Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Opium of the People?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with Juanetta, a homeless woman who occasionally collects money for her shelter outside of our local Target store. She told me of her heartbreak when her son was sentenced to prison, but how God had helped her finally surrender the burden to Him. And she was full of joy, with a smile on her face and words of kindness to everyone who passed by. “God has something wonderful to give us and all we have to do is open up our hearts,” were her parting words to me, and as always when I talk with her, I didn't just feel enriched, I was enriched.

But if Karl Marx had still been alive and leaving Target at the time of our conversation, he might have said that it proved his point:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Getting rid of the vale of tears is a noble goal and one that Juanetta and I share. We agree that it is not a good thing when children end up in prison, and that people should give generously to the poor. (She was after all collecting money for her shelter.) But did Marx really think that he could eradicate car accidents, terminal illnesses, poverty, broken marriages, and the rebellion of children by simply demanding that people give up those things? And since he could do precious little about the vale of tears, it seems rather backwards to demand that people give up its "halo."

I don't for a moment concede that faith is an illusion, but Marx correctly observed that it helps people get through difficult times. In fact, I would say that there is a positive correlation between faith and poverty. How does the Bible explain this correlation? James 2:5 says: "Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" He has set up this world to function according to the survival of the fittest, but He has set up the kingdom of God in such a way that only the humble can receive it. "God is opposed to the proud, but He gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). And that means the poor and disadvantaged have a distinct advantage.

Like Juanetta said, God has something wonderful to give us, but we have to open our hearts to receive it. And if our hearts are full of other things, we won't. Augustine agreed. "God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it."

In her Magnificat, Mary, the humble young girl with great faith who was chosen by God to carry His Son, said: "[God] has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and He has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed" (Luke 52-53). At the end of the Gospels, God exalts another Mary with the honor of being the apostle to the apostles—the first messenger of the resurrection of Jesus. Who was Mary Magdalene, the mystery woman who received the spotlight at such an important moment, but is hardly mentioned elsewhere? Luke 8:1-3 indicates that she may have been wealthy, but that Jesus had cast out of her seven demons. We are not given any details, but we can safely say that this means she had major issues and would have really needed Jesus.

To the early Christians, the order of the postmortem appearances of Jesus was significant, with some non-canonical Gospels claiming the first appearance for whomever they admired most. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews says that Jesus appeared first to James. The importance of the order is not lost on Paul, who doesn't mention Mary Magdalene in that patriarchal society, and goes through the list and concludes with, "and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Corinthians 15:8-9).

Saul of Tarsus was neither poor nor disadvantaged in any way. He was an upwardly mobile, self-righteous Pharisee, who believed that he was doing God's will by destroying the church. But God could still use him. Paul continues: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10, italics added).

And those words highlight what it is that God wants to give us if only we open up our hearts: the grace of God—that is, the power of God through the Holy Spirit. It was the grace of God that changed Paul from a proud, hate-driven man to a humble, hardworking man who called himself the least of the apostles and penned some of the most well-known, eloquent, and powerful verses about the preeminence of love: 1 Corinthians 13. And it is the grace of God that gives Juanetta joy in spite of her circumstances.

But even though Paul was God's chosen instrument for bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles, he continued to struggle with pride, and in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, he says that he was given a "thorn in the flesh" to keep him from exalting himself. When he asked God to take it away, God replied: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." In other words, as great as Paul was, the power of God was greater in him in his weakness and suffering. Then he was able to come to God with empty hands and an open heart and be filled with the power of Christ.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Failed Rapture Notice

A friend of my husband got this email, and I thought it was pretty funny. Did anyone else get it?

ADDENDUM (5/28/11):

Since the above was admittedly a poor excuse for a blogpost, I figured I would add the following comment on the subject of Harold Camping that I posted on Thoughts from a Sandwich this morning. (Parts of the main post are in red and my response is in black.)
Aren’t [Christians who believe Jesus could come again any time and urge you to "get right with God," yet criticize Camping by stabbing out Matthew 24:36 like a weapon] committing the same error, albeit with slightly less precision? They know it could happen today. Yet, ironically, by such knowledge, seem to have eliminated today as a possibility, pursuant to their own Bible verse.
Most Christians didn’t eliminate May 21, 2011 as a possibility. We just didn’t think it was any more likely than, say, May 25, 2011. It’s the difference between expressing confidence that someone is going to win the lottery and being so confident that I will win the lottery that I take out a loan and spend the money in anticipation.

And Harold Camping’s antics have about as much in common with the position of Christian orthodoxy as the behavior of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cultists had in common with the statements by Stephen Hawking that aliens probably exist somewhere. Whether or not Hawking is right, his statement is not worth laughing at because he has good reasons for saying that. This would be even truer if scientists actually discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life. The fact that most of the people who talk about aliens have been kooks wouldn’t then render scientists kooks.

I know that the idea of Jesus coming again as described in the Bible is bizarre, because something like that has never happened before. But quantum physics is bizarre and so is Big Bang cosmology. The question is whether we have good reasons for accepting those bizarre things as true.

And since Christians have good reasons for believing that God exists and that the Bible is God’s word, and the Bible is very clear that Jesus will come again, our belief is reasonable. However, Camping’s was not—he used completely random calculations to arrive at his date, going against Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32, and Acts 1:7. What he did has little to do with Christianity—he will now simply take his place in history (once again) as one of a number of failed apocalyptic preachers, not all of whom were Christian.

Yes, he’s right that every day is a good day to get right with God, and in his case that would mean the humility of admitting he was completely wrong (rather than just changing the date) and taking some responsibility for the people he mislead.

Has Jesus been waiting around for 2000 years for people to stop remembering he is coming back? 
I wonder if he regrets putting that clause in the contract….
Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10 say that the Gospel must first be preached to all nations. That probably has happened by now, but it was certainly not true in the first century when those words were written. So that is a fulfilled prophecy.

The description of the church in Revelation 7:9 has also been fulfilled: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and people and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands.”

There are Christians around the world of all nationalities, races, languages, and cultures, and the Bible is the most translated book in the world, continuing to be translated into new languages all the time.

In the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Surely He wouldn’t come again before that had been accomplished?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Did God Pour Out His Wrath on Jesus?

I have often heard it said that God poured out His wrath on Jesus on the cross, and afterwards His wrath was appeased. This brings to mind an image of God feeling very angry and having to get it out of His system somehow. Christ was a willing scapegoat who took God's wrath upon Himself, and afterwards God felt much better. 

The problem with the idea of God pouring out His wrath on Christ, aside from the fact that it makes no sense, is that the Bible says nothing of the kind. If you do a search on the way the words "the wrath of God" are used in the New Testament, they always refer to Judgment Day, when God will execute justice on the world. The words are never used in connection with the vicarious redemption of Christ. 

What, then, does the Bible say about the vicarious redemption of Christ? 2 Corinthians 5:21 says: "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." Isaiah 53:5-6 prophesies, "But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed." 

So God didn't pour out His wrath on Jesus, He laid on Him the sins of the world, so that He might pay the penalty for them through His death. Why? Hebrews 2:14 says, "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil." So Jesus did not die to appease God the Father, but to defeat the forces of evil. 

Before Jesus became sin on our behalf, Satan had no power over Him because it is sin that gives Satan a foothold. This is why Satan could not harm Jesus when He fasted in the wilderness, but he could tempt Him. And if Jesus had succumbed to temptation, then Satan could have destroyed Him. However, in John 14:30-31, Jesus says, "I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father." The "ruler of this world"--this fallen world--is Satan, and he has a claim on sinners. Sin separates us from a holy God, so we don't experience His power and protection. 

Although Satan had no claim on Christ, God allowed the sins of the world to be placed on Him, and our sins separated Jesus from the Father. This meant that the spiritual forces of evil could do whatever they wanted to Him--humiliate Him, cause Him psychic torment and excruciating physical pain, and kill Him, and that is what they did. Jesus was punished for the sins of the world, thus paying the penalty that we could not pay, reconciling us to God, and granting us freedom from the power of sin and death. 

This is not God demanding a burnt offering, because they never pleased Him. Hosea 6:6 says: "For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." 

Isaiah 1:11, 17 says: "'The multitude of your sacrifices--what are they to me?' says the LORD. 'I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats . . . Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.'" 

Micah 6:6-8 says: "With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

And Hebrews 10:4 says that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." In other words, this ritual of burnt offerings accomplished nothing, even though the Law of Moses required it. But like the rest of the law, it was powerless to save, and was a mere shadow of what was to come: God sending His own Son to pay the penalty for our sins and bridge the chasm between God and sinners. This means that we may receive the Holy Spirit, who has set us "free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:2).

Clamflats was right when he said in a comment, "At least with the word 'appease,' we are following a ceremonial sacrifice script which is recognized cross-culturally." People sacrificed to appease their gods until Constantine, the first Christian emperor, ended the practice in the Roman Empire. Although sacrifice never pleased God and never took away sins, it was within this cultural framework that He worked His plan of salvation. But instead of demanding a sacrifice from us, God turned the "ceremonial sacrifice script" around and sacrificed Himself for us.

Charles Wesley's hymn, "And Can It Be?" aptly says, "Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" but the sacrifice of Christ was more than just a symbol of His love. Romans 8:3-4 says, "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

Wesley's hymn continues:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The atonement of Jesus "quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven," by breaking down the barrier between God and humanity. His atoning blood has the power to set us free from the chains of sin, so that we will escape the wrath of God, or His righteous judgment of sin, when He ushers in "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13). Jesus gave Himself for us, giving us His righteousness in exchange for our sin, suffering that we may be healed, and dying and rising that we may live.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Glory Rendering, Mother's Day, and Redemption

Clamflats asked the following question, which I have edited slightly to make it more coherent out of context (but let me know if I changed the meaning, clamflats). And I wrote most of it before Dan answered the question, so hopefully you don't mind, Dan. 
The idea that the motive of the crucifixion is glory-rendering makes it seem that we humans are bit players in some divine grand opera. Why would God require glory and why would corporal punishment be necessary? At least with the word "appease," we are following a ceremonial sacrifice script which is recognized cross-culturally. 
A couple of hours ago I changed my Facebook profile picture to the above photo with my mother who passed away at sixty-two. My sister Elisabeth was the first to comment, saying: "What a GREAT photo Anette!!! She is missed every day, and was the best MOM ever! Thank you for posting this and Happy Mothers Day to another great mom!" I replied by agreeing with my sister about what she said about our mom, wishing Elisabeth a Happy Mother's Day, and returning the praise.

Now, you would presumably never ask, "Why is Mother's Day necessary? Do mothers raise children so they can be praised by them?" Of course parents don't raise and make sacrifices for their children in order to receive praise, but it still right to praise our parents for what they have done for us. And it makes parents very happy to receive heartfelt praise from their children.

But it is also right for children to honor and respect their parents just because they are they are their parents, just as it is right to honor and respect the President whether or not we voted for him.

So the answer to the question of why God would "require glory" is that it is right to give Him glory because of who He is and also because He deserves it. Jesus deserves glory because although He was equal to God, He emptied Himself and became a mere human, willing to take our sins upon Himself and die on a cross between two criminals on our behalf. "For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11). God the Father deserves glory because He "so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

Although, as I will discuss later, the primary purpose of the crucifixion was not glory-rendering between the Father and the Son, God still deserves glory for doing that for us, in order to bring "many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:9-10). And that is the other part of this glory-rendering business--that at the coming of Christ, God will glorify the church, the Bride of Christ. That is, if we belong to Christ and allow ourselves to be made like Him in this life, we will share in His glory. Christ made that possible through the cross.

So the Son glorifies the Father and the Father glorifies the Son, in the same way that I would praise my mother, sisters, mother-in-law, and other mothers on Mother's Day, instead of going around saying, "Boy, I am an amazing mother, and since today is Mother's Day, I'm going to tell you all about it." That would be wrong. Praise always flows from one person to another (or at least it should).

But since Jesus loves us so much and has chosen us to be His own, He puts us between Himself and the Father, so that the glory and love that flows between the Father and the Son is ours as well. Jesus says, "No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15). So although He is the exalted King who will come in glory with His angels, He invites us to be His friends.

But the love of Jesus was costly and sacrificial, and the cross preceded the throne. It led to a staggering promise, that if we are His children, we are "heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ," with the following sobering qualification, "if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him" (Romans 8:17).

Why should suffering have to precede the glory God has prepared eternally for His people? That is something I will discuss in future posts. But in the next post I will address the second part of clamflats' question: Did the sacrifice of Jesus appease the wrath of God?