Friday, October 30, 2009

Romans 1:16, Part 1

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.

I do not recall exactly how the Daily Vacation Bible School teachers introduced this verse, but I am certain that I learned at least the initial phrase by rote. Whether that counted towards my certificate at the end of the two weeks or not, I do not know. The statement is simple and straight forward enough, although to my young mind I had some difficulty really comprehending what was meant.

I was in my mid-teens before I ever really understood what it meant to be “ashamed” of something. As I look back on my childhood I can now perceive that there were things for which I could have been mocked, but nobody did for some reason. As far as being a stylish dresser, I was not. I received a new pair of Levis in the fall just before school and another pair at Christmas time. By the end of a year I had not only out-grown them both, but I had completely worn them out as well. Summer vacation was tough on clothes in the Canyon. I bathed regularly; my mother saw to that, and I doubt that I really got ripe enough to trouble anybody on the bus to school. Therefore, I do not recall hearing anyone say to me (as I have heard some children say to an object of their ridicule), “You stink!” I look of the many pictures taken of me as a boy and I am impressed at how much fly-away hair I had. Oddly enough, I got a haircut just before school started in the fall and another one just before school pictures were taken, yet my hair was always in a flurry. It has always been extremely fine and over the years I have used various methods to keep it in place, most of which have been spectacularly ineffectual. Again, however, I do not recall anyone ever making fun of me because my hair was not as it could have been. My point in all of this is that as a child I could not have told anyone what it meant be “ashamed” of anything, much less the “gospel of Christ”.

Jesus was an icon for me, but I am afraid that I did not know much about him, notwithstanding my many years attending that little church. We sang a song during Bible school: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. I accepted that, but again, I was nearly an adult before I knew for myself that the Son of God had a vested interest in my personal welfare. I cannot remember a time when I did not believe in God, even though I do not think that I could have said much about what He was like. As to Jesus being His son, a babe born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, I understood the basic sentiments surrounding the celebration of Christmas, but I could not speak to the specific benefits that his birth brought into my life. If someone had asked me if I were a Christian or if I accepted Jesus as my personal Savior, I might have said “I guess”, simply because I could not have identified myself with any other group of believers.

With regard to the “Gospel”, that was a word that was as opaque to me as was the linguistic history that produced the word in the English language more than a thousand years ago. No doubt someone informed me that the Gospel was the “Good News of Jesus Christ”, but I do not remember anyone saying to me what the specific “news” was. No doubt someone said to me, “You are saved by the Gospel of Jesus Christ”. Certainly it would have been good news, indeed, if I had considered myself in any particular danger. I had no idea was sin was, and it would take some serious brushes with both civil and spiritual law before that notion became real to me. And, as I have said before, physical death was fundamentally meaningless to me.

During the past fifty years or so, I have learned something of Paul the Apostle, his life and teachings, and of the world in which he lived both as a Jew and as a Christian. I have vicariously travelled with him as he labored in his ministry, as he was driven out of one town and into another, fearlessly raising his voice to the inhabitants of the land that they should repent and come unto Christ, because there was no other way in which they could be happy. I been in prison with him, beaten with many stripes. I have been imperiled with him upon the waters of the great deep, watching him quietly encourage men who thought that they were going to perish in the waves. I have stood with him before Festus and Agrippa, Felix and Ananias, Roman procurators and proconsuls, and even in the judgment halls of Caesar, before some of the mightiest villains that ever have lived upon the earth. In nothing did he hesitate to teach and preach. He feared for nothing, neither torture nor death. When he has said that he was not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, I have believed him, for he had exemplified his confidence in the principles of eternal life from the time the angel appeared to him on the road to Damascus until he was beheaded in Rome. He had felt the power of God in his life, and he wished that all men might feel that power the same way in their lives. I am grateful to be one of those men who have learned something of that power, one who has learned something of mockery of sin and yet has been freed from the guilt and shame that invariably accompanies the unrepentant wicked.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

John 11:35

Jesus wept.

I have to say that to a little boy who was tasked every day for two weeks to memorize a verse from the Bible, that the day that this verse was introduced to us was a grand one indeed. John 11:35 was touted as the shortest verse in the Scriptures, the longest being Esther 8:9:

Then were the king's scribes called at that time in the third month, that is, the month Sivan, on the three and twentieth day thereof; and it was written according to all that Mordecai commanded unto the Jews, and to the lieutenants, and the deputies and rulers of the provinces which are from India unto Ethiopia, an hundred twenty and seven provinces, unto every province according to the writing thereof, and unto every people after their language, and to the Jews according to their writing, and according to their language.

No, we were not required to memorize this passage.

There are other interesting facts about the King James Version of the Bible that were undoubtedly recited to us years ago, some of which I did not recall until today.

There are 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament for a total of 66. There are 1189 chapters (929 and 260) in the protestant KJV. There are 31,102 verses (23,145 and 7957) of which I only had to memorize 12 a year. There is no single middle verse of the Bible, but two verses located at Psalms 103:1-2. Psalms 117 is both the shortest chapter and the middle chapter of the Bible. Psalms 119 is the longest chapter. All of these are fun facts, but none of them explain why “Jesus wept”; I am quite certain that none of my Daily Vacation Bible School teachers ever explained why he did either.

The scene that precipitated the Savior’s weeping was in conjunction with the death of Lazarus of Bethany, a close friend of Jesus and his Apostles, the brother of Mary and Martha.

The chapter begins with John the Beloved noting in his narrative that Lazarus was ill, a fact that was communicated by messengers sent from Mary and Martha to Jesus who was teaching many miles away on the east side of the river Jordan (see John 10:40-42). Depending on Jesus’ location in Perea or Decapolis, the Savior could have been as much as 65 miles from Bethany. Upon hearing that Lazarus was desperately ill, Jesus testified to his disciples that their friend’s situation was to be a blessing to everyone concerned and that they ought not to be overly agitated. Jesus then continued preaching for another two days beyond Jordan before leaving for Bethany (see John 11.6). The Apostles apparently thought that Jesus’ hesitancy in returning to Bethany was fear of the murderous scribes and Pharisees who were intent on putting their Lord to death (see John 11:8). Jesus was quite clear, however, as to his motive for going to the home of his friends (see John 11:9-16). By the time Jesus and his disciples arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been in his tomb four days, suggesting that he had probably been dead a week. Martha met Jesus as he entered the town and expressed her conviction that Lazarus would not have died had the Savior been there. There is a sweet exchange between the two which includes another of my Daily Vacation Bible School scriptures, John 11:25:

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:

Mary is eventually persuaded to meet Jesus in the same place where he met Martha, at the edge of town (no great distance, by the way). The mourners, professional and otherwise, rushed after the young woman and were irreverently gathered about to witness the exchange between Lazarus’ younger sister and the Savior. With all of the tumult and idle chatter, Jesus was not in a position to comfort Mary in the same fashion as he had Martha. Mary, therefore, continued in her distressed state with the unsympathetic mob arrayed about them.

When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled (John 11:33).

The Greek word which is here translated as “groaned” derives from roots which mean “to snort with anger, indignation, blame, sigh with chagrin, sternly enjoin, straitly charge”. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible follows this meaning. If we accept this interpretation, we must decide with whom Jesus was indignant. With Mary? Highly unlikely! With the Jews who accompanied Mary to the cemetery? Far more likely. As was the case with the crowd who appeared when the daughter of Jairus died (see Mark 5:22-43), so also here we are confronted with a body of men and women whose sorrow is at best affected pretense. Why indignation? Because this show of feigned grief could not have but unnecessarily disturbed the faithful tranquility that Mary and Martha should have enjoyed as a product of their faith in Christ.

As Jesus is taken to the tomb, his weeping is misinterpreted by the raucous Jews:

Then said the Jews, Behold how he loved him! And some of them said, Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died? Jesus therefore again groaning in himself cometh to the grave. It was a cave, and a stone lay upon it (John 11:36-38).

In raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus prayed to his Father in Heaven:

Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me. And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth (John 11:41-43).

When Lazarus came forth from the tomb there were mixed emotions expressed. Needless to say Mary and Martha were overcome with joy. The disciples began to fully understand what had been going on for the past seven days. Many of those who had been skeptical about the Savior’s power and authority with God were immediately disabused of their skepticism, desiring to be received into the company of Christians. Then there were others, so thoroughly hardened in their hearts that they fled Bethany to the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Caiaphas, the nominal high priest of the Jews, then deliberately chose to plot against the life of Jesus Christ, fully knowing the import of that which had just taken place in Bethany.

Jesus wept on the way to Lazarus’ tomb for much of the same reason he has ever shown emotion. In the case of Mary, the circumstances were such that he could not immediately comfort her. There is no more tender heart in all of the eternities than that of the Lord Jesus Christ. He wept for those whose hearts and minds were so entangled in the temptations of this lost and fallen world that they could not perceive the hand of the God of Israel laboring among them until some sort of miracle awakened them to the truth. He wept for the belligerent, the Pharisees, scribes, and Sadducees, even as the heavens had wept for the fall of Lucifer. Every soul is precious in the sight of God; He loves them all in spite of their recalcitrance and weeps for each of them even as a Father weeps for a child that has gone missing. Jesus is his Father’s Son; their sentiments are the same.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Romans 6:23, Part 2

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

At some point during my Daily Vacation Bible School Days, I had to memorize this whole verse. I guess that happened as the teachers supposed that we little children were capable of learning longer passages by memory. The marvelous thing about the whole verse is that there is a perfect balance between the inescapable problem for humanity and the providential solution of that problem.

As a boy I only understood death in terms of dead animals, not in terms of dead people. Likewise, those who were my instructors could never completely explain how it is that sin brings about death, especially since so many innocent children die in their infancy. Had any or all of these babes been guilty of some heinous crime by which they had offended God? I could not imagine any such a thing and so I waited for further light and knowledge on the subject. What I did not know at the time was that there were two ways by which a person might die. Not until I perceived that distinction did I really come to appreciate what it was that the Son of God did for me and for humanity in general.

So long as Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, obedient to the instructions given by God, there was no death on the earth in any of its present forms. When our first parents partook of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a transformation took place which is almost impossible to comprehend, both in its scope and manner. Although I may not be able to articulate precisely the mechanics, the physics, or the chemistry involve, yet I do know that the Fall was substantial, a change so radical that man cannot fully appreciate what once was nor what has become of the earth as a result. The most accurate description, although a bit esoteric for some people, is to say that when the earth was created it was a Terrestrial Kingdom, one in which there was no disease, injury or death. No living thing could die so long as that state remained the same. The liability of that glorious state was, however, that there was no reproduction. Had Adam and Eve never partaken of the fruit, they would still be in the Garden, all things as they were in the day they were created, and we would not exist upon this earth. With the Fall, the earth became a Telestial world, the lone and dreary place that we experience every day. Those who would quibble about the present beauty of the earth and the loving fellowship of good men know little or nothing about what is possible while in the presence of the Father and the Son, as was the case with Adam and Eve before they partook of the forbidden fruit.

St. Augustine, a religious scholar who lived in the fifth century, concluded for reasons of his own, that the scriptural account of the Fall of our first parents was metaphorical, a symbolic story that veiled the real cause of humanity's dire circumstances. He suggested that the Fall came about as the result of gross immorality on the part of our first parents, although he never explains how a husband and wife in the Garden of Eden could be immoral. I do not believe a word of it. I believe that Adam and Eve partook of a fruit that introduced the possibility of physical death into their systems and, genetically speaking, passed that susceptibility on to their posterity. Every man, woman, and child who has every lived on this planet is a descendant of Adam and Eve and for that reason cannot, by any means whatsoever, escape that final mortal act on their own. Therefore, I can quote Paul the Apostle without any hesitation: “In Adam all men die” (1 Cor.1:22). Together with that which Adam and Eve brought upon all of us as their posterity, there was also their personal culpability for having personally transgressed the commandments of God. Adam and Eve suffered a spiritual separation from God for their disobedience, which is usually referred to as a spiritual death. They were cast out of the Garden and the earth fell from the presence of God. While we suffer physical death, the natural consequences of having partaken of the fruit, because of their disobedience, we are not directly affected nor do we suffer in any way for their personal sins. We have plenty of our own without being saddled with theirs. We may point to corollaries in our own lives, where our personal sins physically injure those around us without doing them excessive spiritual damage.

In the ministry of Jesus Christ we may more clearly perceive the distinction that is so often veiled by the philosophies of men. In the paragraph above I quoted from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. The context becomes extremely important if we are to understand the difference between physical and spiritual death.

If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:19-22).

To what does this refer? In what way has Jesus Christ affected our lives? Is this in reference to our personal sins?

Adam and Eve partook of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, or what would be more germane here, the Tree of Death in opposition to the Tree of Life. Men are born, they live out their short time in mortality, and for no fault of their own, they fall back into the dust of the earth from which they came. None of us has ever been to the Garden of Eden. None of us has ever partaken of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, introducing physical death into our bodies. We die because Adam partook and there is no justice in that. Therefore, in the economy of God, physical death is an injustice dealt to the posterity of Adam and Eve that must be corrected. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the promise that every man, woman, and child who has ever breathed a breath upon this planet will one day come forth from the dust of the earth, just as Jesus did. “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive”. Nothing could be simpler than that!

But what of Adam’s personal responsibility in the Fall of the earth? Adam is now assured of resurrection, but has he satisfied the law of Justice for that which brought the world to ruin? And if he did, when and how did he do it? Does resurrection suggest remission of sin? If all men are going to be resurrected from the dead, does that automatically imply that their sins are forgiven them? Clearly this is not the case or there would be no need for resurrected men to appear before the judgment bar of Christ and be judged according to their deeds done in the flesh; there would be no need to distinguish between those who are to dwell with God in Heaven and those who will dwell elsewhere. While there is universal redemption from physical death, there is no universal unqualified redemption from personal sin.

While the distinction may seem subtle, there is a difference between the power of the resurrection vested in the Lord Jesus Christ and the power of the atoning sacrifice for sin. Every law of God is fixed and immovable, absolutely founded in truth. One may obey those laws, one may attempt to ignore them, or one may choose to rebelliously break them, but no man may change the consequences for any of these actions. Obedience invariably brings blessings; disobedience brings punishment. Is it possible for any accountable adult to pursue his course upon the earth without committing sin? Yes, but only one has done so.

In another place in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the Apostle testifies “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), another one of my Bible School scriptures. I am not a sinner because Adam was a sinner; I am a sinner because I have committed sins. If I am to receive forgiveness for my sins, I must do it in the same fashion that every man has received forgiveness. I must adhere to the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I must first look to him in whom I may have any hope of salvation; the Lord Jesus Christ who is the singular example of complete obedience to the will of God. I must understand what he is like and then try to be like him. That is what it means to be a disciple. I must sincerely repent of my evil doings, everything that I have ever done that is contrary to the will of God. That may take some time as I learn what the mind and will of God is. I must confess my personal transgressions and rebellions to God and forsake them. I must enter into any and every divine covenant that is placed before me, determined to live in accordance with the truth throughout the rest of my mortal life and in so doing, be prepared to live according to the truth forever.

If I do all of these things, what happens next? Well, the truth is that the most important part has already taken place. During the time that Jesus suffered in the garden of Gethsemane, throughout the remainder of the dreadful night that was his last mortal one on earth, all the while that he was displayed outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, crucified with the two malefactors, Jesus suffered the punishments for sin, serving as a proxy for all those who would come unto him. The entire spiritual debt of redeemed humanity was satisfied at the point when he said “It is finished”. While the resurrection was a free gift of God to all men who would be born into the earth, the atoning sacrifice of the Lamb of God provided all men with an opportunity to be free from the spiritual death that each had brought upon himself through disobedience. Both are gifts, for no one would have these blessings without the sufferance of the Father and the Son. Thus, through the resurrection we obtain immortality and through the atonement we may acquire eternal life. We are free to choose.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Romans 6:23, Part 1

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

During my first year of Daily Vacation Bible School, only the first half of this extraordinary verse was required for memorization. Since I was only seven or eight years of age, I am quite certain that I had no idea what any one of the three nouns meant.

I had never seen a dead person as a boy; I would not be in the presence of a corpse until I was 23 years old, conducting a funeral for an old man in the mountains of southern Mexico. Of course I had seen dead things. The Canyon was littered with plants and animals that had simply breathed out their last, had fallen from the sky, had dropped in their tracks, or had been sent into the ethers by a passing motorist. I sensed no natural sorrow in the death of animals, possibly because the Baptists asserted that animals were not alive in the same way that human beings were. I did feel a twinge, however, when my skunk-loving dog, Butch, was hit by a car near La Vida Springs because he could not see well enough to get out of the way. I never saw the body; my father disposed of it before telling the family. Death, therefore, was as foreign a concept to me as it was to Adam and Eve while they dwelt in the Garden of Eden.

All I really knew about sin was that it was “bad”, but I was not altogether certain how anyone went about offending God. The stories told about sinners all involved activities that either I did not understand or were those for the which I had no inclination. I was a free spirit as a boy and although I did things that displeased my parents, I never really considered those things to be sins. By the time I was sixteen, however, I learned for myself that there were things that a person could do that would put him or her at cross-purposes with the laws of men. It was then that I learned how and why one could and should be sorry for one’s conduct. Oddly enough, even in these circumstances I did not consider myself to be a sinner inasmuch as I had not done any of these things to irritate God. The pieces of that puzzle would be put in place once I came to understand who my friends, neighbors, and family really were, together with an awareness of their relationship to the God of Heaven.

At eight years of age, “wages” was a non-concept. I do not remember even having an “allowance” until I was pushing twelve. I suspect that somewhere along the line, one of the teachers tried to relate wages to the law of the “harvest”, that one reaps what one sows. This, of course, would have made little or no sense to me either, inasmuch as all of my agrarian pursuits involved the apricot tree next to the house and the vegetable garden in the front yard. I was a bit of a literalist as a child and as a result, “picking the tomatoes” was not the same thing as “reaping and winnowing the grain”. The phrase “natural consequences” did not come into my vocabulary while in childhood. It was a tag that was eventually given to help me understand the relationship between good and evil, virtue and vice, happiness and misery. It also helped me to understand that there was a difference between “consequences” and “punishment”, which thing I had never before supposed.

Notwithstanding all of this ignorance, the phrase “the wages of sin is death” became firmly etched into my mind and heart so that when I did come to a point where the words were no longer foreign to me, that I could really appreciate the abyss next to which I had been walking throughout my childhood. If I had not been particularly frightened before, I was terrified in retrospect. How many of my choices had been inadvertently correct? How many times, at the very last moment, had something nudged me away from moral and spiritual catastrophe? And these resultant tragedies would have been catastrophes that I would have had a great deal of trouble living down for the rest of my life.

I know now that sins come in degrees. Someone once made a neat distinction between “sin” and “transgression”, the former referring to knowingly doing something wrong and the latter referring to something done in ignorance. What may we say of “sins” which we were “taught” as a child because of bad examples set by adults? How about addictions of one sort or another? Is there a difference between the activities that began the addiction and the lapses that occur as we are attempting to overcome the habit? We are extraordinarily clever in slicing and dicing our semantics in order to ameliorate the intensity of our guilt. But in the final analysis, we have to say of our misconduct, “These are all mine; I am responsible for them all; I will not equivocate about any of them; I am a sinner!” This is both the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of forgiveness, whether we are dealing with God or our fellowmen. The great comfort, the consolation and hope in these distressing circumstances, is that there is a second half to this verse.