Friday, March 11, 2011

We Do Not See Everything in Subjection to Mankind

In my last post, I aimed to show that a chief goal of the Bible is to expose our sinfulness and our own need of rescue--the rescue that was promised throughout the Old Testament and became a manifested reality in Jesus' incarnation--and thereby turn us in repentance to Christ. But I also want to point to the flip side of this fallen world: Yes, there is sin in me, but there's also sin in others as well. How does that point us to Christ?

Now it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, 'What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.' Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:5-9, citing Psalm

God's original design was for humanity to be stewards of the earth and co-regents over it. Nothing would be outside of man's dominion--not even tectonic plates that cause earthquakes of 8.9 on the Richter scale. But we don't see that glory and honor yet because of man's fall into sin. Now it seems like everything goes wrong. Instead of bearing God's image in "the righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Eph. 4:24), humans worldwide and historywide suffer from ignorance of God and rejection of his revelation (truth). They lack purity of love in relationships with one another and toward God (holiness). And they fail to exercise wisdom, justice, and creative power in work and government (righteousness).* As a curse on our sin, the world doesn't obey us anymore: there was an earthquake of 8.9 in Japan last night. And instead of using things to worship God and serve others, we use things and eachother to serve ourselves. With the Fall comes a really good chance we're going to get stepped on by others, and our lives will seem more often ruled by chaos and uncertainty than by order and peace.

But the author points also through the fallenness of others and of our world to the good news of Christ: "But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor." In his incarnation, Jesus became the true Man and the new Adam, the Head over God's new creation. Thus through him we are being remade in his image (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10) and the world is being transformed under his reign. So we are pointed through the Fall to our new Head, Jesus--our deliverer from the woes of this life.

*I owe these categories for "God's image" in mankind to Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Discerning the Thoughts and Intentions of the Heart

In the previous post I wanted to show from the book of Hebrews that the aim of Scripture is to "make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" by exposing our sinful condition in need of redemption and by pointing us to God's gracious provision of a Redeemer, Jesus Christ. In this post I hope to examine the first purpose a little more thoroughly.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:11-13)
In 3:7-4:10 the author (Barnabas? Apollos? Paul?) provides an exposition of Psalm 95:7-11, which was written to teach Israel not to follow the example of their forefathers who, though they had been led out of Egypt's bondage and had had good news of deliverance and restoration preached to them, nonetheless refused to trust and obey God. As a consequence that whole generation died in the desert and failed to reach the Promised Land. "So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief" (3:19). The author of Hebrews embraces the idea that God the Holy Spirit still speaks today, calling us to turn from the hardening deceitfulness of sin and to embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ "firm to the end" of our pilgrimage on this earth (3:7-15). The ultimate goal of faith is that by it we "share in Christ" and enter and enjoy rest from our works, even an ultimate "Sabbath rest" for the people of God.

But in order to hear the good news that has come to us (4:2), we must constantly know our danger. The deceitfulness of sin continually hides in the shadows, not as an external enemy, but as an enemy within--"an evil, unbelieving heart" (3:12-13). We today in the age of the Second Exodus share in the same fallen condition of those of the First Exodus. Therefore we are urged not to "fall by the same sort of disobedience" (4:11). Temptations to sin are the same today as they were 3400 years ago; they are "common to man" (1 Cor. 10:13*).

Our sobering need, then, is to allow the word of God to do the painful work of a surgeon's scalpel, piercing through our defenses and facades to our innermost places of idolatry and unbelief. As we read the Scriptures, the Scriptures read us, showing us who we really are, "naked and exposed" before the God from whom we cannot hide. The word judges "the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

How do we do this? Using Bryan Chapell's language, we must first identify the "Fallen Condition Focus," the sinful attitudes and behaviors--or general brokenness--that prompted God to speak or act in that passage. This involves identifying both personal or communal sin (wrong belief, idolatry, etc.) or brokenness of our world due to sin (death, disease, pain, injustice, etc.).

It's easy to identify behaviors that contradict God's law and nature. But the real matter is seeing through external behaviors (sins) to the heart attitudes beneath them (sin). Jesus himself taught that wrong living is the overflow of a wrong heart (Mark 7:20-23; Luke 6:43-45). The behavior is the "fruit," whereas the heart is the "root." In order to free a garden of weeds, the roots have to be removed. And because we are susceptible to "the same sort of disobedience" as Israel, we too must examine our own hearts.

So if we see in Scripture Israel trying to shore up security against Assyria by forming an alliance with Egypt (fruit), we have to recognize the root: a desire to exercise tangible control over their circumstances rather than releasing themselves to the hands of the Sovereign Lord. They not only craved control--an exercise of unbelief in their good and powerful Father--but they also were in effect usurping God's role as controller of destiny. They were setting up themselves as gods, a subtle but insidious idolatry. As we read, we need to ask: Where am I doing this same thing? Do I get mad at my kids when they don't follow my orders? Do I slam my fist and curse when yet another Virginia driver putters along in the left lane or merges onto the expressway oblivious to the presence of other cars around him? (Seriously, what is with drivers in this state?) Prohibitions against lust reveal the worship of pleasure as god and a vain quest for satisfaction apart from the living God. Fearing others' judgments and criticism may mean either too high a view of yourself or an inappropriate fear of people rather than a fear of God.

In the end, if we're reading the Bible rightly, we ought at many times to see ourselves as hopeless sinners, knowing that no behavioral regimen or list of dos and don'ts will be enough to save us and set us on the right path in life. We ought to be left craving deliverance from without--and that's exactly what the Bible does, giving us hope by revealing and proclaiming to us Jesus the Savior.

*In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 Paul uses the same idea that Israel fell in the desert because of idolatrous hearts set on evil, just as what threatens the church today. He says that the whole of Israel's history was written as examples to train the New Testament church in wise living.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Read the Bible, According to the Author of Hebrews

I've been asked to consider leading a teaching time at my church on how to read the Bible. In prepareation I started mulling over passages about God's Word itself for direction. One important passage is Hebrews 4:12, which says that "the word of God is living and active, sharter than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." I've thought about this verse many times, but I never related it to its actual context in the letter. So I went back and read chapters 1-4 of Hebrews, and the following structure emerged:

1. (1:1-7) In the past God spoke through the Law and the prophets, but "in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son." The reference to Jesus' superiority over angels is likely a nod to the Jewish notion that angels were the intermediaries through whom the Torah came to Moses. So in saying Jesus is better than the angels is saying he reveals truth more clearly than angels and that he himself is greater than the Law.

2. (2:1-4:11) The Old Testament and Israel's story is an example intended to point us to the rest and peace that come through the obedience belonging to faith--a "Sabbath-rest" for the people of God greater than of Israel in Canaan. The history and practices of Israel are meant to be shadows of greater things to come, namely, the era of the Messiah and the worship of his new covenant people. The author is explicit to say that, like Israel, "good news has come to us" (4:2)--the news of Jesus the superior head (2:5-9) and priest (2:10-17)--but it must be met with faith and obedience. The gospel is God's very voice speaking to us, and we should not harden our hearts to it (3:7-4:11).

3. (4:12-13) As a gracious warning to us, the word of God serves to discern the wrong beliefs and idolatrous, sinful heart attitudes that lead us astray from clinging to God, receiving the news of his salvation, and obediently trusting him through this life. The Scriptures serve to "leave us naked and exposed" in God's presence.

4. (4:14-16) Rather than leave us laid bare as hard-hearted and dull-eared sinners who are doomed to fail to reach God's rest, the word of rescue comes again, pointing us to Jesus, our great high priest and mediator before God, through whom we can draw near to receive grace and mercy to help us in time of need. Our redemption lies not in a behavioral program, but in a person.

In other words, the aim of the Bible as we read it is twofold: (1) The warnings and examples contained in the Law and in the narrative history of Israel and the nations are meant to expose not only their sin and fallenness, but ours as well. The author to the Hebrews is insistent that historical texts still speak today by the Holy Spirit to all who hear. So it is God's word which also points us to our own need for rescue. (2) The Rescuer and Redeemer pledged in the promises and foreshadowings of the Old Testament has come in Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. As the word expounds, he is the one who perfectly meets our needs, and we are directed to trust and follow him.

In other words, the "sacred writings" are meant to "make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:15). More on this to come.