The Way of Wisdom

Biblical wisdom literature deserves constant and prayerful reading for disciples of Christ. The Spirit gave them as tools to navigate in a good but fallen world. Often in life there is no mathematical formula for what to do. We need “wisdom” or “discernment” of what we should do. Wisdom rarely gives a specific rule. Rather Wisdom wants to make us wise for the various kinds of situations that come up. So we read “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” But in the very next verse we read “ANSWER a fool according to his folly” (cf. Pr 26.4 & 5). Which is it? The answer is, it depends! The wise person will know if the circumstances warrant a reply or ignoring. Wisdom is knowing when to say something, to know if the circumstances warrant a reply.

Form of Religion but No Power

Wisdom applies this principle to the big areas of abuse in our lives. Those are Food, Sexuality and Wine. Many Evangelical/Restoration type Christians want to make an ironclad law, “wine is sin.” No discernment. Just sin.

The position is utterly unbiblical not only in what it claims but also in its approach. Scripture never teaches, and no one in history ever imagined until the American Temperance Movement in the 19th century, that consumption of wine/alcohol was in itself sinful. No Jew and no Christian ever taught such a thing previously.

The Bible teaches “wisdom” in regard to these matters (food, sex, wine). Indeed biblical wisdom places gluttony, or over eating, in the same category as drunkenness but extremists always either deny it or ignore it. But the Sage says clearly,

Do not be among the winebibbers,
or among the GLUTTONOUS eaters of meat;
FOR the drunkard and the glutton will
come to poverty, and drowsiness
will clothe them with rags
(Proverbs 23.20-21)

Both food and wine are gifts that are abused by the unwise. They are moral equivalents here and other places.  Indeed God seems to take gluttony with utter seriousness and nuked Sodom for its excess in this matter.

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She was arrogant, OVERFED and unconcerned for the poor” (Ezekiel 16.49)

However I have never seen Evangelicals condemning 10 ounce steaks at the Outback as sin. Nor do I see them, based on Pr 23.20-21 saying that eating meat is sin. Yet gluttony and drunkenness, both examples of a lack of self-control and over indulgence, are exactly the same. They are behaviors of the unwise.

Food, Sex, Wine are all divine gifts of grace. Each one has the potential to be very harmful if abused. None is sinful. Wisdom teaches gratitude and respect for each.

I was publicly castigated for suggesting this rather plainly taught Scriptural truth. So I visited the book that most Christians forget exists, Song of Songs. Our ignoring this brilliant and beautiful Spiritual book shows itself in our leaning toward pagan ascetic attitudes. As unpopular as it may be with some, there is not the slightest hint in Scripture that wine is any more toxic than sexuality or food. It is their abuse that is condemned. Here is the biblical Wisdom Triad:

Food is Gift from God. Gluttony is abuse of gift and sin.
Sex is Gift from God. Fornication is abuse of gift and sin.
Wine is Gift from God. Drunkenness is abuse of gift and sin.

Though these are repeatedly mentioned as gifts to be thankful for some extremists embrace nearly Gnostic attitudes of asceticism which Scripture refuses to endorse. Paul explicitly condemns ascetic attitudes and directly connects it to God as Creator, 1 Timothy 4.3-5,

“through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage [= abstain from sex because it is bad and produces a faux spirituality] and demand abstinence from foods [= abstain because it produces a faux spirituality], WHICH GOD CREATED to be received with THANKSGIVING by those who believe and know the truth. For EVERYTHING created by God is GOOD, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with THANKSGIVING; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.”

Paul will have nothing to do with the Creation denying false and pagan spirituality of asceticism.  When he speaks here he is channeling the entire Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism … these are pagan notions (these have been manifest in Christian history as neo-Platonism and Gnosticism) not Hebraic ones that he condemns in 1 Timothy 4.1-5.

The Creator God Gives Divine Grace in Food, Sexuality and Wine

But these gifts of grace (Food, Sex, Wine) are held together beautifully in Scripture itself. I have two daughters. We have a gun. I have not told my girls that having a gun is a sin. It is a sort of hobby nothing else. I have not taught them to fear guns. I have not taught them that having a gun is a sin. The biblical path of wisdom on food, sex and wine is respect them it as God gave them.

So Proverbs warns about adultery. But also praises sex as God intended it. So Proverbs warns of excessive eating (gluttony). But also teaches us to be thankful for food. So Proverbs warns of drunkenness. But also teaches gratitude and proper use (see Proverbs 3.9-10; 9.1-6; 31.6-9 for grateful use of wine; see 20.1; 23.20-21; 23.29-35 on abuse of wine).

This is what we do with guns. We teach how to respect and properly use this gun. It can cause serious pain and suffering if not respected and can even kill. Guns can be extremely dangerous in the hands of a fool. Just as food, sex and wine are dangerous in the hands of a fool. Thus I have taught my girls about boys … I do not want them to live in fear of men. I pray that a godly man will come to both my girls.  But they also need to know that there are dangers in any any relationship. Be wise in that relationship.

Song of Songs & Divine Gifts of Grace

But these (Food, Sex, and Wine) are held together repeatedly. I have quipped in the past that Song of Songs is a book that most Christians pretend does not exist. Some do not even read it. Clearly the Song exerts no discernible affect on most disciples theology/doctrine. But that is why it is there! One of the greatest treasures, not the only one, of the Song is that it vaccinates God’s people from the faux pagan spiritualities of neo-platonism and neo-Gnosticism both of which major in denying the inherent goodness of Creation itself.

But Song of Songs will have none of these neo-gnostic tendencies that deny the goodness of God’s creation (bodies, sex, food, wine, etc). These are GOOD.

And Song of Songs is not shy about WINE. It embraces the goodness of wine just like it does the goodness of sexuality. And it uses food and wine to talk about sex as GIFT from God. Indeed love, food and wine go together in the Song of Songs like a horse and carriage.

Further the Song compares the intoxicating nature of love with the intoxicating nature of wine. There is not the slightest hint in Song of Songs … something that God wrote thru the Holy Spirit … there is not the slightest hint that there is something morally tainted about 1) food 2) sex 3) wine. Lets look,

1.2 “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For/because your LOVE is better than WINE

For this comparison to have any validity the wine not only has to be some pretty potent stuff but also morally desirable  other wise the metaphor does not work.

1.4 “We will exult and rejoice in you;
we will extol your love MORE than WINE

Here again this comparison is based on the potency of the wine. The JOY of love is even more intoxicating that wine.

4.10 “How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much BETTER is your love than wine”

once again this image is based on the nearly narcotic (to use a fitting metaphor) effect of wine. She is even more addictive than wine. This is how the “compliment” works.

5.1, “I come to my garden, my sister my bride;
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey
I DRINK MY WINE with my milk

Then the text uses two imperatives:

EAT, DRINK, friends and be DRUNK with love

This text in 5.1 is a direct and explicit comparison of the intoxication of wine and the intoxication of sexual love. And for the critic’s sake, note how Food, Sex and Wine all are in this verse and celebrated.

7.2 “Your navel is a rounded bowl
that never lacks mixed wine

This text is so self-evident how can we even begin to imagine that it is a NEGATIVE comment on wine or that the author thinks yayin is Kool-aid!! Now the Platonists and the neo-Gnostics hated this stuff. The Platonists allogorized it away and the Gnostics simply chunked it out of scripture.

7.9 “your kisses like the finest wine
goes down smoothly,
gliding over the lips and teeth

this is pure celebration by the Spirit guided author. Kissing is good. Kissing is enjoyable. Kissing is exciting … it even more powerful than wine. For this image to have any legitimacy the WINE has to be powerful stuff!

8.2 “I would give you spiced wine to drink,
the juice of my pomegranates

I do not think this can be misunderstood. The image utterly fails if the comparison is to “kool aid,” Dr Pepper or water. Sexual love does something to human beings that is like what sexual love does to human beings. And she not only compares it to wine but “spiced” wine. This is Good. This is Godly. This is celebration. It is Food as gift. It is Sex as gift. It is Wine as Gift!!

There are a number of other allusions to intoxications in the Song of Songs. They merit serious study and appreciation. Further the images of food, sexuality and wine mingle all thru the book under the Holy Spirit’s supervision. Each points to the GOODNESS and the GREATNESS of the divine gift.

Gifts. Gifts. Gifts. God’s Gifts

In the Bible, these (Food, Sex, Wine) are inherently good. Thus we see wine and other intoxicating drinks were used in the worship of God being poured over sacrificial offerings on the altar as drink offerings (look them up, Exodus 29:40; Leviticus 23:13; Numbers 15:5,7,10 18:12; 28:7,14; Deuteronomy 18:4; 1 Samuel 1:24; 2 Chronicles 31:5; Ezra 6:9; 7:22; Nehemiah 5:11; 10:37,39; 13:12). And the ministers were even paid with wine! The Levites received wine for themselves from the tithes given by the worshipers (Numbers 18:30).

In the Song these things (Food, Wine & Sexuality) are celebrated.
There is not the slightest hint of embarrassment.
There is not the slightest suggestion that God is displeased.
In fact it may be an insult TO God according to the Song to imply such a thing.
These are pure gift of divine grace to humanity.
Song of Songs illustrates the plain statements of other scriptures:

you give wine to gladden the human heart” (Ps 104.14)

Go, eat your bread [food = gift] with enjoyment,
drink your WINE with a merry heart [wine = gift]
FOR GOD APPROVES OF THIS …
Enjoy life with your wife whom you love [intimacy/love = gift]
(Ecclesiastes 9.7-9)

Wine is stated, explicitly, to be a REWARD or BLESSING from God for faithfulness and obedience to his covenant,

If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the LORD your God will maintain with you the covenant of love … he will love you, bless you … [with] grain, WINE …” (Deut 7.12-13; see 11.14 and 33.28 among many other places)

Conclusion: Biblical Wisdom is Gratitude and Respect

We really should read the Song of Songs more. It will liberate us from neo-platonic and neo-gnostic tendencies that attack the doctrine of creation and lead toward paganism in asceticism. The Bible teaches respect and gratitude for the gifts of grace God has given.

Food is gift to be thankful for. Gluttony is an abuse of the gift and sin.

Sex is a gift to thank God for. Fornication is an abuse of the gift and sin.

Wine is a gift of grace to rejoice and thank God for. Drunkenness is an abuse of God’s gift and sin.

Wisdom teaches gratitude for God’s gifts. Wisdom teaches respect for God’s gifts of grace. Wisdom teaches proper use of God’s gifts. Wisdom teaches us to celebrate the goodness of divine gifts and caution against abuse of them. But there is no where in biblical wisdom for asceticism. Such is a pagan notion and there is nothing spiritual about it. Rather food, sex and wine are all grace and celebrated with passion in the Song of Songs. We would have a far healthier view of our world if we heard the greatest of all Songs more. It is Holy Scripture and it is good for doctrine, righteousness and equipping the person of God for all good works and things (2 Timothy 3.15-16).

For other thoughts along these lines see my Beer & the Bible: What the Bible Really Says.

See also my series of blogs on the Song of Songs, Holy of Holies: Returning to Eden, The Song of Songs, Sexuality & Spirituality

David Letterman “Top Ten Things Your Preacher did not tell you about the Law of Moses”

#1) All three of Jesus’ scripture quotations in the desert of temptation are from the Law of Moses – Deuteronomy 8.3; 6.16 and 6.13. Must have been his favorite book of the Bible!

#2) In the “Law” the Ten Commandments are not called commandments, Moses calls them the Ten WORDS (Deut 4.13; Ex 34.28)

#3) In the “Law” the “First Word,” of the Ten Words, is not the command to have no other gods before me. The First Word is the proclamation of grace: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exo. 20.1-2; Deut 5.6). Every word that follows is a response to the proclamation of God’s salvation.

#4) The “Law of Moses”” speaks of “love” more than all the books in the New Testament, except the Gospel of John and 1 John. Moses drops the word “love” 21x in Deuteronomy. For comparison the Gospel of John has 27x; 1 John 35x. For further surprise we compare: Acts 0x; Romans 14x, and even 1 Corinthians with its chapter on love is 15x. No wonder Deuteronomy is sometimes called the “Gospel of Love.”

#5) The “Law” has three axises in Deuteronomy. A) The Great Story of God’s Salvation in the Exodus; B) The Great Command in response to the Great Story to Love God totally; C) The Great Society in which love and mercy guide and ground all social relationships.

#6) The “Law” declares that Israel is bound to God in a “covenant of love” not legalism (Deut 7.9, 12 NIV; see 2 Chronicles 6.14; etc)

#7) The “Law” teaches a “religion of love” in which the “heart” is absolutely central. Moses addresses Israel’s “heart” 25x in Deuteronomy. In fact, in response to the Great Story, Israel is to show love to God by “circumcising” their hearts. This too is by grace for Moses declares that God himself will be the Surgeon that performs the operation (Deut 10.16 & 30.6; cf. Jer 4.4 & 9.26)

#8) The “Law” explicitly declares that Israelites are neither God’s people because they earned it, deserved, or were righteous in some fashion. Moses declares Israel has no righteousness before God rather they are stiff necked and rebellious. Rather it is by God’s love and grace that Israel is God’s People (Deut 7.7-9 & 9.4-6)

#9) The “Law,” like all the Hebrew Bible and the “New Testament” sees the historical act of God in redeeming slaves from Egypt as the “Calvary moment” before Calvary. That is the Exodus is the “gospel” or “good news” of God. This good news is the greatest news ever given to humanity, it is the most astonishing thing that has ever happened prior to the Incarnation of the Word. Read Deuteronomy 4.32-39 and Psalm 136 slowly and thoughtfully till you get it. Exodus has always come before Sinai. Calvary always comes before Pentecost. Grace always comes before faith/obedience. This is the “Pattern” and it is the Great Story.

#10) In the “Law,” Moses is portrayed as a “Suffering Servant.” Three times in Deuteronomy we read that Moses is forbidden to enter into the Promised Land “because of” or “on account of” the PEOPLE! (cf. Deut 1.37f; 3.26f; 4.21f). Yes, the striking the rock thing is mentioned in Dt 32.51, but three times no rock striking is mentioned and it is because of the people that God punished Moses, a suffering prophetic servant. I am always amazed at how many people have never heard of this … another indication of how much we do NOT read the Bible Jesus did. And poor Moses who was honored by God to see the Word in blazing glory and then like a future suffering servant honored him by saying the saints in eternity will sing the Song of MOSES and the Lamb for all eternity.

There you have it. Ten Truths about the Law of Moses that preachers do not tell us.

Shalom

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the way of the LORD. (Ps 119.1)

We now come to our fourth, and final, blog in this series on a “Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament.” We set out to understand the word “blameless” which is drastically misunderstood by Protestants who view it as cipher for Jewish legalism and also by Protestant (genuine) legalists who assume the word means a person has standing before God based upon the precision of their human performance. Both of these perversions are rather common in the American Evangelical/Restorationist scene.  So to understand this concept as God’s Spirit gave it we have had to spend some time on how the Hebrew Bible came to be seen as a legalistic document because Luther and Protestant scholars superimposed their existential experiences with medieval Catholicism back upon the Judaism of Jesus’s day and the “Old Testament,” I think this is essential to understand (See The New or Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament (Part 1)). In the second blog we examined the notion of “law” and saw that in the Bible “law” is one of eight words used to describe a Story, a story of redemption, a Story of Love that has nothing to do with American conceptions of “law” (See Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament,’ Law and the Story of God’s Love (Part 2). The third blog article examined the word “blameless” within its context in Psalm 119 and the rest of the Hebrew Bible to show what the Israelites are NOT claiming, it has nothing to do with either flawless obedience or precision understanding of God’s will but points to where we are today, what modern folks might call “a relationship” (See Renewed Perspective on the ‘Old Testament’ Happy are the Blameless? (Part 3).

Happy are the Blameless

The Hebrew word tawiym, rendered “blameless” in 119.1 has a wide range of meaning.  Knowing these ranges of meaning sheds light on the word.  Tawiym means “wholeness” or “completeness” or “integrity” or “without blemish” (as for the sacrificial animals) or “fitting” and several other possible translations of the word.  In none of the possible renderings of tawiym is it an abstraction for moral perfection or doctrinal flawlessness. It is a way of life.

Psalm 119.1 significantly pairs tawiym with the words “way” and “walk.” These echo words from Israel’s foundation narrative of who they were supposed to be.  From the beginning the Lord of Mercy appeared to Abram and said, “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17.1).

To walk in the torah is not, as we have shown in our previous post, merely the commands of the Decalogue or what is termed the ceremonial requirements.  It is the entire Story of God creating and calling Israel by his Hesed, inviting them into a covenant of Hesed to be his kingdom of priests for the sake of blessing the entire creation.

Numerous saints in the Hebrew Bible are described as blameless.  Noah (Gen 6.9), Abraham (Gen 17.1), David (2 Sam 22.24), Job (12.4) and in the Middle Testament Aaron (Wisdom 18.21). When we flip to the New Testament writings we find that this “Old Testament” theme shows up for Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1.6).  The apostle Paul says that he was “blameless” in Philippians (3.6, the NIV’s translation as “legalistic righteousness” here is totally baseless and is exhibit A of the prejudice of Evangelicals.  Paul is claiming exactly what we have been talking about thru this series and what Luke claims for Elizabeth and Zechariah).  In fact all of Israel was called to be blameless before the Lord.

You [plural] must be blameless before the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 18.13).

In none of these cases for individuals or Israel as a whole is more flawlessness or doctrinal precision being claimed.  The history of these individuals and the people of God laid out in the Scriptures more than deconstructs such misguided notions.  What is being claimed is that these people are on the Lord’s side! They choose him!

Walking … Way

From the beginning of the history of the people of God, from the gracious election of the pagan Abram to their redemption by grace from the house of death in Egypt, they have been called to “walk” with God in his or the “way.” The Psalmist of 119 would have known the torah in Deuteronomy.

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but
to fear the LORD your God,
to walk in all his ways,
to love him, to serve
the LORD your God with all
your hearts and with all your soul,
and to observe the LORD’s commands
and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
(Deuteronomy 10.12-13)

Moses explicates this as “doing” two actions: circumcising our hearts and caring for the aliens (Deuteronomy 10.14-22). The “ways” of the Lord are demonstrated in his own personal integrity and faithfulness (thus the call to circumcise our hearts) and by practically caring for justice for the marginalized/powerless/aliens in our communities. This is the “way” of the Lord.

There is something of an imitatio dei to the notion of “blamelessness” … that is that we set our lives to the imitation of God. We want to be like God (he is, after all, our Father.  “Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you,” Deuteronomy 32.6)

To be blameless is to follow God with integrity.  It is the desire to be like him. It is to be in a genuine relationship with the God of Israel. When the “chips are down” we choose his side.  In the Psalter, David becomes a projected “ideal” image of blamelessness.  He is not ideal in that he is flawless in any way.  He is ideal in that the “headings” of the Psalms help the average Israelite see what God can, and will, do in them (see James Luther Mays essay in Interpretation, “The Image of David in the Psalter”). David, like our the congregation in Psalm 119.1, claims to be blameless (Ps 18.23).  David is then portrayed as pouring his heart out before the Lord in a pathos filled “confession” for his lack of faithfulness in Psalm 51, “against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (51.4).  And like Psalm 119 itself the congregation “confesses” the blessedness of the blameless and ends with nearly a “Davidic” confession, “I [we] have gone ASTRAY like a lost sheep; seek out your servant” (119.176).

Thus “blamelessness,” as Frederick J. Gaiser noted in his study of the word, is not about “a state of perfection, reached once and for all.” Rather it is a “walk” or “a way of life” that is oriented whole heartedly toward God.  It is an orientation to life.  I walk toward God rather than away from God. It is to “not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps 1.1).  It is in the final analysis the stated desire, as evidenced by our life, to live out the Shema of Deuteronomy 6.4.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might

This is why the torah is so important to the Israelites in Psalm 119.  The torah reveals the Story of GOD’S LOVE and we love him who first loved us. David is a very flawed human being by anyone’s definition.  But he is the model of what it means to be blameless before the Lord.  He is blameless because he seeks to honor God, he seeks to imitate God, he seeks God himself and he does so with integrity.  But both Samuel and the image of David in the Psalter show us that David was never morally flawless nor doctrinally precise.  He was in a relationship … he was “true” to that relationship.  That is what it means to be blameless.

God’s torah tells the story of his love, blessing and gift of shalom

The Gifts of Torah and Blamelessness

I can look back on my life with the Lord and see lots and lots of mistakes and down right error. I see flaws in my understanding of God’s word. I see dangerous notions in my conceptions of God himself. I am so thankful that in his grace the Lord has “opened my eyes to wonders” in his Story (119.18). Interestingly enough it is God’s torah/promises/word that the Israelites praise Yahweh for that has God’s own power to help us fall in love with him, to open our eyes, to even turn our hearts (to WANT) to be in that relationship with him … thus the torah not only calls us to “be” blameless it provides the divine grace for that to happen.  From Psalm 119 we learn more about what God’s torah does than what the “commands” actually are.  So the Spirit inspired Psalm 119 declares that the torah …

revives (v. 25)
strengthens (v. 28)
it is “good” (v. 39)
gives comfort (v. 50, 82)
gives life (v.40, 93, 116)
gives FREEDOM/LIBERTY (v.45, a very non-Evangelical idea)
gives shalom (v. 165) etc.

How does this relate to “blamelessness?” How do these amazing gifts of torah come to God’s people? It is in another “torah” psalm that we see how this takes place.  Psalm 19 declares that that “the law/torah of the LORD is perfect” (19.7) and moves in an “inclusio” to v.13 “THEN I shall be blameless” (which btw comes from the same Hebrew root as “perfect” in v.7).  What how the Spirit unfolds this for us.

the torah of the Lord is Perfect  (v.7)
decrees of the Lord are sure      (v.7)
precepts of the Lord are right   (v.8)
commands of the Lord are clear (v.8)
fear of the Lord is pure                 (v.9)
ordinances of the Lord are truth (v.9)

God’s torah is perfect, sure, right, clear, pure and true.  But note the contrast in verses 11-13.  Humans are not perfect, sure, right, pure and true.

by them your servant is warned       (v.11)
who can detect their hidden errors (v.12)
CLEAR ME from my hidden faults (v.12)
KEEP your servant from the insolent (v.13)

note the conclusion:

THEN I shall be blameless (v.13)

Even though “blamelessness” is not moral or doctrinal precision but the orientation of one’s relationship to God, even that is not the product of human effort. It is the GIFT of God! It is the work of God in the Israelite to make this happen.  God “cleared” the faults (even hidden errors) for the sake of the Israelite’s relationship with himself.

This is why the Israelite takes such joy and delight in God’s torah.  It protects, it teaches, it enlightens, it ENLIVENS.  All this is the magnificent grace of God that flows from his infinite hesed for his creation.

Conclusion

The torah is the Story of God’s creating and redeeming love for all he has made. To be blameless is to walk in imitation of God’s ways in a genuine, authentic relationship of integrity with the Lord.  This is result of God’s own gracious hesed as he clears us of our sins and enables us to love him.  As the Psalmist prayed “turn my heart to your decrees” (119.36).

There is a certain eschatological thrust to this blamelessness.  Paul who grew up chanting Psalm 119 clearly echoes the psalm in many places in his writings.  Even the notion that God is the one who clears us so that we can be in that genuine relationship with him.  Paul notes God has done this in the Messiah.

HE will also strengthen you to the end, SO THAT you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1.8, said to the dysfunctional Corinthian church of God)

May the God of shalom HIMSELF sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be KEPT sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5.23)

HE chose us in Messiah before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1.4)

Blamelessness is having an orientation toward the Lord that is a true representation of who we are. It is to be in an authentic relationship with the God of Jesus that expresses our wholehearted devotion to be like him … to imitate the Father in integrity and care for those the world does not. Blameless is not a claim for moral perfection before the Lord nor is it a claim that we have the doctrine of the Bible down with precision.  It means that God in his grace has, in his grace, cleared us from sin so we can walk with him.  That is why the Bible declares …

BLESSED/HAPPY are those whose way is blameless
who walk in the torah/story of the LORD”

Psalm 119: Interpreter of God’s Torah

Happy are those who way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD” (Ps 119.1, NRSV)

In our previous two posts linked here Renewed Perspectives on the Old Testament (Part 1) and Renewed Perspective on the Old Testament: Law and the Story of God’s Love (Part 2), we laid the ground work for this article and the next.  In the first we noted that since the time of the Protestant Reformation, Evangelicals have projected backwards onto the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism foreign concepts of “law,” “legalism,” “self-salvation” and the like. In the second we demonstrated how we need to reflect on the meaning of the word “law” and see that it is nothing like what Americans think of when the word “law” is heard.  The “law” is the Story of God’s Redeeming LOVE, as well as God’s gracious instruction to people already redeemed by his own mighty hand and outstretched arm. There is no “legalism” in the Hebrew Bible.

Exodus always comes before Sinai; Calvary comes before Pentecost; Grace always comes before faith; It always has and it always will.

Psalm 119, the great “law” Psalm is the great Rocky Mountain Range strategically located in the Psalter and the Hebrew Bible itself. It single handedly demolishes the Marcionite notion that Israelites were “saved” by works and they had no sense of personal relationship with the Father of Jesus. Psalm 119 challenges us on the meaning of law, to hunger for God himself, and it challenges us with the notion of “blamelessness.”

Blamelessness is grossly misunderstood by both legalists who think they are somehow saved by flawlessly obeying God’s law, and it is misunderstood by those who point to it as “proof” that Israel had a “law-works” system with God.  I think we have sufficiently destroyed both of those notions in our previous posts.

So what does it mean in the Hebrew Bible to be “blameless?” Psalm 119 will once again show the way by being a “light unto our path” (119.105).

Blamelessness is Not a Claim to Precision Understanding of God’s Will/Law

The Hebrew Bible teaches, as Paul himself quotes it, “no one is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3.10 quoting Psalm 14.1-3) and “no human will be justified in his sight by deeds of the law” (Rom 3.20 quoting Psalm 143.2). The Hebrew Bible does not teach humans are ontologically righteous in God’s sight by doing works of “law.”

But whatever, “no one is righteous means” it is not a denial of Psalm 119.1.  So we need to know what “blameless” is not in order to understand what it is. Throughout the “Old Testament,” and Psalm 119 especially it is abundantly clear that blamelessness is no claim on the part of our Spiritual forefathers and mothers to precision understanding of God’s word/law. 

As I noted in my previous post, Psalm 119 is fundamentally a prayer.  It is directed to Yahweh as Creator and Redeeming God.  There is no doubt that Israelites, in Gathered worship, confess their love for God’s torah/word/promises (remember our previous post).  But they do not anywhere confess to have mastered that word/decree/torah/promise.  Instead we find them pleading, in communal prayer, with the Lord of Grace to teach them, to give them insight, and even to turn their hearts to God’s Story of redeeming love with Israel.

Eight times in the Psalm we see the petition “teach me” and seven times we see the plea “give me understanding.” Neither the author nor the congregation of God’s People claim any precision in grasping the law but they do claim to love it.

Praise be to you, O LORD;
teach me your decrees” (v.12)

I recounted my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees” (v.26)

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees;
then I will keep them to the end” (v.33)

The earth is filled with your HESED, O LORD;
teach me your decrees” (v.64)

The same petition is found in 119.68, 124, 135 and 171.  In fact the first and last petition for God to teach is combined with praise (vv. 12 and 171), “May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees.”

The Gathered congregation asks the Lord in his HESED to grant “understanding.”  Now “understanding” in Hebrew is more akin to “insight” or “discernment”  in our language.  It is not the mastery of facts but perception of purpose like wisdom. Seven times this prayer is lifted up.

Let me understand the teaching of your precepts;
then I will meditate on your wonders” (v.27)

Your hands made me and formed me;
give me understanding to learn your commands” (v.73)

I am your servant; give me discernment
that I may understand your statutes” (v.125)

May my cry come before you, O LORD;
give me understanding according to your word” (v.169)

This same plea is found in 119.34, 104 and 144. There is nothing in Psalm 119 that remotely indicates that the author or the congregation thought they had arrived when it comes to understanding, comprehending, and mastering the torah of God with precision understanding.

Open my eyes, SO THAT I may behold
WONDEROUS things in your torah” (119.18)

The ultimate plea of our Spiritual family in the Old Testament is stated rather boldly in Psalm 119.102 is that Yahweh himself will be the personal teacher of the Israelite.  The Israelite desperately wants GOD (cf. 119.57, 135, 151).

Blameless does not mean precision or perfection of understanding of God’s torah.  Perhaps “blamelessness” has more to do with hungering for God than perfection in understanding.  It is as Jesus said, some imagine that mastery of the word is the key to eternal life.  But as the Psalmist knows, if you love the word you actually seek GOD, or as Jesus put it “come to me” (John 5.46-47).

The prayer of the Psalms not only echoes in Jesus’s words but those of the apostle Paul.  In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes to people who have heard the word, they have believed, the Gentiles have become citizens of Israel through faith and baptism.  But he prays, just like Psalm 119, “the Father of glory may give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him” (Eph 1.17) or as the New English Bible renders it, “the all-glorious Father, may give you the spiritual powers of wisdom and vision, by which there comes knowledge of him.”

Blameless is Not a Claim to Precision Obedience

There were no medieval Catholic scholastic theologians in ancient Israel mired in ritualism as a key to placating a distant angry deity.  There were no “legalists” in ancient Israel seeking to be “saved” by meticulously observing the “law” to garner praise from the Lord for their “precision obedience.”  Being blameless is not a claim to have fulfilled any of the torah of God precisely.  This was evident already in the petition for God to teach.

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees;
THEN I will keep them to the end” (v.33) “

This clearly implies that the congregation is aware that they do not keep God’s torah as he wills.  But we do not need to depend upon an inference to know that “blameless” does not equate to precision obedience in the “Old Testament” (nor the New).  We see this in how the term is used throughout the Hebrew Bible.  There are many examples but I will use one that connects with the book of Psalms.  King David is “blameless” according to 2 Samuel 22.24.  For those who imagine that “blameless” means following God’s will/law with precision and perfection, this is a difficult text.  From 2 Samuel 11 to 2 Samuel 20, called the Succession Narrative, is dominated by David’s breaking all the “Ten Commandments” with his wanton rape of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah.  In 2 Samuel 24, Israel again suffers from the arrogant sin of David when he numbers his army.  But there in between in 2 Samuel 22 we have a long song (same as Palm 18) where we read,

I was BLAMELESS before him [God],
and kept myself from guilt” (2 Sam 22.24)

If David is claiming some sort of precision obedience to God’s law here then the entire narrative of 2 Samuel reveals such to be pure folly.  But that is not the meaning of “blameless.”

Just as the congregation had no delusions to understand God’s torah perfectly and with precision, Israel in the Psalms, also knows they do not obey God’s torah with precision.  Note the confession of these Gathered worshipers.

How I HOPE that I shall be faithful
in keeping your instructions” (119.5, TEV)

Or the astonishing appeal to grace, all the more shocking when we misunderstand the word “blameless,” in Psalm 119.

I am yours; SAVE ME,
for I have sought your precepts” (119.94)

Keep my steps steady [from stumbling, BV] according to your promise,
and never let sin have dominion over me” (119.133)

I call out to you; SAVE ME
and I will keep your statutes” (119.146)

These verses reminds us of the words of the Song of Ascent following Psalm 119, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither sleep nor slumber. The LORD is your keeper …” (121.3-7)

God is the Savior.  The Israelite gets saved by God.  This is not done by some precision obedience.  Obedience follows the divine indicative and this is explicit in these texts.  But perhaps the most wonderful demonstration that “blameless” is not equated with the precision of our obedience or flawless understanding is the last verse of Psalm 119.  It forms an “inclusio” with verse 1.  Recall that verse one opens the prayer with our theme.

Happy are those whose way is blameless …

The back of the “envelope” reads

I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek out your servant,
for I do not forget your commandments” (119.176).

Here is the confession of the congregation that they have not been faithful.  They are not precisely obedient.  They have “gone astray like a lost sheep.”  They have gone astray even though they have NOT forgotten God’s will.  They just are a failure at precision obedience.  But notice their failure does NOT mean they 1) do not love God; 2) do not love his word; 3) that they are not “blameless.”

Wrapping Up

Yet they need to be “saved” by God? Precisely because they have never had perfect understanding and they have never lived out God’s torah precisely as they were expected.  They have “gone astray” but they still love God’s torah.  They need to be sought by God the Shepherd but they are, ironically, blameless!

Blameless is not equated with the quality of human precision in grasping the depth of God’s word nor is it that our obedience is the kind of precision that demands micrometers to determine.  Blameless, as has been hinted at, is best related to the Shema which explains why the word “heart” occurs so frequently in Psalm 119.  What is the direction of our heart? Sometimes like our ancestors we need to confess that we know our hearts are not as they should be but we pray that God will make them.  That is the blameless prayer of the Israelites in worship.

Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.
(Psalm 119.36-37)

Blamelessness is no claim for precision in the depth of our understanding of God’s word, nor a claim to have precisely fulfilled that word we do not quite “get.”  But perhaps “blamelessness” is a willingness, or better a hunger for Yahweh to “turn our hearts” toward him so that HE can give us life.  We will finish this series in our next blog by exploring that further in Psalm 119.

James in Tyndale’s NT

INTRODUCTION

If legalism is alive in us we should hunt it down and we should kill it! We should kill it without mercy. We should kill it ruthlessly. We should kill it without regret, for the parasite that it is. Legalism is a lie. It is a damning and damnable lie. And like some parasite that lives down in the dark feeding on the body of its host — so legalism eats and destroys Christians. And without apology and without remorse, without any looking back we ought to nail it dead as we can get it.

They came in their thousands. Then they came in their millions. They passed through the “birth” canal reception center into a conglomeration of camps known as Auschwitz. They came frightened, they came freezing, they came weak and bewildered. They came starving and in fear. As they got off the cattle cars to further abuse they noticed above the gate the words in huge letters: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI!” And it was a lie. It was a sick, satanic lie! In English it would read “WORK LIBERATES!” “WORK WILL SET YOU FREE!” And it was a lie.

It created among the people awful fear in the heart of those who were sick, and worse fear in the heart of those whose loved ones were sick. For they cared more for the people with them than they cared for themselves. And because they knew they couldn¹t work and because they knew they couldn’t survive — they were filled with utter fear and grave despair.

The strong who got of the train knew they were superior to others. The words “ARBEIT MACHT FRIE” produced that kind of bigotry and that sense of superiority. What it did then outside of the church, it will do today in the church. It’ll drive people to worry, to fear because of their weakness. And then there are those for whom ‘goodness’ seems to come easy or so it seems — they have their haughty and self-righteous attitudes that ring with condemnation for those of us who struggle. But it was a satanic lie for they ALL died! All of them!

I don’t want anything to do with legalism. Salvation begins in grace, it continues in grace, and it ends in grace! I know that and you do too. The notion that life with God is earned or given by virtue of our upright living is not only a lie — it is insane and perhaps even “stupid.” Billy Sunday, the great evangelist, used to enjoy saying, “You can get forgiveness of sins but stupid is forever!”

My suspicion is those of us that know ourselves with any degree of honesty know that to look in the mirror and then to say “salvation is yours by virtue of your moral performance or doctrinal prowess or the precision of our obedience — well we couldn’t say it — but if we did we would know it was a moment of insanity.  (I credit Jim McGuiggan with this illustration)

BUT LEGALISM IS NOT EQUAL TO HUMBLY OBEYING THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD AS THE SPIRIT ENABLES US!

THE ISSUE IN JAMES

James is writing to a group of Christians who are “orthodox” in doctrine but put very little emphasis on “living by the rules.” They place little emphasis on what a walk with Christ is to look like. It is incredibly important for us to remember that James is not writing his Letter to tell a person how to be saved before God (that is on how to become a Christian), that is not the issue at all. The issue is about the real meaning of love. Do I really love my fellow man or do a I love in word only?

I want to focus in on three main words in our text. These words are significant for understanding what James is saying. These words are often the subject of serious misunderstanding primarily because the rule of exegesis are avoided.

First, what does James mean by “work” or “deeds“?

Second, How does James use the word “faith“? and

Third, what does James mean by “Justification“?

James uses the word “work” (erga) in 2.24 to refer to charitable deeds of mercy. In the context of chapter two and the Letter itself James has discussed:

the “work” of listening (1.19-22),
the “work” of caring for widows and orphans (1.25-27),
the “work” of being fair and impartial to the poor and disenfranchised (2.1-11).
the “work” making sure fair wages are paid by the rich to the workers (5.1-6)

All of these “works” are applications of Leviticus 19.18 — loving our neighbor as yourself. James discusses the “work” of being merciful (2.12-13).  In fact the Lord’s brother calls Leviticus 19.18, “the royal law” and the “law of liberty” (2.8 & 12)

When we approach ch. 2. 14-26 we must be careful of reading conflict into James.  We must be on guard of coming to him with our own agendas. The works of justice and mercy that he has spoken of repeatedly thus far in his Letter is exactly what he means in our text. I find it interesting that if you read through the book of James you will NEVER come across the phrase “works of law!” James speaks of the “perfect law, the law of liberty,” (1.25) and the “royal law” (2.8) — in these two instances his meaning is explicitly defined as the law of love of Leviticus (2.8). We will not find James speaking of circumcision, Sabbath keeping, food laws, meat sacrificed to idols — all the things Paul discusses in Galatians and Romans.

The “works” to which James speak are not sabbath keeping, food laws, or (and listen carefully) being baptized or taking the Lord’s Supper.  We know what “works” James means by his context but we need not speculate because the Lord’s brother tells us explicitly what he means.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can such faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one one says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that faith? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2.14-17).

John speaks to the same matter when he writes “How does God’s love dwell in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 Jn 3.17).

The work we do is the work of love.  The work of love is to apply mercy to those, whoever they are, in need.  James is tapping into a teaching that spans the entire biblical story from the Exodus to the Psalms to the Prophets to the Lord Jesus. It is the Royal Law of Love.  That is the “work!” As the great prophet Micah had noted,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice
and to love HESED,
and to walk humbly with your God
(Micah 6.8)

The occasion of James is different from Romans, his subject matter is different. He does not refer to any of those matters of contention in Paul’s discussion of “justification.”  What James is speaking of is merciful deeds of love shown in a concrete manner. We should be very careful in our methodology; just because Paul uses a word in a certain manner does not mean that James is obligated to do so — and he does not. We must be better students of God¹s word or we will make it say things the Spirit never intended.

James uses the word “faith” in a manner that is not like Paul as well. Before we get to ch. 2.14-26 James helps us to understand the way he uses the word. In 1.6 he writes,

But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind

and again in 2.1

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”

James uses the word in these two places to mean “personal commitment including trust and obedience.” That is faith that is alive. In 2.14-26 James shows that these Christians are suffering from a disembodied faith. It has all the doctrinal marks of orthodoxy because the believe in the One God but there is no life commitment.

The examples that James gives of living faith (Abraham and Rahab) are folks who demonstrated their faith by trusting obedience or commitment. The critical point that James wishes to make with Abraham is that the episode in Genesis 15 was not mere orthodoxy but a vibrant trust in God that led him to place it all on the line. Rahab’s faith led her to put herself in jeopardy for God’s sake by showing active love to the spies of Israel.

Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, uses the word “faith” to refer to our trust in Jesus as our atonement in order that we may have peace with God. He sums that up in the saying “Jesus is Lord.” That for Paul is faith, faith that trusts in and leans upon Christ as our peace with a holy God. Paul and James use this word with different shades of meaning and we do not need to import Paul into James (or more commonly import James into Paul). We need to hear both writers and what the Spirit lead the to write.

The last important word I want to look at is “justified” (dikaioo). Of all the words that are misunderstood in James it is this one that causes the most trouble. The KJV, RSV, NAS, and NIV all do an injustice by rendering dikaioo as “justified” in 2.21 and 2.24. It is this word that has caused major confusion. We have come closer to understanding this word by working our way through the previous two. James is not talking about entering the Kingdom of God as Paul is in Romans. He is not speaking about becoming a Christian as Paul is. Rather James is writing about Christian ethics or to use a big fancy word he is speaking of discipleship or sanctification.

According to the critical commentaries [those based on the Greek language] dikaioo should be rendered as “declared to be just” or “righteous” in both 2.21 and 2.24. Paul who is confronted with false teachers in Romans and Galatians says we are justified (saved) by our faith in Christ. We are not saved by “works of law” [a phrase as I pointed out that never occurs in James] but by faith WITHOUT works.

But James is not dealing with what Paul was dealing with. He is dealing with people who are already saved but have grown comfortable and lazy in their Christian walk. They are not living by the rules of mercy!! They are not treating the poor as equals but showing favoritism. They are ignoring widows and orphans. They are listeners of the word but are not doers (= livers) of the word. James comes in and says that it is not authentic Christianity. It is not authentic faith in Jesus.

Authentic faith will motivate me to love in word and deed. This is the entire point of James. James is reminding his readers of a dozen texts in the Psalms and Prophets and most of all Matthew 25.  Christians are to live by the law of love and the rules of mercy. Abraham is a perfect example for James to appeal to, and when we do not misunderstand and think James is talking about becoming a child of God — his message is crystal clear. I believe K.C. Moser has some words of wisdom regarding our passage. Let me relate this quote:

Ancient Greek papyrus of James

This we can be assured of: Paul and James were writing for different purposes. Paul’s purpose was to explain the method of justification under Christ. This is the primary purpose of the Roman and Galatian Epistles. James was reproving idle brethren. Some brethren had become inactive, and James is telling them that a faith that permits one to do nothing is a dead faith. He refers to Abraham’s offering up of Isaac to show faith should act. Their references to Abraham are different. Paul referred to the time when God made the promise to Abraham that a son would be given to him. This was before Isaac was born. James refers to a time when Isaac was more than twenty years of age . . . A period of at least twenty years separates the references of Paul and James. This point is significant. Paul never mentions the offering up of Isaac when he discusses the justification of Abraham. Indeed, the offering of Isaac came many years too late to have anything to do with the justification spoken of by Paul” (The Way of Salvation, pp. 53-54).

CONCLUSION

James says exactly what Paul says, “If I am saved by the grace of God on account of Jesus Christ who died for me then my life will be dominated by living by the rules of mercy. We will do works of love — thankfully. We will not show favoritism but will make sure all women and men are treated fairly. We will in mercy take care of the orphans and widows. In mercy and love we will watch our tongue. In short if we are saved by grace we will Live by the Rules of Mercy — not to get saved but because we already are. The rule of mercy confirms our salvation. James says you can have the proper “creed” but our lives are what truly reveal what is in our heart.

Works do not produce faith. James never suggests they do. James claims that real faith, however, will produce good works of mercy to glorify our Lord and King. No, James does not buy into that satanic lie of ARBEIT MACHT FREI! Only a badly abused and distorted James teaches that “Works Liberate,” that we enter the Kingdom on the basis of our deeds. No, James believes we are saved by grace and mercy of God just as Paul taught. For like Paul, James experienced first hand the grace of Jesus! (cf. 1 Cor. 15.7).

We will close this lesson by reading our text in the Message as rendered by Peterson. I think he does an incredible job of capturing the meaning of James. I recommend you get the Message yourself:

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicated that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half starved and say, Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!’ and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup — where does that get you?

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

“I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, ‘Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.’

Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I
can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith,
fit together hand in glove.

Do I hear you professing to believe in the One and Only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?

Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham made right with God by works when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial alter? Isn¹t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are works of faith?’ The full meaning of believe’ in the Scripture sentence ‘Abraham believed God and was set right with God,’ includes action. It’s that mesh of believing and and acting that got Abraham named God’s friend.’ Is is not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works. The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape — that seamless unity of believing and doing — what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.

We have seen in my previous The New/Renewed Perspective on the “Old Testament” that the Hebrew Bible is a grace/faith document and is not a system of self-salvation through obedience to law/commandments.  This truth was recognized in the New Testament writings themselves but through the centuries, especially after the Protestant Reformation, this fundamental truth was cast aside with multiple caricatures of “law” and “Jewish legalism.”

Blame … What?

Psalm 119 begins with a declaration that disturbs those informed by traditional Protestant/Evangelical piety while it is misunderstood by those who believe it teaches believers are in a relationship with God on the basis of precision obedience (I briefly examined these two misunderstandings in the previous blog linked above).

Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD” (119.1)

The words “blameless” and “law” are lightening rod words with many.  These words are heard through centuries of polemic against all forms of works righteousness, Judaism, and the notion that “no one is righteous, no not one” (a teaching that is quoted in the NT from the Hebrew Bible btw!!).  But this begs the question of what does the Bible mean by both “blameless” and by “law” in texts like this.  Psalm 119 is not alone in these kinds of words.  In fact in other places “blamelessness” is expected (even demanded) by the biblical authors. So we read,

O LORD, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

The answer is given …

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right” (Ps 15.1-2)

Many do not realize that both Jesus and Paul, in full continuity with Moses and the Psalms, say the same thing.  Paul tells the Philippians that they as a congregation are to be “blameless and innocent” (2.15)  and to the Thessalonians he writes “that you may be blameless before our God” (1 Thess 3.13) and Jesus ups the ante by declaring “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48).

All of these (and many more) are rooted in Moses’s words in Deuteronomy 18.13 where the People of God are commanded,

you must be blameless before the LORD your God.”

Again many point to these texts in Moses and the Psalms and immediately assume this is salvation by perfectionism, precision obedience or some such heresy. But as we shall see both the word “blameless” and the word “law” is radically misunderstood.  In fact they are simply caricatured.

What is “Law?”

Perhaps one of the greatest hindrances for Prostestants/Restorationists to hear the Scriptures related to our theme is the massive amount of not only misunderstanding but outright prejudice towards the term “law.”  In most Restorationist writing the term “law” and “law of Moses” is simply a cipher for “legalism,” “Judiazer,” or “Jewish dead ritualism.”  We have inherited this from Martin Luther (see previous blog) who simply equated medieval Roman Catholicism for the religion of Israel and Second Temple Judaism.  This is a massive exegetical faux pas and has had devastating results for believers since the Reformation.

In the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible, the word traditionally rendered “law” is the word torah. Torah is not in any way, shape, fashion, or form equivalent to what most Americans consider “law.”  Torah is not like the US Constitution or the IRS Tax Code or the millions of pages of international LAW.  The English word “law” is in fact a pretty terrible translation for torah, but this is also one of the short comings of translation.  The Jewish Publication Society’s translation of Psalm 119 renders every occurrence of torah as simply “teaching.” Teaching is not a semantic equivalent to “law.”  So we need to be careful and ask what is “law” that Moses talks about and that the Psalms talk about? It is illegitimate to impose modern western ideas of “law” upon Moses, the Psalms or Paul.

In fact “commands” are not the largest literary form of the ‘Law” of Moses itself. The “Law” of Moses is Genesis through Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch. The majority of the “Law” of Moses is in fact narrative. All of Genesis, two-thirds of Exodus, and over half of Numbers is “story.”  Even in Leviticus there is narration.  Deuteronomy is in the form of three speeches but the first one recounts historical narrative. All, that is all, of the “commands” that are contained as part of the “Law” of Moses are embedded within the Story of Redemption.

This biblical fact is significant and essential for understanding what the Bible means by “torah.”  It is not only Leviticus, or the Ten Words, that are “torah.” Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy are as much “torah” … that is they are “teaching” … but a Story/Narrative is not remotely like the IRS Tax Code or the US Constitution.

These observations, easily verifiable from the text of the Pentateuch itself, are confirmed from Psalm 119 and many other places in the Bible.  Psalm 119 is a prayer, apart from three verses the entire Psalm is addressed, by individuals within the Gathering, to God.  The prayer of Psalm 119 is the plea of God hungry people to be plugged into his power for living and his gracious presence for enjoying.  That is, it begs for God to provide his power and for God to grant his presence, both according to his hesed and grace.  So when we read the term “law” in our English Bibles in 119.1 we cannot simply say “oh that is the Ten Commandments,” some “ceremonial” code, or something list of RULES that WE do.

When we read Psalm 119 we discover that the congregation, in the mouth of the individual, uses eight terms that are synonymous in meaning.  They help us understand what the Holy Spirit means by “torah” (one of the eight terms).  These terms are:

torah (25x)
‘edoth (21x)
piqqudim (21x)
huqqim (23x)
miswoth (22x)
mispatim (23x)
dabar (28x)
‘imrah (19x)

 

The last two terms, word and promises, make it especially clear that torah is not simply rules.  Note the context of 119.105, “your word {dabar} is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”  Or note well the context of 119.103, “How sweet are your words {dabar} to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  Or the “promises” …

My comfort in my suffering is this:
Your promise {‘imrah} preserves my life” (119.50)

Sustain me according to your promise, and I will live;
do not let my hopes be dashed” (119.116)

Defend my cause and redeem me;
preserve my life according to your promise” (119.154)

God’s promises are an integral part of the “LAW” of Moses. They are repeated frequently as the source of great hope and the sign of Yahweh’s infinite hesed and grace. For more on “The Promises” that Paul makes a very big deal out of in the “New Testament” see my linked blog, The Promises: The New Testament Gospel is the Old Testament Promise.  This torah that we are encouraged to walk in (119.1) is so unlike the IRS Tax Code or the usual notions of “law” as Americans conceive it, that the congregation confesses,

I will keep your torah continually,
forever and ever.
I shall walk in FREEDOM,
for I have sought your precepts …” (119.44-45, see v.32 [NIV])

The “law,” as the Psalms intend it, is the following things all rolled into the same concept.  It is the word or STORY of God’s salvation for Israel.  It story and history of God’s promises to Israel.  It is the loving teaching of God to his people.  It is the witness to God’s hesed and faithfulness to all Israel. It is the reflection of God’s glory.

In Psalm 119, and the Hebrew Bible itself, it is impossible to equate “law” with the Bible.  It did not exist.  No Israelite had a copy of the then extent “bible.”  God’s story, his teaching, his torah, his word was inculcated to the average Israelite through the Festivals (all of which told the Story of God’s salvation of Israel from Egypt and Scripture was publicly read), the Sabbath (which weekly reminded Israel that the world exists by grace and Israel exists within the world by grace), and worship in the temple (where psalms like 119, 103-107, etc were memorized). The Story, the Promises, the Instruction comes to Israel in various ways but it is all God’s.

To make a long argument short, the “torah” is the story of redeemed people walking in grace, gratitude and obedience to God.  Since the “word/torah/teachings” expend great energy in telling how Yahweh has saved Israel and promises to be with them, it is not difficult to see why such a word would be a “delight” to meditate upon.  Paul, who had prayed Psalm 119 many times in concert with God’s people, confesses (though many sweep it under the rug) “I delight in the law in my inmost self” (Rom 7.22).

The Torah of Love

Happy are those who way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD.” (119.1)

Happy are those who …
delight in the law of the LORD” (Ps 1.1-2)

In the previous section we noted that neither the psalmist nor the Hebrew Bible means by the word “torah,” rules and regulations by which human beings keep precisely in order to get saved.  There is almost no correspondence between American law codes (all of which are devoid of any STORY OF GRACE) and the torah that delights the soul in the Psalms.

There are few things in life that are as enjoyable and delightful as love. When the Bible says God’s people enjoy, or delight in, torah it is not suggesting that they love fractions and micromeasurements of mint, dill and cumin. We have already shown that torah cannot biblically be reduced to such things.  The delight, and this is so counter intuitive for so many Evangelical/Restorationists, is that “torah” is love! The Israelite delights/is happy because the “law” tells the Story of God’s never ending, infinite, new every morning LOVE for his creation. It is the story of PASSION.

No Israelite that sang the Psalms in worship could not know that Yahweh was passionately in love with her or him. Over one hundred and fifty times in the Psalter the Israelite is confronted with God’s hesed! This hesed is connected to the story of the torah (see Ps 136, 103, 104, 105-107, etc).  So the Israelite in communion with fellow worshipers delights in the “law ” because it is there God tells us how much he loves us. The greatest of all words of God’s love are those spoken to Moses after the “fall of Israel” with the Golden Calf, Exodus 34.6-7, whose central word (hesed) shows up repeatedly in Ps 119.

Let your HESED come to me, O LORD,
your salvation according to your promise” (119.41)

the earth is full of your HESED, O LORD,
teach me your statutes” (119.64)

Let your HESED become my comfort
according to your promise” (119.76)

In your HESED spare my life;
so that I may keep the decrees of your mouth” (119.88)

Deal with your servant according to your HESED,
and teach me your statutes” (119.124)

In your HESED hear my voice;
O LORD, in your justice preserve my life” (119.149)

Consider how I love your precepts;
preserve my life according to your HESED” (119.159)

Hesed is the foundation of not only the torah but the earth itself.  The Israelite prays that God enable, that God preserve,  that God instruct, that God save … all according to Yahweh’s hesed. There is nothing even remotely smacking of self salvation, keeping the law legalistically to get saved, or such.  The Torah proclaims to the Israelite that God is Love.

Conclusion: Torah Reveals Promised Love

Because the Torah is the Story of Love the Israelite loves the Torah.  “It is not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you … it was because the LORD loved you … and brought you out of the house of slavery with a mighty hand … Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains his covenant of love … (Deuteronomy 7.7-9, NIV). The torah is the promise of love!

Psalm 119 is about those who hunger and thirst for GOD.  Those who walk (and we will come back to this word) in the torah, those who delight in the torah, those who meditate on the torah are walking in God’s love, delighting in God’s love, and meditating on God’s love.  This is why they are “blessed” and why they are “happy.”

In our next we will explore the first part of Psalm 119.1.  Now that we have a better handle on “law” we can come within understanding distance of “blameless.”

Happy are the those whose way is blameless …

I hope to see you there.

Gerhard von Rad

Introductory Quote from Gerhard von Rad

““It seems paradoxical: Perhaps there was never a time when the attentiveness to the message of the Old Testament was as urgent as ours {i.e look at the Nazis!!}. The Old Testament stands as the most faithful guard to the doors of the New Testament, and it assures us that the breadth and fullness of the message of Christ … The exclusion of the Old Testament has inevitably as its consequence a distortion and curtailment of the New Testament message of Christ … There are certainly many ways into the New Testament  {wrong ones!!}. But the era seems to be past in which each could see his honor, could have found his own private way. There is only one way that leads into the holy of holies of the New Testament, and that is the way over and through the Old Testament” (“The Christian Understanding of the Old Testament,” delivered on June 13, 1944. It was a daring speech in Nazi Germany).

The Old Protetant Perspective on the Hebrew Bible

Many believe that no teaching or trend in Church history has influenced them. They assert, vociferously, that they simply read the Bible. They have never read Martin Luther, Alexander Campbell or R. L. Whiteside and will declare they “do not care what they said.” Yet this is rather naive.  Westerners are radically impacted by Galileo, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Jefferson and a host of other thinkers every day of our lives even though most have not read any of these lights of western civilization. I had a former teacher once say those very words. Then when asked about a certain position, he reached up on the shelf and pulled down a Spiritual Sword lectureship volume … he never grasped the irony (and I didn’t either for a long time).

But for good or ill, the impact of Martin Luther on Protestant attitudes toward the Bible (including the Stone-Campbell Movement) is incalculable. The very shape of the Bible held in the hands of Protestants in 2017 is from Luther (well, money making Bible societies are the ones that got rid of the Middle Testament in the 19th century though).

Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith was hammered out in conflict with medieval Roman Catholic scholastic theologians.  To make a long story short, Luther came up with a “law vs Gospel” hermeneutic. Luther retrojected his contemporary definition of “law” back onto both the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. Those medieval Roman Catholics were suddenly stand-ins not only for the Pharisees and Jews in general but Moses and the “Old Testament.”  The legalistic and ritualistic form of late medieval Catholicism was imposed effortlessly upon the Jews of Jesus’s day, the religion of works righteousness that Paul was fleeing from, and the heart of the Old Testament itself. The ritualism, heartless, legalism of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism of Jesus’s day became a “given.” That is an assumption that never warranted any investigation of the evidence.

Luther simply superimposed his own religious struggle with medieval Catholicism upon Paul, especially his writings in Galatians and Romans. Luther was fleeing a holy and wrathful God and he simply assumed that this was the case with Paul and what Jesus came to rescue us from.  Luther’s legacy in Protestantism is beyond measure.  All Protestants simply assumed Luther’s hermeneutical categories.

Immediately the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was defined as ritualistic. It became a “system” of works to save one’s self. It was LAW! Now Luther continued to value the “Old Testament.” He believed mightily in the Psalms and that the OT as a whole was the “Word of God.”  But it was essentially a foil for the message of grace and faith in the Paul.

Luther’s view is significantly different from the early Church when it comes to the “Old Testament.” Though there was plenty of “anti-semiticism” in the Church Fathers, they did not simply equate either the “Law” or the “Old Testament” as legalistic or a means to self-salvation.  For over a hundred years after the resurrection of Jesus, no one ever heard of the phrase “Old Testament” for starters (Melito of Sardis invented the term near the end of the SECOND century). For a very engaging and readable introduction to how the early Church appropriated the Hebrew Bible see Ronald Heine’s Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought.

For the Father’s, the “Old Testament” was essential for the Spiritual formation of God’s People. Irenaeus is pretty typical here.  He understood Christian existence as a narrative, the Story that we find ourselves in.  Irenaeus, and the Fathers, took Paul as their model in 1 Corinthians 10.  New Covenant Christians are part of the SAME STORY as the Israelites wandering around in the wilderness.  Thus the the Scripture that tells their story, is also the story WE are in.  So the early Church believed that to pray with Christ and in the Spirit was to pray the Psalms especially. Even though Moses was a great “lawgiver” he taught Christian discipleship (see Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Life of Moses). What became to be called “the Old Testament” was not inherently legalistic. There are parts Gentile believers are not bound to because of where we are in the Story. But the Law of Moses was not a system of legalism. It was after all the Father of Jesus that we read of there and it is the Scripture of Jesus and even “Paul.”

Luther combined the historic anti-semiticism with his antipathy toward medival Catholicism to begin a new approach to reading the “Old Testament” and thus Paul and Jesus’s debates with the Pharisees.  This was inherited and inculcated among Protestants yielding some of the most horrendous Satanic results in history.  Nazism is the ultimate offspring of this hermeneutic, a hermeneutic that has little correspondence to the Hebrew Bible itself and the reality of Jews in Jesus’s day nor of Paul himself.

Anytime you read or hear an Evangelical/Restorationist say “oh that is Jewish legalism” or “that smacks of law and self-righteousness” … the spirit of Luther is being channeled just as surely as if the person was in a seance.

The New/Renewed Perspective on the Hebrew Bible

Because of Luther, Protestantism developed nearly an antipathy for the Hebrew Bible.  In ministerial training this is seen classically in that so many ministers were required to take Greek and Latin but not Hebrew.  Seventy-six percent of the Bible is written in Hebrew and less than 24% in Greek.  But none in Latin!

The “Old Testament” continued to serve a negative function.  So preachers followed the Protestant theologians of the day by identifying the religion of Israel largely through the lens of the semi-pagan scholasticism of the medieval Roman church. The Law of Moses was the quintessence of legalism and the antithesis of “Pauline” justification by faith apart from works.

So scholars like Friedrich Schleiermacher declared that the Hebrew Bible in fact “depicted another religion” altogether [1].  This attitude I have heard many times in various shades. Rudolf Bultmann characterized the history of Israel as a “miscarriage” or a “history of failure” that provides no meaningful relevance to Christianity. This attitude also has multiple reincarnations in Restoration hermeneutics.

The result of this perspective, that posits a massive chasm of DISCONTINUITY between the Testaments, has turned Paul into a Platonic thinker and Jesus into a Stoic philosopher.  As noted the ultimate consequence of this perspective is that it has De-Jewed Jesus and  has painted Judaism as the off spring of Satan giving rise to the justification of unspeakable horror in Nazi Germany.  And though the Holocaust took place in Germany, smaller Holocausts have taken place across the board in Europe with the same justification.

Even ideas in theology have consequences in real history beloved. See my blog The Aryan Jesus, Part 2

But Luther was wrong.  Protestantism has been wrong. The early church was right!

It was within the context of Nazi Germany itself that a Lutheran scholar named Gerhard von Rad finally said we have gotten off track. What was going on in Nazi Germany was prepared for by the Protestant Old Testament hermeneutic. The words of von Rad at the head of this blog were daring words in their historical context. The problem is that over a half-century later many Evangelical/Restorationists still operate within the flawed Lutheran hermeneutic.

American scholar, G. Ernest Wright, shortly after the War, published an epic study called God Who Acts.  Though in retrospect this book too has its flaws, it had going for it that it took the Hebrew Bible itself seriously.  Rather than a “miscarriage” the Hebrew Bible is a book of “salvation history.”  The Hebrew Bible is the history of grace! Yahweh is the God who “acts” to redeem Israel.  God saves, Israel gets saved! Studying the Hebrew Bible does not take us back to medieval Catholicism rather it takes us to the dynamic faith of Jesus of Nazareth himself.  Israel’s faith is not a matter of ritual requirement rather it is a matter of CONFESSION of the acts of God on our behalf. But Wright did not stop there.  He took this perspective and said it is the that of the New Testament! So the Hebrew Bible is not just necessary background for the church but itself provides the framework of the Christian gospel itself.  And channeling the early Church, Wright argues that the “Old Testament is the bulwark of the church against paganism.”

Exodus Comes Before Sinai … Grace Comes Before Faith

When the Hebrew Bible speaks of “law” it does not speak of a means of a Jew saving herself or himself.

By grace God created the world.
By grace God called a pagan named Abram.
By grace God called a murderer named Moses
By grace God heard the cries of the children of Israel in slavery
By grace God defeated the “gods of Egypt” and delivered his people … without Israel doing a single thing
By grace God split the Red/Reed Sea and brought Israel thru … without Israel doing a thing EXCEPT complain
By grace God carried worthless slaves “on eagles’ wings” to himself
By grace God saved Israel in the Exodus before he asked them to do a single solitary thing

The Book of Exodus details the “mighty acts of God” in the salvation of Israel for 15 chapters. What did Israel do to earn her salvation? Nothing!  They were “chosen.”   Why? Because they were so worthless they were being tossed to the crocodiles.

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD  set his heart on you and chose you–for you were the fewest of all people. It was because the LORD loved you … that the LORD brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you …” (Deut 7.7ff)

What Protestants call the “Ten Commandments,” the Hebrew Bible calls the “Ten Words” (Ex 34.28; Dt 4.13)  Here in the basic summary of Israelite faith, we learn that the first word is not a command at all! Protestants and Catholics join hands in misrepresenting God’s word here.  The First Word is that of Grace …

I am YAHWEH your God, who DELIVERED YOU out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery …”

This is the First Word.  The word of love. The word of grace. The word of deliverance. The word of salvation.  I have saved you! Israel’s entire existence is a RESPONSE to the earth shattering grace of Yahweh.  It is right there in black and white.

The Exodus is the paradigmatic example of salvation and Jesus and the NT writers use it to explain redemption, grace and faith.  Especially when talking about the Cross.

Final Words

The dichotomy between “law vs gospel” invented by Luther has born progressively for toxic fruit through the centuries.   It has rendered the first 76 percent of Scripture largely useless for doctrine.  Sadly most of the time in my tribe “doctrine” means nothing more than church order and items of worship.  But “doctrine” is far more than that reductionism.  When the doctrine of God, the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of humanity, the doctrine of the people of God, the doctrine of faith, the doctrine of walking with God, etc  has been cut off not only from the “roots,” but the trunk of the tree itself, some rather strange looking leaves have formed in the Protestant era of Christianity.

Part of the renewed perspective on the Hebrew Bible is to understand it as the Fathers did.  The Whole Bible is telling a single unified Story of a God who is infinitely gracious and loving and is redeeming his creation from beginning.  We are not where Abram was in the story.  We are not where David was in the Story.  But we are in the same Story!

It is the Same God.
It is the Same Creation.
It is the Same People.
It is the Same Hope.
It is the Same Goal.

Paul himself teaches that it is a story of grace and faith from first to last.

Christians, Restorationists, will be much better off when we finally reject Luther’s Hermeneutic.  Luther was not wrong about everything.  He was wrong in his “Law vs Gospel” hermeneutic that drove a massive wedge between the New Testament and the Old Testament and divorced Jesus, Paul and the early church not simply from the ROOT but completely from the Tree of faith of Israel … that Paul himself said Gentile believers were “grafted” into.

As a Jewish friend, Rabbi Yakov Schmodel, said to me years ago in Milwaukee, “Saul of Tarsus did not have to run into Jesus to know that God is infinitely merciful, gracious and loving. If he was half the student of the Tanak he claims then he knew this reality from the day he was born as a Jew.”

In my next blog, I will explore how taking the Hebrew Bible as it is and in this “renewed perspective,” shows how the radical call to be “blameless” is not a call to saving ourselves, it is not a claim to self-righteousness.  But it is a call that God issues in BOTH Testaments and means the same thing.

God does call us to be transformed.  He calls us to be “blameless.”  Those who siphon Luther’s false equation latch onto this notion to prove the legalism of the Hebrew Bible while discarding the NT texts that speak to the same reality.  But that is for Monday.  For the moment remember this:

Exodus Comes Before Sinai.  Grace comes before Faith. It ALWAYS has. It ALWAYS will.

Suggested Reading …

Ronald M. Hals little book is simply required reading and a paradigm shift for many.  Grace and Faith in the Old Testament says more in 96 pages than most any book. This can usually be obtained used for less than 5 dollars via Amazon Marketplace (the link has it for 3 bucks!)

Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament is worth its weight in gold.

John Goldingay, Do We Need the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself.  This is a little more of a challenge than the previous two titles and I recommend beginning with them.  However this is a strong rebuttal of the Lutheran hermeneutic.

Notes:

[1] See Paul E. Capetz’s recent “Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Old Testament,” Harvard Theological Review 102/3 (2009), 297-325.

Partnering with God’s Spirit

We have turned the page of history from 2016 to 2017.  We set resolutions, goals, for ourselves because in God’s grace we have a “new beginning.”  Christians often have a stated desire to grow Spiritually and our annual new beginning is a good time to take stock to see how we are doing. So in this blog I want to recommend a few steps that will enable to partner with God’s Holy Spirit to work in our life.

I want to stress here at the beginning that these are not magical incantations.  We humans do not “cause” Spiritual growth.  Only God’s Spirit can do that.  However we can surrender to the leading of God’s Spirit in our lives and partner with the Spirit rather than resist what God is doing.  Texts that emphasize God’s Spirit and our cooperation are Galatians 5.16-26 and 2 Peter 1.3-8.

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness … For this very reason you must make every effort to support your faith with godliness … knowledge … self-control … endurance … mutual affection with love.

Christian Spirituality is a response to divine grace. It will begin and end in grace else it simply degenerates into morbid self-righteous legalism. Our walk with the Spirit is simply a growing awareness of our debt to the Creating and Redeeming God who is revealed supremely in Jesus of Nazareth.

Over the years I have noticed some effective channels we can open in our lives to partner with the Holy Spirit.  None of these are particularly revolutionary they simply are ways of removing Self so the Spirit continues to mold us into the image of God’s dear Son. I divide these paths into two groups: Textual and Praxis.

Textual Channels of the Spirit

  1. Commit to reading each of the Gospels beginning to end. Allow yourself to watch the beauty of the love of God spill onto the pages of history in the life of the Nazarene. Join the disciples in worship of Jesus, do not just read … worship.  All four Gospels are easily read in a month by reading three chapters a day. I have reading plans for all four Gospels in a month or one Gospel per month for four months.  If you would like to have one (with an accompanying Hebrew Bible lection) I will be glad to forward that to you.  Read the Gospels.  Worship the Lord.
  2. Commit to read the “Capital Books” of the Bible this year (if not the whole Bible). Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Amos, Jonah, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, James, 1 Peter, 1 John and Revelation.
  3. Memorize and Recite daily the “Jesus Creed”  and the Lord’s Prayer.  The Jesus Creed is found in Mark 12.28-31.
  4. Read 1 book about your religious heritage this year. This does three important things: a) it reminds us of our common humanity and need of divine grace and b) helps us see that God uses people just like ourselves to accomplish his mission and b) fuels gratitude on  our part. I recommend one of the following works:
    1. Doug Foster & Gary Holloway, Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ
    2. John Mark Hicks & Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James Harding
    3. For more of challenge, Leroy Garrett, The Stone-Campbell Movement
  5. Read 1 book that challenges you to look at the world through the life of another ethnic group. I recommend one of my heroes, John Perkins new memoir Dream with Me: Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win.

Praxis Channels of the Spirit

  1. Be involved, don’t just “show up,” in your local church. If there are Bible classes or small groups, commit to be in them. Commit to encourage the elders, the ministry staff, even the “janitor.”  Give visible expressions of gratitude.  Don’t recommend a book, buy a book (I have good lists).  Pray for your local church daily.  Give a gift card for Outback to the staff (including the “janitor”). Encourage Spiritual growth in all of them by telling them you see it in them.  Not all ministers are married (like myself) but for those that have wives, DO NOT PLACE UNREASONABLE EXPECTATIONS ON THE WIVES AND CHILDREN OF MINISTERS (or the husbands of female ministers too!).  Do not be a well meaning dragon in the church. The fastest way to bring change in your local church is to stop being a critic and be a positive source of energy by doing what you want to see.  Memorize Ephesians 3.14-21 as the prayer for your local gathering. The pronouns are plural and note the words of v.18 … let the Spirit etch them on your heart. So pray for your congregation, love your local church with all your heart, support your local congregation.  Amazing things will happen.
  2. Adopt a mission, even if your local congregation does not have one, as a family. Talk about this mission with your family, especially your children.  Be a constant source of prayer and assistance to this mission. Take “family collections” to send funds. Buy books/dvds/etc that the mission could use.
  3. As a family, be involved in local service projects on a regular basis. Serve in the local soup kitchen. Pass out socks to the homeless in a downtown park.
  4. Become aware of the needs of God’s family in difficult places in the world. Places like Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, and Sudan have long histories of Christianity, find out about these believers. Pray for them. Share their stories of faith. Find ways you can support them. You will be blessed greatly.
  5. Commit to pray for and with your spouse daily. Pray that your heart will grow in love for your spouse daily. Make it part of your time with the Jesus Creed daily.
  6. Finally, cultivate the habit of wonder in yourself and your family.  Take walks regularly (if not daily) and notice the beauty of the Creator. Notice flowers, butterflies, trees, grass, and birds.  Take the family to a local planetarium and notice the grandeur of what God has wrought. Wonder fuels praise and a sense of our own dependence on our loving Abba.

Nothing on the list above is particularly difficult or time consuming.  The real channel of allowing God’s Spirit to work in our transformation is simply making a priority out of what we say is important to us. I have found that cultivating these channels to be deeply enriching and productive of great family memories too. The great thing about theses is they do not simply deepen MY faith but they pass ON the faith to our children.  In them we “seek first the kingdom of God.”

May the Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face shine upon you
and give you peace” (Num 6.22f)

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling,
and to make you stand without blemish in the
presence of his glory with rejoicing,
to the only God our Savior,
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
be glory, majesty, power, and authority
before all time and now and forever.
Amen” (Jude 1.24-25)

Dear Lord help us to walk to the Rhythm of Grace and swim in the River of the Spirit.

You may find last years suggestions helpful too.  See Grow in Grace & Knowledge of the Lord: Purposeful Discipleship in 2016

 

29 Dec 2016

Top Ten Books of 2016 (of the ones I read)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bobby's World, Books, Reading

Of making many books there is no end …” (Ecclesiastes 12.12)

A brief catalog of my “Top Ten Books of 2016.” But of the books I have read in 2016 (and I’ve only bought two books since being in Colorado) these are the top ten. They are in no certain order. They reflect my penchant for theology and history. I have included Amazon links in the titles of each book.  Tolle lege.

1) Jack Levinson, Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (this is one of the most interesting books on the Spirit I have ever read).

 

2) N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (book of the year)

 

3) Matthew Richard Schlimm, This Strange and Sacred Scripture (this is a very very good book. He examines some of the more controversial aspects of the “Old Testament” and asks are we hearing it correctly. This would be required reading if I could make it)

 

4) Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (great book on James A. Garfield. I got this because of Garfield’s connection to the SCM but this is hands down a wonderful book).

 

5) Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson, Pastor TheologianThere is no conflict between being a minister and being a theologian.  Indeed without being a practicing theologian we have simply become self-help coaches.  This is a wonderful and inspiring book for ministers casting a great vision of what it means to be a minister.

6) John Goldingay, Do We the New Testament? Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself. (I had ordered this before it came off the press. There are few people that can challenge our myopic disregard for 76% of God’s Word than Goldingay. I think every preacher needs to wrestle with this book. His chapter “The Loss of First Testament Spirituality” is one of the most profound things I have read in a long time). This is, as far as content goes, the most challenging books on this list.  Goldingay does not hesitate to challenge common Evangelical and Restorationist positions on the basis of the biblical text.

 

7) Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness (I have grown up on the lingo of being “a distinct people,” but I could not have told you what that meant in the first, second and third centuries of Christianity. Hurtado has lobbed an atomic bomb into the world of early Christian studies by arguing that Christianity was hardly a hodge podge of mystery religions and other such things but was in fact the destroyer of the gods. What did it mean for these Christians to be “atheists.” An important book)

 

8) Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (winner of the National Book Award and finalist for the Pulitzer, Coates has written a profound book in the form of letters to his son but is really what I would call a memoir. Through Coates I enter into a world that I am a complete stranger and yet strangely one of the primary actors. This is both history and sage wisdom on living within an America that has race imprinted on its collective DNA)

 

9) Kevin Ott, Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey Into Joy and Healing. (Ok this book was a little unexpected for me and is hard to categorize. But when you have a book that combines C. S. Lewis with the music of U2 then you are simply required to look. And Ott does it! He takes us on a journey to discover that illusive thing called “joy” by looking at 16 works of Lewis’s and songs by U2 at the same time. I loved it! Great sermon fodder here!!)

 

10) Reggie Williams, Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. (This is a major contribution to Bonhoeffer studies. Most who know anything about Bonhoeffer know that he was at Union in NYC but many do not know that he immersed himself in the black churches of NYC during that time. Williams takes us on a brilliant tour of theology in the black churches of Harlem that Bonhoeffer was in and traces how this impacted his contribution to the confessing church in underground Germany. Two of my favorite subjects in this book, the Harlem Renaissance and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This is an important book).

 

11) And one to grow on … Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman. (This is a remarkably insightful work on women in America through the story of a comic, Wonder Woman. WW was the creation of William Moulton Marston, the man who invented the Lie Detector. Marston was a rather controversial fellow and had some character traits that probably are less than desirable. But it is interesting how he shaped the “feminist movement” through a comic! Don’t agree with everything but talk about an education. And Wonder Woman just rocks and always has.

There you have it. The best books I have read in 2016. They may make a great Christmas gift for some one

19 Dec 2016

Joy to the World: Christmas and the Psalms (Psalm 98)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Grace, Jesus, Luke, Psalms, Salvation

joy-to-the-worldA Run to the Grocery Store (A memory)

Last Christmas Eve, I went to Fry’s to get some stuff for cooking when Rachael and Talya showed up. Along with the usual Salvation Army bell ringer, there was a lady playing the flute. I recognized immediately the song. I walked by her on the way in and while going up and down the aisle, in search of an “oven bag” (what in the world is that!!), I could not help but sing the words to the music she was playing. You know it too, Isaac Watts great hymn.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King …

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy …

He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness …”

Watts classic exhortation to praise is a paraphrase of the great call to worship in Psalm 98. I was unconsciously drawn into the worship of the great King through the music of a flute at the entrance of a grocery store. The power of a Christmas gift!

Psalm 98

Psalm 98 was regarded as a “messianic psalm” in the ancient church. Ancient Christians chanted the psalm to welcome Christ as the one who is enthroned on high.

The Spiritual instincts of the early church were not far off.  Psalm 98 is an “enthronement” psalm. God is the subject of these type of psalms while in “royal” psalms the king is. The early church, following the LXX, believed this was a “Psalm of David” (in the MT the heading is simply “A Psalm”) and David was a “prophet” (Acts 2.30).

God’s Yeshuah (vv 1-3)

Gathered in worship, our ancient Spiritual mothers and fathers, are challenged to “Sing to the LORD a new song for he has done marvelous things.” The “marvelous things” are historical actions by Yahweh that bring grace to his people. In the past these refer to acts of God like the creation of the world, call of Abraham, the Exodus, and the election of David, see Psalm 136. This psalm celebrates an unspecified present, or possible future, grace.

In these first three verses the word “victory” as the NRSV renders it is used three times. God’s earth shattering grace has brought such a victory that “all the ends of the earth” are now witnesses. What many English readers do not know is that this word “victory” renders the Hebrew “yeshuah” in verses 1, 2 & 3.

Sometimes “yeshuah” is a proper name as in “Joshua” or as it is translated into NT Greek, Jesus. I much prefer the translation of “salvation” to “victory” (cf. NIV, etc). God’s “salvation” has been revealed by his own activity in history. Psalm 98.1-3 is about the proclamation of that amazing salvation by the grace of God …

Christmas declares that “salvation” has come because “Yeshuah” now has flesh and blood was born to Mary (cf. Mt 1.21). God’s salvation is testimony to his infinite “hesed” (steadfast love). This word, the heart of Exodus 34.6-7 – the revelation of the divine name – is love, mercy, grace, faithfulness, commitment and more all wrapped up into one (this will come again in Mary’s song below).

All the Earth Erupts in Praise (vv 4-6)

Isaac Watts zeros in on vv 4f in Joy to the World. Here, the assembled saints of Israel challenge not just each other but “all the earth” to worship the one true God, the God of Israel. That God has done “marvelous things” and been faithful to Israel and has brought “yeshuah” is Good News for ALL! Grace to Israel is grace to all. Now that the earth has witnessed God’s righteousness (because Israel did not deserve God’s salvation) they can worship him. His deeds reveal who he is. So “make a joyful noise to the LORD” and break out in praise to him.

And like the lady at Fry’s, the nations are called to take up the “kinor” (harp/lyre), “hasosoeroth” (trumpets”) and the “shofar” in worship of the Great King. The nations, who up to this time have been pagans, are shockingly invited to enter into the Presence of the Holy One and offer sacrifices of praise. While our English translations render the Hebrew idiom paniym as “before” it quite literally means “face.” This indicates the intimacy of worship. Bring your instruments, break out in celebration, before the FACE of God.

Such is the Good News of salvation. Truly Grace is to be celebrated in Psalm 98!

Rocks, Trees & Oceans Worship (vv 7-9)

The congregation, as a kingdom of priests, now turns to what we might call “inanimate” creation and exhorts it to also praise. This is clearly reflected in Watts’ paraphrase too. Since the dawn of creation the fate of humanity and the “physical world” has been tied together in the creational purposes of God. Adam was fashioned from Adamah. When humans rebelled against the Creator, our fate was again tied together with the earth from which we were formed. Israel knows this far better than many typical Restoration/Evangelical type believers.

So in anticipation of God’s fresh act of salvation even creation itself is exhorted to praise! Why? Because salvation for Israel means salvation for the nations AND the creation itself (Paul, like any Jew nourished on the Hebrew Bible and a frequent chanter of Ps 98, knows this well as we see in Col 1 and Rom 8).

In obedience all creation “roars” and “claps their hands” because the Creator has now saw fit to Redeem Israel. It is HIS act of grace that commands the response on the part of every thing that has been created to burst into joyous song. Watts’ understood this very well. God deserves applause on this day! Applause is a perfect act of worship in response to the Great King.

Jesus, Mary & Psalm 98

On Christmas Day, at the birth of Jesus (whatever day that was on the literal calendar, Dec 25 or Jan 6 or whatever) the Gospel of Luke tells us that angels appeared in the sky and they burst into worship because of God’s fresh act of grace, that is his “marvelous deed.” The birth of Jesus was, beloved, an amazing act of GRACE! Where Psalm 98 celebrates God’s “Yeshuah” the angels tell us in joyous praise that Yeshuah has arrived. This time in flesh!

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth shalom among those
whom he favors!

Salvation has been born (Lk 2.10-14)! It is no longer simply an Act by God but Salvation is in 3-D in flesh and blood.  Salvation is a PERSON!!

The young maiden Mary, after Elizabeth blesses the salvation that is taking on flesh in her, bursts forth into a “new song” as Psalm 98 commands. The Magnificat is saturated with “Old Testament” images, echoes and themes. Psalm 98 is among them. Mary had grown up singing Psalm 98 in worship (and all the Psalter). Those magnificent words in 98.3,

he remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.”

God action shows his grace. These words are part of Mary’s “Spiritual DNA.” So she sings in her New Song with Old Roots, in Luke 1.54 …

He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy

Psalm 98, like all the “hope of Israel” has now arrived because the God of Israel is true to his covenant of love and has acted in grace and mercy. Jesus is mercy to Israel. Jesus is God’s “Christmas” present to Israel as the miraculous incarnation of Salvation itself.

What do the Psalms have to do with Christmas?

Almost everything! The Psalms promise that God is the Creator God who is the Redeeming King. The Psalms promise that God’s “yeshuah” will be shown to his covenant people. This “yeshuah” will be witnessed by all the nations and indeed all of creation. The Psalms tell us that this “yeshuah” is grace not only for the house of Israel but to all.

And the Psalms call us to celebratory worship – even command it – because of God’s amazing act of grace. The nations have responded, the creation never ceases to praise, and the angels have added their voice. Mary joins in the chorus and extols the wonder of the God of Israel because he is the God of the whole creation.

Christmas is Good News. God’s salvation, extolled in Psalm 98, has arrived in flesh and blood. Grab a flute, lift up your voice, clap your hands, “Shout to the Lord a new song” for Jesus the Messiah is born.