Illogical.

Christianity, Religion

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had to address several issues. The Corinthians were a raucous bunch, and the church was overflowing with spiritual problems. The church was full of division; there were factions who favored the teachings of certain men over others– some followed Paul, some Apollos; others followed Peter, while still others followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was also a divide between the social classes within the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their practice of not eating the Lord’s Supper together as one body. The early churches observed the Lord’s Supper much differently than modern churches do; it would be a full meal at which the baptized members of the church would observe the ceremonial breaking of bread and drinking of wine. When the Communion would be partaken in Corinth, the wealthy members of the church would arrive before the poorer members, while many of the poorer members would still be working. The rich members would not wait for their poorer brethren to arrive, and would begin to eat and drink to excess. When the poor Christians finally did arrive at the communal meal, there would be no food remaining, and the rich Christians would be intoxicated. The Corinthians did not observe then Communion as a sacred act; instead, they treated it like a party. As if these issues were not enough, the Corinthian believers were accepting of an affair between a man and his step-mother, and nobody spoke out against this immorality that was going on within the church. Paul was, at the very least,  disappointed and disgusted with the lack of restraint that was so evident in Corinth; the letter that is now referred to as 1 Corinthians was his attempt to begin helping the Corinthians correct these grave issues.

One of the greatest strengths of the Apostle Paul’s writings was his ability to understand the context of the culture in which his audiences lived. As he said himself, he could be a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This cultural awareness is evident in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians as Paul goes to some lengths to discuss the “foolishness” of the Gospel. Paul understood the importance of logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that was so pervasive within Hellenistic culture. He dealt with this firsthand when he debated the Stoics and the Epicureans before the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The fundamental core truth of the Gospel–that God would send His son, Jesus, to die for man’s salvation– was utterly illogical. Furthermore, as is also evidenced in Acts 17, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was equally laughable. Luke records in Acts 17:32 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” Paul was no stranger to the opposition to the Gospel that was put forth by those who claimed to be wise by the world’s standard of wisdom.

Paul, therefore, goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that the world’s standard of wisdom is not the same as God’s, and it is God’s wisdom that they should be concerned about. A prophecy from Isaiah was quoted to reinforce the point that, along with everything else of this world, all man-centered wisdom would eventually pass away and be destroyed. The wisdom that man can ascertain for himself is nothing compared to the wisdom found in God. Compared to God and His wisdom, the wisdom of the world is nonsense.

 To those who have not been changed by Christ, this message would not make sense. To the non-believer, to the philosopher, to the seeker of wisdom the Gospel of the Cross is completely and totally ridiculous. It makes no sense that God–the Creator of the Universe–would send His son to die for the salvation of man–the creation. This kind of belief seems unfounded and illogical. Paul points out that the Greeks’ commitment to having a logical understanding of the world is what prevents them from seeing and understanding the beauty of the Gospel, just as the Jews’ demand for signs prevented them from seeing the signs being played out before them. The cross of Christ breaks all barriers, it is a stumbling block to those of any background, both Jew and Gentile, who don’t believe in it. The message of the cross was too illogical for the philosophers to take seriously. They, like the Jews, were too deeply committed to their own understanding of how the world was supposed to operate and they could not see the incredible work that God did through Christ and the cross. It was through this illogical and “foolish” act that God chose to save the world, and it was this foolish gospel that Paul preached, and is this foolish gospel that draws men and women back to God.

The beauty of the cross is that it makes no sense; its illogical nature is what gives it so much power. Yes, we can study the Old Testament and understand the deep symbolisms and fulfillment of prophecies that are contained within Christ’s death, but even then we are still forced to answer critical questions: Why God would come to Earth and allow Himself to die at the hands of His creation? Why didn’t God just start over again, as He did in the days of Noah? Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t God do that? There are any number of questions that we could ask and drive ourselves crazy with if we were to try to find logic in what Christ did. But that’s just the point–there is no logic in it. Christ’s actions defy any wisdom and understanding of man. We are not saved by finding the logic in Christ’s death; we are saved by having faith in His illogical outpouring of love and mercy and grace. We are not saved by uncovering some secret, hidden knowledge; we are saved by trusting in the God who came to die for us. 

We are foolish to think that we can predict how God will operate. We cannot put Him in a box and systematically predict what He will do. Our wisdom is not His; our wisdom is foolishness in comparison. The message of Christ crucified proves this;  the cross shows us how little we understand about how God operates. Thankfully, God does not operate according to our standard of logic. Our God operates in the illogical, like coming and dying to take away our sins, so that we might be allowed to have a new life with Him.

Artwork: “The Philosophers,” c. 1620-1625.

By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews‬ ‭12:1-2‬ ‭

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

What’s Your Theology?

Christianity, Religion

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Galatians 5:6

The church in Galatia had a big problem. The issue confronting it wasn’t entirely unique; in fact, this issue was one that was being debated in numerous Christian assemblies during the first century AD.  The issue at hand was this: as the message of Jesus—a message rooted firmly in Judaism—spread to Gentile areas, and Gentiles began to accept Christ as Savior, did those Gentiles have to become Jews to be saved? More specifically, did Gentiles need to be circumcised to be part of the Christian community. Was circumcision necessary for salvation?

A prominent faction within the Galatian church said yes. So Paul, who had preached extensively throughout Galatia, penned his letter to the Galatian churches to set them straight.  Paul’s message was clear: there are no other means of salvation other than Christ. Circumcision—though once commanded by God—did not save anyone, only Christ’s atoning death accomplished this. In light of Christ’s death and resurrection, circumcision meant nothing.

It was imperative that Paul—and the church as a whole—nip this problem in the bud because what was being taught in Galatia was undermining the gospel of Christ. The message being spread in Galatia was that believing in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and believing that He died to save us from our sins was not enough to obtain salvation. The Galatian “theology” was that one needed Christ AND circumcision; that one without the other was insufficient.  The Galatian theology said was that Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t enough on its own, that we must do something else in addition to it to obtain salvation.

Any teaching that says that Christ’s death isn’t enough to save us from our sins is heresy, as is any teaching that says humanity can do anything on its own to earn its salvation. Christ’s death is sufficient in and of itself, and salvation is the unmerited gift of God given freely by Him to those incapable of saving themselves—us.

We read the Epistle to the Galatians today, and we scoff at the fact that people were once teaching such a fallacious message. It baffles us to think that people would believe there was anything else that could possibly be needed in addition to Christ’s work for salvation to be obtained. But, when we examine our own hearts and practices, we realize that we often make this same mistake. Our hang-ups today aren’t over the issue of circumcision, but there are many other issues we have replaced it with. Are we following sound theology and believing in the only gospel—the true gospel of Jesus who died to save us—or do we, in our own practices, add things to Christ?  Do we truly believe that Christ’s death was sufficient to give us salvation, or do we put faith in our works as well, or in the practices that we develop? Is our theology Christ and Christ alone, or is it Christ and whatever we think we can do to earn God’s favor? If we elevate other things— good works or the “right” theological interpretations or anything else—to the point of being equal with Christ in our theology, those things will very soon replace Christ in our theology.

So, what’s your theology? Is Christ alone sufficient, or are you adding something else to Him?

Artwork: “The Three Crosses,” Rembrandt, 1653.