bondslaves of Christ Jesus

God’s law for the ancient Israelites contained this clause:

When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever. Exodus 21:2-6

Voluntary slavery, for love of the master. That is the Christian life.

The New Testament authors frequently called themselves “bondslaves,” a word often translated as “servants.” Many of the epistles start with something like “Paul, a servant (bondslave) of Christ Jesus” or “James, a servant (bondslave) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” In ancient Roman society, a bondslave was a person subjected in every way to the will of his master, without rights or authority of his own. He spoke what his master wanted him to speak, did what his master wanted him to do.

Paul said, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). Like the slave in Exodus 21, he was a voluntary slave, subjected in every way to the will of God, all for love of the Master. Servanthood is a way of life. It is at the core of Jesus’ ethic for all who would be his disciples: “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44). It means putting the needs and desires of other people ahead of your own, doing what no one else wants to do for the good of loved ones and strangers. It means following God’s agenda in everything.

I learned something about servanthood this past week during a mission trip to Rosarito, Mexico. Our group of forty people did street evangelism and built two houses. I believe there is nothing better or more worthwhile in life than serving God by serving other people, giving everything you have and everything in yourself for the sake of demonstrating Jesus’ love, all done out of gratitude for the marvel of God’s grace. It is a beautiful and holy way of life. It is Christ-likeness defined:

“…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (bondslave), being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:6-8

It hurts to be a servant of Christ. It is a lifestyle which requires extreme humility and extreme joy in God, daily surrender to his Spirit and daily war waged against the self-exalting desires by which we live and die. We want to be kings. Jesus says, “Yes, I’ll make you kings like you cannot imagine. Be servants first.”

My prayer tonight is: I hear you, Lord. Help me to want what you want, to care about what you care about, to make decisions, big and small, that follow your pattern of love and purity. I know of nothing better than life as your servant, your slave. Take me to the cross, God, set me apart as yours forever: bore me through the ear like the slave, sprinkle me with blood like the priest, anoint me with oil like the king, baptize me with fire like the apostles, do whatever you wish. I am yours. Thank you Jesus for serving me first, unbelievable as it is.

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the jealous God

You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Exodus 34:14

“Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” wrote Solomon, speaking of the human sin of covetousness, the “green-eyed monster” (Proverbs 27:4). Such is the jealousy that contributes to such a large percentage of murders each year – literally as well as in the sense of heart-level murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Jealousy-fueled hatred is ugly, obsessive, and alienating. And it is absurdly proud.

Yet, God tells Moses in Exodus 34 that his very name is “Jealous.” Throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Bible, God says the reason he hates idolatry is because he is a jealous God (e.g. Deut 4:23-24, Ezek 8:3-5, 1 Cor 10:21-22). God’s jealousy is worlds different from our self-obsessed covetousness. The jealousy of God is a holy zeal to establish and protect the love-relationship between himself and his people. It is analogous to the jealousy of a wife for the husband she loves, which adultery so deeply and penetratingly wounds. A marriage which adultery does not affect is a sham, and loveless.

The companion of God’s jealousy is not hatred, but love, a love that is righteous and relentless. If you read the Old Testament, you cannot help but notice that the biblical God is intensely concerned, and intimately involved, with the lives of the humans he has made. He cares; about our lives, our suffering, our actions (whether good or evil), and most fundamentally, how our hearts are related to himself. He sends plagues, he parts seas, he creates nations, he destroys nations, he decrees laws about what animals to eat and what clothes to wear, he rains down fire, he rescues the poor from their oppressors, he whispers in the storm, because he is a jealous God.

The fact that he knows, and passionately cares about, the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts is, on the one hand, terrifying. He knows as no one else does the darkest corners of my depravity. He sees how much I love to hate, how little I love to trust him, how little I thank him. He sees my excuses. He sees the ridiculous struggle I go through to carry out even the most insignificant acts of selflessness, the struggle to which all others are blind. He knows, and he cares, and he hates my sin with ferocity. The hatred I am learning to feel toward my sin pales in comparison to the reaction of his holy nature against it. He is a jealous God, jealous for his own glory, jealous for my worship. My spiritual adultery against my Creator is uglier than the wickedest affair, the most flagrant betrayal. (If you want to know what it’s like, see, for example, Ezekiel 16.)

God’s jealousy scares me, because I know how far short I fall. It also makes me cry, and sing, and hardly know what to do with myself, when I think of how he loves me. God is jealous for me. God is the prodigal son’s father in Luke 15, running out to me, embracing me, kissing me, hardly able to express his joy at having me home. He is the prostitute’s husband in Hosea 2, romancing me all over again, betrothing me to himself in tenderness, in love determined to win me back. He is, most of all, the man on the cross, dying in torment, declaring in paradoxical victory, “It is finished.” My sin, atoned; my debt, paid in full; my inheritance, secured forever.

He is a jealous God. He is jealous for his glory, tolerating no rivals, going to every length imaginable to protect the relationship between himself and his creation, avenging himself in justice when that relationship is violated. He is jealous for you, whoever you are, whatever you have done, for “he yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell in us” (James 4:5 ESV). He wants you to be close to him, to experience his mercy, to be who you are and who you are meant to be by living in a right relationship to him by faith.

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. Acts 20:24

The counterpart of God’s jealousy in us is zeal: zeal for God’s glory, passion to show his love to other people. Paul had it – see above. Jesus never lived a moment without it – his disciples recognized the scripture “zeal for your house will consume me” as describing him perfectly (John 2:17). He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34). If any of us understands God’s jealousy in any sense whatever, zeal for him simply becomes the appropriate response. Lukewarm people, lukewarm churches, respectable though they may be, are inadequate for a God like this one. He is too amazing, his gospel too good, to be an afterthought, or anything other than the goal and glory of our lives.

thirsty souls and the God who satisfies

Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David. Isaiah 55:1-3

Isaiah 55 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. God is a stunningly beautiful poet.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Salvation and relationship to the living God are completely free. No one can pay in willpower, good attitude, or busyness. Likewise, no one who comes is ever disqualified, for “though your sins are like scarlet, they will be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). Grace cannot be earned. It cannot be earned, it cannot be earned, it cannot be earned. The invitation is to simply surrender.

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” How many people do I know who are doing everything they can, using everything in themselves, to find some kind of happiness and peace in this world; young people looking for something to live for, old people looking for some reason to keep going. How many people do I know who want nothing more in life but to be loved by somebody, anybody; who commit crimes and destroy relationships in futile attempts to choke out love from their parents or friends; who hide behind false personalities, desperately hoping for someone to break in, inwardly crippled by the overwhelming fear that no one ever will; who exert every ounce of their willpower trying to live up to human-imposed religion, terrified they will never please God, empty inside because of broken promises. How many people do I know? How many people do you know? Are you one of them?

I lived like that completely, not long ago. Four years ago, Jesus broke through to me. For four years I have thanked God for the difference between that life and this one. For four years I have grown each year and each day in love for and satisfaction in the God who broke into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. I promise you, there is a different way to live than the life of desperation and emptiness. There is a life of satisfaction and joy and peace, because there is a God who offers himself to you, freely. That God says, “Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.”

While on this earth, Jesus called himself “living water” (John 4:10) and “the bread of life” (John 6:35). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” he said (John 6:53-54). Graphic, isn’t it? He intended it to be. He wants your attention.

Jesus is the “food” for our hungry souls of which Isaiah spoke. He is what every empty, loveless life is missing. He is the promised son and Lord of David, the Messiah, the hope of nations, the Savior of screwed up people. He wants nothing to do with fakers who pretend they are all right or hypocrites who condemn others without feeling their own shame. No, he wants broken people who put their “money” away and drink the “water” of his grace, grace which he purchased once and for all with the precious payment of his own life, sacrificed on his cross.

God ends the Bible, and I will end this post, with a final plea for you to consider Jesus and the life to which he invites you. “The Spirit” – of God – “and the Bride” – that is, the universal, invisibly united church – “say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17).

“see how the farmer waits”

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. James 5:7-8

It’s the “information age,” the “age of technology.” Technology is fast and easy, and it makes things fast easy, and if using it requires patience, it’s bad technology. As a result, we as a culture are obsessed with instant satisfaction.

God, meanwhile, is the God of eternity. He never began, and will never end. Patience is an elemental part of his character. It’s not surprising, therefore, that nearly all the Bible’s metaphors for ministry and living as a Christian are agricultural – rather than technological.

Not long ago, everyone easily understood farming metaphors. In today’s America, only farmers, or people who garden, have even a sense of the patience agriculture requires (although when compared to the work of ancient farmers, their idea of it is relatively small, too). Farming means backbreaking labor, careful planning, long periods of waiting, and dependence on many uncontrollable factors. It’s an organic and messy process, and growth is slow. Imagine plowing, then planting, then waiting for, then harvesting crops on dozens of acres of land, without any kind of technology. Try watching a single seed grow, even.

The fact that the Christian life is like agriculture is good news for all of us, especially us ordinary people. The work of ministry and evangelism is called “planting seeds,” and the process of growing in holiness is called “bearing fruit” ; we can expect them to be slow. God is not like your boss, demanding instant results, and firing you if you don’t turn them in on time. He is not the CEO of the corporation, he is the “Lord of the harvest” (Matthew 9:38). God is beautifully, and incredibly, patient with us, the laborers in his vineyard.

It is good news, but it ultimately requires much more effort. It means that evangelism, relationships, and life in general as a follower of Christ need care, work, and attention over long periods of time. Lifetimes, even. There is no room for quick, clean, “talk to my pastor,” “come to this conference,” or “read this book and you’ll get it”-type ministry. Dealing with people means working hard to build trust, and getting to the core of real issues. It means intentionally pursuing people with whom relationship is not easy and not giving up on them when they do not produce quick results. The same goes for how we deal with ourselves.

The fact that agriculture is the common metaphor for Christian life and ministry means that we cannot succumb to our culture’s “instant satisfaction” mindset. Patience and diligence are crucial in applying the faith. God’s character of  unchangeability, patience, and trustworthiness is what makes our effort worth it, and our hope reasonable. Without that, we are blindly plowing fields and planting seeds with no reason to imagine that the rain will ever come, or that the seeds will ever grow.

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:30-32

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully… He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 2 Corinthians 9:6-10

forgive… 490 times

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Matthew 18:21-22

You gotta love Peter. He is the most memorable disciple in the gospels, and probably the most likable. He is outspoken, emotional, devoted, and messed up – like all the best Bible characters, and all the best Christians.

Here, like a good Jew, and like a man accustomed to legalism and moralism, he asks Jesus for a hard-and-fast rule on forgiveness. He wants something straightforward he can follow, check off, and give to God, like a temple sacrifice. Jesus says, “No, Peter, you don’t get a rule. I want something incredibly more difficult from you: an ongoing, untiring attitude of forgiveness.” Jesus does that a lot, if you haven’t noticed.

I read somewhere – I forget where – that forgiveness means absorbing the wrong done to you, absorbing the blow, as if someone punches you in the gut, and you just take it. I think that’s a decent image, but it makes forgiveness sound passive. I think Jesus’ image is better, found in the next twelve verses of Matthew 18: forgiveness is like waiving a debt. When someone waives a debt, does it disappear? Of course not – someone must pay either way, and if it’s not the debtor, then it’s the lender. That is what forgiveness is like. “I’ll pay the debt you owe me.”

Isn’t that just what Jesus’ forgiveness is like? We owe God our whole existence, but we steal it for ourselves and waste it on ourselves, and rack up a massive debt – a million gazillion dollars, or 10,000 talents if you like. In all fairness, God ought to demand we pay our debt (which of course we can never do) and throw us all in hell until we do. Instead he sends Christ, who earns our million gazillion dollars and says, “Come to me and I’ll pay your debt. Come and share in my inheritance.” For those who believe, Christ’s payment is final and will not be demanded again, if you can believe it. His check clears, always. Trust in that.

It is Jesus’ kind of debt-paying, irrevocable forgiveness that we must imitate. We ought to expect it to be costly because, clearly, by nature, forgiveness is expensive.

If Peter has the most back-and-forth, passionate personality in the New Testament, David claims that title for the Old Testament. He wrote some of the most emotional literature in the Bible, called the Psalms of David, of which a considerable part is angry. Christians and skeptics sometimes have difficulty dealing with the so-called imprecatory psalms, which I understand, but do not take very seriously unless the critic, or one of his or her loved ones, has undergone oppressive, violent suffering and betrayal at the hands of brutal people for some length of time (and I do not recall hearing of any critic like that). I think the Holy Spirit included the imprecatory psalms very intentionally, and as odd as it may sound, I think they teach us something critical about forgiveness.

David was a man of million enemies. He knew what it is to be hated and mocked, by everyone. “How many are my foes!” he cried over and over. He saw hateful people getting away with evil and violence, and he longed for God to exercise justice against them, swiftly and harshly. But notice – he longed for God to do it. He did not pray, “Lord, give me the chance to smash in the faces of my enemies and break their teeth.” No, he said, “Arise, O LORD! Save me, oh my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek and you break the teeth of the wicked” (Psalm 3:7). David left his anger at the altar.

In terms of actions, David’s attitude of forgiveness was amazing. You may remember, when presented with the chance to kill the man hunting him like an animal, he refrained, twice. When that man finally died and the man responsible for his death came to David gloating and expecting a reward, David not only refused to rejoice at his persecutor’s death, but instead had the man executed for daring to kill the leader of Israel (see 2 Samuel 2). He accepted Abner, the general of the army opposing him, and welcomed him in peace, then mourned his death with remarkable sincerity when his own general murdered him (see 2 Samuel 3). He took in Mephibosheth, the grandson of his greatest enemy and the last remaining threat to his kingship, as a member of his own family (see 2 Samuel 9). One of David’s greatest strengths, in fact, was his refusal to exact revenge, even when it was deserved. He had a handle on the attitude of forgiveness Jesus spoke about in Matthew 18. David believed, really, that “vengeance belongs to the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

We too can do no less than imitate the Lord and Savior with an ongoing, defining attitude of forgiveness. Christians may not be people who hold grudges. We are absolutely permitted to come to God with our grievances, if they are real, and express them to our Father with feeling and sincerity. In fact, doing so is essential. He hears, because he is a good father, and a righteous judge. Consider: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25) We may not, however, hold on to the hurt and let it become bitterness. Bitterness is a cancer that  festers, then eats a person up from the inside; it is dangerous and highly contagious even in small doses. Bitterness, when held on to, is absolutely deadly to one’s spiritual life (as well as to one’s physical body) – see Matthew 5:23-24, 6:14-15.

We bring our complaints to God, and leave them with God, and move on with humility, compassion, and patience. We do this because of the amazing forgiveness already given to us by Jesus, because of our belief that he has waived our debt and paid it on our behalf, in full, with his righteous life and sacrificial death. Paul sums it up:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:12-13