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July 2007 Archives

July 1, 2007


Most of us recognize that each human being has to learn how to live with other people. Relationships, both formal and informal, give structure to daily life. As the philosopher Alphonso Lingis has noted, all relations are contractual, involving rights and obligations. We have invisible bonds with our family members, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, our co-workers--even with those of our own age group, race, or profession--that entail mutual albeit unvoiced commitments. In times of crisis such as floods, droughts, or sickness, farmers from around the country will help fellow farmers to survive. We see aunts and uncles adopting their orphaned nieces and nephews. War will unite the most diverse elements of a nation in a common effort to resist a common enemy.

Covenant is a biblical term for a solemn contract that defines our relationship to God. Throughout time, God has made covenants with individuals such as Noah (Genesis 6:18; 9:8-17), Abraham (Genesis 15:18; 17:7-14), and David (2 Samuel 7:8-16) or with entire groups such as Israel (Deuteronomy 4:13; Judges 2:1) and spiritual Israel--the members of Christ's kingdom (Hebrews 8:6-13; 12:24; Galatians 4:24-31; Romans 4:16-17). Covenants typically involve promises and stipulations, threats and blessings (Deuteronomy 27:12-26; 28:1-14). They are commemorated by physical signs such as a rainbow (Genesis 9:13), the rite of circumcision (Genesis 17:11), tablets of stone (Deuteronomy 9:9), salt (Leviticus 2:13), blood (Exodus 24:8), and wine (1 Corinthians 11:25).

"Relationship" conveys the force of "covenant" better than "contract" because the covenant was warm, intimate, and caring. While a covenant is a type of contract, covenant says far more than contract about the length and strength of commitment. The covenant God made with Noah not to destroy the world again by flood was a perpetual contract. His promise to bless Abraham's seed and David's kingship has been eternally sealed in Jesus Christ. Paul says God has not forgotten his old covenant with Israel. In a sense, God's covenant, like his call, is irrevocable (Romans 11:26-29) because God's love is faithful.

A man criticized for breaking his promise replied that it didn't really matter because he could make another just as good. God faithfully keeps his commitments. To understand God's idea of covenant is to catch a glimpse of God's character (Nehemiah 9:7-8). The Old Testament contains a unique word, chesed (pronounced with a hard, guttural consonant like the German ach) that has challenged its English translators for generations. Variously rendered as "faith," "loyalty," "loving kindness", "steadfast, unfailing love," and "covenant solidarity," it represents the persistent love of God that remains loyal even when betrayed, that keeps faith even with the faithless (Isaiah 54:10).

This proactive, pursuing love of God explains in large part the salvation history recorded in the Bible's pages. "For God so loved the world. . ." seems to summarize God's offer of the covenants both old and new. The word "testament" in Greek also translates as "covenant." Each time we open the Bible's to one of its two distinct parts, each time we partake of the Lord's Supper, we are reminded of God's promised love and of our corresponding obligation to emulate that covenant loyalty through good behavior.

Keeping the provisions of a covenant requires integrity. As time marches on, our interests change, our situations alter. Something within us calls us to cut loose from the past and from old commitments. Politicians forget their promises; business partners part ways; spouses break their vows. Too often it seems that dogs have better reputations for steadfastness than humans. Throughout history, however, a faithful body of believers--called "the remnant" by prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Joel--has always joined God in remaining loyal to the covenant.

July 2, 2007


When we think of law, we generally envision a code of regulations designed to suppress antisocial behavior. Such was not the chief intent of the law given to Moses. Just as covenant signaled a personal relationship like that between parent and child, so the law was meant to be the guidance a parent gives to children for their health and welfare. Covenant and law are inseparable. Indeed, the Bible calls the law, as typified by the Ten Commandments, "the book of the covenant" (Exodus 24:7; 2 Kings 23:2, 21). In Hebrew, the word torah, usually translated law, actually means teaching--religious instruction about the responsibilities of covenant life (Jeremiah 6:19; Job 22:21-22; Proverbs 3:1).

God never intended the Jews to view the Mosaic law as a set of rigid, burdensome, and irrelevant rules. The prophets never teach that outward acts, however correctly executed, have any efficacy whatsoever apart from a sincere love for God. As Jesus, Paul, and James noted, the essence of the law was first to love God and then to love one's neighbor (Deuteronomy 11:13-15, 22-23; 15:7-11; Matthew 22:34-40; Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). Without those loving prerequisites, perfunctory obedience to regulations and rituals was always odious in God's eyes (Amos 5:21-24; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8).

God never intended people to view the Mosaic law as a means of meriting forgiveness. God's favor was the reason for the law's existence rather than a reward for obeying the law. God chose Israel because he loved them for Abraham's sake, not because he expected perfection from them (Deuteronomy 7:7-11). Jews call the Ten Commandments "the Ten Statements," and they consider the first one to be: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). All obedience to law is predicated on gratitude and represents a loving response to God's mighty acts of grace and mercy (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).

As it eventually does to all good things, human sinfulness twisted and perverted the law. Jesus clearly taught that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill or perfect it (Matthew 5:17). Paul also asserts that the law of Moses was holy and good (Romans 3:31; 7:12). What both Jesus and Paul opposed was the misunderstanding and misapplication of the law on the part of religious leaders who substituted ceremony and rituals for personal holiness and adherence to regulations for true religion. When Paul writes, for example, in Ephesians 2:15 that Christ abolished the law, he is referring to the ceremonial law that men had enthroned and that Christ's personal sacrifice rendered obsolete. The moral law, reflecting God's unchanging, loving character, did not change. Obviously, it is the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) as well as of Moses that we should love God and one another.

As Paul explains in Galatians 3-4, Gentiles (non-Jews) were not included in the Sinai covenant God made with Israel. They benefit, however, from the covenant promises God made to the pre-Mosaic Abraham, and they enjoy peace with God through Christ. Justification through ceremonial law-keeping (circumcision and sacrifice) could never have saved the Gentiles. If it could have, then Christ died for no purpose. But even for the ancient Jews, ritual law-keeping never satisfied the need for grace they felt (Psalms 103:8-11; 51:1-2).

God gave his law to Moses as a gift of mercy. It was not a poorly conceived idea on his part that needed to be rectified later. It was simply the teaching of a prior covenant. Now Christians are under a new covenant. While the old ceremonial law has been replaced, their faithfulness to the moral teaching of scripture remains the barometer of their salvation. If Christians disdain the law of Moses, they have not yet attained to the mind of Christ.

July 3, 2007


Everything in the Bible hinges ultimately on the love of God. The phrase "love of God" is ambiguous in English. It can mean either "the love God has" or "the love one has for God." In the Bible, the first meaning predominates. God's spontaneous, sovereign love for the patriarchs that he later bestows on the whole nation of Israel provides the dominant motif of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 4:37; 7:7-10; Hosea 11:1-9; Isaiah 49:14-18). Likewise, God's universal love for all humanity serves as the driving force of the New Testament (John 3:16-17; Romans 8:38-39; 1 John 4:7-21).

Throughout the Old Testament, writers make reference to the particular love that God had for Israel (Deuteronomy 23:5; 1 Kings 10:9; Isaiah 43:4). God loved Israel in the sense that he preferred that nation to all others (Malachi 1:2-3). Hebrew idiom often used the words love and hate to express preference. For example, when comparing two wives in Deuteronomy 21:15, the Hebrew that literally says "if a man has two wives, the one loved, and the other hated" is perhaps better translated, "if a man prefers one of his wives to another." Similar usage contrasts Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29:31 and Hannah and Peninnah in 1 Samuel 1:2-5. The sense is not that Jacob hated Leah or that Elkanah hated Peninnah. They simply had preferences. This linguistic contrast explains the "hard saying" of Jesus in Luke 14:26. Jesus is not saying his disciples should hate their families. Rather, he emphasizes they should not give their family loyalties priority or preference.

Are God's preferences selective, exclusive, or discriminatory? By their very nature, they certainly are. There is no arguing personal taste. "Jacob I loved but Esau I hated" (Romans 9:13). God is a person, and he has his preferences. It would be inaccurate to say that God capriciously or arbitrarily picked Israel to be his instrument of revelation. The Bible portrays God as having genuine tenderness for his people. His love remains mysterious and unmerited, but it is no less real or sincere. God has done special things for the Jews because he loves them. Recognizing this love, some conservative French Christians sheltered Jews from the Nazis during World War II. They reasoned that if God had shown such love to these people, how could they do any less.

In the Old Testament there are two main words for love, ahabah and chesed. Ahabah denotes the election-love described above, a love limited only by the will or nature of the lover. Chesed, discussed in the entry on covenant, is the love of loyalty and faithfulness that does not exist apart from a formal covenant relationship. The miracle and majesty of divine love shows itself in this: Although God alone has the power to choose his beloved and the power to dissolve that relationship, he always remains faithful (Deuteronomy 4:31). Instead of giving up on humanity because of Israel's idolatry and sinfulness, he chose instead to expand his love for Abraham to include every human being.

We take our cue for unselfish loving from God. All of us know by natural instinct how to love the lovable and to love those that love us (Luke 6:32-33). People will die for their beloved family, friends, and country. But God's love teaches us to be loyal even when we don't feel like it. God's love shows us how to live unselfishly and even to sacrifice ourselves for enemies and sinners.

This unique variety of love, expressed in the New Testament by the Greek word agape, finds eloquent description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. It really is too wonderful to conceive. Meditation upon this love humbles the ego and drives it to a confession of inadequacy. The agony and ecstasy of the Christian walk consists in striving to model the faithful love of God in all of one’s relationships. Although unworthy of the challenge, Christians have been called to reflect God's character.

July 4, 2007


The Bible plainly teaches that Abraham did not discover God. God appeared to Abraham. Likewise, Moses did not go to Midian in search of God, but God spoke to Moses in the land of Midian. A distinctive idea of scripture is that God has always sought special people for reasons known only to him. People like Gideon, Samuel, David, Ruth, Esther, Nehemiah, John the Baptist, Mary, and Saul of Tarsus come to mind, among many others. Jesus said to his apostles in John 15:16, "You did not choose me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last."

Election was not, in and of itself, an original idea. The kings of pagan nations also felt their gods had chosen them for greatness. They typically attributed their selection to some personal attribute their god admired in them. But the God of the Bible seems to prefer underdogs and nobodies. As part of their regular worship, the people of Israel were commanded to remind themselves that they were descendants of "a wandering Aramean" (Deuteronomy 26:5). Scripture makes it patently clear that Israel was not chosen for its physical, moral, social, intellectual, or spiritual merit (Deuteronomy 7:6-7; Ezekiel 16:3-7). God chose Israel to keep his promise to Abraham (see Psalm 105:38-42). Why God chose Abraham reverts to the mystery of election.

Whom God chooses, he always chooses for service. Although Israel prospered as a result of God's faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham, God blessed Israel for his name's sake, that is, to show he was truly God by doing the impossible for this puny nation (1 Samuel 12:22; 1 Kings 8:41-43). Furthermore, he called Israel to spread the truth of ethical monotheism by becoming a moral and spiritual beacon to other nations (Isaiah 2:2-4; 42:6-8; 43:10). Election is never a free ride. It entails becoming an instrument of God's peace. Because Israel largely failed in fulfilling its service responsibilities, Jeremiah prophesied the creation of a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God elected a new Israel, the church, but the service requirement remains in effect (1 Peter 2:9-12). The church is not simply a Jesus club, a society of like-minded people who meet for mutual edification. It is the Israel of God, chosen and called--chosen to receive his grace but also to feel the cost of that grace, called to be a new creation and to maintain a higher ethical standard (Galatians 6:15-16). Like those who survived the Babylonian Captivity, the church is the faithful remnant--the bit preserved by God (Romans 11:5-7; Matthew 22:14). Yet the distinctive idea behind the remnant concept is that the remnant is saved to save others; the stump is eventually expected to produce branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit.

Election is not predestination, if one means by predestination a destiny that cannot be refused. Thoughout history, people have cast their election aside. In Jeremiah, the vessel that fails to realize the intention of the potter is refashioned into another vessel (Jeremiah 18:4). Although God does not create people who are doomed to hell from birth any more than a potter would make vessels with no other thought than to destroy them, pots do become marred for one reason or another. Faithless Israel marred itself through idolatry and sin while God remained faithful. In scripture, election and predestination are always positive. God chooses people for glory, not for damnation (Romans 8:29-30), but it is up to them to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11).

God predestines people in love, not wrath (Ephesians 1:4). Christians have been chosen, not for privilege or pride, but for service, whether noble or menial (Romans 9:20-21). Forsaking complacency and self-righteousness, the chosen of God are called to serve others with all heart, mind, and strength, relying on eternal promises for the strength to do so.

July 5, 2007


The Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, Indians, and Greeks all sought after wisdom. The word "philosopher" comes from the Greek word for "lover of wisdom," and history clearly shows that no nation or people has ever cornered the market on wisdom. The book of Proverbs quotes foreign sources such as King Lemuel (Proverbs 31:1-9), and several statements found in the proverbs or in the civil law given by Moses have parallels in the earlier writings of Egyptian wisemen and Mesopotamian law books. These include similar teachings about carrying off landmarks, using false scales, gossip, ox-goring, redemption from slavery, and the worth of a good name.

The ancient Jews treated wisdom as basically a practical matter. It could be summed up in the question, "What is the best way to ensure a happy life?" Although Old Testament writers identify God as the source of wisdom (1 Kings 3:28; 4:29) and occasionally ascribe wisdom to God himself (Isaiah 10:13; 31:2; Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15), wisdom in the Old Testament most commonly represents a human rather than divine characteristic. In the Old Testament sense, wisdom usually meant practical knowledge and competence. Solomon is said to have been wise because he administered justice well (1 Kings 3:11-28), wrote proverbs and songs (1 Kings 4:29-34), and answered hard questions (1 Kings 10:3-6). His wisdom, however, did not make him perfect, neither did it prevent his participating in idolatry.

The Bible's originality consists in maintaining that human wisdom has little meaning apart from the fear of God. The value of knowledge depends upon the kind of God you worship. As Proverbs 9:10 states, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." The numerous passages that echo this truth do not imply that wisdom is like a journey whose first step is the fear of the Lord and whose subsequent steps include other virtues. Rather, the word "beginning" in these texts means "heart" or "essence." In other words, the fear of God constitutes the wisdom we need most. In Job 28:28 we read, "The fear of the Lord--that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding."

Obviously, the word "fear" in English has negative connotations. We recognize that fear is normally the root cause of hatred. But fearing God in the book of Proverbs links directly to ethical monotheism (Proverbs 3:7; 8:13), and the parallel constructions of Hebrew poetry underscore that the fear of God is synonymous with shunning evil (Job 1:1, 8;2:3; 28:28). To respect and honor the one righteous God means to behave morally, because that is God's primary concern. "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

In Proverbs 16:6, the writer parallels the fear of the Lord with chesed or covenant love. That is because chesed on the part of human beings means "godliness"--the love for God we show by doing his will and by fulfilling the requirements of the covenant. To fear God is to serve him with all faithfulness (Joshua 24:14). None of these passages refers to a dread of the spirit world such as one finds in voodoo religion. On the contrary, when the people of Israel were frightened at Sinai by the thunder, lightning, darkness, and smoke, Moses told them, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning" (Exodus 20:20).

The Bible maintains that no life can be sound that misunderstands the nature of God or that neglects his law. By keeping the law of God, we demonstrate our wisdom and understanding to others (Deuteronomy 4:6). We cultivate a wisdom revealed by the Spirit that leads to eternal life (1 Corinthians 2:6-13).

July 6, 2007


When God put to death seventy men of Beth Shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the Lord (1 Samuel 6:20), the people of Beth Shemesh exclaimed, "Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?" But in Hosea 11:9, instead of threatening to destroy, God says he refuses to bring destruction on northern Israel because "I am God and not a man--the Holy One in your midst." How is it that in one passage God's holiness explains his wrath and in another it explains his mercy? The idea common to both situations is that God is not human--he does not act in the way human beings naturally would.

Holiness means "otherness," God's complete separateness and awesome difference from everything and everyone else. Otherness does not mean remoteness, because scripture always presents God as being close (Deuteronomy 4:7; Isaiah 57:15; Acts 17:27-28). Otherness does not indicate passivity. The God of the Bible is not the deist God who set the universe in motion according to immutable physical laws and then took his leave. In scripture, God is known by what he does in the world, often by mighty acts that defy physical law like parting the Red Sea or stopping time. Otherness signifies those qualities and attitudes that define the Lord God alone.

Holiness in the Bible has both literal and figurative manifestations. Taboos abound in the Old Testament: touching or looking into the ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7; 1 Samuel 6:19-20), offering unauthorized fire (Leviticus 10:1-3), touching holy ground (Exodus 19:12-13). The positive sign of God's holiness consists primarily of his shekinah, his "glory" or bright cloud of presence (1 Kings 8:10-11). Moses' shining face (Exodus 34:29-35) and Jesus' dazzling clothes (Mark 9:2-8) reflect the glory of God, the outward sign of his holiness.

The sacrificial system of the old covenant was a physical tribute to holiness. It came about because God commanded that the first-born of man and beast was to be consecrated (made holy) to God (Exodus 13:2, 12-13; 22:29) as a tangible sign of loyalty. As in the case of Abraham and Isaac, God allowed people to substitute their best animals in place of their children, thereby instituting the sacrificial system. Sacrifice, literal or figurative, represents the holy offering of human lives to God (Romans 12:1).

While physical taboos and sacrifices had their place in raising human consciousness concerning the divine, awesome otherness of God, these practices were not distinctive to ethical monotheism. Most religions had and have similar taboos or rituals. The originality of biblical teaching about holiness is that God's holiness manifests itself most fully not in his fearsomeness but in his righteousness (Isaiah 5:16; 6:1-7). God made ethical demands on his holy nation because of his own holy nature (Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; Psalm 15; 24:3-6; 1 Peter 1:13-16). Indeed, the whole ethical system of the Bible is founded upon the holiness of God, and scripture teaches that religion is good for morals only if you serve a holy God.

For Greeks like Aristotle, the excellence of human beings lay in their ability to reason. Living the life of reason, therefore, enabled intelligent, educated people to fulfill their human potential. The moral life was simply the cultivated, reasonable life that led to complete human fulfillment. The standard by which the prophets judged human conduct, however, was neither a reasoned ideal nor the brotherhood of man. To the contrary, it was an "inhuman" standard based on the holiness of God. God, not reason, conferred excellence on people by making them a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9-10). And God, not reason, is the ultimate judge of character. It is only in knowing God and his holiness that people have any hope of understanding his righteousness.

July 9, 2007


"That's not fair" is one of the most commonly heard complaints in American society. If we understand the word "fair" as meaning "treating everyone the same," it is usually impossible to understand what the person is really saying. For example, if a student with dyslexia makes a low grade on a test, he or she may exclaim, "That's not fair; I wasn't given enough time to finish!" But in reality, that person was given exactly the same amount of time as every other student taking the test; it was simply insufficient.

Those in favor of affirmative action (giving hiring preference to minorities or women) say it isn't fair to judge minority applicants and majority applicants on the same basis because systemic factors give built-in advantages to white males. In other words, purely equal treatment can never really be truly equitable because so many factors obtain. "That's not fair" often means in reality: "You haven't taken into account my personal situation and acted accordingly in a gracious and merciful manner."

In scripture, the words "justice" and "righteousness" go hand in hand. There is one Hebrew word for "justice" or impartial, unbiased judgment and another for "righteousness" or conformity to a standard of right. Forms of these two words frequently appear in the same verse as virtual synonyms, although "righteousness" is essentially a broader term (Psalm 103:6; Isaiah 5:16; 59:9). Sometimes, writers use the Hebrew word for "righteousness" in the more limited sense of "justice" (conformity to a standard of impartiality) and English translators translate it by the word "justice" (Psalm 11:7, NIV, REB). On the other hand, one never translates the specific Hebrew word for "justice" (mishpat) by "righteousness."

All this may seem confusing, but the point is that the English language has no one consistently good way to translate the Hebrew word "righteousness." It is simply too elastic and evocative a word. In English, the word "justice" is more commonly used and therefore more important than "righteousness." But from a biblical perspective, it is impossible to render justice without understanding the standard by which it must be rendered. That standard is God's righteousness.

Righteousness means "conformity to a norm." That standard does not have to be strictly ethical. Judah declares that Tamar (who disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce him) was more "righteous" than he (Genesis 38:26). Why? Because she had been obedient to the requirements of the levirate law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) while he had neglected his responsibility. David was more "righteous" than Saul because he had honored the subject-king relationship while Saul had betrayed David's loyalty (1 Samuel 24:17).

Righteousness in scripture often means behaving according to the requirements of covenant relationship, which involves showing faithful obedience on man's part, faithful love on God's (Deuteronomy 6:25; Psalm 103:17-18). When Paul says that in the gospel "is revealed a righteousness of God from faith unto faith" (Romans 1:17, ASV), he means that God's covenant love has been passed from Abraham to us through Christ. In both the Old Testament and the New, God's righteousness becomes an umbrella term for his saving power (Isaiah 45:21; 46:13; 51:4-5; 61:10; Psalm 51:14).

Is the righteous God of the Bible just (fair and impartial) or is he merciful? Thankfully, one can say he is both. Sovereign lords like God are not forced or obligated to be just. If they are just instead of arbitrary and capricious, it is because they have a prior disposition toward goodness, kindness, and mercy. Whenever we find ourselves in positions of power over others, we should seek to be righteous like God, adhering to strict standards of both justice and mercy. "The holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness" (Isaiah 5:16).

July 10, 2007


Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Why couldn't God, in his infinite mercy, simply say "I forgive you" to those he thought deserved forgiveness? In the answer to this question lies the doctrine of the atonement. The English word "atonement" refers to being "at one" (or reconciled) with God. Why was humanity estranged from God in the first place, how exactly did the reconciliation take place, and what does it mean for us today?

In his book Christus Victor, Gustaf Aulén outlines three main approaches to the atonement. According to the Classical View, which predominated from the second to the fourth century, sin is the byproduct of bondage to an evil supernatural being, the devil (1 John 3:8-10; 5:19). Human beings were originally created free moral agents, but the devil enslaved them and became the "prince of this world" (John 12:31; 16:8-11). In order to redeem mankind from slavery, God had to pay Christ as a ransom price. Dying on the cross, Jesus exchanged himself for humanity and became the devil's possession, but Christ was stronger than Satan and broke free from his bondage when he broke the bonds of death (Hebrews 2:14-15; Romans 6:6-10).

The Latin View developed from the fifth century through the Middle Ages. According to his view, God is holy and cannot by nature accept sin in his presence. Unless delivered from sin, humanity faces eternal estrangement from God, but since people are all sinful, no mere human sacrifice can meet the demands of divine justice. Motivated by love and mercy, God himself satisfies his own sense of justice by sending Christ as a sinless man to make the necessary sacrifice (1 John 2:1-2; 4:10). God as man propitiates himself, thereby demonstrating both his justice and his mercy (Romans 3:25-26).

The Pietistic View arose in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. According to this view, there was no literal ransom paid to the devil or complicated legal process of satisfying divine justice. Sin is a matter of the heart. People are sick with sin, and Christ came as a spiritual physician to heal humanity by calling for a new birth and by leaving a perfect example sealed by his selfless death. We are saved by becoming Christ-like in our moral lives. We know we are saved because we feel harmony and peace of mind.

Scripture uses poetic images and word pictures to explain the atonement: the lamb on the altar (propitiation), the relative who has fallen into slavery (redemption/ransom); the loving family (adoption), the estranged relationship (reconciliation), the battlefield (victory), the doctor's office (healing), the sheepfold under attack (rescue), and the law court (justification). Is one of these more theologically accurate, precise, or correct than the others? Are they all simply approximations or illustrations?

Some things are clear. The death of Jesus underscores the horror of sin and God's hatred for it. People are dying in sin and need a savior. Christ's atoning death incarnates God's love and mercy (Romans 5:8). Atonement is God's initiative from first to last (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). It is unthinkable to exploit God's love and loyalty by continuing to sin (Romans 6:1-2). Therefore, as redeemed people, we should live lives worthy of the Master whose name we now bear (Colossians 1:9-10; Ephesians 4:1-3).

Atonement is in the past; salvation is in the future. As we have been justified by his blood, so we will be saved by his life, that is, by his resurrected life when we, like him, are resurrected unto eternal life (Romans 5:9-10). God will preserve us from the devil unless we consciously rebel and return to the devil's bondage (Romans 8:37-39). These truths resonating within the hearts and minds of believers provide the purpose and motivation needed to live the ethical life.

July 12, 2007


The Greek word translated "grace" appears over 170 times in the New Testament, yet only a few of those occurrences actually refer to what is commonly thought of as the biblical doctrine of grace. A common meaning of grace (charis) in classical Greek was "loveliness" or "that which is pleasant and attractive." Many are familiar with the “Three Graces,” three beautiful women portrayed in many paintings and sculptures. This seems to be the sense of the Greek word in passages like Luke 4:22 and Colossians 4:6.

Obviously, people like what they find attractive. Thus, charis also has the meaning of "favor" or "approval" in Luke 2:40, 52 and Acts 2:47. When we approve of something or someone, we endow that object of approval with our "good-will," yet another sense of the word (Acts 14:26; 15:40). This good-will may even take the form of an appreciative gift, whether monetary (1 Corinthians 16:3) or non-material (2 Corinthians 1:15). Hence, grace came to mean a gift.

When God is the giver, the gift may be a blessing (2 Corinthians 9:8), a special endowment for service (1 Corinthians 15:10; Romans 1:5; 12:3; 15:15), or even the gift of eternal life (1 Peter 1:13). This gift, above all, is God's love showered upon an undeserving humanity in the form of Jesus the Messiah (John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:5; Acts 15:11). Thus, the unearned gift of salvation made possible by the death of Jesus is known as “grace” (Romans 3:21-25; 4:4; 11:5-6; Ephesians 1:7-8; 2:5-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:4-7).

In yet an even broader sense, “grace” in scripture becomes a figure of speech, contrasted with "law," that designates the Christian dispensation (Romans 6:14; 1 Peter 5:12; Galatians 2:21). Grace in this sense more or less equals Christianity: You enter into it (Romans 5:2), abide in it (Acts 13:43), or fall from it (Galatians 5:4). The gospel of Christ is synonymous with the gospel of grace (Acts 20:24) because Jesus Christ was the ultimate gift.

Although the actual word for grace appears on the lips of Jesus only twice (Luke 6:32 in the sense of "credit" and Luke 17:9 in the sense of "gratitude"), the concept of God's generous forgiveness shines through parables such as “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-24), “The Pharisee and the Publican” (Luke 18:9-14), and “The Laborers in the Vineyard” (Matthew 20:1-16). Both Jesus and Paul seek to restore the original teaching of the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 7:7-8; Psalm 103:8-12; Micah 7:18-20) that the rabbis of their day had perverted into an empty legalism. God's election of Israel, his covenant, his steadfast love, and his deliverance from Egyptian and Babylonian captivity were all examples of grace. The Old Testament never suggested that God forgave sin as a reward for sacrifice, quite the contrary (Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Amos 5:21-27). Sacrifice was intended only to be a grateful response to God’s grace (Psalm 50:7-15).

Seeing oneself as the unworthy recipient of God's generous gifts should have a direct bearing on one’s ethical behavior. In the “Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” (Matthew 18:21-25), nothing is more despicable than refusing to show mercy after one has been shown mercy. If God's grace does not change our attitude toward others, then we have totally refused to know and imitate God. From beginning to end, the Bible is a book about the free gifts of God. No room is left for human pride, arrogance, presumption, or self-sufficiency because each of those qualities implicitly rejects the notion of humble gratitude.

Paul says in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin, paid by a check drawn on the devil's account, is death. You earn them. By contrast, the gift of God is eternal life. You neither earn nor deserve it. Because God saves us in spite of our failures, we should love others in spite of theirs. While this doesn't mean we should let them exploit us, it does mean we should always act with their welfare in mind. Being gracious is the epitome of godly behavior (Proverbs 14:31).

July 28, 2007


Like righteous and grace, the word "faith" has several meanings. The Greek word pistis (pronounced PISS-tiss) is variously translated in the New Testament as belief (mental acceptance), faith (trust, confidence), and faithfulness (trustworthiness). Obviously, since these are far from synonymous, one must carefully examine the context of a particular passage to decide which of the meanings applies.

When the word is applied to God, as in Romans 3:3, it is usually translated as "faithfulness," since we conceive of God as so omniscient and independent as to preclude his "believing" something or "relying" on something in a literal sense. The word is also translated faithfulness in Matthew 23:23 (to denote a quality that the Pharisees, although believers, lacked) and Galatians 5:22, where it denotes a fruit of the Spirit that will come to characterize Christians who already believe and trust God.

Faith in the New Testament is both the intellectual conviction that God exists (James 2:14-26; Hebrews 11:6) and the spiritual conviction that, though Christians were unrighteous in our own right, they have become righteous in Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28). In a skillful yet subtle way, Paul links the dual meanings of faith and faithfulness theologically. Non-Jews trust God to save their souls as a direct result of his promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his seed (Galatians 3:14, 29). Although Romans 1:17 is notoriously hard to interpret with precision, it may well mean that God's righteousness is revealed from Abraham's covenant faithfulness (when he was ready to sacrifice Isaac) to Christ's covenant faithfulness (when he offered himself as a sacrifice on the cross). Like Abraham and Jesus, the righteous, whether Jew or Gentile, live by trusting in the promises of God.

Biblical faith is not simply credulity. It has intellectual content based on a coherent message (Romans 10:17) and on the historical evidence of Christ's identity, ministry, death, and resurrection (Acts 10:36-43; 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). Biblical faith is not absolute certitude. It requires a mental "leap" that transcends mere rationality (Luke 8:22-25; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 17-19). If one could be absolutely sure of God, every sane person would be compelled to acknowledge God. If there were no room for doubt, there could be no virtue in faith.

Biblical faith is not superstitious trust; it is not a religious rabbit's foot to rub in tough times for luck. Jesus said that those who trusted superstitiously in their direct lineage to Abraham were totally misguided (Matthew 3:9). For Paul, it is one's imitation of Abraham's complete trust in God and his faithfulness to the covenant that makes one Abraham's heir in faith.

Biblical faith has moral implications. Scripture presents faith as the inward compulsion, not only to trust God but to demonstrate that trust in obedience by bringing forth fruits of righteousness. According to Galatians 5:6, faith expresses itself in love. The shield of faith quenches the burning arrows of the devil, by which Paul no doubt suggests not only the intellectual arguments for disbelief but the many specific temptations to do evil (Ephesians 6:16). By putting their trust in Christ and the power of his saving death, Christians crucify themselves and die to the secular life of sin. In this sense, the moral life Christians live is lived by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20) and by faithfulness to the new covenant. James vividly contrasts lifeless intellectual assent with true faith that proves its existence and power through good deeds (James 2:14-17).

Faith has personal implications (Hebrews 11:24-27). For Christians, as for Moses, faith is the source of moral courage. When people genuinely catch a vision of the invisible God, they no longer fear earthly dangers and deprivation in the same way. To believe and obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19; 5:29) is to tap the very fountainhead of courage. Therefore, as the hymn says, "faith is the victory that overcomes the world."

July 29, 2007


Atonement describes what God has done for believers; worship entails what believers do for God. The word "worship" is an remarkably inclusive term. In the New Testament alone, several Greek words (plus their numerous variants) are occasionally rendered as "worship" in English translations. These terms variously refer to pagan worship (Acts 17:23), to Jewish rites performed by the priests (Hebrews 9:21), to Jewish worship by laymen (Acts 8:27; 12:20; Luke 2:37), and even to perversions such as the worship of angels (Colossians 2:18).

Religious ritual permeated life in ancient times. Overt atheists were few and far between, and religious shrines of every stripe dotted the landscape. People engaged in all sorts of ritual activities to show their piety. As part of their worship, they offered animal and plant sacrifices, went on pilgrimages, prayed, fasted, played music on instruments, chanted psalms of praise, observed religious festivals, read scripture, taught, and were taught. Pagans even engaged in prostitution with temple harlots as a form of worship. The who, what, where, how, and why of worship played no small role in their daily existence.

Into this world of worship came Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet in the tradition of Amos, Micah, and Isaiah--yet more than a prophet. Speaking as one having authority, he addressed many of the issues related to worship. The writer of Hebrews even compares the ministry of Jesus to high priestly work (Hebrews 8:1-6). Although Jesus participated in services at his local synagogue (Luke 4:16-22), it was clear he intended to emphasize internals over externals. When the woman at the well asked him questions about proper worship, he maintained it should be done “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:19-24), which probably meant that true worship in the future would be focused on the Messiah (Jesus himself) rather than on a particular place.

What constitutes true worship is a chief concern of both Old and New Testament writers. Just like Isaiah (Isaiah 1:12-17), James affirms that pure religion has more to do with doing right than performing rites (James 1:27). In order words, "worship" and "service" are not separate entities but part and parcel of each other. In a similar vein, Paul says in Romans 14:17-18 that the kingdom of God is not a matter of externals (eating and drinking) but of internals (righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit). The one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to both God and man. Earlier in Romans, Paul takes the word that described the ritual duties performed by Levites in the tabernacle and changes its color to include all aspects of the Christian walk. Offering one’s body as a living sacrifice and transforming one’s mind to discern the will of God signified true worship for Paul (Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 3:2-11).

Although one occasionally reads in scripture about Christian assemblies and what went on there, the emphasis is never on the rituals. In fact, Paul pauses in his teaching about corporate worship to talk to the Corinthians about a better way of worship called love (1 Corinthians 13). No wonder, then, that the term "worship service" never appears in the New Testament, nor do any of the many Greek words translated as worship refer directly to the corporate assemblies of Christians. No writer offers a specific list of activities to include in Christian assemblies. What is known about early Christian worship comes indirectly from brief allusions or criticisms. That doesn't make the rituals of the assembly unimportant, it simply puts them into proper perspective.

Just as Jesus told the Pharisees they should value justice and mercy over tithing spices (Matthew 23:23-24), so New Testament writers tend to replace the literal meanings of words for ritual worship with figurative senses of "spiritual service" like godliness, benevolence, and evangelism (1 Timothy 4:7-8, 5:4; James 1:26-27; Romans 12:1-2). True worship takes place seven days a week.

July 30, 2007


Many churches are beginning to allot more time on Sunday morning to "fellowship," by which they mean time for members to interact with other members on an informal basis over coffee and snacks. While social interludes are no doubt helpful in building relationships, they do not represent true fellowship in the biblical sense. Fellowship is not small talk over coffee and cookies, nor is it playing regularly on the church softball team. Fellowship in the New Testament generally refers to sharing the spiritual blessings of Christ's death and resurrection and to the particular behavior that results from such a common bond. From a scriptural point of view, the communion service is actually the truest period of focused fellowship.

Fellowship is partnership in a covenant. The children of Israel formed a fellowship as the joint beneficiaries of covenants God made with the patriarchs, with Moses, and later with David. Christians share fellowship in the new covenant of Christ's blood (Matthew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25). Scripture goes to great lengths to emphasize that one’s sharing in Christ's suffering can be just as literal as it is figurative (Romans 8:17; Colossians 1:24; Philippians 3:10). Sharing in Christ's suffering ultimately means a life of service rather than privilege (Matthew 20:22-28), hence the ethical implications of fellowship.

The signs of fellowship in a New Testament sense are not pastries and potlucks but baptism (Galatians 3:26-28), the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1), a transformed life (Romans 6:4-14), the Lord's supper (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), and the hope of eternal life (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; 2 Timothy 2:11-12). To the extent Christians lose sight of spiritual blessings by taking them for granted, they lose contact with the wellsprings of Christian morality, the spiritual understandings and values that set their priorities and shape their reactions to what life throws at them.

The most common Greek word for fellowship, koinonia, occurs 19 times in the New Testament and has somewhat different connotations according to each context. In 1 John 1:3-7, fellowship with God, Christ, and other Christians implies leading humble, sincere lives as new creatures forgiven of sin. Fellowship and immorality are mutually exclusive because fellowship with God means sharing the ethical character of God (2 Peter 1:4). In Philippians 2:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 13:11-14, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit evokes a gentleness that results in harmony, unity, and cooperation among brothers and sisters who share the same Spirit.

In other contexts, "fellowship" comes to mean the tangible expression of a common spiritual bond. When Peter, James, and John gave Paul and Barnabas the "right hand of fellowship" (Galatians 2:9), they were offering them their moral support. When the Macedonians contributed to the poor saints in Jerusalem, Paul called it the "fellowship of service" (2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:13; Romans 15:26-27). When the Philippians sent money to support Paul's ministry, Paul alludes to it as "fellowship in the gospel" (Philippians 1:5; 4:14-19). The Hebrew writer says that sharing (this same word for fellowship) material resources with other saints is a Christian sacrifice pleasing to God (Hebrews 13:16).

Fellowship in scripture is more active than passive, more participation than association. If one has fellowship with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, one’s moral life will reflect the ethical nature of divinity. If Christians have fellowship with other Christians, their common participation in the blood of Christ will translate into a peace-loving, generous attitude. If people lack moral integrity, kindness, and love, they are not in fellowship with God or with one another, no matter how many donuts they eat at church.

July 31, 2007

Do You Observe the Law of Moses?

1.Would you put to death anyone who works on Saturday? Exodus 31:14-15; Numbers 15:32-36

2.Would you kill your rebellious children? Leviticus 19:9; Deuteronomy 21:18-21

3.Would you execute all those who commit adultery? Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 22:22

4.Would you kill anyone who practices homosexuality? Leviticus 19:13

5.Would you put to death anyone who practices bestiality? Leviticus 19:15

6.Would you kill anyone who calls herself a medium or a fortune teller? Leviticus 20:27

7.Would you execute anyone who misuses God’s name? Leviticus 24:16

8.Would you insist on capital punishment for every murderer? Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16, 31

9.Would you put to death anyone who bows down to idols? Deuteronomy 17:2-5

10.Do you put tassels on all your clothes to remind you of God’s commandments? Numbers 15:38-39

11.Do you believe it is unlawful to charge interest on loans? Deuteronomy 23:19

12.Do you refuse to wear garments that are a cotton-wool blend? Deuteronomy 22:11

Unless you answer “yes” to all these questions, you do not observe the Law of Moses.

About July 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Trite but True in July 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

June 2007 is the previous archive.

August 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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