a brief word study

Inspired by Psalm 121.

Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis 4:9

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore. Psalm 121:3-8

[God said to Jacob, after Jacob’s vision at Bethel:] “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15

[The Levitical priestly blessing:] The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you. Isaiah 26:3

[Jesus prayed:] Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. John 17:11-12

To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ… keep yourselves in the love of God… Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling… Jude 1, 21, 24

Jesus will judge, so everything matters

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 2 Corinthians 5:10

People who have tasted the sweet forgiveness of Christ’s cross become desperate to know how not to waste their lives. Redemption is too good to ignore. Yet, fleshly complacency sets in and sucks the life out of us like the afternoon heat. Thank God, Scripture leads us in this, too.

The Bible describes who Jesus is to a Christian in many ways: friend, king, shepherd, brother, healer, advocate, savior, shield. Each biblical term for the Lord is saturated with significance and layers of meaning. Naturally we gravitate towards some more than others. However, one crucial, repeated title of Jesus, that I fear we too often neglect, is that Jesus is our judge.

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. John 5:26-27

The remarkably modern-sounding book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew scriptures concludes this way:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

It is clear that the author is not using the word judgment here in the sense of condemnation, but rather in the sense of evaluation.

…on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. Romans 2:16

In 1 Corinthians 3, one of my favorite chapters in the New Testament, Paul speaks of a day when the fire of God will test all the things we devote our lives to building: our families, ministries, careers, reputations, possessions, identities. The worthless and vain things will burn and disintegrate. Only those things “built on the foundation” (verse 14), “which is Jesus Christ” (verse 11), will survive. Only Christ-founded endeavors will keep their value in the new heaven and earth. All else is vanity, destined to be forgotten.

Soon after laying out this teaching, Paul says this:

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 1 Corinthians 4:1-4

To accept and daily live under the reality that “it is the Lord who judges me” drastically changes at least two things about the ways we typically think.

How our fellow humans judge and evaluate us becomes a “very little thing,” an insignificant addendum of which we ought to be as unaware as possible and about which we are free to be unconcerned. In the shadow of God, human commendation and condemnation become equally trivial. Together they amount to the immaterial opinions of small minds, which hold no weight in God’s court. “The Lord is my helper; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6) Amen, and the Lord is my judge. What can man say about me?

That the Lord judges me also means that everything matters. In this world, now, everything I do, and don’t do, counts. It all has dignity, significance, and potential. There are no parts of my life that God will not drag into the light on Judgment Day, whether I like it or not. That God will expose and judge every secret thing makes even my minor decisions very grave, and worth my attention. All things – all things – will be tested.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 2 Peter 3:10-12

Scripture says that redeemed people live in the love of God, in the service of him, in the worship of him, and also in the fear of him. No longer do we live in the fear of his punishment; without a doubt, Jesus dealt with that fear, one time, forever, with his death and resurrection. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, period (Romans 8:1). We live, however, in an honest recognition of his holy character and awesome power. We live recognizing the absolute claim of his ownership over us, analogous to the ownership of a potter over his clay (Romans 9:20).

Part of fearing God is admitting how unspeakably unworthy he is of our disobedience. If we properly understand God as he is, we fear displeasing him and grieving him (Ephesians 4:30) with our vanity.

And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed… with the precious blood of Christ… 1 Peter 1:17-18

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58 (NIV)

To not waste our lives is to live for the Father to commend us, which is to establish everything we are and do on Jesus only. To establish our labor on Jesus is to give ourselves fully to him, no holds barred. “I am completely yours, direct me as you will” is perhaps the scariest thing we can pray; yet it is the only prayer that makes sense, given the cost he paid to make it true (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

I think of it this way: if Jesus will judge me, and he will, I want to walk in the light, where he walked. I want freedom from the secrets and shame of the darkness, where neither God nor happiness live.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:5-7

why we (desperately) need the Bible

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. Psalm 19:7-11

If you are a Christian, you believe in the Bible. Whether or not you have read it yourself, you believe that it is true and that it is authored by God. Christianity has nothing to stand on – no source – if it does not have that.

You may intellectually agree that the Bible is true, but you may not personally and wholeheartedly agree that the Bible is desperately necessary, in your life, in your church. People who desperately depend on the Bible in that way are rare, even in Christian circles.

Part of the reason for this is that the Bible is difficult to understand. Part of the reason is that most people have not been taught either to treasure or understand the Bible properly. The most profound reason, however, is that bent, that perversion, in our humanity which reaches to our core: self-reliance, above relying on God.

Christian doctrine says that the whole world is in a state of brokenness and fallenness. We were whole, and exalted, in Eden. Now we are broken and fallen: our instincts and intuitions are bent towards evil and foolishness and away from good and godliness, towards Self and Satan and away from God. Our intuitive ideas about how to live, think, and relate are distorted versions of the truth. In other words, they are lies.

One thing every Christians learns is, “I cannot trust myself.” Learning to distrust yourself – your own perceptions, inclinations, desires, and opinions – is the flip side of learning to trust God. Fundamentally, you cannot do both.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5

Trusting God means depending on him. Depending on him means depending on his revelation to inform and define who you are and how you live, comprehensively.

The reality is that as humans beyond Eden, we need to re-learn how to be human, in every part of our humanity. We need to be re-taught, by God, in scripture.

Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. Psalm 25:8-9

Consider the alternative. The alternative, individually or collectively, is making it up as we go along. It is placing our faith most essentially in our own ability to perceive reality, make choices, think correctly, and define God. If everything we do and are and think about God does not come directly from the truth he has defined, given in the Bible, we are making shots in the dark like the rest of our race, shots in the dark which are inherently inclined away from the truth.

Truth comes to us not only from the doctrinal statements and explicit directives of scripture. It comes from the stories and parables, too. It comes from how things are said, from what is included and left out, from the flow of the narrative, from the repeated cycles of God and man interacting, portrayed in individuals’ lives. Truth comes from all the genres of biblical literature, from the outright statement of James, John, Peter, and Paul, to the subtler presuppositions of the Israelite poets. Truth comes from the framework of thought which undergirds all of scripture.

Absorbing the paradigms of the Bible into our thinking causes us to think in new categories, and ask new, better questions. It guards us from our tendency to take on the roles of both beasts and gods and instead demonstrates to our minds and hearts, in a thousand ways, how to be authentically human.

And that is our goal: to be human, really and truly, participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) while maintaining our honored, blessed role as servants and sons of the transcendent God, after the pattern of the Heavenly Man (1 Corinthians 15:49). Only scripture elucidates redeemed humanity and how it behaves.

Even more: scripture tells us about God himself. It is not theology – man making statements about God. It is doctrine – God making statements about himself, for man to believe. God gave us doctrine the way he did intentionally, that is, in the voices of particular cultures and people. The expressed truth itself is absolutely universal, but the phrases themselves are limiting. We are not at liberty to embellish, stretch, or “improve on” the statements of scripture, especially in light of the original point about our inclinations toward falsehood and foolishness.

Credit must be given where credit is due. The power of the Bible to change lives and communities is the Holy Spirit of God, speaking the words through the writers, persuading hardened hearts of the words’ truth, and granting the grace needed for people to convert the words to actions in the human sphere. So the glory is God’s, and the benefit is ours, and the necessity is desperate.

Read it, and keep on with it, without giving up. Let it change your categories of thought as well as how you behave. Discuss it with people who love it. Hear it preached by preachers who preach nothing more or less than the Word in its purity. Feed on it and feast on it, dive into it and absorb it. The Spirit will not leave you untouched. He will pierce you, crush you, build you, change you. He will recreate you.

The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. Psalm 12:6

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Romans 10:17

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… Colossians 3:17

What do you think? I want to know, especially on this one!

be my absolution!

Have you seen this ad?

Like every good advertisement, it latches onto something more basic and important to the human mind than the functional purpose of the product being sold. Essentially it says, our product will address a fundamental desire in your heart (which is what all good Hallmark cards do).

Call it validation, affirmation, self-worth, whatever you want. The dual ideas of absolution – “formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment”; in other words, the remission of sins – and justification – “the action of declaring or making righteous in the sight of God” – are the heart of it.

The longing for validation itself is not wicked. Just the opposite; that longing was created in the human heart by God when he first fashioned the race from the dust. When it is pure, it is the longing to relate with God. It is a longing for everything wrong in me and my life to be atoned for and forgotten, and for God to love me and call me worthy.

When it is impure, it is the drive behind every sin. Millions of teenage girls who give up their virginity do it because they want absolution and justification, but instead of seeking it from Jesus, they seek it from a fellow sinner. Millions of proud hypocrites who condemn their neighbors likewise work to be validated by something other than the cross of Christ.

This month, I am reading through the Psalms. David and the other psalmists give words to that basic human longing in its pure form, addressing to God and only God the cry, “Be my absolution!”

Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! 3:7

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! …Be gracious to me and hear my prayer! 4:1

Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you do I pray… Lead me, O LORD… 5:2, 8

Be gracious to me, O LORD… heal me, O LORD… 6:2

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes… 13:3

From your presence let my vindication come! …Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings. 17:2, 8

Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! 25:7

For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great… Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins. 25:11, 18

Vindicate me, O LORD… Prove me, O LORD, and try me; test my heart and mind. 26:1

Et cetera. It is important to note not only what the Biblical authors say, but that they say it; in other words, there is something to learn from the simple fact that the psalmists looked to God and him only for grace, help, healing, happiness, vindication, forgiveness. The truth is that to look for these things – to look for validation, absolution, and justification – in any other place is idolatry defined. We look for absolution from whatever we worship.

We must be specific. My question is: how does God absolve and validate me?

He does it like this:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. Romans 6:3-6

Faith unites the believer with Christ, particularly with his death and resurrection. When Christ died, I died. My “old self,” of which sin was master, died and was buried forever, disabled from disqualifying me ever again. When Christ resurrected, I resurrected, to a new kind of life, a life lived to, for, and in God. Before God, all the wrong in me and my life died with Jesus on the cross. When he walked out of his tomb alive, three days after dying, he left it all there in his grave. It’s not on me anymore.

The consequence of this is that God forbids me from seeking peace anywhere else. Only Jesus forgives sin; personal achievement does not.

So, alright! Be my absolution, Jesus!

The Triumph Of The Meek

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

The triumph of the meek will be
Loud. Crowds of complex hearts pulled
Out of dying chests, vests of steel thrown off, melted
Down and welded into cymbals and trombones.
The groans and creaks of grief will cease;
The pains and aches of age will fade;
Instead, the heads of gray will raise,
Amazed.

Meanwhile, my tongue is fire, eager to
Burn, yearning to inflame the anger I suppress
Unless a wafting wind, incendiary, wins, and
My fire-tongue levels the house. The sounds
Of burning dreams are screamed complaints.
Yet saints who keep meek seep love to me
And the lowly-hearted man still holds my hand
In hand.

The blessed state of being will be
Shown, owned up by all. The fault is in our game,
For remedying shame means meekness,
Salving jealous anger, weakness.
Pull a heart from a dead chest: the surest
Way to save a life. Knife in a surgeon’s hand is safest.
So the triumph of the silent will be violently boisterous:
Joyous.