Archive for February 2012
God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Corinthians 12:23-25
Some time ago I was sipping hot coffee at a great restaurant in Johannesburg, when I found myself staring at the scene in this picture. I was amused and took a photo, certain that I would be able to use it to make some or other point in a teaching or article.
Well, the opportunity has arisen. A few weeks ago I read the well known words above, from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth, and it ministered to me in an incredible way. It was clearer than ever, a perfect answer to a question that everybody (believers and non-believers alike) have been asking for at least seventeen centuries: Why are Christians so divided?
The passage above, I believe, provides the key.
But before we get there, consider for a moment the implications of this sentence: “God has … that there may be no division in the body…” That’s quite a statement. God has done something to prevent disunity in the body. There is a “secret” to Christian unity, and the verse above fills in the blanks and reveals exactly what it is.
Paul begins his argument in the preceding verses. We treat our “unpresentable parts” with “greater modesty”, he says. That is where my picture comes in. We buy clothes to hide our bulging waistlines. We colour our greying hair. We are attracted to the services offered in the picture, and the reason is obvious: We spend time, energy and money on our unattractive parts, not the attractive parts. In short: We adore the unadorable.
In the same way, Paul says, God gives “greater honour” to the parts that lack it, and so makes them indispensable to the body.
Before we speak about the body of Christ, which is what Paul has in mind here, let us pause for a moment and consider how true this principle is in the human body. I have never seen a pair of kidneys on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, and I certainly do not ever expect to. Kidneys are not exactly… attractive. However, to compensate for this fact they have been given a function that is so incredibly essential to the health of your body that it has earned them the proud title of “vital organs.” And so that magnificent face of yours simply cannot expel them from the body, or look down on them, or say to them “I don’t need you.” In fact, one of the things that causes a healthy complexion is a well functioning pair of kidneys.
Which brings us to the body of Christ. The very same principle applies here. Note that God has “chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith” (James 2:5). Also not that the “lowly brother” must “boast in his exaltation” (James 1:9). As Paul said to these Corinthians earlier on in the same letter, God chooses the foolish, weak, low and despised in this world.
Hmm. I am reminded of Kierkegaard who said that God always creates out of nothing, and that he can only use something after he has reduced it to nothing. This explains why Jesus Christ made himself nothing before he could be used by God. It also explains why things went terribly wrong for the great visionaries of the Bible before their so-called “sense of destiny” could find fulfillment. Think of Joseph, Moses and Peter, to mention a few. All of them were aware of a calling, and all of them had to lose it in order to find it.
Most of us are more or less aware of the Biblical pattern in this regard. Most of us know that the way to the promised land lies through the wilderness, that the cross precedes the glory, that brokenness is a prerequisite for service. But the verse above adds an important dimension to this principle. God empowers the weak for another reason besides the obvious ones that we are so aware of.
HE DOES IT TO MAKE THEM INDISPENSABLE TO THE BODY.
People who are insignificant according to the standards of the world are indispensable in the ekklesia of Jesus Christ. Their extraordinary gifts are crucial for the church’s health. She needs to be aware of this, protect them and care for them. The foolish, weak, low and despised in this world are the vital organs of Christ’s body. It is as simple as that.
I say this to my shame, but there was a time in my life when I turned my back on my brothers and sisters in Christ who did not see things the way I did. I became sick of their theological shallowness, their constant emphasis on experience and emotions, their hyped-up gatherings. At least that is how I experienced it. And so I turned my back on them and searched out likeminded spirits with whom I could discuss the books, authors and issues that interested me. It did not take long to find them, and when I did I rejoiced. We could be deep together. Really, really deep. So deep, in fact, that no else could find us. Except of course those gifted souls who were just as deep as we were…
I see things differently nowadays. Besides being obviously embarrassed by the pharisaical snobbishness that I had made myself guilty of, I have come to realise how incredibly shallow my so-called depth has been. Whilst my new friends and I had a roaring time debating things like supralapsarianism, we were missing out on a vitality that could only be provided by certain … organs. We simply did not have the fervour to save the lost that I had seen in that tent evangelist who could hardly spell his name. We did not have the compassion on the poor that I had seen in the theologian with the “mystical” tendencies. And so on.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing for some happy ecumenism at the expense of Biblical truth. I am merely saying that different parts of the body have different functions, and that all of us run the risk of becoming severely deformed without the restraint provided by the unity of the body. We need one another. The thinkers need the doers who need the feelers who need the thinkers…
John Ruskin once said “When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.” I wish to edit that statement somewhat: When a man wraps up Jesus Christ with himself, he ends up with a pretty small Jesus.
The body is not an eye, or a collection of eyes. It is a body. One body with many parts, as Paul said to the Corinthians. One body with all its parts, for God has clothed the dishonourable parts with greater honour so as to make them indispensable.
The key to Christian unity is diversity. Ironically, we have allowed our differences to drive us apart instead of bringing us together.
(A shortened version of this article appeared in Bloemnews.)
I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love. Revelation 2:4
The above sentence is best understood when read in the light of Revelation’s last few chapters. There the church is revealed as “a bride adorned for her husband” who has made herself ready for “the marriage supper of the Lamb”.
The Bible is a story about a Bridegroom and his bride.
The imagery of this divine union is found early in Genesis, and it reaches its climax in the last chapters of Revelation. In Genesis we read about the union of the first Adam and his bride, in Revelation we read about the union of the Last Adam and his bride.
Everything in between is a commentary on this divine romance, a glorious love story of love lost and found.
Humans are obsessed with this story, even if they won’t acknowledge it. Our movies and books are filled with it: Boy meets girl, fall in love, split up and reunite. And then they live happily ever after. This is the grand narrative of the ages. This gospel is written on our hearts, and it is a tragedy if we fail to make the link between this deep intuition, this overriding passion, and our “Christian theology.”
I always marvel how easy it is for new believers to grasp the above. Their love affair with their Lord is plain to see. They are dizzy with joy and oblivious to the call of all other lovers. For them, Jesus Christ is all.
Unfortunately, the passion of the heart tends to become the knowledge of the head after a while, and then “first love” fades away like morning mist.
Love for God was never intended to be temporary. It is freely given at first, but it requires careful cultivation to become permanent.
The Law: God’s Instrument to Reveal the Universal Problem of Desire
As most of us know, the real purpose behind the law is to show us that we are sinners: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).
In the final analysis, the law was not given to be kept but broken, showing us that we are in need of a savior. “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin”, Paul says (Romans 7:7). In this sense the law was the “schoolmaster” that led us to Christ (Galatians 2:24). Of course this does not reveal any deficiency on the law’s part. The deficiency is with us, as we shall promptly see.
The problem is that this phenomenal truth of Scripture is usually proclaimed up to the point that I have just made, and then left for all kinds of conclusions to be drawn. And so it is assumed that the “knowledge of sin” brought about by the law is a “knowledge of sins”, that is, a revelation of all the wrong deeds that we are prohibited to do: As we struggle to live up to all these moral commandments we eventually become despondent, and so we are led to Christ who will then save us and empower us to live up to God’s holy commands.
This is not the teaching of the Bible, and our understanding of Christianity is sadly lacking if that is the way we understand the law, sin and redemption.
The Man in Romans 7
Two paragraphs earlier I quoted the apostle Paul as saying “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” This statement comes from Romans 7, a chapter that is devoted in its entirety to illustrating that those who are “in the flesh” cannot live up to the law’s righteous requirements.
Paul’s famous statement “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” comes from this chapter. Paul does not speak here about his Christian experience, as is oftentimes assumed, but about the experience of a man in the flesh who tries to keep the law but cannot. The result is that he cries out at the end of the chapter “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
It is this cry of despair that ultimately causes Paul to look away from himself and to Jesus Christ for deliverance. And so Romans 8 introduces us to the “life in the Spirit”, a life that transcends the limitations of the law brought about by the weakness of the flesh.
Whilst the key to Romans 7 is “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (verse 18) and “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:8), the key to Romans 8 is “but you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (8:9) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”
Wow. What a teaching. These two classic chapters are foundational to any discussion of the deeper Christian life. And so they should be. Yet our understanding of them is sadly lacking if we stop here.
The Meaning of Romans 7:7
Go back to Romans 7:7: “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Now read the rest of the verse and further: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.”
Wait a minute… Romans 7 is not about the whole of the law. It is only about one, single commandment: “You shall not covet.” Paul never struggled with adultery, or murder, or lying, or theft. In fact, he wrote to the Philippians that Saul the Pharisee was “faultless” as far as legalistic righteousness was concerned.
So what happened in Romans 7? The answer is simple: Here Paul tells us about the one commandment that he could not keep: The tenth. Covetousness is not a word we use often, and is better translated today as “eagerly desirous”. Romans 7 is the biographical account of a Pharisee who kept the whole of the law, but could not curb “all kinds of covetousness”. And so, he says, he would not have “known sin” if it were not for this commandment.
Whilst the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the final commandmend prohibits an intention. As we saw in the previous post, desire is the root and sinful deeds the fruit. The first nine commandments addresses the fruit, the tenth addresses the root. We always break the tenth before we break one of the first nine. You first covet your neighbour’s wife (Tenth command) before committing adultery with her (Seventh command). Likewise, you first covet your neighbour’s possessions (Tenth command) before you steal from your neighbour (Eighth command). In fact, every time you break one of the first nine commandments, you end up breaking two commandments: The one in question, as well as the tenth!
Whilst it is possible to refrain from external sins, it is impossible to refrain from the motive underlying it.
As I have written elsewhere:
The real origin of sin, in other words, can be traced back to the problem of covetousness. In fact, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, where covetousness is present sin has already been committed (Matt. 5:27-28), and the carrying out of covetous intentions is mere coincidence and formality. In this sense we can say that the command not to covet is really a summary of the Ten Commandments, for where coveting is no longer present sin would no longer follow.
The problem of sin, therefore, is an inward one, and it is the purpose of the tenth commandment to illustrate this. To put it another way: The problem of sin is a spiritual problem, and this can only be pointed out by a spiritual commandment. When the tenth commandment confronted Paul, he acknowledged it as ‘spiritual’, but in failing to keep it he had to acknowledge himself as ‘unspiritual, a slave to sin’ (v. 14). While the first nine commandments revealed to Paul his ability to meet the external demands of the law, the tenth commandment revealed to him his inability to live up to the law’s spiritual requirements. In this sense sin was ‘recognised as sin’ in his life (v. 13).
Paul’s despair, culminating in his ‘wretched man that I am’, came about solely as a result of the one commandment that he found impossible to keep. It is this experience, more than anything else, that revealed to him his need of salvation, and that prepared him for the conviction that something needed to be done about his ‘un-spirituality’.
Romans 7 is the Bible’s greatest exposition of the problem of desire, and its conclusion is clear: The most righteous Pharisee in all of history, who could boast more “in his flesh” than any other (Philippians 3:4), could not overcome desire. And so the great Saul was revealed to be a lawbreaker, for “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Of course this does not only apply to Saul the Pharisee, but also to you and I.
It would appear that the law is much more “spiritual” than what we have been led to believe. Its aim is not legal conformance to external requirements, but the revelation that we are in need of a Savior who can transform our desirous Adamic nature.
More about that in the next posts.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man… “ Romans 1:22-23
Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a maggot, and yet he makes gods by the dozens. – Michel de Montaigne
The term “idol worship” oftentimes conjures up images of scantily dressed jungle dwellers with bones through their noses bowing before some crudely shaped god carved out of wood or stone. And so, frequently, the degree to which people see themselves as “civilised” happens to be the very degree to which they think they are immune to idolatry.
Nothing could be further from the truth. An idol is best defined as a “God substitute”, that is, an image that is derived from a human understanding of God instead of a divine revelation from God. Such an image may indeed be carved out of wood or stone, but mostly it is constructed in the mind.
God created human beings in his image. Idolatry takes place when human beings create a god in their image. Idolatry, therefore, is nothing but a reversal of God’s natural order of creation, as is evident from the verse above. True Christianity is when we resemble God. Idolatry is when he resembles us.
This means that all of us are candidates for idol worship. We merely need to use our human understanding as a basis for our god-ideas to qualify. We then become like the triangles who concluded that they cannot say much about God accept that he’s obviously got three sides.
There is no need for such idolatrous speculation. The lost image of God is restored through Jesus Chris. He is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), and so we can know God through him.