Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Food for Thought

I was doing some reading this last week on the Lord’s Supper, and I came across a phrase I had not previously heard used to describe the bread and the fruit of the vine. The writer of this article spoke of how when it comes to the signs of bread and the fruit of the vine at the Lord’s Supper, “Christ saturates the sign.” What a beautifully put phrase! In other words in an intimate and unique way, Christ identifies himself so much with the bread and juice of the grape that he saturates these signs with his presence. After all, did not Jesus say of the bread, “Take it. This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."” and of the juice, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk 22:17, 20)?

Oceans of ink over the centuries have been poured into theological literature over the exact meaning of Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper. Obviously, the little ink being spent in this blog cannot contend with every viewpoint on the Lord’s Supper. Suffice to say here I believe the elements of the Lord’s Supper are a symbolic representation (or signs) of Jesus body and blood. In this brief note I desire only to speak about the impact the phrase, “Christ saturates the sign” has on me personally, and I hope impacts you for the better as well.

“Christ saturates the sign” brought to my attention that I have placed most of my focus upon Jesus Last Supper as virtually just a memorial of remembrance. What I mean is I have thought more about the signs of the bread and the cup as just symbolic representation, than I have perhaps considered the actual body and blood of Christ. When I read Luke’s account, my time is often spent on the act of remembrance, and not as much on the One I should be actually remembering—Jesus. In other words, symbols are by function separate and distant from what or whom they represent. Symbols imply distance in the sense that they point to something or someone distinct from the symbols themselves. For instance, a picture of a dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit, but the symbol of a dove is not the Holy Spirit Himself; there is a kind of mental gap between symbol and reality. Therefore, since symbols are detached from what they represent, we can potentially spend too much time on the symbol to the neglect of the reality the symbol is actually meant to convey.

“Christ saturates the sign” closed the mental gap in my own mind between Jesus and the symbols of his body and blood. The symbolic nature that the bread and the cup carry is unique. Consider for a moment, what other symbols in your daily life do you ever eat? Each Sunday we literally digest these signs of Jesus’ body and blood. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). How wonderfully bizarre and glorious at the same time!

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Sunday we are certainly conducting an act of remembrance, but an act so closely connected to the One we are remembering that He “saturates the sign.” Speaking for myself, I have so often emphasized how the signs of the bread and the juice are NOT literally the body and blood of Jesus that I have overlooked how much these symbols literally ARE connected to Jesus body and blood. This Sunday morning as you eat these symbols I pray that what is written here will literally be food for thought.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Whose Side is God On?

When the Joshua, the commander of Israel’s army, crossed the Jordan River into Canaan Land, he encounters “a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand.  Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’” Now apparently this “man” must have presented an awesome and fearful presence for the fearless Joshua to inquire as to which side this man was on. The response Joshua received is enlightening: “’Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as the commander of the army of the LORD I have come” (Joshua 5:13-14a). Joshua “fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, ‘What message does my LORD have for his servant?’” (5:14b).

Joshua quickly learns in his encounter with the commander of the army of the LORD that in this world we tend to think of our conflicts as “us versus them,” but the LORD thinks in terms of “Himself versus us and them.” God is on His own side, and we will all be better off in this world with God seeking His own interests above all others, for God is love, and His love is what is most healing, most just, most beneficial for the universe. The universe, everything seen and unseen, is designed to bring glory to God (Psalm 19; Col 1:15-20). We are as the human race designed to declare the praises of God as the Apostle John “heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever’” (Rev 5:13).

When Joshua inquires as to what is the message from the One most worthy of praise, he is first told, “Take off your sandals, for the place you are standing is holy” (Joshua 5:15). Joshua further learns in this awesome encounter that we do not just speak to the LORD like we are on the phone, sending a text message, or posting a comment on Facebook. God is holy, and we are unholy, so we must never presume we can stand before the LORD as equals.

Along with Joshua, we too could learn a few other things from this encounter with the commander of the army of the LORD. One, as already noted, God is on His own side and seeks first and foremost His own interests. Christians occupying every nation on this planet must never assume that because they are living within the geographical and political borders of one nation or another, God must be on their side. Remember, God does not pick sides, He sides with Himself against all others. We must never assume that an enemy of the State we occupy at the moment is the enemy of God.

Second, in light of God being the only side to a conflict or issue, we must be diligent to remain humble and contrite as we echo the words of Joshua, “What message does my LORD have for his servant?” Servants are not commanders. In other words, we must be ever watchful that we do not take on the air of superiority or self-righteousness. We must not assume any one nation on this planet speaks for God’s army and judgment. We also do well to remember the words of Ecclesiastes that when it comes to God, we “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccles 3:11).

Third, because God is wholly different from us, we must acknowledge His holiness and confess His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8).  Like Joshua removing his sandals before God, we must remove all human pretentions and presumptions that we know the will of the LORD. Again, we are servants, not commanders.

So in conclusion, whose side is God on? God is on His own side. Whose side are you on?

Eschatological Celebration or When Can We Celebrate Victory Over Evil?

After the news of the killing of Osama Bin Laden there were a number of mixed reactions by Christians to the celebratory responses of various Americans. By mixed responses, I mean some Christians seemed to applaud Osama Bin Laden’s death as a celebration of justice and American exceptionalism with flag waving and shouts of, “USA! USA!” On the other hand, some Christians seemed to be weary of such celebratory gestures as bordering on nationalistic hubris and self-righteousness. Both these respondents to Bin Laden’s death generally concurred that he received a just consequence for his multiple evil acts and heinous crimes. However, disagreements seemed to be sparked around whether it was appropriate or inappropriate for Christians to celebrate the death of an individual, even if that individual committed grievous evil.

Two Scriptures in particular seemed to be referred to by one side or the other in an attempt for biblical support and justification. For those who thought celebrating Bin Laden’s death was justified, Proverbs chapter eleven and verse ten was often cited: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices, when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.” For those who thought celebrating Bin Laden’s death was inappropriate, Proverbs chapter twenty-four and verses seventeen through eighteen was noted frequently: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice.”

I can empathize with both Christian responses. On one hand, seeing a mass murder like Osama bin Laden reap death for the death he sowed appears like a cause of celebration that is justifiable. On the other hand, celebrating the death of an enemy of the State, can easily cross over into excessive pride, arrogance, and gloating that justifiably ought to be absent from Christian humility.  Jesus’ words about regarding others as more evil or more deserving of death than oneself also come to mind: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Lk 13:2-3). In other words, be careful of celebrating the death of other sinners, when we are all sinners being held accountable for our sins (Cf., Matt 7:3-5; Rom 2:17-24; 1 Cor 10:12; Oba 1:12; Amos 6:13).  

Is there a time when as children of God we can appropriately celebrate victory over evil? Is there a time when it would be inappropriate to celebrate victory over evil? Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time and a season for every activity under the sun, and that God is the One who makes these seasons and activities beautiful (Eccles 3:1-15). Was it the right time or the wrong time this week to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden as a victory over evil? I am speaking now to the Church, not those of the world.

One helpful insight that may assist us comes from the Old Testament scholar, Meredith G. Kline, called intrusion ethics. In brief, intrusion ethics refers to how throughout Scripture God will take something from the end of times (eschatology: the study of last days) and intrudes it into human history. For instance, the tabernacle and temple is a symbolic representation of the actual temple of God in heaven intruded from the future into human history (Heb 8:5). The Word of God is full of such intrusions from the future. The call for the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham is a symbolic intrusion of the Father’s sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ (Heb 11). The Lord’s Supper is an intrusion of the eschatological meal we will celebrate with Jesus when we seem him face-to- face (Lk 22:13-19). Each of these intrusions from God’s future is a way for us to taste in part now what God intends to do completely in the fullness of time.

One of the most sobering intrusions from the future concerns the judgment of God. Among the most difficult judgments in scripture to contend with is the annihilation of the inhabitants of Canaan upon Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. God said to the Israelites, “When the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deut 7:2). Men, women, and children were to be systematically killed.

Intrusion ethics can help shed some light on such an apparently horrific command from the Lord. Was Israel somehow more deserving of this Promised Land than the inhabitants of Canaan? Not at all! Scripture reveals, “After the LORD your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘The LORD has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.’ No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you” (Deut 9:4). The Canaanites were given several centuries from the time of Abraham to repent of their wickedness, but did not (Gen 15:1ff). Thus the judgment of the Canaanites in the time of Joshua can be seen as an intrusion into human history of God’s final (or eschatological) judgment to come.

In other words, the judgment upon Canaan was a microcosm of what the whole world that absolutely refuses and completely rejects the love of God in Jesus Christ will experience in the fullness of time (Cf. Rev 19:1ff; 1 Cor 10:6ff).  What the Canaanites experienced as a local judgment will be experienced as a global judgment in the fullness of time. Additionally, the scenes of final judgment depicted in the book of Revelation are “intrusion visions” warning us now in space and time to repent and return to the Lord. Some of what is experienced in the book of Revelation as a vision will in the fullness of time be experienced as a full and complete physical reality.

The judgment upon the inhabitants of Canaan is an intrusion of God’s final climatic justice, but not all intrusions of God’s judgments are of the same magnitude nor rightly carried out. For instance, justice in the courts of biblical Israel was to be an intrusion of God’s justice from heaven. God calls his leaders to “judge fairly . . . . I am the LORD” (Lev 19:15). In other words, the judgments against wrong-doing were to be experienced as a type of intrusion of the LORD’s justice. Yet, these types of intrusion judgments were not intrusions of God’s final climatic pronouncement against the unrepentant. Not all intrusions of judgments are the same. The majority of the intrusions of God’s justice leads others to repentance, and thus away from the final intrusion of condemnation at the end of time.  However, we know that perversions and brides often occur in courts conducted by fallen and sinful human beings, thus obscuring, hindering, and perverting the intrusion of God’s justice on earth (Eccles 5:8-9; 7:7).  Furthermore, the Israelites when entering Canaan did not rightly carry out God’s intrusion justice when they made a treaty of peace with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:1ff).

Thus we can see in Scripture that God’s people as agents through whom He seeks to intrude His justice do not always cooperate, nor express the intrusion of justice rightly. If the intrusion of God’s justice can be perverted even among His people, how much more susceptible will the justice of God be to perversion among the nations of the world? Justice in this world will always be approximate and susceptible to sin and error. Paul the apostle in his letter to the Romans speaks of how governing authorities “do not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Yet we know from history that the governing authorities often abuse and pervert the use of the sword, and so the intrusion of God’s partial justice in our world is often tainted by sin.

So it seems we can only see the intrusion of God’s justice as in a mirror dimly, how then can we celebrate the justice of victory over evil in this world? How do we know if our judgments presently are true and complete intrusions of God’s heavenly justice? Whatever our judgments pronounced in this world, we need to remember that they are partial intrusions, not the final say of the Lord. The final court of appeal is not the Supreme Court or the World Court, but the Court of God’s throne in heaven. An intrusion of justice is not the final justice.

Intrusion ethics helps us to see there will be a time to celebrate victory over evil. For instance, in Revelation chapter eighteen, the Christians who suffered under Roman oppression are depicted shouting, “Hallelujah!” at the fall of the Roman Empire (Rev 19:1ff). But when do the Christians who suffered under Roman persecution celebrate this victory over evil? The fall of Rome occurred after Constantine made Christianity the favored religion of the Roman Empire, so when exactly are Christians who died centuries before the fall of Rome celebrating? What of the Christians who were presently living under the favor of the Roman authorities? Would they celebrate Rome’s fall?

The only way to have absolute clarity of when judgment over evil can be a cause of celebration is when God’s eschatological judgment in the fullness of time is rendered by God Himself, and no others. Jesus gives an account of this final judgment in the form of an eschatological parable where a man’s enemy sows weeds in his wheat field. The wheat represents the children of God and the weeds represent the children of the evil one. At the end of time, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:38-42). Until this final and complete intrusion of God’s justice, always distinguishing the wheat from the weeds will be precarious (Matt 13:27-30; Cf., 13:47-50).

So is or is not celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden appropriate? In light of this discussion, I would say the celebration of Bin Laden’s death is premature. Just as the Israelites and Romans sometimes obscured and perverted the intrusion of God’s justice, so the world's governing authorities do so today. In the case of Bin Laden, one would only have to research how Bin Laden came to power and influence to recognize that there are multiple nations involved in his rise. How many crimes should Bin Laden be held accountable for and what of the multiple nations who are an accessory to those crimes? Additionally, we need to be careful of seeking to biblically proof-text the celebrations of the nations of the world over their enemies. The intrusions of God’s judgments of celebration in Scripture are not automatic justifications for our national celebrations. God is speaking of His own victory over evil, not ours.

While I am glad a partial intrusion of justice has been mediated in the death of Bin Laden, I also recognize that this is only a dim reflection in the mirror of God’s justice. There will be a time to celebrate victory over evil when Jesus Christ is fully revealed. When that day of celebration comes, we will not wave our national flags chanting the name of our countries, but rather we will point to the Cross and the Empty Tomb to shouts of “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ.” Until then, perhaps more reserve and humility is in order for the Church?