will see.

Blessed (2X). The New Testament was originally written in the Greek language and the Greek for blessed (the word μακάριος) means: “favor, blessing, fortune, happy (or joyful), and privileged”.[3]

In the Old Testament the most famous use of the word blessed appears in Psalm 1, where we read:

“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 ESV)

Consequently, many times blessed is said to mean more honor or blessings, not only happy or joyful.

Poor in Spirit (2X). This expression is found nowhere else in the Bible,[4] but it explains the significance of the a phrase in Isaiah 61:1, where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;” (Isa 61:1 ESV)

Here poor means “brokenhearted”, “captives”, and “those who are bound” which is very similar to the phrase in Matthew for “poor in spirit”.

More important in the understanding of the word, poor, is that in Hebrew, which was the language of the Old Testament, poor also means “afflicted, humble, meek.[5] Consequently, the phrase in Matthew 5:3, “poor in spirit” appears to be a direct  translation of the word, poor, in Hebrew, which has a wider significance in Hebrew than in Greek or Spanish or English.

The Kingdom of Heaven (2X). In the Hebrew language, the covenantal name of God (YHWH) is holy and can only be used in a worship service. In other contexts, phrases such as “the Lord”, “The Name” or “The Kingdom of Heaven” are substituted out of respect for the holiness of the name of God.

After all this analysis, it is accordingly possible to interpret the First Beatitude as saying: God blesses those that are humble or, more appropriately, God blesses those that make space in their lives for him; because those that are humble have respect for other people, including God.

Being humble makes space for other people; as does forgiveness, grace, patience, generosity, mercy, compassion, and other fruits of the spirit.[6] All of the spiritual gifts make room in our lives for relationships, including our relationship with God.

In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Further Analysis

The idea of offering space for God in our lives (and, by implication, for other people) has a long tradition in the Bible. For example, the night after King Solomon had dedicated the first temple in Jerusalem, God said to him:

“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)

Today which country needs this promise the most? (2X)

After the Beatitudes, later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matt 7:7 ESV)

If we offer more space in our lives to Christ, he promises to come into our lives and save us from our sins, our fears, our pains.

In what ways can we make room for God in our lives? (2X)

Closing Prayer

Let’s pray.

Almighty God, beloved Son, Ever-present Spirit, we praise you for your gracious love and consolation in times of pain and loss. Cleanse our hearts of the evil passions that lead us to sin and lead to violence against other people. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

 

[1]“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20 ESV)

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/03/eid-al-adha-2014_n_5927040.html.

[3] μακάριος means “humans privileged recipient of divine favor” and can also mean “favored, blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged” (BDAG 4675, 2, 2a).

[4] The Luke’s Gospel, this Beatitude refers only to the poor (Lukes 6:20), but Matthew was an Apostle (and likely witness to the Sermon on the Mount) while Luke was a colleague of Paul and a Greek (and not a witness to the Sermon).

[5] “poor,afflicted,humble,meek” (BDB 7238).

[6] “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 5:22-23)

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.>.

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

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Blessing Those that Persecute

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

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[4] http://www.cassierenebernall.org.

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

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

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Christian Paradox

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

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus proposes specific alternatives:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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Prosecute Righteousness

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The eighth beatitude continues our look at tension with others. Persecution is probably the most obvious form of interpersonal tension. Yet, it is sometimes more obvious to third parties than it is to us because we are prone to practice intense denial about such things. Denial is a strong component here, in part, because we have trouble admitting to ourselves that we are being persecuted and, in part, because of our tendency as Christians to think aspirationally. If we truly have the mind of Christ, we see others as Christ sees them—the person that God created them to be, not as they actually are.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:4-7 ESV)

James also provides important insight into our attitude about persecution:

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 ESV)

In effect, persecution for righteousness’ sake is part of our sanctification. So we are sometimes strangely blind to the persecution that we experience and even surprised to hear about it. For example, Billy Graham (1955, 98) poses a somewhat paradoxical question: “Why are good people persecuted?”

Here the word, persecution (διώκω), means: “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute” (BDAG 2059(2)). Often persecute is used in the context of a military engagement vigorously pursued (e.g. Deut 11:4). Guelich (1982, 93) notes that the perfect participale form of the word is uniquely used here and no where else in the Bible and it suggests actual community experience, not a hypothetical possibility. The word, righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), means: “the quality or characteristic of upright behavior, uprightness, righteousness” (BDAG 2004 (3)). Where a would-be king might hunger and thirst to acquire a kingdom, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness and expect to have others hunger and thirst to persecute us. The Bible reminds us that being called a Christian was often associated with suffering and not always considered an honor (1 Peter 4:16) [1].

Jesus’ association of persecution with righteousness was prophetic. Luke’s Gospel records these words from the cross:

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And he said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 ESV)

Notice that each of the elements of the eighth beatitude are present in Luke’s pericope: the idea of righteous persecution followed by the reward of heaven.

Religious persecution is as old as the story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy for Abel’s sacrifice being accepted by God when his own was not. In effect, Abel was righteous while Cain was not so Cain persecuted his brother unto death (Gen 4:3-9). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was similiarly stoned for, among other things, pointing out the persecution of the prophets (Acts 7:52-53)[2].The Apostle Paul admonishes us:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37 ESV)

Jesus reminds us that a student is not better than his teacher. He was persecuted; we will be persecuted (Matt 10:24-25). But Jesus did not stop there. He admonished us to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44 ESV).

In doing so, we turn our enemies into our friends.

 

[1] “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16 ESV)

[2] “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:52-53 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.>.

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

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

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

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Prayer Day 40: A Christian Guide to Spirituality by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Espera verano 2015
Espera verano 2015

Loving Father. You clothe the birds that neither spin or reap (Matt 6:26). You send the rain and the sunshine on the just and the unjust without discrimination (Matt 5:45). You make the day and the night to bless us with activities and with sleep (Gen 1:5). We cast our obsessions and addictions at your feet. In the power of your Holy Spirit, heal our relationships and soften our hearts that we might grow more like you with each passing day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Padre Amoroso, vistes las aves que ni siegan ni recogen (Mt. 6:25-26). Envías el sol y la lluvia sobre justos e injustos sin discriminación (Mt. 5:5). Haces el día y la noche para bendecirnos con actividades y sueños (Gén. 1:5). Lanzamos nuestras obsesiones y adicciones a Tus pies. En el poder del Espíritu Santo, sana nuestras relaciones y suaviza nuestros corazones para que podamos crecer más como Tú cada día. En el nombre de Jesús oramos. Amén.

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Prune, Intensify, and Apply

Life_in_Tension_web“You 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 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart”, three actions come into view: to prune, to intensify, and to apply.

Prune. Jesus says later in the sermon on the mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) In case you are hard of hearing, he repeats the idea again in the next verse: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt. 5:30 ESV). Pruning consists of removing the sin from your life.

Jesus is serious about pursuing holiness and he assumes that it is hard work. Think about the analogies that he employs—tear out your eye, cut off your hand. These are not easy actions to take. Eyes and hands are part of the body—parts of us. Still, when our lives are threatened, amputation is a acceptable option. If sin were no big deal, the analogy might have been to trim your nails or cut your hair.

Intensify. Jesus does not water down the requirements of the Mosaic law, he intensifies it. In his comments about adultery, he discounts the actual commission of the the act and focuses on the corruption of the heart. The sin begins, not with the act, but with a lustful look or intent. Billy Graham 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.” (Graham 1955, 78).

If sin begins in the heart, then purity of heart is an absolute necessity in pursuing holiness, but more is required. We must not only avoid sin, we must focus our desires on Christ. 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 ESV)

We must actually practice godliness [1]. Paul admonishes Timothy to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7 ESV) and so must we.

Apply. If the heart and mind both make us a unified person, then all of us is affected when we pursue holiness and practice godliness. In the Hebrew mindset it makes no sense to talk about faith being separated from action. When James, the brother of Jesus, writes:

“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.” (James 1:22-25 ESV)

James would almost certainly share Jesus’ assumption that unity of person implies unity of faith and action. In fact, one meaure of sin in this context would precisely be the amount of sunshine between what we say and what we do. After all, Jesus was the first one to use the word, hypocrite, to mean two-faced—saying one thing and doing another [2]. Prior to Jesus, an hypocrite was an actor on the Greek stage.

This unity of faith and action reflects the unity of our Triune God whose love is simply a reflection of his person [3].

So we must prune, intensify, and apply if we are to be pure in heart and see God.

 

[1] Bridges (1996a, 7) writes: “The Pursuit of Holiness [also a book title] dealt largely with putting off the old self—dealing with sin in our lives. The Practice of Godliness [also another title] focuses on putting on the new self—growing in Christian character.

[2] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matt. 23:25 ESV)

[3] “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 ESV)

REFERENCES

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

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

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

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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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