Reflecting on Trials and Tribulations

Our perception of the silence of God in the midst of tragedy can at times deafen us to any other ‘evidence’ for the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this reality in recent days. And so, for this week’s blog I have decided to provide an excerpt from chapter 3 of my book When God Doesn’t Look Like God: A Christian Confrontation with Cancer and Other Evils.

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When God Doesn’t Look Like God: A Christian Confrontation with Cancer and Other Evils

By: J. Thomas Johnson, B.A., M.Div., Rev.

The following excerpt is from chapter 3: Living amidst the Waters

Cancer once again thrust me into the shadow of the cross.  In the midst of my diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments, I cried out to a God who, in my immediate experience, did not look like God at all.  He seemed either unwilling or unable to deliver me from my circumstances, and I felt the doubt not only in His goodness, but in His existence rise up in me.  I felt for the first time in my young life a small inkling of what the witnesses of the crucifixion must have experienced—the deafening silence of a God who had at one time seemed so near, so real, and so powerful, now helpless to deliver them.

It was in those moments that Luke’s record of the faith of one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus began to challenge me in a completely new way.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”[1]

I never considered how radical the faith of this criminal had been until I found myself standing in the shadow of the cross.  How was it that he looked at that dying man on a cross and saw a king about to inherit a kingdom?  The faith of the criminal, at least in the moment in which he made his request of Jesus, was counter-intuitive.  Somehow he believed that this apparently helpless man was the Anointed One of God.  For me, this was the greatest act of faith and trust displayed in any of the Gospel narratives, and when I read that story from the perspective of an angry cancer patient, I felt ashamed.

Rather than allowing the perils of this world to reveal the truthfulness of the Gospel and my own need for God, I had permitted my vulnerability to cancer to drive me away from the truth.  To extend the metaphor, the weakness of the cross caused me to turn my face away from Jesus in disgust.  I needed a powerful God, a protector who would defend me and bless me.  I did not need or want God to join me in my suffering nor did I want Him to use my suffering.  I wanted deliverance from my fear and pain, and if God would not give me those things, I was becoming convinced that there may not be a God at all.  Moreover, even if there was a God, He certainly was not the God of the prophets and apostles.

Then, I encountered this criminal, who, like me, was facing both death and a choice of faith.  He believed when I could not believe.  When he looked at Jesus he saw something that I could not see.  I was looking for the God of the Exodus, not God on the cross.  He trusted God’s move while I trusted only my opinion of what God should do.

Somehow he knew what I could not accept, and that is that this life was never meant to be the fulfillment of my dreams.  This life has been and always will be a persistent test of human character—a furnace in which we are refined; a road which we must travel; a means and not an end. . . .

God has promised blessing and a future of inconceivable wonder, but we must persevere until the time in which God is ready to deliver on His promise.  Part of God’s promised future and our hope is that there will come a time in which we will no longer live amidst the waters.  In the final book of the canon—the book of Revelation—the appearance of the new heaven and the new earth has been described in the following way:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.[4]

The observation that the “sea was no more,” may seem at first strange until it is situated in the context of Hebrew cosmology.  The new heaven and the new earth will no longer be situated between the waters.  Our journey through the wilderness, our life of vulnerability and risk, will have come to an end.  Therefore, the hope of no sea can be followed by promises of peace and safety:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”[5]

Returning then again to the cross, the thief who placed his faith in Jesus appears to have accepted something that I, in my confrontation with cancer, had tried to avoid considering.  Unless Jesus returns in my lifetime, I will die.  It is not a matter of if; it is a matter of when and how.  For all except those who are alive at the moment Jesus returns, death is where the road which is this world terminates.  The book of Hebrews argues just this in chapter 9, verses 27-28:

And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

The prophetic and apostolic witness assures me that I will face death, whether now or later, whether by cancer or something else.  The glory of the Gospel is not that I will not die nor is it that my death will be peaceful and timely (whatever that means).  The glory of the Gospel is that death cannot hold the people of God.

The glory of the Gospel is that death cannot hold the people of God. Click To Tweet

It is the resurrection of Christ that secures the hope of those who believe.  Somehow this criminal was able to look past the cross and embrace a promise that was yet to come.  He saw the end of the road and a life out of the midst of the waters, and he both displayed faith and discovered hope.

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The full text of the book can be purchased HERE.

~ J. Thomas

[1] Luke 23:39-43.

[2] See Paul’s metaphor for the Christian life in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, and notice the way in which Paul transitions from that analogy into a discussion of the Israelites crossing both through the Sea of Reeds and through the wilderness in 10:1-5.

[3] I believe this image is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:1-14.  Paul does argue that our union with Christ in baptism has freed us from bondage to sin and death already, in this life, but even from that assertion in 6:1-4, Paul moves to the language of a future hope that transforms our present in 6:5-11.  This overlap of what is often termed “the now and the not-yet” (sometimes labeled, inaugurated eschatology) is essential to understanding the road of maturation and righteousness that the Christian embraces in baptism.  More specifically, because of Christ’s death, we are already new creatures—a transformation which brings with it new ways of life through the Holy Spirit.  But additionally, in light of Christ’s journey to death and His requirement that we follow Him, we, too, must walk the trail He has blazed in order to be remade in His image.  To say it another way, in baptism, as the apostles before us, we leave our nets at the water’s edge and follow Jesus.  In doing that we move from a path of death to a path of life, and that decision alone is a transforming one in the Holy Spirit.  However, unlike Judas, we must follow that road to its termination—we must persevere to the end—and in that walk amidst the waters we experience the process of Christian maturation and growth in Christlikeness.

[4] Revelation 21:1.

[5] Revelation 21:3-4.

Reflecting on Jesus’ Second Coming

Today is September 23, 2017. Some Christians have been saying that the theory of the rapture of the Christian Church will be proven true today. Others have been insisting that the final trumpet of the Jewish Feast of Trumpets this year will announce the return of Jesus, our Messiah, to set up a kingdom on earth that will inaugurate one thousand years of peace. A few have been suggesting that the seven year period of intense tribulation spoken of in the New Testament book of Revelation will extend from the North American solar eclipse this past August until the next eclipse that crosses the continental United States in 2024. And while many remain unsure about how or when the indicators of Jesus’ return might line up, a great many others seem indignant at any suggestion of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy in any shape or form ever.

What do I believe? I do believe that the prophecies of Christian Scripture were and are meant to be understood. So, I have no difficulty believing that the biblical phrase ‘the moon shall be turned to blood’ probably refers to a lunar eclipse. I have no difficulty believing that the phrase ‘the sun shall be covered in sackcloth’ probably refers either to a solar eclipse or to a sun-blackening event like a sandstorm. I have no difficulty believing that the phrase ‘the stars will fall from the sky’ probably refers to a meteor shower. In other words I have no difficulty believing that a great number of ‘signs’ that humanity has taken to be normal events for our planet will at some point mean much more than they have meant previously.

So, do the four blood moons on Jewish feasts, followed by a complete solar eclipse passing over the continental United States, followed by at least three devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and many Caribbean islands, followed by three major earthquakes in Mexico, together with devastating fires in the Pacific northwest and in California, combined with a security breach in which nearly half of all Americans’ sensitive personal information was compromised, together with the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the six days war in 1967 in which the Jewish people established for the first time since 135 A.D. a homeland in the ancient land of Canaan all add up to a prelude to the events which the Bible says will lead to the public coming of Jesus today? In my opinion, it is possible.

But, is it likely? Not in my view. Why not? It’s not because I believe apocalyptic literature is only meant to be an encouragement during difficult times. Quite to the contrary. I suspect that apocalyptic literature has always been intended to provide the people of God some indicators for the season in which we find ourselves.

Apocalyptic literature can help God's followers to discern their season. Click To Tweet

It’s also not because I take all biblical numbers to be metaphorical. In fact, I find it hard to discern just how metaphorical to take biblical numbers. They could be metaphorical, but, then again, they might not be metaphorical. I’m not sure I’d stake my reputation on a claim of certainty there. In fact, the numbers and apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel proved so accurate to actual recorded history, that many are convinced his prophecies had to have been written after the fact (a claim with dubious historical evidence, despite its common-sense appeal to many contemporary readers).

So, why do I think claims that September 23, 2017 is significant are dubious? Again, I don’t know, but if the biblical numbers given in the Bible’s apocalyptic prophecies are more than metaphor, I’m not sure how the significance of 2017 has been calculated. I do understand the weight some place on astronomical alignments, but I remain dubious there. Beyond those sorts of indicators, one passage seems to loom large in the multitude of conversations that have led up to the anticipation of today (September 23, 2017). It comes from the First Testament book of Daniel:

20 While I was speaking, and was praying and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the Lord my God on behalf of the holy mountain of my God— 21 while I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen before in a vision, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. 22 He came and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. 23 At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved. So consider the word and understand the vision:

24 “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city: to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. 25 Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time. 26 After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. 27 He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.”[1]

What are these seventy weeks? Many contemporary theologians have correlated Daniel’s seventy weeks with Jeremiah’s prophecy of seventy years between the exile and the return of the exiles from Babylon (see Jeremiah 29). Verse 25 of the passage above would seem to support that interpretation, correlating Daniel’s prophecy with the work of Ezra and Nehemiah in the rebuilding of the Temple and walls of Jerusalem, and culminating in the activities of the Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes (215-164 B.C.) and the resultant revolt of the Maccabees. So, that’s that…or is it?

Well, that might have been that if Jesus had not recalled Daniel’s language in his prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (an event which occurred between thirty and forty years after Jesus’ crucifixion, in A. D. 70):

14 “But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains;[2]

Jesus’ phrase ‘the desolating sacrilege’ seems to be drawn from Daniel’s prophecy years after many believe Daniel’s predictions to have been fulfilled. The destruction and rebuilding of the Temple is a recurrent theme in Jewish apocalyptic literature, and Jesus, read alongside of Revelation, seems to have reintroduced the expectation into the apocalyptic prophecies of the New Testament. So, have Daniel’s seventy weeks received new interpretive punch through Jesus? That’s very difficult to say. But, for those who think that the seventy weeks seem implicit in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourses and in the book of Revelation, there are a few prophetic options.

(1) If the seventy weeks refer to actual weeks or even to years, as seems consistent with their immediate fulfillment following the events of Daniel, then perhaps we are well past them now.

(2) If the seventy weeks refer, as many are now arguing, to Jubilee cycles—meaning that every week corresponds to fifty years—(certainly a possibility), then the seventy weeks would correspond to 3,500 years. But, 3,500 years from when?

(2a) Some have argued that the seventy weeks began at the giving of the original Torah to the Israelite people at Mount Sinai following Israel’s Exodus out of Egypt. Though critical scholars have long placed that date around 1290 B.C., the First Testament itself dates the giving of the Law to 1446 B.C. If that’s where the seventy weeks began, then the seventieth week would end in A.D. 2054 (37 years from now). If this proves accurate, then we would presently be thirteen years into the final week of Daniel’s prophecy—that is, the final Jubilee cycle—which would have begun in 2004. What do you think?

(2b) However, the context of Daniel 9 suggests that the seventy weeks began after the order to rebuild the temple was given. If we associate that with the building of Solomon’s original temple, which the First Testament suggests was in 959 B.C., then the seventy weeks would be completed in A.D. 2541. What do you think?

(2c) Another option is to begin the seventy weeks with King Cyrus’s decree that allowed the Jewish people under Ezra to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. That decree was issued, again according to the First Testament, in 536 B.C. That is most certainly the historical decree towards which Daniel’s prophecy most naturally points. If the seventy weeks began then, then they would be completed in A.D. 2964. What do you think?

(3) Perhaps a final option would relate to a day in the future when the Israeli people give an order to rebuild the Temple in modern day Jerusalem (an order which has not yet been given, to my knowledge). In that case, the seventy weeks could be understood as seventy literal weeks after that date, seventy years after that date, or even seventy Jubilee cycles after that date (3,500 years). What do you think?

No matter how one stacks the apocalyptic evidence, it is hard to imagine A. D. 2017 as a significant date biblically, lunar and solar eclipses and astronomical alignments notwithstanding. If Daniel’s seventy weeks prove to have prophetic significance beyond the time of the Maccabees, and if they prove in that context to be Jubilee cycles, then the earliest I can see the seventy weeks concluding is in A.D. 2054. However, that date is only one of a number of possibilities, depending on when one starts counting the 3,500 years they possibly prophesy.  And all of those options still depend on the veracity of the claim that some aspect of Daniel’s prophecy with respect to ‘seventy-sevens’ still remains to be fulfilled.

Jesus will make Himself known to all humanity in a real, historical arrival on earth. Click To Tweet

I do believe Jesus will make Himself known to all humans in a real, historical arrival on earth. I also believe that the apocalyptic prophecies of Scripture will prove to have delineated the season of His arrival when all is said and done. However, for those of us who long for his coming, I expect the following exchange between Jesus and His disciples should guide us as we await that momentous day:

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”[3]

The day and hour of Jesus' return has not and will not be revealed. Click To Tweet

According to Jesus, the day and hour of His return has not and will not be revealed. For Jesus, we must live always aware that today could be the day our Lord returns. The signs Jesus and the Scriptures declare—e.g., lunar and solar eclipses, earthquakes, wars, meteor showers, storms—have been occurring from the moment Jesus ascended into the heavens until today. The questions of every Christian generation have been, “Is it today?” and “Are we ready?”

With that said, we do live in a time in which one apocalyptically significant historical event has occurred which, for most of Christian history, had not occurred. The Jewish people do once again live in the promised land of Canaan in our time. Their exile amidst the nations of the earth lasted from A.D. 135 until A.D. 1967 (1,832 years). That is not an insignificant occurrence, and historically it remains a spectacularly unlikely one. This should certainly heighten the alertness of believers as it confirms in our time the Christian Scriptures’ claim that God will never ultimately forsake His promise to the people of Israel to return them to their homeland. We may not know exactly when, but certainly this reality should remind us that Jesus is coming.

What about all the devastation North America has been experiencing? As I’ve opined before, I think it is likely that North America is experiencing the discipline of God. You can read my thoughts about this HERE, or listen to a sermon I preached on it HERE.  But, is all this part of the final judgment of God on humanity? I don’t know. If it is, then things are going to get worse before they get infinitely and inestimably better. But, even if it is not, even if I am wrong about North America being under God’s discipline, the Gospel of Jesus remains the same, and the response of all who would follow Jesus remains the same. In the words of the Gospel-writer:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[4]

Repent means to turn around or to change direction. Christians always have and always will, no matter the season in which we find ourselves, searched the Christian Scriptures and turned from the attitudes and behaviors that the prophets and apostles have proclaimed to be against the intentions of God for His creation. Even more, we have turned toward Jesus and the instructions He has given us to bring the Law revealed through Israel’s prophets to fulfillment. Whatever the season, this is the good news of Jesus for all people and for all nations. We must keep awake. We must repent of our sins. We must trust in the life, teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our minds, and with all our strength. Our Lord can return at any moment. Whether He comes for us in our deaths or in the skies, are we ready?

No matter the season, we must keep awake; we must repent of our sins; we must trust Jesus. Click To Tweet
~ J. Thomas

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Da 9:20–27.

[2] NRSV, Mk 13:14.

[3] NRSV, Mk 13:32–37.

[4] NRSV, Mk 1:14–15.

Law, Freedom, and Tyranny

It would seem that our culture has been under an ever increasing pressure to legislate not only behavior but opinions and the expression thereof, as well. An ever-strengthening chorus is rising from those who would make illegal the expression of opinions that they themselves find repugnant.

Now, this is nothing new, of course. We who are Christians have been complicit in this tendency, as well. There have been many instances in world history in which our own religious communities have attempted to criminalize the expression of contrary opinions, too. Whether we use the term/phrase inquisition or fascism or totalitarian dictatorship or censorship or thought police, the scenes that arise in our imaginations are those of monolithic regimes attempting to control the thoughts and mouths of their constituents by force of law and ofttimes by violence . By including freedom of speech in the United States Bill of Rights, the framers of our own national polity sought to protect a freedom that has rarely, if ever, been afforded a populace.

There have always been words and sentiments that societies have wished to excise from public discourse. However, the attempt to do so brings with it a myriad of often unforeseen consequences for all who live under its governance. To silence even the most odious of opinions is to diminish severely the capacity of a society to encourage both the loyalty and the character of its citizenry.

To silence even the most odious of opinions is to diminish a society severely. Click To Tweet

1920s author and educator R. M. MacIver in his book The Modern State warned long ago as follows:

Why must we deny the state this right to regulate opinion, a right which it has owned almost up to our own time?. . . .Force allies itself as easily with falsehood as with truth, so that its mere invocation in support of an opinion is a blasphemy against truth. Opinion can be fought only by opinion. Only thus is it possible for truth to be revealed. Force would snatch from truth its only means of victory. Force can suppress opinion, but only by suppressing the mind which is the judge of truth. . . .When the law of the state is exercised over opinion, then it becomes sheer coercion. . . .Law therefore becomes false to itself when it would enforce belief.

Force can suppress opinion, but only by suppressing the mind. Click To Tweet

. . . .

What then is the relation of law to morality? Law cannot prescribe morality, it can prescribe only external actions, and therefore it should prescribe only those actions whose mere fulfilment [sic], from whatever motive, the state adjudges to be conducive to welfare. . . .But it shows us clearly that law does not and cannot cover all the ground of morality. To turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality. . . .To legislate against the moral codes of one’s fellows is a very grave act, requiring for its justification the most indubitable and universally admitted of social gains, for it is to steal their moral codes, to suppress their characters. Here we find the condemnation of ‘puritanic’ legislation, which claims that its own morals should be those of all, even to the point of destroying all moral spontaneity that is not their own. There are groups which, with good but narrow intentions, are always urging the state in this retrograde direction. . . .They cannot see that certain actions which they are perfectly entitled to regard as moral offences are not necessarily a proper object of political legislation. They demand censorship of the stage, of literature, and of art, assigning thereby to some executive official the power of deciding in advance what a whole people shall be permitted to read and think and witness and enjoy (MacIver, The Modern State, loc. 1941-1954, 2001).

To turn all moral obligations into legal obligations would be to destroy morality. Click To Tweet

If we, as a society, are to have any chance at finding unity within our diversity, our government must ensure that opinions are permitted to be voiced and confronted with contrary or alternative opinions. If we continue to bend to the pressure to outlaw words and opinions which offend or even disgust, I fear we will sow the seeds of our own undoing. The following words from MacIver might do more to explain the social unrest of our times than the words of any prophet at any time:

The inner sanction of morality should never be confused with that of political law. We obey the law not necessarily because we think that the law is right, but because we think it right to obey the law. Otherwise the obedience of every minority would rest on compulsion, and there would be so much friction in the state that its working would be fatally embarrassed (MacIver, loc. 1965).

Perhaps the following excerpt from a speech written for Jean Luc Picard from the Star Trek series The Next Generation might drive home our peril. For Christians, we must love our enemies by allowing them to speak against us. For those who are not Christians, you will enslave yourselves if you insist on not allowing us to speak against you. The tyranny of the state is sown when its people vote to outlaw opinions with which they do not agree. The thought police we enlist will inevitably come after us once our enemies are vanquished. Let’s learn to protect the rights both to think and to speak of those whose opinions we find repugnant. Let’s confront opinion with opinion. Once the sword is drawn, we will not be able to control how it is wielded.

The tyranny of the state is sown when its people vote to outlaw contrary opinions. Click To Tweet

~ J. Thomas

Reflecting on Repentance

In June of 2016 I preached a sermon entitled, “Fear, Faith, and Confusion.” The sermon was rooted in Judges 6:33 – 7:23. In the context of that sermon, I suggested the following:

The confusion of God that has been described in Romans 1 is settling upon us. Christian professors with terminal degrees no longer can discern the difference between the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who became flesh in the Person of Jesus and the gods of other religions. We are now seeking God’s will for us in our natures, in the desires of our flesh, and in the passions of our own hearts.  Trust in words to communicate meaning has been so eroded, that many literary critics believe that texts and stories are simply mirrors which reflect ourselves.

Many, even believers, no longer can comprehend a difference between the teachings of the Prophets of Israel and the Apostles of Jesus and our own–essentially universalizing the idea of inspiration and God-breathedness, emptying the Christian Scriptures of their authority and their uniqueness.  These confusions are not just in the world.  They have permeated Christian communities, as well.  God’s judgment has come, and it is manifesting itself in our confusion.

I have been convinced for some time that the judgment of God has been falling upon North America. For me, the spirit of confusion that seems to have descended on both secular and Christian culture alike is fairly compelling evidence for this suspicion. However, the ‘coincidental’ nature of the complete solar eclipse crossing the continental United States, terminating in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of northern Africa followed by the fires in the northwest and in California combined with the magnitude 8 earthquake in Mexico combined with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Katia, and Jose have led a number of pastors and religious leaders to associate these events with God’s judgment, as well.

So, is it reasonable to believe that God’s judgment has been falling upon North America? I think the answer is yes. Does that mean that God is sending each specific tragedy upon us? In my view, not necessarily. Some years ago I wrote a book entitled, When God Doesn’t Look Like God, and in chapter 3 of that book, I explored quite extensively the question of why God created such a dangerous world and why God has allowed us to be so vulnerable to its perils. In brief, what I have observed in that chapter is that the Christian Scriptures teach that the natural state of the universe is formlessness, chaoticness, darkness—in a word, lifeless. Life, according to the Prophets of Israel who wrote the First (or Old) Testament, is a consequence of the unnatural creative activity of God.

For the writers of Scripture, the more intimate creation’s relationship with God, the more orderly and safe creation is for God’s creatures. And, the inverse is also true: the more disconnected creation becomes from God, the more of the original chaos and lifelessness that returns. To put it more simply, when God withdraws, the forces of destruction pour into the void He leaves behind. Judgment, understood in this way, is a natural consequence of humanity’s pursuit of autonomy. My suspicion is that in response to our culture’s increasing rejection of the Christian God the One God of all creation has been quite graciously doing what our culture has been asking—God is withdrawing. And when God withdraws, life goes with Him.

When God withdraws, life goes with Him. Click To Tweet

For those of us who have remained faithful both to Jesus and to those God has chosen to speak to us on His behalf—the Prophets of Ancient Israel and the Apostles of Jesus whose teachings have been preserved for us in the Christian Bible—what is left for us to do? All that is left to us is to repent and to live submitted to God as He has been revealed to us through the Prophets of Israel, in the Person of Jesus, and through the Apostles Jesus elected to proclaim His Gospel to us.

Of what must we repent? The list is long, and it is long past time for true and sincere followers of Jesus to leave behind all that hinders along with the sin that has so easily entangled us. We must repent of our history of failing to treat all humans as beings made in the image of God and worthy of special honor, whether we’re speaking of our history of slavery, or of our justifications for racism, or of our culture’s treatment of the unborn, or of our treatment of those with mental illness, or of our treatment of those who live and behave in ways that we know to be inconsistent with God’s intention for humanity, or even of the conditions in which we place criminals or lawbreakers. Have we loved our neighbors as ourselves? Have we loved our enemies? Have we prayed for those who have persecuted us? Is it clear that we understand all human life to be life made in the image of God and worthy of special honor?

Forgive us, our Father, Who is in the heavens!

We must repent of our failure to submit ourselves to the ethics and instructions of God as they have been delivered to us by the prophets, and apostles, and by God-in-the-flesh—Jesus Himself. Though Jesus helps us to understand the spirit of the moral and ethical instructions which undergirded the first covenant God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, we must repent of our attempts to use Jesus to deny the revelation of God to Israel and the persistence of the moral and ethical revelations of God to all nations through the prophets and apostles of Israel.

Forgive us, our Father, Who is in the heavens!

In the words of Jeremiah to all Gentile nations who receive any of the blessings God poured out on His people Israel:

14 Thus says the Lord concerning all my evil neighbors who touch the heritage that I have given my people Israel to inherit: I am about to pluck them up from their land, and I will pluck up the house of Judah from among them. 15 And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land, every one of them. 16 And then, if they will diligently learn the ways of my people, to swear by my name, “As the Lord lives,” as they taught my people to swear by Baal, then they shall be built up in the midst of my people. 17 But if any nation will not listen, then I will completely uproot it and destroy it, says the Lord.[1]

We must repent of our failure to submit to God’s sexual instructions,  to God’s social instructions to defend the poor and the alien and the orphan, to God’s judicial instructions to seek and to do justice without respect to wealth or social status or citizenship or ethnicity, and to God’s relational instructions with respect to forgiveness and rage and envy and character assault.

Forgive us, our Father, Who is in the heavens!

There is so much more to mention, but it is because God’s own people called by God’s own name are turning from the fullness of what it means to follow Jesus that God’s discipline of distance is just and right to fall upon us. Might our repentance save or forestall the end of our culture? In Genesis 19 it would have taken only ten righteous people to move God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Might we pray for ten fully devoted followers of Jesus to arise in every village and town and city in our country?

Another Gentile city, the city of Nineveh, found the humility to repent in the wake of the specter of God’s judgment. We find the story in Jonah, chapter three:

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.[2]

Our God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. If these events truly are God’s discipline, then perhaps if we return to Him, God will return to us.

Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; ... so that we do not perish. Click To Tweet

Those who have ears to hear…

~ J. Thomas

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Je 12:14–17.

[2] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Jon 3:6–10.

Reflecting on Words

In quoting an article by Paul Davies in the New Scientist, Dr. John Lennox has suggested the following:

“The increasing application of the information concept to nature has prompted a curious conjecture. Normally we think of the world as composed of simple, clod-like, material particles, and information as a derived phenomenon attached to special, organized states of matter. But maybe it is the other way around: perhaps the universe is really a frolic of primal information, and material objects a complex secondary manifestation.”

. . . .

But it is no new idea. It has been around for centuries. “In the beginning was the Word… all things were made by him” wrote the apostle John, author of the fourth Gospel. The Greek for ‘Word’ is Logos, a term that was used by Stoic philosophers for the rational principle behind the universe and subsequently invested with additional meaning by Christians, who used it to describe the second person of the Trinity. The term ‘Word’ itself conveys to us notions of command, meaning, code, communication—thus information; as well as the creative power needed to realize what was specified by that information (Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 177).

What Lennox is playing around with here is the quite simple suggestion of the prophets of Ancient Israel that God created by speaking (see Genesis 1). Lennox seems fascinated by the idea that God created by adding information to the lifeless, formless, chaotic, primordial nothingness. And as new an idea as that proposed above might seem to science, Lennox is correct that it seems long to have been a foundational tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I’ve been thinking recently about the power of words. I had the privilege recently of sitting in on a corporate meeting in the context of a large, secular company. Afterwards, the manager of a local branch was explaining to me how devastating to company morale the pervasiveness of aggressive, foul, and abusive language has been to their branch. Her comments reminded me of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matt. 5:21-22, NRSV).

Jesus’ teachings flow out of the Hebraic culture of Ancient Israel, a culture that has long commented on the power of words. Not only did the prophets insist in Genesis that it was fundamentally words (information) by which God created the universe, but the power of words, even in the mouths of people, have been understood to influence reality, as well. We might recall that Noah’s words of curse upon his grandson, Canaan, were fulfilled many centuries later (see Genesis 9:25). And the blessings spoken by Jacob upon his son Judah were also fulfilled in the election of David many centuries later to the throne of Israel and more fully centuries later than that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of David and of Judah in his human lineage (see Genesis 49:9-12).

Words are powerful. Words influence reality. These very Hebraic assumptions have been suspected by many cultures in many places and in diverse times. Alchemists and those involved in witchcraft in the European past often sought for information (i.e., words, phrases, and pronunciation) that might enable them to perform miraculous manipulations of nature. This course of study has experienced a bit of resurgence in recent decades in fiction (e.g., Harry Potter) and in religion (e.g., Wicca) and even, as Dr. Lennox has observed, in mainstream science. After all, DNA is the building block of life as we know it, and DNA involves a phenomenal amount of information. In Dr. Lennox’s words:

Genomes, or rather the DNA that encodes them, are generally very large: the DNA of an E. coli bacterium is about four million letters long and would fill 1,000 pages in a book, whereas the human genome is over 3.5 billion letters long and would fill a whole library (Lennox, 137).

To return to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew, Jesus has suggested that the words we choose to speak have great effect both on our experience of reality and on reality itself. For Jesus, choosing to speak curses upon people or things has real effect, both on us and on the world around us. Interestingly, the manager I referred to earlier was experiencing the truth of that sentiment in her place of employment, as thoroughly secular a place as it might be.

For Jesus, it would seem, words are not simply an expression of an internal or external reality. Words are more powerful than that. Words actually effect our internal and external realities. Jesus even suggested to his disciples that the distinctions we might draw between murder, hate, and the speaking of curses are negligible in God’s eyes.

Perhaps it might seem as though I am over-reading Jesus. But the later teachings of Jesus’ followers make me suspect otherwise. In the epistle written by Jesus’ brother, James, we find a teaching that I think brings together the nature of reality and the effect of words into one conversation:

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3:5-10, NRSV).

The God who created with words has asked us to speak words of blessing into His good creation and to refrain from speaking words of curse. It seems to me that Jesus and James have warned us that words can be as violent as swords and as effective. I am recommitting myself, especially in these days of social media and societal unrest, to appreciating again the power of words to destroy and to create. Forgive us, Lord Jesus.

~ J. Thomas