Asking the right questions
I’ve come to the conclusion that the hardest thing to do as a Bible student is to ask the right question. You see, God not only tells us the answers, he tells us the questions. But we’ve all been so influenced by 2,000 years of bickering over various alleged heresies that we struggle to see beyond today’s fight to what the text actually says.
When we read about the Flood, we see the inerrancy dispute of the last 150 years rather than God’s struggle to redeem mankind. When we read the story of Deborah, we see weak men rather than strong women — and we completely miss God’s protection of his elect people.
When we read the Sermon on the Mount, we see laws so impossible to keep that we treat them as unrealistic ideals pointing us to grace — rather than God calling us into an intensely loving community that lives by kingdom principles. When we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we have somehow managed to miss the most obvious lesson: love your neighbor even if your neighbor is part of a race that hates you.
Just so, when we read Jesus’ prayer for unity of his disciples, we turn it on its head, concluding that Jesus means that only those who are already united are his disciples — thereby avoiding any need to do anything about unity. And when Paul tells the church in Corinth to give to support the saints in Jerusalem, we find a rule on how to give — ignoring the real lesson, which is: give generously to help the poor.
When we read in Acts about the saints breaking bread in one another’s homes, we want to argue about whether this meant they took communion daily — completely missing the point that they met in each other’s homes. And so, amazingly, we have elderships that oppose small groups meeting in homes exactly like the Jerusalem church did — because that’s not the command we were looking for.
We have no trouble finding in 1 Timothy 2 and 3 laws for who can be a deacon or elder, but we ignore 1 Timothy 5, which creates an order of widows and teaches us to support our impoverished elderly members. Again, that’s not the command we were looking for. And we completely overlook the fact that the only task the deacons have in the scriptures is caring for the poor.
And so, what should we find?
I have this crazy notion. I think we should read the Bible, believe it, and do what it says. Call be a “liberal” if you must, but that’s my position: Respect God’s word so much that you actually honor it. Here’s what happens when you do that.
(Gal 5:1-24) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
When the church in Galatia was being wrongly taught to be circumcised as salvation/fellowship issue, Paul responded that Christians are freed for freedom. Freedom defines our salvation. How does it work? Paul will explain.
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Circumcision had been a mark of God’s covenant going all the way back to Abraham. Seeking salvation by law damns because no one can live perfectly enough to honor all the law. The solution is grace. And if we try to find justification in lawkeeping, we surrender grace. Scary? It should be.
5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.
“Righteousness” here is God’s righteousness, that is, his faithfulness to his promise to count those with faith as righteous. If we trust God to keep his word, we have hope, and therefore circumcision doesn’t matter.
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
The fact that we are justified is shown by our faith — but it’s a faith that loves. Love, of course, requires action (remember the Parable of the Good Samaritan). But the actions that show our faith are not obedience to positive laws, such as circumcision, but acts of love — the most moral of the moral laws.
7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?
“Truth” in the New Testament refers to the gospel, the truth that is Jesus (2:5,14). “Obeying the truth” is contrasted to seeking salvation by law. Rather, the truth is salvation by grace.
13 You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.
We are freed from positive law but not from the command to love. And real love results in service. But as Paul will explain, love is no burden, because God changes us through his Spirit so that we enjoy living a life of love.
14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Manifestly, many positive commands are not summed up in “love your neighbor.” Circumcision, holy days, eating meat … lots of commands aren’t summed up by “love your neighbor.” Therefore, they aren’t really commands.
15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
Paul notes what we’ve learned by experience: when you seek to impose positive law on your brother as a condition of fellowship, you destroy each other.
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.
Because Christians possess the Spirit, they are changed so that they want to do what’s right. Nonetheless, we struggle.
18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
When we live as the Spirit prompts, we aren’t under law. When our hearts are changed by God’s own hand, we no longer want to do evil but good.
19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
“Discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” Sound like church, doesn’t it? Somehow we’ve taken God’s word, turned it on its head, and allowed our churches to be taken over by “the sinful nature.” And Paul predicts our fate.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
When our hearts are changed by the Spirit, we have true freedom because we can do what we want to do — bear these fruits. And there can be no sin in these things.
24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
The key, then, is not to go looking for arbitrary rules to honor in hopes of pleasing God. The key, Paul says, is to let our hearts be transformed by the Spirit and so live lives filled with the Spirit’s fruit.
We therefore flee “dissensions, factions,” and such like. Rather, we seek unity. We participate in God’s kingdom as community. How could we love without being in a community?
Now, all this sounds like so much liberal mishmash to many of our members. They sneer at love, arguing that love must be combined with “truth,” meaning by “truth” adherence to positive laws that show our faithfulness to God.
But the faithfulness God requires is love. But by “love” I don’t mean warm and fuzzy feelings. I mean a love such as that shown by the Good Samaritan — and by Jesus. A love that sacrifices for others. A love that serves one another.
And this, quite frankly, is much, much harder than taking communion once a week and singing without a piano. You see, our style of “obedience” aims way too low. It’s too easy. It doesn’t alleviate suffering or bring the lost to Jesus. Rather, it allows us to feel justified by our faithful obedience to commands that aren’t even in the Bible — as though God weren’t loving enough to actually tell us what he wants.
But he is. He’s just made it really, really simple, while we’ve been looking for something complicated. We enjoy being the believers who cared enough to understand God’s will better than anyone else. God would be much happier with us if we were the believers who cared enough to love better than anyone else.
Here’s the rule —
- C: For Christians, there are these commands: Believe in/be faithful to Jesus; Love God; Love your neighbor.
- E: There’s this example: Jesus’ life of compassionate love and sacrificial death. Countless scriptures tells us to serve as Jesus served and humble ourselves as Jesus did.
- NI: There are these inferences: because Christians love, they want to be in community with each other so they can encourage each other, edify each other, and hold each other accountable. Because Christians love, they serve those in need. Because Christians love, they invite others into the Kingdom to become loving servants following in the steps of their Lord and Savior. But this isn’t as hard as it seems, because God gives us a Helper in the Spirit, who bears fruit in us — if we’ll let him — that turns service and humility into freedom and joy.
As Christians live this way, they enjoy a foretaste of Paradise: loving, forgiving community with God and each other. The Story comes full circle as marriages are mended, we each become more and more like God’s Son, and so we learn to walk with God in the Garden.
That’s about it.