Thursday, February 25, 2010
But now I realize that the greater part of this life is behind me. There isn’t a great amount of time left to accomplish all I’d like or to change my direction toward some new goal. And so it seems natural to direct my thoughts to what lies beyond this life.
[This could be the place to insert that old joke: At my age I think more and more about the hereafter. Whenever I enter a room, I have to stop and ask myself what am I here after?]
The apostle Paul had much to say about the afterlife. Paul was a man who, I believe, really loved life; he loved his Lord and he loved people. His goal, he tells us was “to know Him and the power of His resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). He compared his life and ministry to an athletic contest or race, and feared at times that his race might be “in vain” (Philippians 2:16) or that he might be “disapproved” at the end of his race (1 Corinthians 9:27). And yet while he loved his life and loved to serve Christ, he looked forward to what would come after.
I’m not sure of exactly what Paul’s age was when he wrote, or what his age was at conversion. The only hint I can find in the New Testament is Acts 7:58, where he is referred to as “a young man” at the stoning of Stephen. Whatever that means, if Paul was converted a short time afterward, he couldn’t have been over 30 at the time. Scholars date his conversion at somewhere around 35 AD. So, if Paul died sometime before 68 AD as scholars believe, he would not have been an old man by 21st century standards, even though he refers to himself as “Paul the aged” in Philemon 9 (ca 55 or 56 years old at the time).
[The chronology of Paul’s life is a complicated study, based on comparisons of the book of Acts, biographical data in his letters, and secular historical milestones referred to in these books.]
But what exactly was Paul looking forward to? It seems to me that as Paul grew older, and as time passed, his thoughts and anticipations changed. Now although all New Testament writings (including Paul’s) are the inspired word of God and therefore true, we can see a progression in Paul’s own personal thinking.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, one of his earlier letters (51 AD), Paul is looking forward to the rapture – the time when Jesus comes to raise the bodies of the saints who are asleep in death and to take up bodily those who have not yet died. Paul places himself in that second group, “we the living who remain” (verse 17). Notice also he says, “God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (verse 14). In other words, those who have died are already with the Lord.
When he wrote 1 Corinthians (56 AD), Paul apparently still had the hope of not experiencing death. “Look I’m telling you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed … the dead will be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed” (15:50, 51).
But when we come to 2 Corinthians, written not long afterwards, Paul’s thinking seems to be changing. As he looks at his physical sufferings and their effects on his own body, he considers other possibilities. Paul was probably not much over 50 years old, he could still say “… even if our outer man is wasting away, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (4:6). Paul here expresses his mixed feelings and desires. Yet those confusions are not a “my will” versus “Your will.” All of his desires come from his deep love and devotion to Christ.
The most notable passage is 2 Corinthians 5:1-10:
1. “For we know that is our earthly house (OIKIA) of a tent (SKENE) is torn down, we have a building (OIKODOME) from God, a house not handmade, eternal in the heavens.
2. For even in this we groan, longing to put on our dwelling (OIKETERION) from heaven.
3. Inasmuch as, having put it on, we will not be found naked.
4. For even we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, in that we do not wish to be unclothed but clothed, in order that the dying may be swallowed up by life.
5. Now He who prepared us for this is God who gave us the pledge of the Spirit.
6. So then, being confident always and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord
7. – for we walk by faith, not by sight –
8. we are confident and pleased rather to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
9. Therefore also, we make it our ambition, whether at home or away to be pleasing to Him.
10. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive pay for the things done in the body whether good or bad.”
Paul seems in this passage to be referring to three distinct possibilities that await him. The first and most desirable is to “put on” his new body at the rapture/resurrection. This is his ultimate hope whether or not he experiences death (“our earthly house of a tent is torn down”). He refers to this new body as “a building from God …”
The second possibility, at least for the immediate present, is to remain in his physical body (“tent”). While in this state he is “away from the Lord” (verse 6).
This brings us to the third possibility, “to be unclothed” (verse 4) or “naked” (verse 3), to have his “tent … torn down” (verse 1). In other words, physical death. As Paul suffered physically, I’m sure that possibility became more real to him. This is an intermediate state, “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (verse 8). This is not his great desire, however. Paul wants to be complete: body, soul and spirit in the presence of his Lord.
By the time Paul writes Philippians (62 AD) from prison in Rome, he feels that his death is possible, though not certain. He even seems to feel that death is desirable, though he is conflicted.
20. “… as always, even now Christ will be exalted in my body, whether through life or through death.
21. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.
22. But if to live in the flesh, this would be fruitful labor, and what I shall ask I don’t know.
23. And I am pulled by both, having a longing to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
24. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sakes.”
In his last letter, his second letter to Timothy (67 AD?), Paul is writing from prison, awaiting his execution. He now regards death as a certainty, although he is looking forward to a crown which he will receive “on that day,” which refers to his standing before the judgment seat of Christ either immediately following the rapture or the second coming.
2 Timothy 4:6-8:
6. “For I am already being poured out and the time of my departure has come.
7. I’ve fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
8. Already the crown of righteousness is laid up for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge will give me on that day, and not only to me, but to all those who have loved His appearing.”
The older I get the more I realize that possibility number three is more likely, though life has been good and I hope to stay around for quite a while. But I also look forward to entering into Christ’s presence whether in the body or not.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
Cards and candy all speak of love at Valentine’s season. Songs are sung about it. Books and movies and TV shows feature it as a prominent subject. But what is it?
Our English word “love” (noun or verb) has a broad range of meanings, anywhere from strong affection to passion to copulation. It can speak of warm fuzzy feelings or of desire, sexual and otherwise. Love is an ambiguous word and that is what, I suppose, makes the word so appealing and at the same time, so frustrating.
The ancient Greeks had four different words that could be translated by our one word “love.” As with all synonyms, there is some overlap in meaning, but I believe they speak of different aspects of love. All four words are around yet in Modern Greek, though I don’t know if they still have the same nuances. Only the first two words are used in the Greek New Testament. C. S. Lewis devoted a whole book to these, “The Four Loves.”
AGAPE (noun), AGAPAO (verb): The kind of love that God has, that which we are commanded; that which seeks the greatest good in its object (John 3:16).
PHILIA (noun), PHILEO (verb): The love of affection, the love we have for a friend (PHILOS). Jesus loved Lazarus, who was His friend (John 11:3, 11, 36).
STORGE (noun): Natural affection, the love of a parent for a child and vice versa. The word is not found in the New Testament, though its opposite, ASTORGOS, “unloving” is. The KJV translates it “without natural affection.
EROS (noun: Passionate (usually sexual) love; the love of desire. This word isn’t found in the New Testament.
[There is also another New Testament word that enters into the discussion: EPITHUMIA (noun), EPITHUMEO (verb), which is sometimes used simply of desire, but frequently is translated “lust.”]
But what do I mean when I say “I love you” to my wife? Which one of these do I mean?
Our modern culture (what the New Testaments calls “the world”) seems to have disjoined EROS from marriage and the other three “loves.” Sexual desire is promoted in our entertainment and we are bombarded with visual images that seem to be designed to arouse us to lust. Sexual union outside of marriage is considered the norm, while marital sex is often seen as at best a continuation of the same “recreational” activity. There appears to be a disconnect between love and sex. I have been told by some (even Christians) that they see no connection between the two. I guess having sex (what used to be called “making love”) is simply a fun thing for a couple to do together, like playing tennis or bicycling.
So how has the church – the Christian community – responded? I fear that the response has been schizophrenic; we have contradictory attitudes. Let me explain.
On one hand, we’re given the command in Ephesians 5:25ff, “Husbands love (AGAPAO) your wives as Christ loved the church …” and we’re given the extent of that love – He “gave Himself up for her” – and the goal of that love “… that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory.” In other words, Christ loved us enough to die for us in order to make us all we should be; and I am to love my wife that much! This elevates love far above what the world can even comprehend.
On the other hand, however, we seem to have bought the world’s disconnect between love and sex. We have a sort of prudishness that has always seemed to penetrate Christian thinking. Though we may deny that this is the case, it still appears to be that way among many even today. EROS is treated often as though it is something less than real love. Yes, there are books (Christian books) that deal with sex techniques, but even these seem to give the impression that sex is just a means to an end. Throw in the view of some that sex is mainly (if not exclusively) for procreation and we have made EROS less than it is and to a certain extent incompatible with AGAPE.
If I may tell a little story from my experience. Over 56 years ago, when I was a teenager, I saw a girl that I thought was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She looked to me like a movie star. I had no hopes of even talking to her, but her face haunted my dreams. Later I met her at school and she smiled at me and of course, my face turned red. What was I feeling? I believe it was EROS, the love of desire, the love of passion.
Later we began dating. EROS was still there. I desired this girl with all the passion my teenage hormones could produce.
But as we continued to see each other, as I just hung around her house, we began to develop a friendship deeper than any friendship I’d known. We could talk for hours. This was PHILIA. Was the EROS still there? Of course! In fact, these two very different loves seemed to merge. I craved her company and didn’t distinguish the reasons why.
Later, when I came to know Jesus Christ, I began to act in another fashion. I began to realize that it wasn’t just about me, it was about her. I believe that the Holy Spirit was producing AGAPE in me. Were the other loves still there? Yes!
Well, we’ve been married for 53+ years and we are still learning. We’ve raised two children and I believe we’ve felt that STORGE for them and for each other.
Now when I tell Uni “I love you,” I believe all four of these are in action. Though she is my closest friend, though I have a close family affection for her, and though (I believe) I desire the greatest good for her, I still desire her. It’s not an either/or.
There is no disconnect between AGAPE and EROS, between love and sexual desire. Sexual love is God’s design for heightening all of our loves.
I’ve been told by some that “marriage isn’t just about sex.” I agree. But sexual love (EROS) is such an integral part of marriage that any marriage that lacks it is suffering from a shortage of love, just as a marriage that lacks any of the other three.
See also: POLAR BEARS; I LOVE YOU LORD; and, THE CASE AGAINST MARRIAGE).
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Job, through all his dialog with his friends, has become increasingly more demanding of God. Sometimes he appears to be confusing God with his friends as he makes greater and greater demands. He wants to stand before God and plead his case. Or perhaps he feels that God should stand before him and make His case. And he seems to have a growing conviction that this is going to happen!
But when it does happen – when God does speak – it is not to justify His ways to Job. It is to interrogate Job and to quiz him on matters of physics and zoology, rather than to answer any of Job’s questions.
In chapters 38-41 of the book of Job, God speaks out of the whirlwind -- the storm that had been approaching while Elihu spoke. And the name that is used here is not one of the names usually translated God, that Job and his friends have been using – EL, ELOAH, ELOHIM or SHADDAI – the Almighty. It is His covenant name YAHWEH – the LORD.
And what beautiful sarcasm is used! Some of us blush to think that the LORD would speak that way! But He does! And He tears into Job!
He introduces His quiz with a challenge to the one who had been challenging Him.
“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Now gird your loins like a man,
And I will ask you and you teach Me!
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding!
Who set its dimensions? Because you know!” (38:2-5)
The LORD batters Job with question after question, concerning creation, meteorology, astronomy, zoology, pointing out that Job has little knowledge of, and no control over nature. Then He concludes His first set of questions with another challenge.
“Will the fault finder complain against the Almighty?
He who reproves God must respond!” (40:2)
The LORD sounds to me like an indignant parent or school teacher reprimanding a smart-aleck kid. I believe that what He is saying is something like this. “You want to tell Me how to run My universe? Fine! Just show Me that you have knowledge of a few details of its operation and I’ll let you take control!”
But Job can’t or won’t answer any of the questions. Rather, he sees who he is and Who God is and answers accordingly.
“See, I am insignificant; what can I answer You?
I put my hand on my mouth!
Once I have spoken and I won’t answer,
Twice and will say no more!” (40:4, 5)
But the LORD is not through with Job yet! He challenges him that if he, Job can demonstrate the attributes of God, then the LORD will let him take control (40:6-14).
“Would you question My justice?
Would you condemn Me that you may be right?” (40:8)
“ … Then I will confess to you
that your right hand can save you!” (40:14)
There follows a boast and a quiz on two powerful creatures of the LORD’s creation: Behemoth and Leviathan (most likely the hippopotamus and the crocodile).
Excursus: there are a number of different views as to what these creatures are:
1. They are mythological;
2. They are real creatures that existed in Job’s day, but are extinct (mammoths? dinosaurs?);
3. They are real but other worldly creatures, like cherubim and seraphim;
4. They are literal creatures that still exist today.
I take view four as being the simplest and most plausible. According to 40:15, they had some similarities to Job (“I made with you.”) and apparently could be seen by him. All the other descriptions are from nature and we need to recognize that some of the language is hyperbole.
He says of leviathan:
“No one is so fierce as to arouse him;
So who is he who can stand before me?
And who is he who has given to Me that I should repay him?
All that is under the heavens is Mine!” (41:10, 11)
“He looks on all that is high,
He is king over all the sons of pride!” (41:34)
The LORD appears to be saying to Job, “You can’t even wrestle a crocodile – one of My creatures; how dare you think that you can wrestle with Me – the Creator?” Job and we are confronted with a rather unfamiliar and uncomfortable attribute of God, an attribute for which I don’t have a word – His ferocity? God is to be feared! He is Awesome – not in the bland sense that the word has presently come to have, but in its original meaning of inspiring awe. The LORD is at least as uncontrollable as Leviathan!
I am reminded of the passage in C. S. Lewis’, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are telling the children about Aslan, the coming deliverer of Narnia. Mr. Beaver informs them that Aslan is not a man, but a lion.
“’Ohh,’ said Susan … ‘Is he – quite safe? …’
‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.
‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver … ‘Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe.
But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”
Perhaps Job’s first reply to the LORD was simply the reaction any child would make when getting a chewing out – anything to get out of this verbal attack. But his second reply is that of a true penitent.
“I know that You can do all things
And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” (42:2)
“ … I declared what I didn’t understand,
Things beyond me, which I didn’t know!” (42:3)
“With the hearing of the ear I have heard of You.
But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I recant,
And repent in dust and ashes!” (42:5, 6)
I don’t believe Job literally “saw” the LORD. He is saying that his knowledge of Him has been, up to this point, second hand. Now he has experienced God first hand. “He does not say in the end, ‘Now I see it all.’ He never sees it all. He sees God.” (F. I. Anderson, Job)
But of what is Job recanting and repenting?
His ignorance? Yes, he confesses his ignorance of God.
His too quick assumptions? Yes, he’d spoken beyond his understanding.
His sin? But if he sinned, the LORD lost His bet!
His sinfulness? Yes, though Job had not sinned in the particular way that his friends accused him of, or that Satan predicted he would, he recognized his own sinful state. Sin is not simply an act; it’s a condition that all human beings share. As Isaiah the prophet declared when he saw the Lord (Isaiah 6:5).
“Woe is me, I’m ruined!
For I’m a man of unclean lips
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts!”
The story quickly winds down: the three friends get their comeuppance. Job is blessed again, “And Job died, an old man and full of days” (Job 42:17). We should not take from the happy ending the idea that this is universal nor that happy endings are a “promise.” Not all tales of suffering have a storybook ending, and were we to draw that “moral” from this story, we would have missed the point and pretty much wasted our time in reading the book.
There are many lessons and principles to be drawn from the book of Job and I hope I’ve touched on more than a few of the prominent ones.
But I believe the main thesis of this book is that suffering is designed by God to draw the sufferer closer to Him – to a deeper knowledge of Him. Job needed to wrestle with his questions and was permitted to think deeply on them. Job needed to hear the arguments of his “friends,” no matter how inane they may have been. But finally he needed to see God. Job started this adventure as a man of faith. We’re not told in so many words, but I believe he ended as a man of deeper faith.
The question asked throughout the book was “Can a man be right with God?” (4:17 – see: JOB, GOD AND SUFFERING) Job was right with God. He was a man of faith which is what I believe the Old Testament expression “fearing God” (1:1) means.
Some might question my conclusion. What about Job’s ten children? What about his servants? They were snuffed out without an opportunity to question their fate. What about the people of Haiti? Those who went through the tsunami of a few years ago? The holocaust? I don’t know. To attempt to sum it all up in a few sentences would be calloused at best.
All the person of faith can do is to lean harder on the only One who has all the answers.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
The book of Job is messy. As the dialog between Job and his three friends continues, we can almost hear the volume being cranked up. Though Job seems to have come to some resolution concerning the afterlife and his desire for justice, he can’t seem to get finished with his lament. Chapters 26-31 contain his final discourse. In this speech, he lambastes his three “counselors,” reasserts his integrity and longs for the good old days. He tells of his former days when God’s “friendship” was on him, then compares his present circumstances in which he “don’t get no respect!”
In chapter 31, he gives a series of “if - thens” and calls down curses on himself if he is guilty of various sins. He concludes with a challenge both to the friends and to God.
“Oh that I had someone to hear me!
Here is my mark,
Let the Almighty answer me,
Or my accuser write up an indictment!” (31:35)
With this Job seems to have silenced his critics, though it’s not clear from the text that they were convinced. It simply says that they “… refrained from answering Job because he was right in his own eyes” (32:1).
And then another “counselor” speaks up, a young man named Elihu (chapters 32-37). Perhaps he was one among many spectators who had assembled to listen in on the debate. We’re told that “his anger burned against Job because he justified himself rather than God … and against his friends because they hadn’t found an answer and yet had condemned Job” (32:2, 3).
We may or may not like Elihu. To some, he seems a breath of fresh air, to others a bag of hot air. He seems brash and cocky and disrespectful to his elders. But he is the one who is the “opening act” before the LORD speaks. Later on, when the LORD indicts Job’s other three friends (42:7, 8), He doesn’t indict Elihu.
And he makes more sense than the others. He seems to speak truth, even though a bit more rudely and abrasively. When I first read the book of Job as a young man, I liked this guy and identified with him. I still do!
Elihu’s speech begins with a long introduction in which he explains that while he has waited out of respect till the older men have spoken, he is compelled by the Spirit of God to speak. And he tears into Job especially, but also the three friends. I’ll attempt to briefly summarize his main points.
First, we cannot demand of God that He speak; He does; we’re just not listening (chapter 33).
“Why do you complain against Him,
That He doesn’t reply to any charges?
Indeed, God speaks once or twice
Yet no one notices” (33:13, 14).
He goes on to say that God may speak through a dream or an angelic mediator, but He also speaks through pain (verses 15, 23, 19). In other words, Job’s suffering is itself one way God uses to communicate with him. As C. S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone.”
Then in chapter 34, he asserts that we have no business demanding justice of God, because God always acts in justice.
Elihu quotes Job, “I am right, but God has taken away my justice” (verse 5) and “It profits a man nothing, when he is pleasing with God” (verse 9). Elihu sees this and some other statements as basically taking the same position as an evildoer (verses 7, 8). Job in attempting to justify himself has made some harsh statements. If one says that serving God is futile, he is siding with the wicked.
In chapter 35, he says that we cannot accuse God and at the same time demand that He answer. God does not listen to self-righteous demands. He hears the afflicted, but doesn’t hear the proud!
Finally, in chapters 36 and 37, Elihu tells his hearers that God always acts in accordance with His omnipotence, omniscience, justice and love. Even our sufferings are in agreement with these attributes of His. Suffering has a purpose.
While Elihu is expounding, a storm apparently is brewing in the distance and drawing closer and closer. From 36:27 on through 37:22, nearly every verse has a reference to some aspect of it: “drops of water”; “rain”; “the clouds”; “thundering”; and “lightning.” We can almost picture these men sitting there, out in the open in the middle-eastern desert, Job on his ash-heap, with Elihu waxing eloquent as the storm draws nearer. This is Elihu’s natural power-point presentation!
Then in 37:13, the storm becomes the tremendous illustration of his thesis: three purposes God my have for sending the storm. I believe they are applicable to any disaster or calamity or suffering:
“If for His rod,Sometimes our suffering IS due to God’s “rod.” There are times when God must hit us “upside the head” to get our attention. “Whom the LORD loves, He disciplines” (Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6).
If for His world,
If for His lovingkindness
He causes it to happen!”
Sometimes it is “for His world.” I lived for years in South Texas and near the Gulf Coast. Every time there were hurricane warnings there were mixed feelings. The same hurricane that devastates a city also brings much needed rain to the farms and communities inland. That which brings disaster to some, brings relief to others. It’s the way nature operates. And God is in charge of nature.
Sometimes it is “for His lovingkindness.” The Hebrew word is HESED and speaks of God’s loving loyalty to those with whom He has made a covenant. God uses all things – storms and sufferings to work out His purposes in the lives of His covenant people. We who belong to Jesus Christ by faith are His New Covenant people for whom “God works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28).
Our problem is that we don’t know which of these possibilities describes our suffering!
Elihu gives as his concluding statement his “big idea,” which leads us into the next chapter in which the LORD speaks:
"The Almighty – we cannot find Him;
He is great in power and justice;
And abundant in righteousness;
He will not do violence.
Therefore men fear Him.
He does not look on those who are wise of heart!" (37:23, 24)
Next: The LORD Himself has something to say.