Thursday, September 11, 2014

Court Rules Founding Fathers Unconstitutional

JESTER NEWS— In a move that was widely expected among court-watchers, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that reading the Founding Fathers in public schools and appealing to them in legal arguments is unconstitutional. “We have been watching this court for sometime now,” said Gary Shyster, a lawyer with the ACLU, who filed a brief in the case. “We knew that it was only a matter of time.”

Christa Phobe, executive director of Hysterical Americans United for the Removal of all Traces of a Christian Past, was elated with the court’s decision. “We knew we had a strong case since the court had previously ruled against the posting of the Declaration of Independence in government buildings because of its appeal to ‘the Creator.’ If the Declaration had to go, we knew the rest of the Founding Fathers’ writings couldn’t be far behind.” 

The case originated when Ima Bigot of Berkely, California objected to an assignment her son was given in his high school government class. He was to play the part of our first president and deliver Washington’s Farewell Address to the class. “It’s offensive from beginning to end,” Ms. Bigot said. “I can’t believe they would subject our children to such blatant religious indoctrination.” 

The portion of Washington’s Address which was found to be especially troublesome is found near its midpoint:  “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion, and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.” “Can you believe this guy?” asked Bigot. “What does Washington know about patriotism?  All this God and country stuff doesn’t mix. It’s just un-American.” 

Writing for the majority, circuit judge Stephen Reinhardt said, “The members of this court have long held that to appeal to the Founding Fathers on legal questions is to foist a religious point of view on matters of state, and of course we can’t have that.” 

The ACLU hailed the decision. “We see this as the huge step toward our ultimate goal, which is to see the court rule the Constitution unconstitutional,” Shyster said.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Alike, Yet Different: A Wedding Sermon

The Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, began his short, but masterful book on The Christian Family by observing that the history of the human race begins with a wedding. This is significant because marriage is one of the things that sets human beings apart from everything else that God has made. Man is unique in this relationship. He is created differently in this respect from those creatures both above and below him—that is, differently from both angels and animals—and created for different purposes, too.

The animals he created by the word of his command. He literally spoke them into existence:  “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures,” he said, “and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens” (Gen. 1:20). And in obedience to his command, they sprang into being. “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds, livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds. And it was so” (Gen. 1:24).

And God blessed the creatures he had made and bid them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. And so they have done to this day—but only by blind biological impulses, only by the force of instinct, not out of the distinctively human motives of love and commitment.

The account suggests that God created many pairs of each kind or species of animal, and not just a single pair of each. And it seems that the angels were created all at once, in their full number, without the need, for either marriage or procreation, for Jesus tells us that the angels neither marry nor are given in marriage. 

But the Lord was pleased to create man differently. He made only a single pair, not many; and he created them with the utmost care. He didn’t merely speak Adam into existence, but carefully formed his body from the dust of the ground. His soul he created by breathing into him the breath of life. 

Eve he crafted from the substance of Adam’s own body, from his “side.” I say “crafted” because in verse 22, where the English text says, “And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman,” the Hebrew says he “built” into a woman. The word, and thus the imagery, is taken from the world of architecture. So, too, is the Hebrew word that most English translations render as “rib.” Literally, it means “side.” And the word is often used of that which gives a structure its form and strength. There is craftsmanship, and indeed artistry implied in the use of the terms. Rabbi Moshe David Cassuto says the idea is that just as a builder takes raw materials and constructs a beautiful building from them, so “in the hands of the Lord God, the raw material taken from the man’s body received the lovely form of the woman... [F]rom an ordinary piece of bone and flesh the Lord God fashioned the most comely of his creatures.”[1]

There also seems to be a sacral aspect to God “building” Eve. This Hebrew word, which is translated as “rib” and refers to what gives a building its strength and form, appears most often—almost exclusively, in fact—in connection with the building first of the tabernacle in the wilderness, then of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, and finally of the eschatological temple mentioned in Ezekiel. The use of this particular word to describe the building of Eve suggests a sacred aspect to the joining together of a man and woman as husband and wife. Marriage truly is a sacred institution.

Before giving the precious gift of a wife to Adam—in fact, before he even made her—the Lord wished to teach Adam to value her above all things, and to look upon her as his only true counterpart and equal. And so he brought all the different kinds of animals to Adam, to see what he would name them. And undoubtedly Adam noticed that with each kind of animal there was both a male and a female. They were like each other, yet different. And the differences were such that they were complementary to each other; not complimentary in the sense of giving each other compliments—saying nice things about each other, but complementary in the sense of completing each other. Adam noticed that each animal had a true counterpart that was both alike and different:  alike in species, but different in sex. “But for Adam, there was not found a helper fit for him [or, corresponding to him]” (v. 20). There was no one like him, yet different, as was the case among the animals. 

Adam was alone. 

And the Lord gave his judgment—his assessment—of the situation. “It is not good,” he said, “that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). And so the Lord remedied the situation by making a woman. He didn’t make another man, as if what Adam needed was merely male friendship, as important as that is; rather, he made a woman to be his only true counterpart and equal, and he hers.

Andy, I trust that you have now and will continue to have very meaningful friendships with other men. And Vanessa, I am sure that you have very meaningful friendships with other women. What a godsend it is to have good and faithful friends! It really is a tremendous blessing. But it is not they who complete you; they are not the ones whom God has given to you to be your counterpart in life. Andy, he has given you Vanessa. She is your Eve, bone of your bones and flesh of your flesh. She is the one who completes you. And Vanessa, Andy is your Adam. God made him for you, and you for him. There will be times, Andy, when you go out with the guys and have a good time together. And Vanessa, there will be times when you hang out with the girls, and that’s all well and good. But both of you remember that you have something really special and unique in each other. Devote yourselves to one another and cultivate your relationship.

When the Lord had finished building Eve, he presented her to Adam, and Adam said,

This at last is bone of my bones
            and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
            because she was taken out of man (Gen. 2:23)
“This at last,” he says, “is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” The Lord had marshalled all the different kinds of animals and brought them before Adam, to be named by him. And as the day wore on, Adam must have marveled at God’s creativity as he saw this great menagerie paraded before him. But he must also have wondered:  “Is there no one like me? Is there no one made for me?” And then finally, when God built Eve and brought her to him, his joy was palpable. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” How delighted he was! Here at last was someone who was like him. And what a beauty she was, the feminine form in its perfection! 

It is fascinating to consider that in this scene the Lord is acting not only as Creator, but also as matchmaker and Father of the Bride. “The history of the human race begins with a wedding.”

And then we are given this further instruction, “Therefore [that is, because of what God has done in creating a man and a woman and bringing the two together as true complements of each other] a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (v. 24).

We might recognize in the creation of Eve a theme we find throughout God’s creative work in Genesis. We find a series of events in which things are separated from each other and given a distinct form and identity and then joined back together again into a new form as complements of each other.

In the first instance, we find the Lord separating light from darkness. The light he called Day, and the darkness he called Night. And then he joined the two back together again in a complementary fashion so that a period of light, followed by a period of darkness makes one full day. The two come together to make one.

On the second day of creation, the Lord said,
“Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven [the sky] (Gen. 1:6-7).

Here find the formation of the heavens and the earth. It takes place by a process of separation. Two things are separated from one another and given a distinct form and identity, yet joined back together again as complements, neither able to fulfill their purpose without the other.

We find the same thing going on as the Lord gathers the waters under the expanse into one place so that dry land emerges. The dry land he called Earth, and the gathering together of the waters he called the Sea, neither existing independently of the other, but the two of them together forming a complementary habitation for all his creatures.

I trust you can see where this is going. God did the same thing when he created Eve. He separated her from Adam. He took of the substance of Adam and from that substance, he made Eve. He gave her a distinct form and identity and purpose, and then he joined the two back together again in order to make one.

Andy and Vanessa, the Lord calls you each into this union in order to complete each other. The Lord said that it was not good for Adam to be alone; and had he chosen to create Eve first, he would have said the same thing:  “It is not good for the woman to be alone.” In making them male and female, he made them to be perfect complements to each other. And they were perfect companions for each other because they were just the same, except entirely different. Just like Adam noticed among the different kinds of animals, a male and a female—like each other and yet different—so he now noticed in this woman standing before him someone who was both like him and yet different from him—and that their differences were exactly suited to each other, exactly what each needed.

Men and women are different. Shocking, I know, but it’s true. And they are different by God’s design and for his purposes. How are men and women different? They are different anatomically, of course. That much is obvious. But they are also different psychologically, in their mental and emotional make-up. This is only controversial in a politically-correct environment. Otherwise everybody knows men and women are different. You don’t need to be a rocket-scientist to figure it out. You only need a little experience with life. As much as our culture wishes us to believe that the sexes are interchangeable or that their differences are not innate but merely culturally conditioned, we know better.

The differences, of course, give rise to the proverbial battle of the sexes where we think we have to ask the question, “Which is better, a man or a woman?” Let me be the first to tell you that this is a foolish question because it’s an unanswerable question. And it’s unanswerable because it’s incomplete. It’s like asking, “Which is better, a hammer or a saw?” You have to ask the further question, “Better at doing what? Better for what purpose?” A hammer is better for pounding in nails, and a saw is better for cutting lumber. Tool-makers have designed each for a specific purpose and given them a composition and form suited to the purpose. And God has done the same for man. He has made men and women to be different, and he has given them natures that are suited for the purpose for which he created them. Rather than allowing these differences to become sources of contention and strife, we ought rather to cherish the differences, to enjoy the differences, to rejoice in them, and to benefit from them. The differences are meant to complete us. If we fail to recognize this we undermine the God-given potential of the relationship.

A man should be glad that his wife is different from him. Do you remember the scene in My Fair Lady where Dr. Henry Higgins, a character played by Rex Harrison, is frustrated in his relationship with Eliza, played brilliantly by Audrey Hepburn? At one point, Higgins breaks into song and asks “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” I am sure he is not the only man who has ever had that thought cross his mind. And I am sure that there has been more than one woman in history who has asked the same question…except in reverse. The differences between men and women have led one author to write a book with the provocative title, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And sometimes it does seem like we are from different planets!

But I say again that a man should be glad that his wife, as a woman, is different from him. Sometimes the differences might prove to be a source of frustration to him…you know, much like they might prove to be a source of frustration to her. But unless he has a brick where his brain ought to be, he’ll understand that the differences are good. They are beneficial because what she brings to the table as a woman completes him, in the same way that what he brings to the table completes her. Her strengths as a woman compensate for his weaknesses as a man; and his strengths as a man compensate for her weaknesses as a woman.

Andy and Vanessa, recognize the differences, acknowledge them, appreciate them, understand them, and enjoy them. The Lord has created you with a need for each other.

Give yourselves wholly, entirely, and exclusively to each other, heart, mind, body, and soul as long as you both shall live. Amen.

[1] Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis:  From Adam to Noah, pp. 134-135

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hobby Lobby, Mother Jones, and Justice Ginsburg

Mother Jones today posted an article with what it calls “The 8 Best Lines From Ginsburg’s Dissent on theHobby Lobby Contraception Decision.” Here they are, with a few of my own quick observations.

1.  “‘In a decision of startling breadth’ [the decision] would allow corporations to opt out of almost any law that they find ‘incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.’”

See my response to number six below.

2.  “The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.”

To be clear, Hobby Lobby provides coverage for more than twenty different kinds of contraception. The company’s objection to the Affordable Care Act’s (aka Obamacare) mandate focuses on four kinds of “contraceptives” that are not contraceptives at all, but abortifacients that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, thus resulting in the death of the newly conceived child. All of Hobby Lobby’s female employees will continue to be covered for the other forms of birth control.[1]

3. “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community."

These statements are irrelevant. To my knowledge no one is making the claim that Hobby Lobby is a religious organization rather than a for-profit corporation. The point at issue is this:  May the federal government force the owners of a privately owned business to act contrary to their religious convictions?

4. “Any decision to use contraceptives made by a woman covered under Hobby Lobby's or Conestoga's plan will not be propelled by the Government, it will be the woman's autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults.”

There’s that slippery word “contraceptives” again. Let us not forget that the issue in the case is drugs or devices that act as abortifacients. But even if we modify the statement accordingly, the point is technically true. The decision a woman makes will not be “propelled” by the government. Nevertheless, the government will be forcing the owners of a company to act contrary to their religious convictions by paying for them.

5. “It bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month's full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.”

This also is irrelevant.

6. “Would the exemption…extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah's Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations[?]…Not much help there for the lower courts bound by today's decision.”

The decision undoubtedly raises a lot of questions about how its principles apply to other religious objections to the ACA, but this only highlights the problems of government-mandated healthcare. If we didn’t want to deal with all these tough questions, we shouldn’t have ventured down this path in the first place. It seems to me that we have three options. First, we can enforce a one-size-fits-all national healthcare plan with no exceptions (not even for unions or other Obama supporters) and simply say, “To hell with your religious concerns.” Second, we can examine each religiously based objection case by case. Or we can go to a free-market approach to healthcare, which is hands down the best solution.[2]

7. “Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be 'perceived as favoring one religion over another,' the very 'risk the [Constitution's] Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.”

This actually was not what the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude. It was designed to preclude a federally funded church.[3]

8. “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”

No, actually it was a highly partisan President and Congress who led us here. The court has simply made a modest attempt to limit some of the damage.

[1] Perhaps Ginsburg is thinking in terms of the precedent set by the decision that might result in companies owned by devout Roman Catholics refusing to provide coverage for any contraceptives whatsoever. But so be it. That is their right as business owners. It seems odd to me that the mantra of the left, that the government should stay out of the bedroom, wants the government to see to it that their activities in the bedroom are funded by taxpayers.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Paul, the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles

We can never hope to fully understand Paul unless we constantly bear two things in mind about him:  (1) his identity as a Jew, and (2) his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. To lose sight of either of these (or both!) is to miss the most important context for understanding him.

Paul lived at a very critical time in the history of redemption—when the saving benefits of the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants were first extended en masse to all nations. It was a period of remarkable transition, quite unlike anything Israel had ever experienced. And Paul was called to participate in that transition. It brought about a fundamental change in the composition of the covenant people. Throughout history, God had dealt in a unique way with Israel. They were his “treasured possession among all peoples…a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). The Lord regarded them as “the apple of his eye” (Deut. 32:10; Zech. 2:8) and gave them many special favors. As Paul put it,
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Rom. 9:4-5)
Theirs was a very enviable position. When Paul was asked, “What advantage has the Jew?” he answered, “Much in every way.” And then he added, “To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2). This was no small thing, to have God’s verbal revelation through the prophets. The Gentiles had the light of nature to teach them about God, but the Jews had the light of Scripture. Paul echoes the Psalmist who said:

[The Lord] declares his word to Jacob,
          his statutes to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
          they do not know his rules. (Ps. 147:19-20)

Throughout history the Lord had made a distinction between those who belonged to him by virtue of the covenant he made with Abraham and his descendants and those who did not so belong to him (Ex. 9:4; 11:7; 33:16; cf. Mal. 3:18).[1] However, even though Israel enjoyed this unique status—this highly favored position—it had always been God’s intention to extend his saving benefits to all nations (see e.g., Gen. 12:3; 18:18; Isa. 49:1-6). We find several instances in the Scriptures of individual Gentiles turning to the God of Abraham and being incorporated into Israel (e.g., Ex. 12:48; Josh. 2:11; compared with 6:25 and Matt. 1:5; Ruth 1:16-17). But with the advent of Christ, the conversion of the Gentiles became a central focus of God’s redemptive program. The good news for Israel was that her Messiah had come; the good news for the Gentiles was that they were freely, openly, and actively invited to the celebration…as Gentiles.

It is against this historical background that we should understand John 3:16, arguably the most well-known verse in the entire Bible.
For God so loved the world [not just the Jews], that he gave his only Son, that whoever [Jew or Gentile] believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.[2]
This new period of redemptive history can be thought of as an expansion of Israel. Israel is broadened by the inclusion of believing Gentiles. Or perhaps we would do better to refer to the period as a transformation of Israel. Israel is redefined in terms of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews who (as Jews) confess Jesus as Lord, and Gentiles who (as Gentiles) do the same, are included in Christ, “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

This transformation of Israel was fraught with difficulty. Many thorny questions arose. Is Israel’s unique status as God’s covenanted people compromised if believing Gentiles are admitted into the number of the chosen people? On what basis are Gentiles to be included? Must they become Jews? That is, must they be circumcised, keep kosher, adopt Israel’s customs related to the Sabbath (i.e., the works of the law), before they find acceptance with God? Or are they accepted as Gentiles, solely on account of their faith in Jesus? What becomes of those Jews who do not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah? More importantly, what becomes of God’s promise to Israel if the majority of Abraham’s descendants continue in unbelief? Has his promise failed? Has he revoked Israel’s calling? How are Jews and Gentiles to live side by side with each other in the same Christian community, given Israel’s purity laws? Can a Jewish Christian have table fellowship with a Gentile Christian? What are Gentile Christians to think about Jewish Christians? What are they to think about non-Christian Jews?

Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians all deal with the problems arising from the tremendous influx of Gentiles into the fold of God.[3] They were very pertinent questions with very far-reaching practical implications. To properly address them, Paul would necessarily have to get to the bottom of things. He would have to treat of justification, the role of the law, the place of circumcision, the status of Israel, etc.

The importance of keeping the Jewish/Gentile question at the forefront of our thinking cannot be emphasized too strongly if we wish to properly understand Paul’s letters, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Let us proceed, then, by considering the Jewishness of Paul and his mission to the Gentles.

Paul, the Jew
We sometimes forget that Paul was a Jew. But if we wish to understand him it is vitally important that we remember it. For Paul, being a Jew was not incidental to his self-understanding, but essential to it. It meant that he belonged to the chosen people. Of all the people on the face of the earth, God chose Abraham and his descendants to be his own treasured possession (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:17; Ex. 19:5-6; Deut. 7:6; 14:2; Ps. 135:4; Isa. 43:21; etc.). As God’s people, the Jews were highly favored and blessed.[4]

Paul refers to his Jewish background and training, and indeed to his zeal as a Jew, on several occasions (Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:4-5; 2 Cor. 11:22; Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:3-6). Piecing the information contained in these autobiographical passages together with additional data gleaned from other sources, a clear picture of Paul begins to emerge. His given Hebrew name was Saul (Acts 7:58).[5] Being from the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5), he was perhaps named after that tribe’s most illustrious son, Israel’s first king (1 Sam. 9:1-2). He seems to have been descended from a line of Pharisees (Acts 23:6). Being the son of a Torah-observant father, he was of course circumcised on the eighth day, according to the law (Phil. 3:5; cf. Gen. 17:12). Though born in Tarsus of Cilicia, young Saul was raised and educated in Jerusalem, the religious and political center of Judaism and the site of the holy temple. He was a disciple of Gamaliel (Acts 23:3), one of the most celebrated rabbis of the age, a teacher of the law who is still held in great honor among the Jews.[6] Under Gamaliel’s tutelage, he was brought up “according to the strict manner of the law” (Acts 22:3). He confessed before Agrippa, “According to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4-5). This mention of the “strictest party” of the Jewish religion is perhaps a reference to the Pharisees in general as being stricter than other prominent Jewish groups (e.g., the Sadducees). But there is reason to believe that Paul may have been a member of a subgroup of Pharisees that proved to be even stricter than the Pharisees as a whole. 
A division had taken place within Pharisaism in the generation before Saul of Tarsus. During the reign of Herod the Great (36—4 bc) there arose two schools of thought within the already powerful movement, following the two great teachers of the Herodian period, Hillel and Shammai. We know them through dozens of discussions in the Mishnah (the codification of Jewish law, drawn together around ad 200), where almost always Hillel is the ‘lenient’ one, and Shammai is the ‘strict’ one. Their followers, likewise, argue issue after issue in terms of lenient and strict practices.[7] 
As we have seen, young Saul was educated at the feet of Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel, the founder of the more lenient school of Pharisaic thought. But there is evidence to suggest that his sympathies lay with the stricter party of Shammai. One piece of evidence consists in his use of the word zeal to describe himself (Acts 22:3; Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:6). This zeal was not a mere warm-heartedness or emotional fervor in performing his daily devotions, as a modern Christian might use the term. It seems rather to have referred to a particular response toward fellow Jews whom he regarded as seriously compromised, a response that included violent suppression. When he spoke to the crowds in the temple, after they nearly tore him limb from limb, he said, “I am a Jew, born of Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3). He said they were showing zeal for God. How so? By trying to kill him![8] And why were they trying to kill him? Because they supposed he had departed from the law by bringing a Gentile into the temple. A greater sacrilege could hardly be imagined. “Away with him!” they shouted (Acts 21:36). And a little later, when he dared to announce that Messiah Jesus had sent him to preach to the Gentiles, they yelled, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live” (Acts 22:22). This was a zeal which Paul said he once cherished himself. And the record of Scripture bears him out. He was present and consenting to the execution of Stephen (Acts 8:1). Furthermore, Luke tells us that Saul was not content to harass and imprison the saints who lived in Jerusalem, but sought them out in foreign cities as well. 
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1-2). 
This is why he writes to the Galatians, 
You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers (Gal. 1:13-14). 
He mentioned his former career of persecuting the followers of Messiah Jesus in his letter to the Philippians also. He described himself like this: “as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” (Phil. 3:6). So then, although he was educated by the more lenient Gamaliel, who advised against a violent response to the fledgling Christian movement (Acts 5:33-39), Paul seems clearly to have had sympathies in line with the stricter school of Shammai (c. 50 bcad 30), who advocated taking a harder line with those deemed to be apostates. 

Prior to the destruction of Jerusalem (ad 70), the majority of Pharisees were associated with the school of Shammai,[9] and the views of this school were deemed authoritative.[10] Of particular interest for us is the emphasis among the Shammaites “to severely restrict contact” with Gentiles.[11] And this brings us the second thing we must constantly bear in mind:  Paul’s commission to preach to the Gentiles.

Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles
Paul’s life took quite an ironic turn when the Lord Jesus Christ commissioned him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. This most Jewish of Jews, this most zealous of Pharisees, received a divine commission to invite Gentiles as Gentiles to “recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).

Jewish opinion was divided in the first century concerning Gentiles. There were some branches of Judaism that took a softer view, but both biblical and extra-biblical evidence show that the majority had a very low opinion of Gentiles. They were regarded as inherently unclean. They were presumed to be idolaters and sexually immoral, a presumption that was not altogether unjustified. Nevertheless, God’s concern for them was very great. And so he brought Jesus into the world, not only “to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel,” but also to “make [him] a light for the nations, that [his] salvation [might] reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). And Paul was the instrument which he chose to bring it about.

He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel (Acts 9:15)

Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21)

Delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you (Acts 26:17)

...through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations [i.e., the Gentiles] (Rom. 1:5)

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry (Rom. 11:13)

But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles (Rom. 15:15-16)

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience (Rom. 15:18)

He...was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16)

I went up [to Jerusalem] because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles (Gal. 2:2)

They saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Gal. 2:7-9)

For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Tim. 2:7)

But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it (2 Tim. 4:17)

This is the necessary background for understanding Paul, especially in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. This explains his choice of subject matter. This explains why dealt with the issues he dealt with. It explains his emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith—to show that Gentiles need not become Jews in order to become Christians; that they need not become Jews in order to be acceptable to God, because it is not by the works of the law (circumcision, keeping kosher, offering sacrifice, etc.) that one is justified before God. It is rather, by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Of course all peoples and all nations belong to him by way of creation, but Israel belonged to God by way of his saving covenant with Abraham.
[2] That Jesus says, “God so loved the world,” and not that he so loved Israel, is significant. Of course Israel is a part of the world, and God loved Israel too. But the emphasis in the passage is quite unlike the testimonies we find in the Old Testament of God’s particular love and concern for Israel as distinguished from the nations (e.g., Deut. 4:37; 7:7-13; 10:15; 23:5; 33:3). In John 3:16 Jesus is hinting at the universal scope of the gospel.
[3] These problems are an indication of the success of Paul’s ministry as “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13; 15:16; Gal. 2:8-9; Eph. 3:8). Had the number of Gentiles who believed been small, there would not have been such urgency to address the issues.
[4] That God should have a special people at all—a people he favors above all other peoples—offends modern sensitivities. But it is true nonetheless. It should be noted further that the spirit of egalitarianism, so prevalent in the West, requires that God favor all people equally. But God is sovereign and may do whatever he pleases. And if he has deemed it wise to form a particular people through whom to work in history, who are we to gainsay it?
[5] “Paul” was a similar-sounding Greco-Roman name he used among the Gentiles.
[6] In the Mishnah, it is said, “When Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, the glory of the Torah [i.e., reverence for the Torah] came to an end, and cleanness and separateness perished” (Sotah 9:15)
[7] N. T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said, p. 26
[8] Acts 21:31
[9] N.T. Wright, What St. Paul Really Said, p. 27
[10] Jacob Neusner, ed., Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, p. 292
[11] Geoffrey Wigoder, The Encyclopedia of Judaism, p. 641

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Thinking Biblically About Work

One of the many blessings that God promises faithful man is that he will bless the work of his hands. This is a promise that appears several times over in Deuteronomy alone (e.g. 14:29; 15:10; 16:15; 24:19; 28:12). This is a very rich blessing indeed when we consider just how central work is to life in this world.

It’s important to understand that we are called by God to work. When God made Adam, the very first thing he did was to give him a job to do. He gave him the task of exercising dominion on his behalf (Gen. 1:26-28). This included such things as “working” and “keeping” the garden and naming the animals (Gen. 2:15, 19-20a).

Some people assume that life for Adam and Eve in Eden was a life of inactivity—lounging beside the pool, sipping lemonade, and working on their tan. Not so. God gave Adam a job to do.

It’s vitally important to understand that God commands us to work and that this command is not a post fall commandment. In other words, work is not a part of the curse which resulted from sin. The original command to work came before the fall, at the time of creation. It was Adam’s God-given calling, and this calling was included in God’s assessment that everything he made was not only good, but very good (Gen. 1:31).

The fall, of course, complicated things immensely. Work has become much more difficult than it was before. The earth doesn’t yield as much produce with as much ease (Gen. 3:17-19).

We tend to think of work as a necessary evil, as something to be done only because our survival depends on it. We tend to think that life is really only lived on the weekends when we can play. But I would argue that work is not only not a necessary evil, but a positive good.

The drive to work is a fundamental aspect of our being, and not simply necessary for our well-being. By this, I mean, that God, in making man after his own image and likeness, has woven into our very nature the drive to work. God is the divine archetype for man, the pattern after which man is made. And God is the ultimate worker. He made the heavens and the earth with his great wisdom and power. He exerted his strength. He exercised his ingenuity. He brought his artistic talents to bear. And he still, today, continues to work by upholding the world by the word of his power. “My Father is working until now,” Jesus said, “and I am working” (Jn. 5:15). God, then, is the ultimate worker; and we, being created in his image, have been called to imitate him.

This calling is so fundamental to our being that without work a man without work feels emasculated. The tragedy of a man not having a job lies not only in the fact that he cannot provide for his family. The worst part of it is that he doesn’t feel himself to be a man. If he doesn’t have something productive to do he’s lost much of the meaning for his existence. In this respect, work can be thought of as being therapeutic. Meaningful work, productive work, keeps a man sane. Honestly. I’m not overstating the case merely to make a point. If a man is depressed and troubled, if he doesn’t feel good about himself, one of the best things he can do for himself is to get up and go to work.

In a very real sense the meaning and purpose of a man’s life are wrapped up in his work, in his life’s calling. It’s an important aspect of his identity. What he does goes into the shaping of who he is. The opposite is also true:  who he is is reflected in what he does. This is why when you get some men together who don’t know one another, one of the first things they’ll ask each other is, “What do you do? What kind of work are you in?” We believe we have a natural, God-given interest in work, and we intuitively know that we can learn something important about a man by knowing what he does for a living and what his attitudes are toward his work.

One of the great needs of our time is to recover the sense of work as a calling from God. Some people see the goal of the Christian life as some kind of neo-platonic flight from this world and its concerns, instead of living faithfully in the world and fulfilling the callings which God has given us.

Along these lines, we must remember that every lawful calling is a worthy calling, and every lawful calling is one in which the Christian may glorify God. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the only calling in which a Christian “really” serves God is full time Christian ministry, meaning as a pastor or as a missionary, or something of that sort. No. Every Christian is in full time Christian service, of one sort or another, whether as a pastor, or a missionary, or a teacher, or a farmer, or a stay at home mother, or a mechanic, or a nurse, or policeman, or a line worker in a factory. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as it’s a lawful enterprise and you do it with all of your strength to the glory of God.

We must not over-spiritualize the Christian faith.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Chariots of Fire, winner of four 1981 academy awards, including Best Picture. It’s the story of runner Eric Liddell, a devout Christian, whose athletic career culminated in winning the gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. He was called “the flying Scotsman.” He was called this because, in the first place, he was from Scotland, and in the second place because he had a rather unorthodox running form. He would flail his arms as he ran, which gave him the appearance of a bird in flight.

Liddell was born to missionary parents who served the Lord in Northern China, but he received most of his education in Great Britain, where he excelled both as a student and as an athlete. He was fond of both rugby and track and field; but once he reached his early twenties he devoted himself exclusively to his running. His sister pressured him to give up his running and go back to China with her to serve the Lord on the mission field. She thought he enjoyed his running too much and that it was a distraction from his Christian service. Wasn’t he neglecting the real means by which he was called to serve the Lord?

Liddell struggled with knowing what to do. Was his sister right? Was he forsaking the Lord by pursuing his running? Would God be more pleased and better served if he quit his running and went to the mission field? These questions troubled him. He sought the advice of his pastor. And the advice his pastor gave him is a challenge I want to give you. He said, “Eric, you can praise the Lord by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection. Don’t compromise. Compromise is a language of the devil.”

Shortly after this in the film, Liddell informed his sister that he would return to the mission field, but first he must complete his athletic training and competition. Trying to persuade him to return to China with her at once, she told him that God had made him for a purpose and that he should forget his running and be about the more important business of preaching the gospel. To this he replied, “Jenny, I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure…To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt…To win is to honor Him.”

Eric and his pastor were right. There are many different ways to serve the Lord—and to do so as acceptably, as well, and as meaningfully as a minister of the gospel. Terry Applegate observes,

Leland Ryken, in his book, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, does an excellent job of documenting this understanding of work and business that existed in Puritan theology. He writes:

William Tyndale said that if we look externally “there is difference betwixt washing dishes and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God; none at all.” William Perkins agreed: “The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep ... is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” This Puritan rejection of the dichotomy between sacred and secular work had far-reaching implications. For one thing, it renders every task of intrinsic value and integrates every vocation with a Christian's spiritual life. It makes every job consequential by making it the arena for glorifying and obeying God and for expressing one's love (through service) to one's neighbor. Thus Hugh Latimer saw in the example of Christ the true dignity of all work:  This is a wonderful thing, that the Savior of the world, and the King above all kings, was not ashamed to labor; yea, and to use so simple an occupation. Here He did sanctify all manner of occupations.2

Their view of how Jesus Christ sanctified work by engaging in it Himself as a carpenter and, I might point out, as an independent businessman is very insightful. “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.”3 Quoting Ryken once more:

For the Puritans, all of life was God's. Their goal was to integrate their daily work with their religious devotion to God. Richard Steele [a Puritan scholar] asserted that it was in the shop “where you may most confidently expect the presence and blessing of God.”[1]

I couldn’t agree more. Honor the Lord in your work and he will honor you in your work. “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). When we do this, even the most apparently mundane task is filled with sacred significance.

[1] Terry Applegate, Vocation as a Government in Chalcedon Report, March 2000 ( My apologies for the quote within a quote within a quote, but not sorry enough not to do it.