Friday, July 29, 2011

Underlying Motivation

We are coming to the final instruction which Jesus gave to the Twelve Apostles before sending them out on a mission to convert the Jews. Just before this, we saw how Jesus had told everyone that if they did not forsake everything in the world, even their own families and lives, then they were not worthy of Him. This final teaching is a little less controversial, but significant all the same.

Underlying Motivation
From many of Jesus' teachings, particularly some of the ones given in the Sermon on the Mount, some Christian theologians suggest that one of the biggest issues Jesus was combating was mechanical religion, or religion by the letter. That is, doing what God requires of you because God said to do it as opposed to obeying and worshiping in the spirit. What exactly doing something in “spirit” means is somewhat nebulous, but I have heard it said that it is associated with a love of good and a love of God. It is like the difference between following the rules to avoid being punished versus obeying them because you want to be good. The motivation is key, and we will take a closer look at a motivation in this study.

In Matthew 10:40-41, Jesus gives us the concept of a vicarious reception and reward; a kind of receive-a-messenger-of-Jesus,-get-Jesus-for-free program. What exactly is meant by “receive” is up for debate, but I am sure that I would rather receive a messenger of Jesus than have to give up everything I have. ;-)

Tacked on the end of this vicarious business is a rather curious verse in Matthew 10:42:
“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is My disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.” NIV
Let us skip the larger implication of this statement for a moment in favor of examining motivation. Motivation; as in why would you be giving cold water to one of these children? Because they are hot? Because they are thirsty? Because of courtesy? Because of kindness? Because of general love you feel for them? No. None of the above. Because you are a disciple of Jesus. Implicitly, because that is what Jesus would do. And if you do so, you will not lose your reward.

There we are. Right back where we started. We are doing things because God/Jesus wants you to in order to be rewarded. Just like in the Old Testament, blessings and curses are doled out based on obedience, except that you will have to wait until after you die to reap this reward.

Ordinarily, this would be a laudable sign of consistency, if it were not for the fact that a large part, if not the overwhelming majority, of modern Christianity adheres to a doctrine of grace (Ephesians 2:4-5). God's grace, as the story goes, means that your eternal reward does not hinge on your individual actions because God is granting you something which you do not deserve. There is nothing you can do to earn this reward (Romans 11:6, Ephesians 2:8-9)... unless you happen to actually pay attention to Jesus' words.

The moment you are Saved, you have an eternal reward waiting for you, but, as we see in this verse, once promised a reward is not forever promised reward, and once Saved is not forever Saved. It seems that God's grace has its limits; that, at a certain point, the works you do or do not do will assure or deny your access to the promised reward.

On a final note, you may remember from a couple of earlier studies of the mission instructions that the author of Matthew appeared to be an aggregator; someone collecting different snippets of sayings and anecdotes associated with Jesus who then pastes them together into one (hopefully) coherent story. We saw how Matthew mistakenly records Jesus telling the Twelve Apostles not to worry about what to say when they confront Gentile leaders on this Jew-only mission and how Jesus told them that He would return (as in the Second Coming) before they got done traveling throughout Israel.

Well, in Matthew 10:42 is possibly another aggregation gaff. Back at the start of this speech, Jesus had called the Twelve Apostles together to privately give them these mission instructions (Matthew 10:1). Yet in Matthew 10:42, we see Jesus say “one of these little ones,” as if they were in the presence of children, like what we see in Matthew 18:1-6. This is only a possible gaff, because it could be that there were children in the general vicinity, and Jesus just pointed or otherwise gestured to them in the distance as He made this comment. Yet with no mention of the gesture, and with two prior, and more serious, mistakes already made, odds are that this is a cut-and-paste error too.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Forsake All but One

The Twelve Apostles were sent out in their first missionary capacity prior to Jesus being crucified. Jesus prepared them for the mission with a speech including instructions, precautions, and reminders, and we are nearing the end of that speech in our studies. Recently we observed how Jesus' message would not bring peace, but rather division, even among family members, which was odd for the so-called Prince of Peace.

Forsake All but One
There were Twelve Apostles, so the story goes, but the Apostles were also known as disciples. Disciple was a title open to all, and sometimes used in this general sense in the Gospels. Disciple means student, or pupil; and in the Biblical context usually means a follower of Jesus. That is not just someone who walks behind Jesus, going where He goes, but rather a person who has learned from Scripture and from Jesus, and put that learning into practice. These Christ-following disciples would today be known as Christians. Really, really good Christians. Or would they?

In Matthew 10:37, Jesus tells us that anyone who loves their parents or their children more than they love Jesus is not worthy of Jesus. Basically, if someone held Jesus and your mom hostage and gave you the choice to kill one in exchange for the other one's freedom, you have to opt to save Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus has supposedly conquered death.

OK, so maybe that is not exactly what it means, but the point is that Jesus should take priority in you heart over anything and anyone. Those who cannot do that are not worthy of Jesus, according to the Man Himself.

Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 10:38 that anyone who will not take up his cross (metaphorically the heavy burden of following Jesus' teaching) is not worthy of Jesus. In Matthew 10:39 Jesus concludes His thought by saying anyone who “finds his life” (that is, finds a type of fulfillment in this world in this life, like The Purpose Driven Life) will loose that life, but people who loose their life for Jesus will find eternal life as a reward. In summary, Jesus is saying that you had better be ready to suffer and die for your faith to be considered worthy of Salvation, but simply being prepared is not the full meaning here...

This passage in Matthew has its parallel Luke 14:25-27, which speaks in an even stronger tone:
Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them He said: "If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple. NIV
First you will note that contrary to the Matthew 10:37-39 passage where Jesus is addressing the Twelve Apostles, here Jesus is speaking to the large crowd following Him, but the message is essentially the same. So this is not some special instruction given for the Twelve Apostles only, but rather a global message to anyone who would follow the ways of Jesus; to anyone who would like to be worthy of Salvation.

As mentioned, Luke's version is in stronger language, for sure. Now, instead of simply preferring Jesus over your own immediate family, you are required to hate your own family members, and your own life. Biblical scholars spin this as not so much “hate” of others (especially in light of the Sermon of the Mount where Jesus equated hate with murder), but instead see it as rather a very, very strong priority and preference for the ways of Jesus over all else.

Adding this up provides a clear meaning: Forsake all of the world and follow Jesus. This is not a message about becoming securely and comfortably couched in your belief that Jesus is the Savior while maintaining all other things constant. This is a message about complete submission, and leaving everything about the life you knew before you knew Jesus; everything from your job to your family.

To drive this point home, Luke's parallel continues on with a couple of parables. In Luke 14:28-33, you will find Jesus saying that deciding to be a Christ-follower is not something you do halfheartedly. Instead, you need to do some reckoning and make sure you are fully prepared to follow His ways, with the kind of serious deliberation that you would use when planning to build a tower or wage a war. Jesus closes the parables with this thought in Luke 14:33:
“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be My disciple.” NIV
Give up everything to follow Jesus. Only then will you be worthy of Salvation. Leave your garden. Leave your job. Leave your wife. Leave your kids. Obey God and spread the Word. Is such a person really a good Christian, or would you rather expect a Christian to fulfill his responsibilities and stand by his obligations?

This kind of all or nothing philosophy is only practical if the Kingdom of Heaven truly is near; if very soon after Jesus' resurrection there would be His glorious return. After all, what good could come from propagating broken homes and unemployment for 2000 years?

Thankfully, this is one teaching from which the church has deviated.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Prince of Division

As Jesus was sending the Twelve Apostles out on their first mission, He provided with them with some instructions and teaching in preparation. We are at the part of the preparatory speech where Jesus has just reminded them that they should fear God, and that God controls the death of everything.

Prince of Division
Jesus is known as the Prince of Peace, among other illustrious titles. Have you wondered why? It comes from a prophesy in Isaiah 9:1-7, where Isaiah tells us that there will be no more gloom for the distressed. God will honor the Gentiles (according to one interpretation). People in darkness have seen a great light. God has made the nation bigger, increased joy, and lifted peoples burdens. War-bloodied clothing will be burnt. A son is born who will rule and be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). His peace and government will know no end, and he will rule from David's throne in justice and righteousness forever.

If you are a Christian, you probably thought that this prophesy matched Jesus pretty well, but did you notice the verb tense? It speaks of a hope which had already dawned at the time of Isaiah's writing, and will come to fruition with a ruler on David's throne, the throne of the nation of Israel. Not exactly a match with Jesus. The last part, about the ruler's peace, government, and ruling lasting forever, that does sound like Jesus, but we should keep in mind that eternal kingship was promised to David as well, and only meant that David's descendants would rule on the throne of the nation (2 Samuel 7:8-16).

So what about the actual synonym? Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Is that a match? Well, how about we let Jesus explain it Himself in Matthew 10:34-36:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'” NIV
So Jesus tells us that He did not come here to bring peace, but rather to turn members of your own family into your enemies. Luke 12:51-53 essentially says the same thing. That is just about the opposite of what I would expect a “Prince of Peace” to do. While Isaiah paints a picture of a lineage of rulers whose peace would be ever expanding, Matthew and Luke show Jesus to create turmoil in our very homes.

Some may say that the peace which Jesus brings is a spiritual peace; a calm despite all of the afflictions and uncertainty of the world around us. To that sentiment, I ask who is at spiritual peace when his or her enemies are his or her own parents?

Others may say that this peace refers to when Jesus will come back and rule the earth for 1000 years, but that is time-limited and so it cannot be forever in agreement with the prophesy.

Still others claim that this peaceful kingship is only referring to the kingdom of the afterlife and the great peace Jesus will bring there, but this would seem to be inaccurate because Isaiah says that war-bloodied clothing will be burnt. What would war-bloodied clothing be doing in the afterlife?

Christianity has yielded a lack of peace, both on the macro-scale, with events like the Crusades, and on the micro-scale, with division lines among families drawn on dogmatic beliefs. If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, I would prefer a different kind of peace, thank you. No, Jesus, based on His own words, is the Prince of Division.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Fall of a Sparrow

We are continuing through Jesus' instructions for the Twelve Disciples on their first-ever mission to spread the Gospel to the Jews. In the previous study, we observed how Jesus told them to fear God, not man. This study picks up right were that one left off.

The Fall of a Sparrow
“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2, Shakespeare
One of the things I find fascinating about the works of Shakespeare is how they have eloquently encapsulated the Christian beliefs of an era gone by. In this quote, Hamlet is telling his good friend that God is in control of whether or not he will die that day. This type of belief still exists, but it seems to be modified in the Christian culture of our times. One of the sources of this belief, and the inspiration for Hamlet's line, is Matthew 10:29-30:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” NIV
The meaning is clear. God is in control of everything from how many hairs you have on your head to exactly when you (and every other creature on earth) will die. In Matthew 10:31, Jesus goes on to explain that the Disciples should not worry because God thinks that they are more valuable than sparrows. Luke 12:6-7 echos all of these words too.

Modern Christianity does recognize this Godly control, but the extent to which it is recognized varies greatly across denominations and churches because of its implications. If not a single sparrow dies except by the will of God, then surely not a person dies except according to God's will. That means that every death of every person is through God's will.

Every person to die from age-related degradation, trauma, electrocution, poison, accident, fire, disease, cancer, parasites, thirst, hunger, a fall, a birth defect, cold, heat stress, radiation, asphyxiation, wild animal attack, lightning, tornado, earthquake, volcano, tsunami, hurricane, or whatever the cause, that person dies by the will of God. God controls death. All death.

If you do believe, if you are a Christian, you do not have an excuse for thinking that God does not control the carnage from natural disasters or that God does not kill people through cancer, and it is your challenge to reconcile this with the concept of good.

Finally, because God does control all death, then there should be no talk of God conquering death or Jesus' victory over death. It is a hollow victory to affect what you have absolute control over.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Fear God

In preparation to send the Twelve Disciples out on their first mission, Jesus provided an interesting set of instructions for their work. We have seen how Jesus wanted them to condemn stubborn towns, how they would be given words to say to Gentile kings on this Jew-only mission, and how the “Son of Man” would come before they finished traveling to all of the towns in Israel. What wise words are next?

Fear God
Let us begin this study with a really good Bible verse, 1 John 4:18:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. NIV
The context surrounding that verse, 1 John 4:7-21, is one of the most beautiful sections of the Bible. John tells us that God is love, and if we love one another then God lives in us and His love is perfected in us. Because of that love, Christians will have no fear on Judgement Day. As the verse above attests, love drives out the fear of punishment, and the fearful do not have the full love of God. But John's version of God is very different from the God in the remainder of the Bible, and even different from the God about which Jesus preached.

When preparing His Twelve Apostles for their first mission, Jesus gave them a warning that violence and persecution would come when spreading the Gospel message (Matthew 10:21-25). Then Jesus tells them not to be afraid men who persecute them, but rather to speak the Gospel boldly (Matthew 10:26-27). In Matthew 10:28, Jesus' message of motivation takes a sobering turn:
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.” NIV
Luke 12:4-5 offers a slightly more robust version of the same saying from Jesus:
“I tell you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into Hell. Yes, I tell you, fear Him.” NIV
Diametrically opposed to the words of James, Jesus tells His Disciples that they should fear God, precisely because of the punishment which God is able to administer.

The fear of God is a fairly consistent view throughout the Bible. There are at least 130 Old Testament (OT) and 19 New Testament (NT) references to the fear of God (searching fear+God and fear+lord-God). In fact, in Genesis 31:42 and Genesis 31:53, the word “Fear” is used in place of the word for God.

Compare this to the 29 OT and 39 NT commands to love God (searching love+God and love+lord-God). That is a fear-to-love ratio of 2.19 overall, 4.48 for the OT and 0.49 for the NT. It is clear that God promotes fear over love, and that the NT is a departure from the original message.

The concept of “God is love” is farcical, because the words of 1 John 4:18 are true; there really is no fear in perfect love. Yet God's message, and Jesus' message as we see here, is based on a platform of fear, not a foundation of love.

It is a shame, too. I really liked John's version of God.