May 22 Worship

The Beasley family will be leaving soon to minister with a church in Taiwan.  Maurice Richter had the wonderful idea of recording part of the service where the Beasleys lead us in a song which has a chorus in Chinese.  This video can be shown to their church, and in turn we will hopefully watch a video of the Taiwanese church singing the same song when the Beasleys return.

Anyway, some may be interested in the video, so here it is.  Thanks to Maurice for recording and editing this. (The first couple minutes are of a different song).

The Agape Fallacy

 Well, I heard it again this last weekend.  The speaker brought out his PowerPoint slides to explain that Greek language had four different words that we translate as “love”, and that one of these is the love God has for us and that we should have for each other.  Hogwash.

 If you are not familiar with “the four loves”, here is a quick summary of what you will often hear: 

Storge is familial love 

Eros is sexual or romantic love

Phileo is friendship love

Agape is godly love (usually defined as unconditional, giving, and volitional as opposed to emotive).   

The point of most of these talks is to convince us to love God and others with agape love, not the other kinds (it is usually contrasted most with phileo).

Again, hogwash.  It is all a fallacy. 

Agape and phileo have overlapping meanings, and the exact shade of meaning for “love” in any New Testament passage depends on the context of that passage, not which Greek word is behind the translation.

 If you believe that phileo is an inferior type of love, you will have a little trouble with the following verses:

  • John 5:20, For the Father loves (phileo) the Son…
  • John 16:27, For the Father himself loves (phileo) you, because ye have loved (phileo) me
  • Titus 2:24, wives are…to love (phileo) their husbands…
  • Titus 3:4, the kindness and love (phileo) of God our Saviour
  • II. Tim. 4:10, For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved (agape) this present world
  • II Samuel 13 describes Amnon’s lust for his half-sister, which led him to rape.  Verse 15 says afterwards, “he hated her more than he had loved her”, and the Greek translation of the Old Testament used agape to describe that “love”. 

More importantly the two Greek words seemed to be used interchangeably:

  • Rev. 3:9, and to know that I have loved (agape) thee.
  • Rev. 3:19, As many as I love (phileo), I rebuke and chasten…

 

  • John 11:5, Now Jesus loved (agape) Martha
  • John 20:2, the other disciple, whom Jesus loved (phileo)

 

  • John 3:35, The Father loves (agape) the Son
  • John 5:20, For the Father loves (phileo) the Son

 

Note, I am not arguing that phileo and agape are complete synonyms, that is, that they have the exact same meaning and nuance.  Rather, like the English words “soil” and “dirt”, their meanings overlap greatly, and can often be used synonymously.  The main point I am making is that it is illegitimate to base the meaning of “love” in a passage on the basis of which Greek word underlies the English word.  Their certainly are different kinds and types of love, but the context itself is the only key to meaning in this case.

What is Heaven?

Few words carry such meaning and confusion as “Heaven”.  Little children address assign both their prayers and hopes to heaven, while the word’s sheer breadth of meaning confuse elderly academics. 

Part of the confusion stems from what C. S. Lewis called transposition.  That word derives from the activity of re-composing a piece written for one musical instrument, say, the piano, for another instrument, say, a guitar.  The piano, of course, can play many more notes than the guitar, so often several notes or chords written for the piano piece will be represented by only one note or chord on the guitar. 

In the same way, the word “heaven” is used to describe more than one thing.  In fact, it designates several related but separate ideas, and only by pulling the strands of the knot apart can we gain access to the meaning.

First, heaven can mean the air or the atmosphere.  Birds and clouds fill this heaven, and it is from this heaven that the rain quenches the thirst of the earth.

Second, heaven can mean what we refer to as space, or what is beyond our atmosphere. This heaven is populated not with birds, but stars and planets. 

Now, both these two senses sometimes blend together to refer to all things that are above the earth.  In this sense, sometimes all physical creation is designated by the terms, “the heavens and the earth”, as in Genesis 1:1.  But they can also be distinguished.  For example, Psalm 8 refers to the heavens in verse 3 as being filled with the “moon and stars, which you have set in place”.  That same Psalm could later speak of man’s role of dominion over the things of this planet, which include the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea, and the birds of the heavens (verses 6-8). 

Another sense of the word heaven is also used in that same psalm.  Verse five says that mankind has been made, “a little lower than the heavenly beings”.  Both the context and the New Testament usage (Hebrews 2:5-8) tell us that this means that mankind is made a little lower than angelic beings, that is, inhabitants of the spirit world.

The third sense heaven, then is as a spiritual realm, not a place in the universe.  Heaven in this sense is not somewhere one could travel physically; it is nowhere on the map on the universe, nor does it exist physically “outside” the universe.  This is apparently what Paul meant when he said he was given a vision of “the third heaven” ( II Corinthians 12:2). I will be speaking of this heaven the rest of the way.

This meaning of heaven is inherently difficult for those not in heaven to understand, just as a three-dimensional universe would be inherently obscure to a person who lived in only two dimensions (as Edwin Abbot illustrated in his wonderful classic novel, Flatland).  It speaks of what is both beyond this world, and what is not like this world.  Yet, as Ecclesiastes seems to hint in that enigmatic phrase, “you have set eternity in our hearts”, humans have been reluctant to give up the idea that something is “beyond”, even if it proves difficult to comprehend.

It may be helpful to distinguish four aspects of this third sense of heaven.  These distinctions are conceptual, not actual (or noetic, not ontological, if you like being technical).  That is, they distinguish between four different aspects of the third meaning of heaven, not four different additional heavens.

The first aspect of this heaven (that would be 3a for you obsessive types), is that of the spirit world.  Psalm Eight calls angels heavenly beings because heaven is their abode, as it were (though again, not physical abode).  It is their sphere of existence and activity.  Of course, angels also interact with humanity, for humans are spiritual beings as well as physical beings, and humans alone are, by nature, both physical and spiritual.  Angels are not.  They have, by nature, no physical body, though they can adopt at least the appearance of one in order to communicate with mankind. 

By the way, in this sense, even demons (fallen angels) are said to exist in heaven.  Paul reminds us that our struggle is not against physical foes, but spiritual ones, who exist “in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). 

In this sense, then, the main emphasis is on what heaven is not: a physical place in the universe.  It exists in a totally different (and more fundamental way) than the universe.  Think of an aquarium constructed at the factory, then filled with water, plants and fish by the hobbyist.  What exists outside the aquarium is both prior to and more fundamental than what exists inside it (since forces and wills outside the aquarium affect what is inside it).

The second aspect of heaven (3b) is as the place where God “dwells”.  Now, of course, both the scriptures and all orthodox Christian theology insist that God does not have a body of any kind.  He is a spiritual being (John 4:24) and thus does not occupy space.  Space and time are features of this universe, and the concepts of time and space simply do not apply to the one who created this universe with its space and time.  We use phrases like that God existed before the universe or exists outside the universe, but these expressions are concessions to the poverty of our words to express what we have no experience of; they are not technically accurate.

What can it mean, then, when scripture pictures God as dwelling in heaven?  Why would Jesus teach us to pray, for example, “our father, which art in Heaven?” God is emphasizing, through metaphor, His transcendence over our existence, and his control over all that happens in this universe.  Transcendence means that He is not contained in this universe, nor limited by anything in this universe (neither the laws and forces of nature or the schemes and power of man).  To say that God is “in heaven” is to affirm not that he exists physically in a place one could point to on a map, but that this world can neither contain Him nor limit Him. 

For the believer, one other thing about heaven as God’s existence is also dear. That is the idea that we will in some way share that dwelling with Him.  This is the idea behind the promise of Jesus that “in my father’s house are many rooms…I am going to prepare a place for you….on that day you will realize that I am in my father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14).  The mystery and ambiguity of what this actually looks like spring from the incredible, category-breaking nature of the promise: that somehow, physical and once-fallen beings like ourselves will dwell with the Spirit who is beyond all. 

The third aspect of heaven (3c) is the place of perfection and power which somehow exists “alongside” this world we experience.  Though heaven in this aspect is often seen as being “above” our world, this is metaphorical, not literal.  It is good to raise our eyes or voice to heaven, as long as we understand the reality beyond the symbol. 

In this sense, help comes from heaven to the supplicant believer.  Isaiah 57:15 says,

 For this is what the high and exalted One says—
   he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
   but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
   and to revive the heart of the contrite.

James 3:15-17 speaks of wisdom that comes “from heaven”, Psalm 14:2 says the Lord examines men by looking down from heaven, while psalm 105:40 testifies that he satisfied his people by sending the “bread of heaven” (manna).   All these verses, and dozens more, speak of heaven as not only the place God dwells, but the place from which he interacts with this world.

Finally, the fourth aspect of heaven(3d) describes the coming, perfect kingdom: the perfect order and beauty of the eternal state, the place where true believers will, in a resurrected body, commune with God, worship God, and rule with God over a perfected physical creation.  Interestingly, this is not usually called “heaven” in the scriptures, but in many ways this is the goal and fulfillment of the first three aspects of heaven. The eternal dwelling of God in the spirit realm, with all its beauty, holiness, power, and perfection, is now open to a new humanity.  As the oak replaces the acorn, the new heaven and new earth (that is, the entirety of the physical creation) replace the old heaven and old earth.   This New Jerusalem both comes down from heaven (Rev. 21:2) and becomes heaven, the place where God and His people now dwell together.  The shout raised at the event will celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth, of God and His people: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4). 

One final question needs to be addressed: Is it correct to say that when a believer dies, they “go to heaven”? 

I think the answer to this is yes, but we should understand that in a full way, not a simplistic, childish way.  God is not dwelling on a cloud somewhere beyond the planets, waiting for us to come and pick up our harps and join him. And certainly the fullest and final expression of heaven (3d) awaits the judgment and resurrection, events that are still in the future from our perspective.  Yet, Paul could also speak of his impending death with the comforting thought that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (Phil. 1:19-26), and Jesus could promise the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. 

The paradox between these two themes (immediate communion with Christ after death versus the wait for the judgment, resurrection, marriage feast and New Jerusalem) has led many biblical scholars to posit something of an intermediate state between our present death and our future resurrection.  That is, when we die we exist in some state in communion with Christ, but are not resurrected bodily till the general resurrection in the last days.  Others have suggested that the intermediary state should be called soul-sleep, that is, that our body seems to be asleep while our soul is with Christ.  My own problem with this is understanding how we could exist in a disembodied state.  The idea goes beyond our human experience, and thus, our human reason.  This does not mean it should be rejected, but it does suggest we leave the description of the intermediate state open. 

But perhaps the tension between our immediate communion with Christ (at death) and our delayed resurrection should not bother us too much if we remember that time is a category of this world only, and that what we may experience immediately (while not in this world) may, from the perspective of this world, be far in the future. 

So, in this sense, I think it is permissible to speak of believers going to heaven when they die, as long as we understand that the emphasis of the scripture is not on our individual entrance to the pearly gates, but God’s plan to redeem and perfect creation (of which we, amazingly, can be a part). It is when we fully understand that the overwhelming purpose of God is to create a new resurrected humanity capable of dwelling with Him as rulers over a perfected new creation, so that He can expand the circle of Trinitarian love to (for He is love), that we truly long with creation itself (Romans 8: 18-25) for the day when the voice cries out: “Now [at last!] the dwelling of God is with men!”. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Five Views of the Book of Revelation

One of the reasons Revelation is (I think) the most difficult book of the Bible is that not only are there disputes about particular verses, but the purpose and the interpretation of the book as a whole are also disputed.  No other book has had such a wide diversity about its basic meaning and interpretation.  Here is a brief chart listing the five main ways Revelation has been understood through the centuries. (click on the chart for a better resolution)

Christian Science

No, I am not talking about the religion called “Christian Science”.  That religion always reminds me of Grape Nuts (its neither grapes, nor nuts).  I am talking about how a Christian does science, or understands science, or appreciates science. 

This is not a question to be settled only by the people in the lab coats.  All of us are affected by science, and oft those outside the trenches are best able to take in the meaning of the battle.  I claim no expertise, then, but simply lay out my opinion for your comments and thoughts.

First, a Christian doing science will use the same methodology as anyone else doing science.  He or she will use the scientific method appropriate to the field of study.  Appeals to the bible or the viewpoints of the church (as if the church was univocal) will be totally out of place in deciding scientific questions. Nor will the Christian scientist be affected by the question of whether or not God exists.  The reason is that if God does exist, he has presumably left the area of science under investigation subject to the natural laws of physics he established.  Miracles are more the realm of the historian than of the scientist.  This combination (of belief in God and metaphysical neutrality in methodology) actually gives the Christian an advantage: He or she is able to be content with saying of some things: “we don’t know”, rather than forcing facts into ill-fitting theories that try to explain everything from a naturalistic viewpoint. 

Second, the Christian doing science or appreciating science is able to understand the picture, not just examine the brushstrokes.  I take this metaphor from the times I have stood staring at a Van Gogh at a local museum.  With my face a few inches from the glass I have wondered and been amazed at how the crazy brushstrokes conveyed the weary face of the farm worker, or the beautiful mess of the haystack.  And the crucial work of those in the lab coats is to unveil or to shine light on, the various parts of the painting.  A few, whom I will call meta-scientists, will step a few feet back and show how all the parts of the painting work together to create, not isolated images, but a blended panorama.  A Christian (or, substitute most religious persons here) are not those who see different things in the painting, but are those who can consult, as it were, Van Gogh’s diary on why he painted what he did.  They see not just the beauty of the painting, but the meaning of the painting.  They praise not only the glory of the masterpiece, but the glory of the master.

Of course, others are free to view with skepticism whether the religious folk have the real diary, or even if the painting had a painter.  But those are not scientific questions.  And the religious folks, alleged diary in hand, are free to respond, “And what is your explanation, not for what the painting is, but what it means, and how do you justify that explanation? I’m all ears.”

What is Leviathan and Why should I Care?

At the end of God’s speech to Job, He speaks for an entire chapter about a creature called Leviathan.  There is much confusion about the identification of this creature (in spite of its lengthy description) for the following reasons:

  • The word itself is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew (not a translation).  It seems to derive from a root meaning, “coiling, gliding”.
  • It’s description does not match exactly any one creature.
  • The context would seem to be a real (not mythological) animal known by Job, but the description seems to be mythical or hyperbolic.
  • The word is used only five times in the bible, and seems to have a different meaning in some of them.
  • It’s closest parallel seems to be to another being mentioned in the Bible, Rahab; This creature is equally mysterious and not mentioned by name outside of scripture.

Options, please:

A. Leviathan is a crocodile. This is supported by the following facts:

  1. It is described as being covered with something like scales or a skin impervious to puncture.
  2. It is described as having fearsome teeth.
  3. It is a marine animal, yet also can leave a trail in the mud

The weaknesses of this view are the following:

  1. Leviathan is described as a beast that none can capture, but crocodiles have always been able to be captured by skilled hunters.
  2. Related to the above, Leviathan seems to be pictured as the most fearsome beast, but few would give that description to the crocodile.
  3. Leviathan is said to breathe fire
  4. “The deep” usually refers to the sea, not swampland or rivers
  5. The parallel passages which refer to Leviathan do not fit with the description of the crocodile.

B. Leviathan is an extinct dinosaur:

  1. A number of ancient fossils describe a beast like this
  2. While these creatures would not be known to Job, God could still be describing them (and perhaps fossils of dinosaurs were known)

The weaknesses of this view:

  1. It would fit the context better if it were a being that Job had actual knowledge of.
  2. No dinosaur could breathe fire.

C. Leviathan is a crocodile (or some other animal) that is given a hyperbolic, not literal, description.

  1. This would make sense of the crocodile like features, as well as the breathing fire.
  2. This would fit the style of the book of Job (this is poetry, after all, not a zoology textbook).

However:

  1. If the point of the chapter is to show God’s greatness in what He created, it perhaps seems pointless to have an exaggerated description.
  2. The problem with the parallel passages remains.

D. Leviathan is an unknown (probably extinct) sea monster of some kind.

  1. The depths of the oceans still holds many mysteries to us

However:

  1. It stretches credulity to think of a sea monster who was able to breath fire.
  2. The context seems to demand a creature who can also appear on land, or at least the shallows.

E. Leviathan is a purely mythological being.

  1. Since no animal actually matches the description, it must be a mythical or symbolic being.

However:

  1. The context almost demands an actual created being.

F. Leviathan is a unique and somewhat supernatural being, associated in some way with Satan’s primeval opposition to God.

G. Leviathan is a real creature (like a crocodile or dinosaur), but also serves as a symbol for the evil forces opposing God’s good rule over creation.

Let’s look at these last two ideas more closely:

In addition to the description in chapter 41, the book of Job also mentions Leviathan once more:

First, in Job chapter 3, where Job is cursing the day of his birth.  He says in verse 8.

May those who curse days curse that day,

those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

Let the stars of its dawn be dark.

 

Here we see the first thing Leviathan was associated with in the ancient mind: darkness.  Those ready to rouse Leviathan are looking to blot out the dawn or the day.  Leviathan seems to be a creature at war with the coming of light or day.

The book of Psalms mentions Leviathan twice, in very different contexts.

The first is in Psalm 79:

12 But you, O God, are my king from of old;

you bring salvation upon the earth.

13 It was you who split open the sea by your power;

you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.

14 It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan

and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert.

15 It was you who opened up springs and streams;

you dried up the ever flowing rivers.

16 The day is yours, and yours also the night;

you established the sun and moon.

17 It was you who set all the boundaries of the earth;

you made both summer and winter

This psalm is a cry for God to save His people from their adversaries.  The section here hearkens back to God’s power in His victory over his enemies at the dawn of creation.  Leviathan is described as a sea monster with several heads.  At some time associated with creation, God crushed Leviathan and gave him as food for the creatures of the desert.

Before we look at a parallel text to this, we should also look at Psalm 104:

 

24 How many are your works, O Lord!

In wisdom you made them all;

the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,

teeming with creatures beyond number—

living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,

and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

Here Leviathan is again associated with the sea, but is seen, not as a fearsome foe of God, but one of the animals that frolic in the sea.

The Last mention of Leviathan is somewhat surprising to us in light of what we already have read.  It is Isaiah 27:1:

In that day,

the Lord will punish with his sword,

his fierce, great and powerful sword,

Leviathan the gliding serpent,

Leviathan the coiling serpent;

he will slay the monster of the sea

Again, Leviathan is seen as some sort of sea monster, and an enemy of God.  But God’s victory over Leviathan is seen in the future, not the past.  Indeed, most Bible scholars view this whole section of Isaiah as eschatological, that is, looking forward to the final victory of God over his enemies and the establishment of His eternal kingdom.

Now, before we begin to interpret these verses, we should also point out verses that deal with a being that seemingly is associated with Leviathan: Rahab.  This being is not mentioned outside the Old Testament, but many of the ancient myths refer to a creature or force like Rahab.  The first reference is again in the book of Job (26):

10 He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters

for a boundary between light and darkness.

11 The pillars of the heavens quake,

aghast at his rebuke.

12 By his power he churned up the sea;

by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.

13 By his breath the skies became fair;

his hand pierced the gliding serpent.

Here we see many of the same themes associated with Leviathan: a gliding serpent in the sea that God cuts to pieces as part of the creation process.

Psalm 89 also describes God’s power over creation and Rahab:

9 You rule over the surging sea;

when its waves mount up, you still them.

10 You crushed Rahab like one of the slain;

with your strong arm you scattered your enemies.

11 The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;

you founded the world and all that is in it.

12 You created the north and the south;

Isaiah 51 hits the same notes:

9 Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength,

O arm of the Lord;

awake, as in days gone by,

as in generations of old.

Was it not you who cut Rahab to pieces,

who pierced that monster through?

10 Was it not you who dried up the sea,

the waters of the great deep,

who made a road in the depths of the sea

so that the redeemed might cross over?

This last verse also brings in another meaning of Rahab.  Rahab also symbolizes Egypt, as the enemy of God’s people (and therefore of God himself). This symbolism is brought out plainly in Isaiah 31:

6 An oracle concerning the animals of the Negev:

Through a land of hardship and distress,

of lions and lionesses,

of adders and darting snakes,

the envoys carry their riches on donkeys’ backs,

their treasures on the humps of camels,

to that unprofitable nation,

7 to Egypt, whose help is utterly useless.

Therefore I call her

Rahab the Do-Nothing.

This same identification of Egypt with Rahab is seen in Psalm 86: 4

Finally, in Ezekiel 29, the king of Egypt is described as a monster not unlike Leviathan or Rahab:

Son of man, set your face against Pharaoh king of Egypt and prophesy against him and against all Egypt. 3 Speak to him and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“ ‘I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt,

you great monster lying among your streams.

You say, “The Nile is mine;

I made it for myself.”

4 But I will put hooks in your jaws

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales.

I will pull you out from among your streams,

with all the fish sticking to your scales.

5 I will leave you in the desert,

you and all the fish of your streams.

You will fall on the open field

and not be gathered or picked up.

I will give you as food

to the beasts of the earth and the birds of the air.

See also the almost identical scene in Ezekiel 32:1-4.

Analysis:

  • It appears obvious from the above that a simple identification of Leviathan with some animal is inadequate.
  • Leviathan is equated or at least associated with another sea creature, Rahab.
  • Rahab is both already conquered by God, and yet to be conquered by God in the last days.
  • Rahab has a strong association with the sea, and sometimes seems to personify the sea in its resistance to land and human civilization
  • Both Leviathan and Rahab are also associated with darkness.
  • Rahab serves as a symbol of Egypt and Egypt’s king, enemies of God’s plan.
  • It is worth noting that Satan is described in Revelation as both a serpent and a dragon (chapters 12 and 20), and in Genesis 3 as a serpent.
  • In Revelation 13:1 the first beast is described as “coming out of the sea”. See also how the four beasts of Daniel 7 also arise out of the sea).
  • Perhaps we see two hints of all this in the first and penultimate chapters of the Bible.  Cryptically, the only day of creation which God did not pronounce his blessing on (“It was good”) was the second day, when the seas were formed. Just as cryptically, we find that Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea”.

Conclusions:

  • Leviathan is not a mythical being (totally made up), but rather a symbolic being.  God uses earthly creatures to point to spiritual (invisible) forces.
  • In the fullest sense, Leviathan stands for violent opposition to God.  This is pictured in the raging sea threatening life on land (or ships) with its stormy darkness.  Repeatedly, God’s forming of the world is described as a victory over the waters (see also Job 38:8-11).   But this is not simply inanimate resistance, but associated with the active resistance of intelligent and willful opponents of God. This is why God is described as triumphing not only over the sea (an inanimate force) but over the great monster of the sea (an animate and willful force).
  • It is this last sense that Egypt and Pharoah become apt symbols of Leviathan and Rahab.
  • It is also in this sense that the victory over Rahab is not yet complete.  Yes, Rahab as opposition to creation was defeated, but Rahab as opposition to God’s new creation (centered on a redeemed humanity) continues until it’s final defeat in the last days.
  • Option F (above) is possible. In this view a supernatural yet physical being still exists, probably in the deepest ocean lair.  This being was subdued and imprisoned there until the end of days when God will allow it to again wage war against God and will be completely defeated.  Note Job 7:12 —    “Am I the sea, or the monster of the deep, that you put me under guard?”
  • Option G is preferred. Job 41 is more than a description of God’s power in creating the crocodile or some other great being.  It is an affirmation that Satan and all the forces opposing God are totally under his control.  Job can place his trust in God because, even though his ways are mysterious to man, they are not random but part of his active plan to defeat the forces of evil.

The Sin of the Orthodox

[note: by “Orthodox” I am referring to those who are biblical and traditional in their theology; I am not referring to the Orthodox church]

 

Each time I read the book of Job I find deeper meanings.  As I read it this week, one idea that kept coming to my mind was the sin of those who thought they had God all figured out.

At the conclusion of the book, God responds to Job, and then responds to Eliphaz and his friends.  The friends were, you will recall, the “miserable comforters” who debated with Job about the justice of God. The substance of their great debate could be summarized this way: The friends argue that since God is just, Job’s afflictions must be the punishment for some hidden sin.  Job argues in response (repeatedly): Look, I don’t have any “secret sin” that deserves this kind of punishment, so God is not being just to me.  The friends then accuse him of undermining the notion of God’s justice.  Job responds by repeating what he knows: I am innocent, yet enduring incredible suffering, and this suffering seems to come from God himself.  Again, Job implies, “God is not being just with me”.

Now, of course, we readers are let into a secret.  Chapters one and two describe the scene in heaven where God twice describes Job, “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil”.  In fact, God says, “there is none like him on earth”.  So we know before the dialogue begins that the three friends are in the wrong.  Job’s afflictions are not punishments.  Job is blameless before God.

But imagine if we did not have this information.  Imagine we walked in to the story right where the dialogue starts.  On the one hand, we have three wise, older men who have an exalted view of God and are eager to defend his ways.  They are completely orthodox in their understanding, and their first priority is to protect God’s reputation.  On the other hand, you have Job, who seems to be not only suffering, but positively afflicted by God (the suddenness and completeness of his losses cannot be mere coincidence).  Job argues that he is blameless, therefore God is not being just, while the orthodox friends argue that God is just, therefore Job is not blameless.  Who is right?

Wait: before you answer, again try to strip your mind of what you know from chapters one and two.  And you may find yourself in the position of Elihu.  Elihu is a rather mysterious figure.  He shows up without introduction and his name is not mentioned again after his long speech (chapters 32-37).  His speech does not serve to advance the dialogue at all, and neither God nor Job nor the friends respond to it.  Here is what I think: Elihu is intended to function as a warning to the reader.  His viewpoint and speech (“Job, you are wrong; I know wisdom, and you are speaking folly”) are the natural conclusion we are tempted to draw simply by listening to the speeches (without the prologue).  In his speeches, he not only agrees with the orthodox friends, but is angry at them for not being able to withstand Job’s arguments. 

It is right after his speech that God Himself arrives on the scene and, incredibly, joins in the argument.  God does two things.  First, he reproves Job (chapters 38-41) for failing to understand what Kierkegaard would later call “the infinite qualitative distinction” between God and man.  Job is wrong because He simply is not in a place to understand God’s ways, and therefore is recklessly hasty in saying that God is unjust to him.  The second thing God does, then, is surprising.  He approves Job, especially in contrast to his orthodox friends.  Twice he tells the orthodox, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”.  In fact, God regards this not only as a mistake, but a sin, for which they need to offer a sacrifice and ask Job(!) to pray for them.  God seems less upset by Job yelling at Him than the friends yelling at Job on God’s behalf.

This, then, is the surprising conclusion to the dialogue: Elihu listens and takes the side of the orthodox friends and rebukes Job, while God listens and ultimately takes the side of Job and rebukes the orthodox.  And this is the heart of the book of Job: God’s ways are, in the final analysis, not able to be fully understood by man, simply because we are never in the position that He is in.  Even the most godly (like Job) and the most orthodox and cerebral (like Job’s friends) can never understand God in the same way they understand the things of this world.  In fact, God describes the words of the orthodox friends, who felt they were speaking godly wisdom, as “folly”. 

Now, here is where the rubber hits the road.  I have always taken pride in holding correct, orthodox views of God and theology.  And I still feel that the traditional, conservative, biblical viewpoint is the best way to understand the world in which we find ourselves in.  Yet, books like Job warn me to be very humble about this.  In the end, I have little doubt that my orthodox, evangelical theology will be like the fig leafs the first couple used to clothe themselves: wholly inadequate, and replaced by something else by God’s grace. 

What does this mean practically?  It means that we should be careful that our study of theology should never outstrip our understanding of “the infinite qualitative distinction”.  It means our eagerness to defend God should never come at the expense of loving people.  It means we must learn to live out our worldview fully, all the while realizing that when we see Him all of our previous “knowledge” will be fig leaves of foolishness.

Visual Outline of the Book of Job

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, they say.  With that in mind, here is a visual outline of the Book of Job. Click for larger image.

outline of the book of Job

Outline of the book of Job

2017 Calendar

March 2017

  • 7th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 9th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 10th, 7:00pm:  African Children’s Choir Concert
  • 14th, 6:30pm: Mission Team Meets
  • 21st, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 25th, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets at McDonalds
  • 27th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

April 2017

  • 4th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 7th, 6:30pm:  CareNet Banquet in Morresville
  • 7th – 8th:  Men’s Retreat
  • 11th, 6:30pm:  Mission’s Group Meeting
  • 13th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 14th, 7:00pm:  Good Friday Service at Community Congregational Church
  • 18th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 22nd, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets at McDonalds
  • 24th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

May 2017

  • 2nd, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 4th:  National Day of Prayer
  • 6th, 1:00 – 4:00pm:  Graduation Party in Sanctuary
  • 9th, 6:30pm:  Mission Team Meets
  • 11th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 16th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 27th, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets at McDonalds
  • 28th, Following Worship:  Memorial Picnic at Province Park
  • 27th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

June 2017

  • 6th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 8th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 13th, 6:30pm:  MissionTeam Meets
  • 20th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 24th, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets
  • 25th, Time TBA:  Mystery Dinner
  • 26th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

July 2017

  • 4th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 11th, 6:30pm:  Mission Team Meets
  • 13th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 18th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 22nd, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets
  • 30th, Time TBA:  5th Sunday Service & Fellowship
  • 31st: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

August 2017

  • 1st, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 6th, 6:00pm:  Community Prayer & Praise Night
  • 8th, 6:30pm:  Mission Team Meets
  • 10th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 15th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 20th, 7:00pm:  Pool Party at Franklin Pool
  • 26th, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets
  • 28th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

September 2017

  • 3rd, Following Worship:  Labor Day Picnic at Province Park
  • 5th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 12th, 6:30pm:  MissionTeam Meets
  • 14th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 19th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 23rd, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets
  • 24th, Time TBA:  Church Olympics
  • 25th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

October 2017

  • 3rd, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 10th, 6:30pm:  Mission Team Meets
  • 12th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 17th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 28th, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets
  • 29th, Time TBA:  5th Sunday Service
  • 30th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

November 2017

  • 7th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 9th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 14th, 6:30pm:  Mission Team Meets
  • 21st, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 25th, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets
  • 27th: 6:00pm: Women’s Committee Meets

December 2017

  • 5th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 12th, 6:30pm:  Mission Team Meets
  • 14th, 6:30pm:  Elder Board Meets
  • 19th, 8:00am:  Open Prayer Meeting
  • 23rd, 8:00am:  BAM Committee Meets
  • 24th, Time TBA:  Christmas Eve Service

 

The Small god of Modern Evangelicalism

Yes, the non-capitalization of the third word in the title is deliberate.  I don’t think the god I am talked about deserves to be capitalized.  For I am not talking about the God of the scriptures, but the god that is worshipped in much of modern American evangelicalism.

This god is good, but small and not very powerful.  This god is not able to use the foolish, weak and lowly things of this world to shame and nullify the wise, strong, and powerful ((see I Corinthians 1:26-31).  That is why those who lead this god’s churches must attempt to change the foolish things into things wise in the ways of this world, and must change the lowly and despised things into things this world likes and respects. 

This god and his message must be made appealing to the world, much like Mary Poppins made the medicine more palatable by a spoon full of sugar.  The sweeteners  of coolness, relevance and freshness coat the message of this god, while those doing the coating tell us it doesn’t change the fundamental recipe.  Perhaps not, but the very fact that the sweeteners are added betray a lack of faith in the inherent power of the message, and the power of the god who gives it.

It is not that the followers of this small god don’t believe the message; they just don’t believe it has much power without their help.  It’s not that they want to distort this message.  It’s just that the don’t reflect on how its distortion flows naturally from the help they give it.

This is why we see increasingly that not only do many of the leaders have a small god, but so do the people in their churches.  These are people who view god as some sort of personal life-enhancement, not the author and judge of their life. They obey his commands selectively, and feel free to ignore or re-interpret those that might cause too much change, or that conflict too fiercely with the spirit of the age.  They view his church not as something they are deeply privileged to be a part of, but something they consume like any other form of entertainment, and that had better keep the goods coming. 

This leads to the following scenario, in which I will ask the reader to see past the exaggerations and ask if it does not reflect reality somewhat.

The pastor of [insert trendy name here] Church heads into his office Monday morning.  His first action is to check the numbers: attendance, giving, google rank.  He soon begins to think of this week’s sermon and worship (or, if well organized, those of the weeks ahead).  He has 7 hours for that this week (it used to be 15, but that was before he took on more ceo type responsibilities).  How does he spend those 7 hours?  The options are basically these: exegesis, prayer, presentation, and practice.  Since his main concern (though he would never admit it) is to impress or at least interest the hearers, so that they feel good enough about the message that they continue to come (and hopefully invite friends), he ends up spending most of the seven hours on the last two.  After all, not many will notice and fewer will care if he doesn’t get the meaning of the passage exactly right.  But everyone will notice and care if he is not interesting or relevant to the felt needs of the audience. 

In similar way, the worship leader, taking his cue from the pastor, chooses songs based on the criteria of what the people will find enjoyable or “meaningful”.  Of course, he would never choose songs that are not scriptural.  But that leaves a lot of leeway.  He may try to coordinate the songs with the sermon and the other parts of the service.  But he will not spend a significant percentage of his time in prayer, nor will the focus of that prayer be seeking wisdom for how God would be pleased in the worship.

The parishioners do their job on Sunday: they attend.  They are happy that their kids enjoy the music, and that the sermon is not too long.  The church is full, and seems to have energy, which further boosts their self-esteem for having chosen to be a part of such an excellent church. The message focuses on how God can improve their marriage, and they leave glad that God wants to help them.  As one wife would say later in the week, “I just love God! He does so much for me.”

Is it even possible that the children of this church will ever view god as something more than a cosmic vending machine? 

This is the morass into which we have sunk.