Is Christ Unreasonable?

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Matthew 5:38-48

Last time we learned about seven steps that we should take when reading the gospel:

1) Pray

2) Ask “What Does this Reveal About the Character of God?”

3) Ask “What is the Context?”

4) Ask “How Does the Nicene Creed Shed Light On this Passage?”

5) Ask “What Action Does God Take In This Passage Toward Others?”

6) Ask “What Action Does God Call Me to Take Toward Others?”

7) Ask “What Actions Will I Take?”

But why are these steps so important? Why should we follow them? Do they actually make a difference in reading the Bible?

Let’s do an experiment to find out.

First, we’ll read Matthew 5:38-48 without these questions. Then we’ll apply the questions to the scripture passage. My hypothesis is that applying these questions will change the way we read the scripture. What do you think?

When we read this scripture without asking these questions (or asking these questions incorrectly) we often come away with a list of commands:

“Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39)

“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39)

“If anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40)

“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41)

“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42)

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)

By the time we have read this, we have become incredulous. We want to be able to do these things, but they seem impossible! After all, if we “do not resist the one who is evil” won’t we be taken advantage of? What Christ is calling us to do is unfair and unreasonable!

When pastors say, “Jesus doesn’t actually want us to do these things; he’s just proving how helpless we are without him,” we full-heartedly agree. This makes sense to us.

But if we begin by asking “what does this scripture passage say about the character of God?” the scripture begins to look very different. We are still called to follow Christ’s instructions, but these instructions become a reaction to God’s character.

Christ tells us that we are to do all of these things so that we may be sons of [our] Father who is in heaven.” What is our Father like? “He makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” When we “turn the other cheek” and “go two miles,” we are not sacrificing our well-being to earn God’s approval; we are imitating what our Father has already done and continues to do.

A Bible passage is always more than a series of do’s and don’ts. It fits inside of a context, and that context is key to showing that do’s and don’ts exist in the first place. In the case of this passage, the do’s and don’ts for human beings fit into the wider context of God’s character. It turns out that this is not primarily a passage about us at all, but instead about God.

In Matthew 5:48, for example, Jesus says, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” When we hear perfect, we think of someone who has never done wrong.  While this is true—God has never done wrong—this is not the correct meaning for “perfect” in this passage.

The actual Greek word used here is, “τέλειοι,” meaning “to reach its end” or “to be complete.” In other words, God is like a flower in full bloom—he is fully mature and cannot possibly become any more perfect.

What does this perfection look like? It looks like treating all people the same—regardless of whether they do right or wrong. Whatever God is met with, he responds to in kindness. God…

…does not resist the one who is evil.

…turns the other cheek when he is slapped on one cheek.

…lets the one who sues him for his shirt have his cloak as well.

…walks two miles with the man who forces him to walk one mile.

…gives to the one who begs from him, and does not refuse the one who would borrow from him.

…loves his enemies and prays for those who persecute him

How do we know he does this? Because Christ, himself, shows us this.

These actions all begin with God—through Jesus—and we follow these actions so that we might be children of our Father. Jesus showed us what we would be like if we were not born into sin. When he died on the cross, he showed us what it truly means to be human.

“Okay,” we think. “But I’d never be able to do that.”

If that’s the case, this scripture brings us good news. When Jesus says we are called to be perfect, he means that it is time to start growing up. We do not have to act like children forever. When we slap people who slap us, when we turn away from the people who beg of us, when we slander our enemies, we are being childish. God is calling us to grow up in this passage.

When Christ died on the cross, he did not only forgive us; he gave us the grace to help us grow up fully and become like him.

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How Should I Read the Bible?

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If we try to read the Bible in the same way that we read any other book, we will quickly become overwhelmed. After all, the Bible does not run from beginning to end. It starts, restarts, and goes sideways. Sometimes it even seems to contradict itself! Despite our confusion, many of us know that we should be reading the Bible more. Others of us are drawn to the Bible out of a genuine curiosity. This being the case, how can we read the Bible without being overwhelmed by it?

Perhaps we could try reading the Bible in the same way that the church has read it for most of church history; a way of reading the Bible that developed long before bible colleges or seminaries were ever built:

1) Pray: The Bible is the living word of God. Through the Bible, God speaks to us. If we think we can pick up the Bible, read it, and completely understand it without praying, we are being prideful. By praying, we show God that we need him to explain his word to us—and if there’s one thing the modern abundance in heresy has revealed, it’s that we are completely incapable of reading scripture without him.

2) Ask “What Does this Reveal About the Character of God?”: Do we think that the Bible primarily directs us to the actions we should take? Do we think its purpose is to warn us of the consequences of those actions? If so, we will be confused when we read the Bible.

3) Ask “What is the Context?”: While this question may intimidate any Christian who has never gone to seminary, it is actually quite simple. This question asks:

Who is speaking?

Whom are they speaking to?

Where are they speaking?

What happened before this scripture? What happened after?

Are there any other scriptures related to this scripture?

Even if we haven’t finished reading through the entire Bible—or if we don’t know our Hittites from our Hivites—we can still answer this question. The scripture passage, itself, will answer the first three questions. As we continue to read the Bible, we can build up a repertoire of scripture by which we can answer the last two questions.

4) Ask “How Does the Nicene Creed Shed Light On This Passage?”: Unfortunately, the word “creed” has been known to cause tension in the Christian community. Some of us fear that creeds and liturgies may take the life out of worship or cripple spiritual growth.

“God didn’t give people the creed; he gave them the scripture,” we may argue. “The creed was created by human beings!”

But by saying this, we overlook that every word in the creed was carefully chosen by the council of Nicaea. And the council of Nicaea were not merely respected by their own community. Almost every member of this council had been persecuted for their faith long before Christianity had been promoted by Constantine. These Christians were so invested in their faith that they had sacrificed their well-being to protect it. Therefore, every phrase—every word—in the Nicene Creed carefully correlates to dozens of scriptural sources. This is why the Nicene Creed is the profession of faith that has been believed by Christians in every country at every point in time.

If we wished to be crude, we might say that the Nicene Creed is like the SparkNotes version of the Bible.

Everything you need to know about the Bible—all the main themes, the important characters, the key facts—are included in the Nicene Creed. The creed, then, acts as a summary of the Bible. Through this summary, we are able to view the Bible as a whole—not only as a collection of small parts. This is what makes the Nicene Creed essential to reading scripture: the creed compares the narrow focus of the particular scripture passage we are reading to the overall Bible, allowing us to forgo our own biases and assumptions in favor of the Biblical truth.

In other words, the Nicene Creed allows us to see both the forest and the trees.

5) Ask “What Action Does God Take In This Passage Toward Others?”: Although this question appears to be the most self-evident, it is often actually the most difficult to answer. This is because this question doesn’t ask what we think God should have done, what we think he did, or what we assumed he did—it asks what God actually did.

We must read each passage carefully, paying special attention to the verbs. Whenever I read through the Bible, I highlight what God says and does. By doing this, I avoid accidentally conjuring up actions that God never took.

6) Ask “What Action Does God Call Me to Take Toward Others?”: It is very important to note the order of five and six. Sometimes, we think that our action is the most important action; that we act first and then God responds to our action. But the Bible teaches the reverse: God acts and we are called to respond. In fact, the Bible often argues that sin is actually a result of our acting first, rather than responding to God.

“But,” we might argue, “I’ve never seen God act. How could I possibly respond to him?”

Of course we haven’t seen God act. Sin acts as a spiritual cataract, blinding us from the obvious truths of the world. When God acts, sin blinds us from seeing his actions. Because sin keeps us from truly seeing the world, we must trust the Bible to guide us.

7) Ask “What Actions Will I Take?”: When the Bible tells us that we are expected to respond to God’s actions, it is not making a theoretical claim. We are called to mirror God’s image into the world and that means that we must take action.

After reading about what God does for us, we must then respond in our own lives. Knowing what God has done for us, what will we do unto others?

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The Time Of Preparation Is At Hand (Introduction to Preparing for the Underground Church, Part VI)

(Part VI of VII of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay to Rev. Richard Wurmbrand’s Preparing for the Underground Church. To order a print or electronic copy of the bilingual Korean/English edition of Preparing for the Underground Church, including Pastor Foley’s introductory essay and a foreword by Voice of the Martyrs historian Merv Knight, visit Amazon or click here to visit the bookstore page on our website. For Part I of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay , click here.) 

Why must Christians today prepare to go underground?

Because we are the impediment to the sexual revolution—those who, in the words of Ephesians 4:24 “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness,” rather than throwing that self off as so much repression. The sexual revolution is not the issue on which we choose to make our stand but rather the issue on which the governments and the people of the free world have chosen to make their stand against us.

As children of both the church and the free world, we are not accustomed to having to choose between the two. And we are certainly not accustomed to being portrayed as repressors of freedom. But Jesus does not give as the world gives, and when the world—even the free world—moves to buttress the freedom to sin by restricting the freedom not to sin, then the free world reveals itself to be simply one more guise of “the world,” which has always been hostile to the things of God.

Ultimately, traditional Christianity has become no more popular in South Korea than North Korea, because traditional Christianity challenges the foundational premises on which any society is built, including this one. The question is not where it is more pleasant for us to live (in a communist or capitalist society) but where it is more pleasant for God to live, where he finds himself welcomed. And it turns out that he is finding no more welcome in South Korea than in North Korea but is in both places equally reviled because he is no more the God of the sexual revolution than he is the God of the communist revolution. These revolutions are revealed to be two sides of the same coin, both minted by “the race of men inclined to will their absolute autonomy” in their conflict with a monotheistic God.[1] The two revolutions share an identical root. When the two sides peer at each other across the DMZ, those long deceived by the one revolution are peering over at those newly deceived by the other revolution.

The South Korean government is not only party to the sexual revolution; it is among its most ardent promoters. In 2011—long before “Gangnam Style”—the annual revenue from its so-called “cultural content exports” KPOP and Korean drama was already estimated at $4 billion USD annually. It claims an asset value for these cultural properties of $83.2 billion USD. It earmarks 1% of the national budget “to nurture popular culture” and maintains a fund in excess of $1 billion USD to further this “nurture.” This means it spends taxpayer money to translate KPOP music videos into foreign languages and to ask the television networks of other countries to air their programs.[2] It knows that when its stars get plastic surgery, or a new cell phone, or a new hairstyle, or use a particular makeup or handbag, that the Korean economy prospers from consumer emulation. Thus, the South Korean government is hardly value neutral. Compare a Korean drama or KPOP song today to ones from ten years ago. Note the growing edginess and embrace of more daring forms of sexuality. The South Korean government is acutely aware of global cultural developments. It regards reflecting these “changing values” in its cultural content as “the strongest tool to expand K-culture’s global distribution channels and the diversification of its consumers.”[3]

The South Korean government not only nurtures its cultural properties for economic purposes, it also leverages them for ideological warfare as well, especially in its engagement with North Korea. It’s not political speeches it’s blasting across the border anymore. It’s KPOP. It’s not speeches on capitalism it flies in via MP3s and balloons and drones in an effort to open up its adversary. It’s Korean dramas.

Thus, we should not expect the South Korean government to be our ally in withstanding the sexual revolution. In fact, given Korean churches’ historically strong relationship with the Korean government, we can fully anticipate that the Korean government will expect us to be its ally in this matter, supporting what it believes will best advance Korea’s national interests.

Just such a situation exists in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Maarit Jänterä-Jareborg is Professor of Law at Uppsala University in Sweden. She writes not from the Christian perspective but rather from the perspective of Scandanavian law in society about what Scandanavian governments expect from the church with regard to the sexual revolution. She writes very clearly, “The state may expect the churches—or at least its national Folks’ Church—to adjust to the new developments, even if it cannot rule on this.”[4] She notes that the church has not disappointed the state on this issue:

What explains the Folks’ Churches’ adjustment to the legal formalization of same sex relationships, considering that all of them were initially opposed to registered partnerships, and later, to same sex marriage? A general explanation would appear to be these Churches’ historical role and position as national Folks’ Churches to which the great majority of each state’s population belongs. In order to be part of society at large, a national Folks’ Church cannot cherish values that deviate too much from the prevailing mainstream values in society, irrespective of weakened ties with the state. For instance, when a bishop of the Church of Finland made critical statements about same sex relationships in a published interview a few years ago, it drove thousands of members to leave the Church and made nationwide headlines in the Finnish media.[5]

She expresses the meeting point at which the church and the state have made their peace over the sexual revolution:

From the perspective of biblical theology, the love commandment is superior to all other commandments and prohibitions in the Bible. The decisive factor where forms of cohabitation are concerned is therefore not the individual Bible passages but what is to the benefit or harm of people. This means that when the Church is to form an opinion on marriage for same sex couples, the relevant question to ask is whether this harms or benefits people.[6]

This definition of “love” completely negates the one that stands at the heart of the Christian tradition: Love as God’s gracious right ordering (and, by his grace, re-ordering) of the world, freeing us from sin through the crucifixion of our flesh. Christians who refuse to take the chisel to re-sculpt our tradition’s two millennia-old definition of love are thus increasingly cast as bigots, potentially dangerous, and in need of being watched, controlled, restrained, monitored, and, of course, mocked.

As Peter Leithart notes, this was predicted more than a generation ago by Augusto del Noce. Del Noce was a Christian philosopher roughly contemporary with Rev. Wurmbrand who lived through fascism and communism in Italy. Del Noce sensed that the church in the free world would soon face far greater challenges from the sexual revolution than it ever faced under communism. Leithart summarizes what Del Noce thought would happen to Christians who refuse to compromise their faith in the face of the sexual revolution :

The remaining believers in a transcendent authority of values will be marginalized and reduced to second-class citizens. They will be imprisoned, ultimately, in “moral” concentration camps. But nobody can seriously think that moral punishments will be less severe than physical punishments. At the end of the process lies the spiritual version of genocide.[7]

It is not difficult to see why, given the events currently unfolding in the Nordic countries. As Leithart notes, “All theological opinions will be judged by whether they advance liberalism’s particular vision of freedom and fairness.”[8] The only theological opinions that will be allowed to extend beyond the church’s doorstep are those that advance, not repress, the sexual revolution.

In this way, freedom of religion becomes reduced to freedom of worship for those who dissent from the state’s sexual orthodoxy. Freedom of worship means that we may say what we wish inside of our buildings provided that it does not impact anything we do outside of our buildings. That, sadly, is a bargain that many churches have historically been willing to accept.

Perhaps that is why the underground church is more often found in homes than in church buildings: the costs of maintaining the public church are just too high, and only a few of these costs are financial. The gospel of God is too great to be confined to moral ghettos. Thus, as the governments of the free world embrace the conviction that they must set boundaries for the church based on what those governments consider the preservation of liberty for all, we embrace our own conviction that Christian liberty requires our preparation for the underground church.

 

[1] John M. Rist, 2014. Augustine Deformed: Love, Sin, and Freedom in the Western Moral Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 10.

[2] Melissa Leong, 2014. “How Korea became the world’s coolest brand.” Financial Post. http://business.financialpost.com/news/retail-marketing/how-korea-became-the-worlds-coolest-brand.

[3] Chung Joo-won and Lee Eun-jung, 2016. “(News Focus) K-pop, K-dramas to embrace universal values to increase appeal.” Yonhap News Agency. http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/focus/2016/10/31/88/1700000000AEN20161031007600315F.html.

[4] Maarit Jänterä-Jareborg, 2016. “A Scandanavian Perspective on Homosexuality, Equal Rights, and Freedom of Religion.” In Jack Friedman, Timothy Shaw, and Thomas Farr. Religious Freedom and Gay Rights: Emerging Conflicts in the United States and Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Loc. 5595.

[5] Maarit Jänterä-Jareborg, 2016, Loc. 5631.

[6] Maarit Jänterä-Jareborg, 2016, Loc. 5667.

[7] Peter Leithart, 2016. “Referees, Players, and Religious Liberty.” First Things. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2016/09/referees-players-and-religious-liberty

[8] Ibid.

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