Punitive

The punitive God of the Old Testament.

That’s what people think.

Joshua and the Israelites are told in chapter 8 to do to Ai as they did to Jericho, only taking its spoil and livestock, but killing the people. This kind of thing is what skeptics hold up as barbaric and indicative of biblical madness meaning either that God is a gleeful and sadistic lover of violence, or that the Bible is not a holy and revealed word but made up by sinful people, leaving us no actual guideline from a lofty, non-specific kind of god.

Jesus passes most of the postmodern scrutiny, but Jehovah? Where do we find the punitive spirit of this bloody passage in the compassion of Jesus, if they are supposed to be one God? Actually, as I was thinking about it this morning, we kind of do. Jesus’ compassion extends to the depth of forcefully removing all that could separate us from him, surgically if necessary. Jesus calls on two occasions in Matthew’s gospel for us to tear out our eyes (Gloucester-style) and cut off our hands and feet if they cause us to sin. (Matt 5:29-30, 18:8-9)

Sometimes, when caught off guard, I don’t know what to say to such objections about Jehovah’s cleansing instructions. It is a matter of state of mind: If I’m not absolute enough with myself, I’m going to be offended when God is absolute with other people.

I normally do not consider cutting my arm off. It sounds barbaric. If I were Aron Ralston (in 127 Hours) trapped between a rock and a hard place with the choice to die there or to cut my arm off and possibly escape, I might consider it. And funny enough, Gloucester ‘saw better’ which son loved him and which one did not after he lost his eyes.

127 Hours

 

Gloucester Edgar

Edgar finding his father

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I am dust and ashes. For me the world was created.

I’ve started a new book, and in the introduction, the author, Greg Ogden, quotes a Hasidic piece of advice that says you should go about with a piece of paper in each pocket, with one that reads “I am dust and ashes,” and the other, “For me the world was created.” What a fine paradox.

Let me just quote the first introductory section:

Would Jesus ask something of us that couldn’t be done?

At the center of all the biblical commands and at the very core of “everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20), Jesus declares that we are to love God with everything we’ve got and love our neighbors in the same way that we cherish ourselves.

Really? Is this possible?

The energy behind the writing of this curriculum comes from an insight that is quite frankly embarrassing. It is embarrassing because I should know better. At first, the insight doesn’t seem very dramatic. In fact, every time I have shared this personal “revelation” with others I have been sheepishly apologetic. But here is the amazing truth: Jesus actually thinks we can become like him. Jesus actually believes that it is possible for frail and deeply flawed human beings to focus our complete affection on God and others.

The key word here for me is possible. I had unconsciously given up the possibility of actually doing what Jesus commanded. No, I had never consciously thought or said, “Jesus, I think you’re an idealistic dreamer,” or “Jesus, you can only expect so much from flawed humanity.” I was not even aware that I had dismissed Jesus’ belief in me. But what had taken over my spirit in my attempt to be authentic was a focus on where I had fallen short of Jesus’ call. In my desire to make sure that I was not deceiving myself about my capacity for sin, I had given up the upside possibility that the character of Jesus could actually take over my life.

[…]

[Jesus didn’t follow up his Great Commandments] by saying, “I know I’m asking a lot, but do the best you can. I know you’ll never fully approximate this high and lofty goal, but it’s still worth striving for.” No, I added that part myself. In my spirit I washed out the possibility that this could actually be, saying, “I know the guy dwelling in this body all too well. Not a chance that this weak and feeble individual could ever approximate Jesus’ expectation.”

Besides that he used the word “cherish” – one of my personal favourites – doesn’t the rest of this whole passage make you want to read more? A great introduction if I ever read one. Rather deft writing technique too, as his claim that this was his own embarrassing realization disarmingly invited me to have that embarrassing revelation too. Well, the title is The Essential Commandment: A Disciple’s Guide to Loving God and Others.

The Essential Commandment

Drinking Blood

As you may have guessed, though the title suggests the possibility, the following content is not vampiric in nature. Rather, this is about the Last Supper. And about Leviticus. And communion.

Jesus took a cup (presumably of wine, as it is from the vine) and told his disciples, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood…”

(Matthew 26:26-28 ESV)

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The shock factor of this command increases when you consider the cultural background of these men, whom observe the Levitical laws against eating blood. “Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off.”

(Leviticus 17:10-16 ESV)

“If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.
“Any one also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off. And every person who eats what dies of itself or what is torn by beasts, whether he is a native or a sojourner, shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening; then he shall be clean. But if he does not wash them or bathe his flesh, he shall bear his iniquity.”

The thing is, blood was to be revered and not eaten because of its symbolic value in being a life fluid. To read the rest of that section in Leviticus, blood on the altar was special and had the power of atonement for the people’s souls, so it was not to be eaten as merely common food. But because blood atones and gives life in that spiritual sense, Jesus fulfills and hence references this mental construct and symbolic association established long ago to show the disciples with pizazz how his death and the loss of blood associated with this death would be the blood on the altar to atone for all sins. Once and for all.

“Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Leviticus is like a tome of metaphors to unlock the oomph and awe of the New Testament gospels!

Why is Life Hard?

The overarching reason is always to know and depend on God more than you already do. This applies to people who don’t think ‘God’ exists as well as to those who are devoted to God. Whether a child of God or not, our need should drive us to seek God.

A more specific reason is that the pain and unsettling is used by God to change for the better the conduct and character of those who are his children. (Quoth James MacDonald as perceptive distinction, “Everyone is not God’s child, no matter what you hear on Oprah.”)

I’m writing this, once again, in accordance with the purpose behind this blog, which is to figure things out by putting it into words. Hopefully it doesn’t just help me. My small group at church has chosen to do When Life is Hard by James MacDonald. Initially, I resented doing a ‘book study,’ which seems somehow inferior to a ‘Bible study,’ but thus far this book has been showing itself solid, as each of the two chapters we’ve read are anchored in a significant passage from the Bible that relates to trials. It has already clarified my understanding of one passage in an I-can’t-believe-I’ve-been-so-blind sort of way. (James 1 on wisdom, btw.) I suppose that in a sense, this is a book review, but also a book summary, analysis and reflection. If you get a chance, read this book! The latter half may disappoint (I haven’t finished it yet), but I can tell you the first two chapters are great. Even if you are not currently in a trial, it doesn’t hurt to prepare your perspective because trials will come.

First ideas under consideration (backdrop of Hebrews 12:5-11)

It could be that a trial results from your sin, and the consequences are your correction. It may also be that the trial results from no fault of your own, but God still wills it to improve your character and let you display good conduct in it. That is one point MacDonald makes. Someone in my small group pointed out further that, even if your trials do not directly result from your own sinful actions, it still exposes your sin! So true. Furthermore, in considering trials as “discipline,” we also see that there is discipline for correction as well as discipline for training. Reactive discipline for correction keeps one in line, whereas proactive discipline keeps one in shape. You’re never in a place where you don’t need discipline, however good you are doing, because becoming ‘unfit’ in character and conduct is not an acceptable alternative.

MacDonald gave three principles to keep in mind as related to Hebrews 12:11, presented concurrently here:

  1. The pain is momentary (For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later)
  2. The profit is immense (it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness)
  3. The promise is conditional (to those who have been trained by it.)

Second batch of ideas under consideration (backdrop of James 1:2-8)

We like to ask why things happen. MacDonald deftly categorizes 4 types of why and defines 3 that God doesn’t answer and 1 which he loves answering. God doesn’t answer

  • The EXISTENTIAL WHY (Why do bad things happen to good people?)
  • The ULTIMATUM WHY (Why is this happening to me?!??!?!! Tell me why!!!)
  • The OBSERVATION WHY (Why is this not happening to him/her?)

God loves to answer The PERSONAL WHY of ‘Why did you allow this to happen – what do you want to teach me, do in me, and do through me?’

One stipulation: this fourth why cannot be asked with doubt, but with reckless abandon and willingness to learn and be changed as one who trusts the giver of wisdom to be wise about all that needs to be changed, whether you like it or not. I mentioned an “aha” moment about James earlier, and this is it. For some inexplicable reason, I had never before read James 1:5-8 as specific to trials, even though before it and after it James is talking about trials and perseverance in trials. Going against all logic, I extracted this “wisdom” section from the idea of trials to just mean a general need to be ‘wise.’ Read James.

Meanwhile, “don’t bail!” (I didn’t sign up for this.) “Don’t fold under the pressure!” (Take me Lord, just crush me and let me be with you forever.) Those are two temptations MacDonald mentions are common, along with complaining and/or lashing out. Anyways, I think Charles Spurgeon has a morning or evening devotion about this very cowardice of not wanting to remain under trials. We want to run away from our problems to the safety of death and eternal life with God. This is stupid. We actually need to stand firm and remain under to let God change us at the deepest level. “We think the answer is a new environment when the real answer is a new me.” Random examples I’ll throw out there:

Young adult angst: I want an adventure. I want to make something of my life. I need to go abroad and do something really meaningful.
Relational issues: I just can’t get good relationships going with my family / co-workers / spouse. I’m not ‘going there’ with mom or dad / I need a new job / I want a divorce.

We want to run away. Or we want to withdraw and let circumstances or other people change or pass over. We are like distracted, hyper puppies (“Stay…”) or like hermit turtles (I’m in my shell). It’s so hard to just stay and work yourself out. But how can we refuse God’s wisdom to change us with painful thoroughness yet seek God at the same time? And we ask why we keep having to work on the same things.

Jesus’ words: implications of a simple statement

Mark 2:17 (ESV)

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

Thinking over that last part, Jesus is essentially saying that in his coming to earth, there are some people he calls, and some whom he does not. In other words, some people Jesus saves, and others he does not.

The natural discrimination falls at “the righteous” and “sinners;” the sinners are saved and the righteous are not! However, we also know that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If everyone is a sinner, wherefore art the distinction?

Clearly then, the distinction of whether one is ‘called’ by Jesus is made based not on whether you are righteous or a sinner, but whether you consider yourself a pretty decent person or whether you despise yourself and repent in dust and ashes. Sound melodramatic? This latter group have the presence of mind to say, “Jesus, without you I am lost, and cannot hope to stand before God, in His glory and holiness, and say that I have lived a good life worthy of God’s stature and of being in His presence evermore.

All these implications Jesus packed into 9 words: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.
(Well, translated over to ESV, it’s 9 words; maybe even less in Aramaic or Greek or Hebrew.)

Throwing off burdens (and some spectacular use of grammar in the Bible)

Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Sarah. Joseph. Moses. The people of Israel. Rahab. Gideon. Barak. Samson. Jephthah. David. Samuel. The prophets. (Hebrews 11, the list of the faithful.)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)

First of all, thank goodness the people included in this ‘great cloud of witnesses’ are flawed to various degrees, just like I am! When I was younger, I used to mistakenly imagine Christians of the past in heaven looking down at me disapprovingly and being disappointed/disgusted – not to mention Jesus or God’s perspective. (Couldn’t even bring myself there.) That sort of watchful ‘accountability’ is terribly disheartening, and resulted in my greatly desiring to let no one get to know me, lest they discover what all these heavenly witnesses knew better. Nevertheless, I know better now: Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is my identity, as with all of those in that cloud of witnesses. None of us could stand before God but for Christ, even if some appear somewhat more righteous than others. (Truthfully though, it also helped my acceptance of this truth to discover how others too were more sinful than I had first assumed, and that I wasn’t too sinful to be forgiven, or too damaged to be made new. Due to the helpfulness of this discovery for myself in making my acceptance of salvation in Christ a joyful thing, it has since been a personal conviction to freely share my dirt as is appropriate to the situation, but regardless of my own discomfort.)

Returning to that verse in Hebrews, the ESV Bible mentions “weight” rather than things that hinder, and the New KJV uses “ensnares” to describe sin rather than entangling. A snare, being a trap, is more active than the action of entangling, which seems more passive. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: we are bound and held captive by sin. Kinda like a slave. Last summer I received a copy of Slave by John MacArthur which I will finish this summer. (On my word, I shall!) It emphasizes the very Biblical but unsung idea of switching loyalties from being a slave to sin to being a slave of the Lord Jesus, and how this second ‘slavery’ is, in actual fact, freedom from sin and the various burdens of a sinful nature.

Recently, at a women’s retreat, I’ve been privileged to be read a list of hindrances by which we may be trapped, and these made me sit up and pay rapt attention.

Hindrances:

  • self-preoccupation
  • false accusations
  • worry and fear
  • bitterness
  • unforgiveness
  • pain of past and present hurts
  • circumstances (health, physical limitations, finances, jobs…)
This made me sit up because as a Christian, I tend to unthinkingly categorize everything negative as sin when not every burden is technically sin, even if it resulted from sin or could result in sin in some way. The point is, though, that both burdens and sin are debilitating to our ability to run the race, to be a new creation, to have the courage to go and be a witness, to rejoice and to worship. Burdens are a yoke of slavery that prevents us from living as those who have been freed.

Anyhow, imagine a hot air balloon, the pictorial theme of the retreat weekend. Being tethered to the ground prevents it from soaring, but soaring willy-nilly is dangerous. Like us, when the balloon is tethered to Christ as a guide, then it can soar freely in safety.

But I don’t always feel like I soar, or am safe!

Where is Christ then? And there, something that John Piper said brought comfort: One of the greatest heartaches of the Christian walk is our slowness to change.

Didn’t Jesus wash me clean? Aren’t I free now? That certainly is a heartache of mine.

The following verse is so wonderful I’ll state it twice, in different versions:

“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV)

“…because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” (Hebrews 10:14 NIV)

I promised spectacular grammar in the title of this post, and there it is. That Jesus “has made perfect” is stated in present perfect tense, which deals with a past event that has present relevance. (E.g. “I have lived in Vancouver.” I can call myself a West Coaster, but Eastern Canada is my home now.) On the other hand, “those who are being made holy” is in present continuous tense, which deals with events that are in progress now and will be in progress for an unspecified time yet. These two different time tenses happen in unison. Perfect. Holy. Finished and still in progress.

The good news, as I was reminded that weekend, is that “being on the way is proof that we have arrived.” Are we there yet? No, but yes. So keep going, whether the way is slow, tortuous, or quite circular at times. Take heart in the good news of the gospel of grace, and our sanctification that follows. “Our fight against sin is not simply to become perfect, but because we are.”

The funny thing is, when we are weak and struggling through little fault of our own, it is easy to turn to God and rely on Him. In stark contrast, when it is our folly, our lack of self control, our empty purpose, our pig-headed stubbornness, our self reliance, our apathy, our resentfulness, our bitterness, our unwillingness to forgive or anything else like that which has caused us to stumble, struggle and be faint, or even caused others to be hurt, it is harder to rely on God. “Do I have a right to?” subtly comes to mind.

Yes. Most assuredly so. You didn’t earn the right, but Jesus earned it for us, and at this time, you need to rely on the one who sanctifies us. You just gotta suck in your pride and look upon glorious, undeserved grace.

My favourite image from that hot air balloon themed retreat was that of the fire in the burners. In those times of fire and trial, our dependence on and closeness with Christ in the uncomfortable environment of hot air gives us lift to soar that a mild and cool environment does not. It’s like the special treat of trials, almost like a consolation prize, except that it’s much more, and conversely, is really the point of the trial, I would say. It’s hard to complain about difficulties when you see that God is bringing you closer to Himself through these things.

One last scribble that I took from just the first talk of the retreat: Living for Christ – waiting for our emotions to catch up.

Possible, Not Effortless

First, let me not yet let on what my post will say is possible, but not effortless.

Here are two verses with a similar structure. To disclaim any observant credit, it was my ESV Reformation Study Bible that pointed this out to me. First, to the garden of Eden with Eve, successfully tempted by Satan to disobey God in the matter of the fruit of the garden she was not to eat:

Genesis 3:6 – So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

Now to several generations after Adam and Eve’s first descendants:

Genesis 6:1-2 – When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose.

The Hebrew word for attractive is often transcribed as ‘good’ also. Here then is a description of the pattern of sin as it first entered the earth. A human saw, desired, and acted, irregardless to God. Promptly following this description is one of God’s grief and rage at human disobedience, and the destruction he caused to happen with the flood out of sovereign and righteous anger. Through this destruction, grace and mercy is shown to Noah, who listened and obeyed. This obedience and reverence was pleasing to God and He promised not to send such destruction on the world while it remains until the final judgment.

The pattern of sin is not hard to follow. Many things I can see and access could be pleasing in short or long-ish term, and so I act upon it: a scathing remark about something that annoys me; things that fill up my day to satisfy lesser desires and obstruct more godly desires and disciplines; food gluttony; distraction and procrastination that wastes significant chunks of time such that I am in a bad mood afterwards… In the moment, I do not cast my thoughts towards being mindful of God’s grief or righteous anger. Yet it is always possible to listen and obey; it’s just not effortless.

Thus the heart and spirit in Paul’s words of 1 Corinthians 9:27.

No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. [NIV]

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. [ESV]