October 29, 2010

The Puzzle of Theology

To the uninitiated, serious study of the Bible and theology can be quite daunting.  There are so many new terms, so many unfamiliar ideas, and so many cultural boundaries between us and the world of scripture that it is easy to feel exasperated and give up.  As a pastor, I am eager to find fresh ways to encourage people to persevere in their study of scripture that they might deepen their walk with God in Christ through the Spirit.

One helpful avenue may be to think of the study of theology like working a jigsaw puzzle.  You start with a lot of pieces that all have some things in common but are distinct nonetheless.  You must begin to sort out the pieces and put them into piles of commonality.  As you begin to find pieces that fit together, the picture becomes a little more clear.  Sometimes you must rethink your strategy when certain pieces don't fit where you had originally thought they might.  Sometimes you work for hours on one little corner of the bigger picture.  From time to time you even need to walk away for a breather before you return to tackle the task.  All in all, it takes time, and the picture only becomes clearer after extended work and study.

This is similar to the study of theology and scripture.  It takes time.  The pieces need to be organized.  The categories need to be set out.  The picture becomes more clear through time and study.  And this is true for all levels of study.  The professional theologians are still putting the pieces together as well; they've merely been at work for longer than the rest of us.  And as there are different levels of jigsaw puzzle mastery (from 500 pieces to 5,000 pieces and more) there are increasing levels of difficulty in serious Bible study. 

The point is to realize that it won't happen overnight.  None of us are going to figure out the infinite mind of the almighty and triune God over the weekend, or in this life at all.  It takes a lifetime of prayerful study to grow up into the fullness of the measure of Christ.  And as we continue to work at it, the smaller pieces will fall into place and the bigger picture will gain increasing clarity.  Is it not worth the diligence in order to think God's revealed thoughts after him? 

October 25, 2010

Jesus on Stewardship

Jesus said to them, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were utterly amazed at him (Mark 12:17).

Is it possible to honor God with our resources and yet pay taxes to the unbelieving authorities?  This is the question presented to Jesus by the Pharisees and Herodians in Mark 12:14-15.  The question comes in a series of passages in which Jesus' opponents attempt to trap him with the goal of discrediting him before the crowds or producing some charge for which he can be arrested.  The present question was a trap as well; the interlocutors had ill intentions in their hearts. 

Besides the fact that Mark tells us that Jesus' opponents are hypocrites, our curiosity ought to be raised when we see Pharisees and Herodians working together as allies against Jesus.  These two groups were not typically friendly with one another.  They had different agendas for Israel and her future.  The Pharisees were the traditionalists; the Herodians were the compromisers.  The Pharisees were the conservatives of their day; the Herodians the liberals.  The Pharisees were religious purists; the Herodians mingled their Jewish beliefs with those of the Romans to get ahead in the game.  But a common enemy makes for strange bedfellows.  So, allied by a common opposition to Jesus, they came at him with a trap thinly veiled in platitude. 

Jesus understood that their question was a trap.  He understood that if he answered, "Yes, it is lawful," then the crowds would have seen him as a Roman sympathizer and his popularity and influence would soon diminish.  He understood that if he said, "No, it is not lawful," then his opponents could charge him with the capital offense of inciting the crowds.  The Pharisees would prefer the first answer; the Herodians the second. 

In order to expose their hypocrisy, Jesus asks for a denarius, a small coin engraved with the picture of Tiberius Caesar, which read on one side, "Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus," and on the other, "Chief Priest."  Jesus looked at the coin and then returned it with the memorable saying, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."  With that Jesus escapes the trap and puts the hypocrisy of his antagonists on display.  Within Mark's account are at least three deep principles of stewardship that we would be remiss if we did not observe.

Everything belongs to God.
When Jesus says, "Give to God the things that are God's," he is inviting his hearer to ask the question, "What belongs to God.  Any first-century Jew would instinctively turn to the Psalms which say, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers" (24:1-2).  What belongs to God?  In short, everything.  The whole earth belongs to God.  Everything in the earth belongs to God.  Everyone in the earth belongs to God.  Why?  Because he made all of it. 

We must realize that stewardship is about much more than financial resources.  It is absolutely about that, but it is not only about that.  We must understand that all we have, we have because God has been kind to share it with us.  And it is not ultimately ours, but his.  All of our time, energy, gifts, talents, and finances belong to God.  And if we are to be obedient to Christ, then we must render to God the things that are God's.  The biblical picture of stewardship is a holistic one.  All of life belongs to God.  He will have nothing less. 

The fundamental principle in biblical stewardship is that God is the owner of all things.  We don't give because our giving represents God's cut.  We give a portion to be reminded that all is from God, and must be used in ways that are pleasing to him.  Everything is God's; give to God the things that are God's.

Motivation Matters.
When the Pharisees and Herodians come to Jesus to ask him about honoring God with their money, they are not really primarily interested in honoring God.  They are interested in discrediting Jesus, God's beloved Son.  You can't be opposed to Jesus and still honor God.  On the surface, the put on the pretense of wanting to honor God with their money.  But underneath all that, they hate God and his Messiah. 

Jesus realizes this and aims to expose their hypocrisy.  He does this by asking for a denarius.  First-century Jews regularly avoided these coins because they bore the carved image of the emperor.  To possess one of these coins was seen as breaking the commandment not have graven images.  So, the fact that one of these guys had a coin demonstrates that he worships a god other than the God of Moses.  He is not interested in honoring God, but in his own security.

If our stewardship is to honor God, then it must be done with a heart that loves Christ.  God is not pleased when we simply go through the motions.  He is not pleased when we give because we think it gives us some power or authority.  He is not pleased when we think our giving makes him like us.  The kind of giving that pleases God is that done in an attitude of thankfulness that desires to prioritize the things God prioritizes. 

Stewardship is worship.
Essential to God-honoring stewardship is recognizing that Christ is supremely valuable.  All is loss compared to the riches of knowing Christ.  He is the one who sacrificed privilege and comfort and life for the sake of his church to make her spotless, without wrinkle or blemish.  As we grow in our understanding of this gospel truth, then our desire for Christ should increase as well.

If we value Jesus, then we will also value what Jesus values.  And Jesus values the church.  To love Christ is to love his church.  To honor Christ is to value the church that he values so much that he purchased it with his life.  We ascribe worth to Christ when we value what he values.  In that sense, stewardship is worship.  We detract from the worship that is rightfully his when we use his resources (remember point #1) in ways that dishonor him. 

This means stewardship is essential to our spiritual well-being.  We thrive on worshipping God through prayer, praise, preaching, and giving.  If we are not worshipping, we are not thriving.  And we will find ourselves in spiritual peril. 

The question in stewardship is whether the Jesus who gave us his best is worth our best.  John Wesley sums it up well in his sermon on "The Use of Money,"

Do not stint yourself…to this or that proportion. Render unto God, not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God's, be it more or less; by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all mankind, in such a manner, that you may give an account of your stewardship…in such a manner that whatever you do may be 'a sacrifice of sweet smelling savour to God.'
All that we have comes from God and belongs to God.  The question is not what we can afford?  It is, rather, what ought we give to God as a sign that he is valuable above everything else?

October 22, 2010

Defining the Good

Everyone operates with some definition of the word "good."  As far as I can tell, such definitions are usually arrived at without explicit thoughtfulness and usually involve moralistic criteria.  We think people are basically good if they seem to care a bit about others and minimize expressly harmful activity.  So, humanitarians are good and murderers are bad, and people who get a lot of speeding tickets are basically good, if a little rambunctious.  But one problem with defining "good" in moralistic categories is that everyone has, at least, slightly different categories.  For one person, twenty speeding tickets is heinous; for another, it is not such a big deal. 

Defining the good in moralistic terms also makes it difficult for us to understand why the God revealed in Jesus Christ is displeased with those whom we think are basically good but have no faith in Christ.  It is hard for us to imagine that God is displeased with an agnostic orphanage worker.  But scripture says, "whatever is not from faith is sin" (Rom 14:23).  So, if an action does not proceed from faith in Christ, it is sinful and displeasing to God, even humanitarian work.  What is going on here? 

The problem is our definition of "good."  The word should not be primarily defined in terms of morality.  As we have seen, this creates a crooked standard.  Rather, the "good" should be defined in terms of what is pleasing to God.  Romans 8:5-8 is helpful.  In these verses, Paul describes the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit.  "Flesh" is Paul's word for humanity apart from Christ and in sin.  "Spirit" describes those who have come to new life in Christ.  The flesh and the Spirit are antagonistic and wage war against one another.  Ultimately, Paul says, "The mind set on the flesh cannot please God" (8).  This means that anyone who is not in Christ and in whom the Spirit of God does not dwell is entirely incapable of pleasing God.  He looks upon their works and is displeased, if not angered.  Why?  Because their works do not proceed from faith in Christ.  Their works are not the fruit of his indwelling Spirit.  No matter how moral their lives look to us, they are not acting out of love for God in Christ.  Thus, they are displeasing to God.  They are not good. 

This passage helps us as we reorient our definition of "good."  Something is good only when it is pleasing to God.  It is not the apparent moralism, or lack thereof, that makes something good or bad.  It is not apparent altruism or humanitarianism.  Goodness depends on whether or not God is pleased.  And God is pleased only by the life lived in his Son Jesus Christ. 

This makes sense if salvation is only by grace through faith.  If God were pleased with works and actions performed by the unregenerate, his approval would not be based on the person and work of Christ but on the morality of our behavior.  This makes the cross of Christ unnecessary. 

A whole lot more is riding on our definition of "good" than we normally realize.  If "good" is to be understood in moralistic terms, then Jesus is unnecessary and the gospel is a sham.  Rather, as we evaluate what is good in the world and in our culture, let us evaluate it as God does.  Our question should be: Is a particular action the fruit of the Spirit and born of faith in Christ?  If so, then it is pleasing to God and good.  If not, it is as a filthy rag to him.