It’s easier to follow the second great commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” when you like your neighbor. But Jesus didn’t say “love the people you like” or that this great command only applies to people who are easy to be around.
For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not the tax collectors also do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing that is remarkable? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? Therefore you be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:46-48, LEB)
God is perfect in every way. In this case, however, Jesus is specifically talking about His perfect impartiality. Leading up to these verses, He said,
But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. (Matt. 5:44-45, WEB)
If we want to be like God, we have to love the way He loves. God is love. It “is the sum and harmony of all His attributes, His essence” (Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts on 1 John 4:8-9). Love isn’t just something God does. It’s His nature; the motivation driving every choice He makes. The chief example of this is that while “we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, LEB).
Clearing Up What Love Is
But things get complicated when dealing with humans. We run into questions, not because we’re trying to wiggle out of the command to love others but because we’re not sure what it means. Consider these scenarios:
- Does love that “bears all things” mean I let my abusive parents/spouse/etc. keep hurting me?
- Does love that “covers a multitude of sins” mean I always have to trust people again after forgiving them?
- Does love that “does not behave rudely” stay friends with people who creep you out?
Most modern Christian churches develop a culture that prioritizes marriage. We know marriage is a good thing and that it’s part of God’s plan for humanity. Marriage pictures the union between Christ and His church. Beyond the spiritual aspects, it’s also held-out to young people as a sort of “prize” for listening to what the Bible says about purity pre-marriage.
Since we think of marriage as such a good thing, we think of the opposite as something negative. Western culture is, on the whole, very binary. If something is good, the opposite is bad. Our minds don’t naturally consider that both could be good in the proper context. With this mindset, singleness is treated as less-desirable and if a single person doesn’t want to marry we think there’s “something wrong” with them. But is this really how God views things?
It’s a safe bet all my Christian readers know of the verses discussing marriage in a positive light. The marriage relationship was established at creation and in the New Testament Paul connects it to Christ and the church (Gen. 2:18-24; Eph. 5:22-32). Proverbs 18:22 maintains that “he who finds a wife finds a good thing.” Marriage is certainly seen as a good thing in the Bible. I’m not disputing that and I still hope someday to get married. But I think we make a mistake if we assume marriage’s goodness makes being single a bad thing. Continue reading
We’re going to talk about all of Romans in one blog post. That looks like a crazy idea as I type it, but I think sometimes when we zero-in on just one section of Paul’s letters we miss the bigger picture of what he’s trying to say. Perhaps there’s merit in studying overall messages as well as minute details.
Romans is a confusing letter, especially when you read pieces out of context. To really get a sense of what Paul is trying to say in any given chapter or verse, we have to read the entire letter. That’s true of any book in the Bible, but I think it’s more true for Romans since Paul connects his arguments so closely. Especially in the first half of the letter, he frequently makes a statement that could lead readers to make an incorrect assumption, then he asks that assumption as a rhetorical question and refutes it.
Also, even though we’ll stay mostly in Romans, it’s important to remember Paul wasn’t writing in a void. Reading Romans (or any other book of the Bible) by itself can lead to misinterpretation. We must frame our understanding of this letter in light of the Old Testament (the only scriptures around for Paul to reference) and the teachings of Jesus (for Paul would never contradict our Lord’s words). Doing that well would take a book instead of a blog post, but last week’s post serves as an good introduction to this one.
Doing The Law
Romans opens with a discussion of “ungodliness and unrighteousness” which brings people under the judgment of God (Rom. 1:16-32). Paul then takes his readers to task not, as some assume, for keeping the Law but rather for teaching it and then acting in a way that dishonors God (Rom. 2:1-29).
After saying, “not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified,” Paul shifts to explaining that even if you do keep the Law you’re still “under sin” because we’re not perfect. He also says it is righteous with God to judge the world, which is guilty before Him because the Law gives knowledge of sin and cannot justify us in God’s sight (Rom. 3:1-20).
Hebrews 11 shows that it’s possible to live a life of faith by reminding us of people who’ve done just that. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Rahab, and scores of people there’s no time to name all walked by faith. They compass us about as a great “cloud of witnesses” inspiring us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” with our eyes fixed on Jesus (Heb. 12:1-2).
I didn’t realize until attending church last Shabbat how well my post that week fit in with the season we find ourselves in now. We’re in the month leading up to God’s fall holy days. Traditionally, as the Rabbi in my Mesisanic group pointed out, this is a season of reflection, self-examination, and teshuva (repentance). We need a determination to pursue godliness if we’re to move forward in our walk with God. Along with that goes a perseverance to use our time on this earth wisely, as the minister in my afternoon church spoke on.
The gift of salvation is freely offered to those who take it. Accepting the gift bring us into a covenant relationship with God. One of the things we’re expected to do as “heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him” (Jam. 2:5) is grow toward spiritual maturity.
Leaving Sin Behind
We’re not meant to stagnate nor to continue in sin after receiving God’s grace. After opening his letter to the Romans with a discussion on the wickedness of man, Paul shifts his focus from those who’ve rejected God to those readers who think they’re right with God but aren’t. Continue reading
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of modern Christianity is the idea of hell. The common notion is that those who aren’t following God (including those who reject Him and those who never knew Him) miss-out on their chance at salvation and are tormented forever in a burning place. Few want to talk about it, many have rejected it, but most don’t agree on an alternative. It’s something Christianity has to address, though. What happens after death for the people who are not followers of Jesus?
I’ll be honest with you, this is something I thought I “knew” the answer to because of the teachings I heard growing up. The more I studied it, though, the less positive I feel that I know exactly what’s going to happen. For believers, the questions “What happens when we die?” has some pretty clear answers in scripture. We’re not sure exactly what life in God’s family will be like, but we know that we’ll be resurrected and “we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” For other people, things are a bit more ambiguous.
My purpose today isn’t to give a definitive answer, but rather to look at some different readings of scriptures talking about eternal judgement. There are some things we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty, but there are others that I just don’t know the answers to (and I’d rather acknowledge that than take a stance I’m not reasonably confident lines up with God’s revealed word).
What is “hell”?
The word “hell” is used in the Bible, but not with the same connotation we have for it in English. Western ideas of hell come from Medieval imagery (think Dante’s Inferno). Most uses in the New Testament, though, are translated from the Greek word ghenna (G1067). When people of Jesus’ time heard this word they didn’t think of a burning place with a pitchfork-toting devil where eternal souls writhed in torment. They thought of Ghenna — a rubbish heap outside Jerusalem “where the filth and dead animals … were cast out and burned,” which Thayers’ dictionary notes is “a fit symbol of the wicked and their future destruction.” Continue reading
Christians and non-Christians alike typically assume that our religion teaches good Christians go to heaven when they die and bad people, or those who’ve never given their lives to Jesus, go to hell. As more and more Biblical scholars, Christian churches, and individual believers are realizing, though, this isn’t the most accurate picture of what the Bible teaches regarding life after death.
For many years, the churches of God I’ve been part of taught we were the only people to whom God had revealed His Sabbaths and Holy Days, His plan for the world and humanity, and the truth about what happens after death. As I grew older, I realized we had much more in common with other groups than I’d thought — there are a plethora of groups keeping Sabbath, many Messianics observe the holy days, and bloggers with Focus on the Family were talking about God’s plan to bring children into His family. I hadn’t found any teaching the resurrection, though, so you can imagine my surprise when Catholic theologian James K.A. Smith footnoted a comment about Christians not really going to heaven when they die with three book suggestions for further reading (this was in Desiring The Kingdom). The book from this list that I found in the library was Surprised by Hope by Anglican bishop N.T. Wright.
Wright’s teachings surprised me even though I’d been taught the resurrection from my earliest memories. His powerful exegesis on the meaning of the resurrection is inspiring and some of the thoughtful, well-researched ways he diverged from my church’s traditional teachings made me realize there are alternative explanations for a few difficult scriptures that deserve a second look. I also admired his style. Instead of telling people “You’re wrong,” he says, “We’ve been misinformed, and here’s the more wonderful plan God has for us.” That’s what I want to focus on today. The deeper our understanding of what God is actually planning for us, the firmer our hope and faith.
What Happens When We Die?
The idea that human beings have immortal souls comes not from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy (specifically Plato). In Hebrew thought and New Testament theology, the soul refers “not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of a disposable body, but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality” (Wright, p. 28). It is naphesh (H5315), the animated life-force we have in common with animals (Strong’s and Thayer dictionaries).