So…..What's the Point?

Musings from a Fellow Struggler

Archive for the month “August, 2011”

Thoughts on Peter’s First Letter, cont’d

This is a picture of chapels hewn into the rock by the early Christians in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), part of the same area that Peter’s audience lived.

Being a pilgrim requires a certain level of detachment from surrounding culture and its influence. The challenge for us is to be engaged with secular culture for the sake of the Gospel while remaining detached from “the world”.

James in his intensely practical letter says that being “friends with the world is to be the enemy of God” (James 4:4). John tells us to “…not love the world or the things in the world.If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world-the lust of the flesh, the lust of eyes, and the pride of life-is not of the Father but is of the world (1 John 2:15-16). The sobering part of this imperative is the word for ‘love’ that John uses. It is from the Greek word agape, which is precisely the love we are to give to God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Thus, the point of these two writers is that being friendly with the world and loving the world is tantamount to not loving God and far worse, being the enemy of God.

I think there is some confusion about what being worldly really means. John’s definition above is helpful and I write about it in other articles (“The Real Enemies of the Christian” series) at Simply put, the ‘world’ (kosmos) is all that opposes the kingdom of God because it is under the dominion of sin and the demonic. This is why James speaks so forcefully and unequivocally that being friends with the world is to be the enemy of God.This echoes what Jesus said about the impossibility of serving two masters; it will either be God or the Devil/world. And to all the so-called free-spirits who that think they are masters of their own destinies, understand there is no third option. It is a concrete either/or and never a both/and.  Let’s see what Peter has to say about all this when he advises his audience of pilgrims how to live during their exile.

Lets look at chap. 1:17 first and make some connections with other verses that set the stage for this idea of having no intercourse with the world. Peter uses the term παροικία which means ‘resident aliens’ in 1:17 and is translated by the phrase “throughout the time of your stay here”. This designation adds to the idea of ‘pilgrims’ in the NKJV or “exiles” in the ESV (παρεπίδημος) found in chap. 1:1.These words are used together in chap. 2:11. The point here is that their status as non-permanent non-residents “scattered” about in this region (diaspora, chap. 1:1) is the occasion for a certain kind of conduct and the counsel Peter gives is based on this fact. Peter’s language here hearkens back to the same kind of ‘scattering’ we find in the Old Testament when the
Jews lost their homeland to invading forces and were “carried away” into captivity. It is clear Peter’s audience was being persecuted.

Now, let’s try to imagine what it must have been like for these people in Asia Minor. Living for Christ was heavily penalized. They are being persecuted by former friends and associates, by their own relatives and by pagan religious leaders. It would be like you suddenly being rejected, ridiculed, held in suspicion, your livelihood threatened and punished in multiple ways by friends, family and society-at-large for simply professing faith in Christ. It would be very easy to start thinking that being a Christian is to be a low-class member of the community , an aberration, like having a sickness so others avoid you at all costs. It could make you feel inferior even if by societies standards you were thought of as ‘successful’. I think this is why Peter reminds them of their royal lineage as citizens of another country in chapters 1 and 2.

For example, Peter uses the term ‘elect’ in verse 2 to describe these people. By virtue of this divine election, they belong to God and, therefore, their circumstances are not accidental nor do they reflect any kind of divine abandonment. They are part of a divine plan and divine decision that was established before the world was even created. This entire letter expands and illustrates this point. They are, therefore, not to think of themselves as rejected nor victims of out-of-control circumstances, but rather as citizens of another “world” because they are not citizens of this one (the kosmos); they are pilgrims and foreigners and shall always be such no matter what their location.Therefore, for a Christian to be and to feel alienated in the midst of worldly culture should be of no surprise. The mistake for us all is when we try to assuage this sense of alienation by joining in with the surrounding ‘worldliness” (kosmos) that, remember, is opposed to the kingdom of God.

We can illustrate this point by referring to the Ephesians letter. Παροικίa (resident aliens) is used by Paul in Eph. 2:19 to declare that Gentile Christians are not strangers and foreigners with regard to God but rather fellow citizens with the saints and members of His household; it is an image of family and belonging. So, taking Peter and Paul together, we can say that Christians are spatially and temporally located in the ‘world’ and are therefore strangers, foreigners and sojourners while, at the same time, members of God’s family, His sons and daughters belonging to a different kingdom. So, people who reject God remain strangers and foreigners to His kingdom while remaining “at home” in the world whereas Christians are at home with God and become strangers and foreigners to the world. Thus, for James at least, being ‘friends with the world” when your allegiance is to God is tantamount to treason.

More to come…….


The Unraveling


Man, maybe I’m just in a pessimistic mood, but it sure seems
that everything around me is unraveling.
It’s like pulling on a piece of loose thread on a shirt; the more I pull
on it, the more the shirt comes apart. Something is really pulling on the
fabric of this world and it’s unraveling right before our eyes.

Now, I know some folks try to put a positive face on this
fall into lawless entropy but from what I can see, it is inevitable; it’s all
part of the plan and leaves me saying “maranatha, even so come Lord Jesus”. And come soon. Call me an escapist if you want, but I really don’t to go through any more of this than I have to.


What’s So Beautiful about Holiness?

Worship and holiness go hand in hand.  Every act, every thought can be a doxology of embodied worship by lives separated to God and consecrated by God. 1 Chron. 16:28-29 illustrates this connection by declaring to the “families of the peoples” (i.e. the whole world) that only the God of Israel is worthy of worship and, therefore, they are to “…come worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.”

Israel’s experience of God’s holiness was unique. They knew of fear and trembling in God’s presence and learned of the great separation between Creator and creation because of sin. They learned they were a “holy nation” that belonged to Yahweh and must remain separated from the surrounding nations. But, most importantly they learned of God’s intrinsic holiness, His absolute Otherness to all creation, and His righteousness, justice and judgment.

These days, even though we talk about and sing of God’s holiness more than ever, it seems to me that we passionately desire and pursue it less and less. Why? First, the very notion of holiness often conjures up images of stodginess, no-fun-at-all seriousness, stifling conformity to rules of dress and conduct, and long hours of sheer boredom. Monasteries and convents come to mind or hermits in caves. Second, the culture we live in is so thoroughly hedonistic and narcissistic that a holy life would surely be ostracized and condemned; being accepted rather than rejected by friends, neighbors and co-workers is more important. Third, many Christians have bought into the postmodern view that all things moral and ethical are matters of personal, or group, preferences, conveniences, and agendas, not the authority of “thus says the Lord”. Fourth, and often the result of the third, we just like sin too much and the pursuit of holiness would curb our carnal self-indulgence. So, if any of this is even true what is so ‘beautiful’ about holiness and how does it relate to worship?

The phrase “beauty of holiness” (KJV) is thought by some commentators to refer to the worshipper and the language supports this view. So, for example, the RSV translates “beauty of holiness” as “holy array”. Worshipping God in holy array emphasizes the actions, character and disposition of the individual outwardly displayed by what they wear in His presence. For example, the priests and the High Priest were required to dress a certain way when conducting the affairs of Yahweh on behalf the people of Israel. The particulars of these garments were described by Yahweh and each component represented something true about God and about the priest. Being properly dressed was a condition for acceptable worship in the presence of Yahweh. In Psalm 61:10 David refers to this kind of wardrobe change as a time of great rejoicing because God clothed him with “the garments of salvation” and covered him “with the robe of righteousness” just as a bridegroom “decks himself with ornaments” and the bride with “jewels”.  And the New Testament version of this change of clothes tells us to “…put off (as if it were a garment) the old man and “…put on (like a garment) the new man who was created according to God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22, 24)

However, “beauty of holiness” can also be rendered “when he (Yahweh) appears in (His) holiness”.  Together with the other passages where the phrase is found (i.e. 2 Chron. 20:21, Psa. 29:2) we can say that the appearance of God’s holiness is beautiful and that His beauty is holy. God is said to cover Himself “with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104:2) and seraphim continuously cry out “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts and the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3). I certainly can’t imagine what being clothed in light would look like but I do know that just as light dispels darkness, so God’s holiness dispels evil, sin and the Enemy. It’s really no wonder that the word for “worship” in this phrase means to prostrate oneself; what else could you do seeing the beauty of such Holy Light?

Sadly in many churches and in spite of all the references to His holiness, God has become “tame’, a comfortable concept, a familiar word and we have let the world tell us what is beautiful. Think of all the money, time and energy spent these days on cosmetics and cosmetic surgery in order to look beautiful and forestall the aging process. The degree of human vanity is breathtaking. In profound contradistinction, we are called to “…be holy, for I (God) am holy” and exhorted to “pursue peace with all people and holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14): we must learn that such holiness is true beauty.

So, the answer to the question of this essay “what’s so beautiful about holiness?” is this: God is beautiful in His holiness and because of what He does for us according to His mercy and grace, we are beautiful as well. In fact, nothing is more beautiful in all of creation than a human being clothed in the light of God’s holiness. And we are the most beautiful when we worship God’s Holy beauty being clothed with His righteousness through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Recovering from Our Insanity

Christians generally agree (although we might disagree about
the details) that two kinds of realities exist. The first is called kosmos and
refers to the material universe and, at the same time, to all that which is
under the dominion of sin and death because of humanities rebellion against
God. The other is ouranos, or heaven, and refers to, among other things, light and life and to all that which is under the dominion of God’s rule and will.

Now, we also generally agree that these two realities are at odds with one another; that they are, in fact, at war. The front lines of this conflict between good and evil, the kingdom’s of heaven and hell, is our personal life along with our neighborhood, our local school, our government, our culture and our religion and the intensity of this war upon all Christians is increasing.  It is so intense that the ranks of those claiming allegiance to God are becoming divided.  Christians holding fast to the traditions which they have received (represented by the Apostolic and Nicene creeds, for example) are often considered by their post-modern ‘brethren’ as a roadblock to social, political and religious reforms that, so they argue, any rational and compassionate person should readily embrace. This version of Christianity declares there is no such thing as absolute truth, that old traditions must yield to post-modern progress that morality is a matter of personal choice and preference, that one religion is as true as another, and that Jesus was not the Son of God nor did
He arise bodily from the grave and so on.

But while this battle rages, we have our personal battles going on as well.  Because we are both material and spiritual beings we are in the world and can feel its influences while, at the same time, not of the world because we are citizens of heaven.  We are often at war with ourselves in a battle fought in our minds over what we will or will not do in response to the overtures of heaven and the temptations of hell. The enemies of God are continually pressuring His people to be conformed to their values, morals and ambitions instead of being transformed into the image of His Son.  Paul spoke in his letter to the Romans in one of his many do not do/do formulas; i.e. do not be conformed to the world, do be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

The words ‘conform’ and ‘transform’ are important. They both have as their root the term “form”.  Now, to form something is to change it in order to fit a certain pattern or serve a certain purpose that it might not otherwise be inclined or capable. So, for example, “…the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground…” (Gen. 2:7)  Dust and earth by themselves cannot become a person but in the hands of the Creator they can be patterned after His image and given the purpose of serving Him.  A more mundane example is concrete.  By itself, it is merely a viscous substance without pattern or purpose. When it is placed in a form, it can become a wall or a floor and serve the purposes of a builder.

With these ideas in mind, think about the word conform. When used to describe change in people’s lives it usually means they are submitting to a pattern of common expectations or set of ideals and, therefore, “fitting in’. If we conform to a
particular group, then we blend into the larger whole by going along with
whatever the majority deems necessary or beneficial in spite of what we might
otherwise desire. It has a wider social application and is often associated
with ‘peer pressure’. In other words, I might change my opinions and mannerisms in order to ‘be like’ others in the same group and win their acceptance but still secretly retain my own agendas. I change but only outwardly; my inner condition remains the same.

For a Christian to conform to the world, then, is to follow its moral, political and cultural ideals, to ‘fit in’ to a pattern that is, at least at the time, the accepted norm. One word often used to describe this is ‘fashion’ and one has to think only of how things go in and out of fashion, from clothes to morals, to understand its meaning. To fashion ourselves after the world, then, is to embrace the temporary and reject the eternal; it is to think as the world thinks and into step with what is described in 2 Tim 3:1-17. In short, it is a preoccupation with all things transitory (money, power, possessions) and ignoring that which is incorruptible.

 Reformation, on the other hand, is the correction of inappropriate behavior by the imposition of an alternative set of ideals or purposes that lead to a different behavior. Note the structure of the word reform.  It suggests a rearranging of what is already there into something different. But because the components are the same, the overall essence of what is reformed remains the same. So, alcoholics are reformed when they stop drinking and pursue a responsible life-style but all the while they remain alcoholics. They stop doing but not necessarily desiring what is destructive to their lives.  They change, but, then, not really.

The only counter to this constant and incessant pressure to conform and reform is to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”. Unlike the term conform which suggests an outward molding of a life according to a definite pattern (in this case, a pattern of rebellion against God) transformation suggests inward changes that, by proceeding outward, produce real change in our actions and attitudes. It is the actual altering of our being, the core of existence into something wholly new and unprecedented and quite impossible apart from direct divine involvement. In fact, it is nothing short of an infusion of the Divine into our souls.

It is an unfortunate fact that conformation and reformation are often confused with transformation and considered as synonyms.  That is, social pressures, including
religious ones, compel people to adopt certain obvious and mostly external
characteristics that supposedly reflect the ideals of their religion.  So, for example, smoking cigarettes might be considered contrary to ideas off holiness; a smoker in such a group is pressured to quit, to give up the external act that is offensive.  Now, the smoker may indeed give up the habit, but that in itself is not holiness; it is merely ‘fitting in” to a social group and meeting their expectations of conduct.
They are reforming and conforming at the same time but the real issue of
transformation is forgotten because the immediate cause of offense is no longer
visible.  The person’s appearance now looks acceptable and mirrors the appearance of others in the group; all is well.

Frankly, judging by the decisions we make and the relationships we seek out, we are not in our right minds most of the time.  I sometimes imagine that those benevolent angelic beings given charge over us must think us quite insane when we act as
if the natural world is more real and important than the spiritual. We need
healing from this delusional behavior because what we think and how we think
determine our actions.  In short, the aberrant insanity of the “lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16) that motivates the world, and many Christians for that matter, must be replaced by the sanity of mind that only desires to “do the will of God” (1 John 2:17).  And, according to Rom 12:2, it is only a transformed mind that is able to “discern” what God’s will is and, once determined, then actually do it.

And one fundamentally important thing a clear mind will show us is the real difference between kosmos and ouranos, that this world is under
the dominion of principalities and powers bent on destroying all God has made
and no compromise with it is acceptable. It will reveal just how deeply seated
sin is in our lives and how opposed we really are to the things of God.  It will reveal that most of what we think is valuable and important in this life will soon forever pass away and only “treasure in heaven” will remain. It will reveal that at the end of days all of creation will undergo a final transformation and only what God’s Spirit touches will remain, unmoved, eternal and permanent.

Thoughts On Peter’s First Letter

I do a lot of research and Bible study. During these journeys I come across interesting insights that are not really widely known. These little nuggets can start a kind of mini avalanche of ideas and before long I’m buried in God’s truth.  It’s really fun and returning to the mundane tasks of everyday life is hard.  But for me at least everyday activities are enhanced by this experience and I hope as you read these blogs your experience will be the same.

1 Peter 1:1–2 (NKJV)

1       Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia,
and Bithynia,
2 elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in
sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of
Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace be multiplied

The map above shows the region of Asia Minor where the recipients of Peter’s letter lived. It most closely corresponds to modern-day Turkey.

Note first of all the idea of ‘pilgrims’ (παρεπιδήμοις). A better rendering for this word is “foreigners” and suggests people displaced (hence, diaspora, scattering) and living somewhere that isn’t really home.

At the very least this word signifies that wherever we are or whatever circumstances we face our lives here are only temporary; i.e. we are merely passing through. And the
reason we’re only passing through is because we’re on a journey searching for a
lasting (permanent) city (Heb. 13:14). To think otherwise is to court the danger of becoming entangled in the affairs of the world (kosmos) which for most of us is the ‘foreign land’ in which we live as aliens. One sure sign this is happening is how comfortable we are with the attitudes, values and activities displayed by a culture uncompromisingly opposed to God.

Taking these in order, consider the world’s attitude. It can be summed up by the word narcissism; i.e. self-love. And this attitude is fast becoming blatant and pandemic displayed most dramatically through the increasing lawlessness we witness around the world. The attitude of narcissism generates a value-system that only accepts a morality of self-interest because self-love acknowledges only the law of self-serving hubris and therefore rejects any restraint on this impulse. The actions that follow narcissistic self-interest are characterized by ‘using and abusing’ whatever will feed this beast of self-interest.

 Now, if we find ourselves taking this-worldly attitude in stride in and even joining in we are putting roots down in the wrong soil. In chapter 2:11 Peter tells these foreigners (using the same word found in chapter 1:1-2) that they should “…abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.” On the positive side, they should “conduct themselves honorably” so that even though they are accused of wrongdoing their lives counter such perceptions. And as 21st century Christians we should
do the same. We are not to think “we’re stuck here (wherever that is) so let’s make  the best of it” but rather be proactive by living exemplary lives, a sort of ‘bloom where you’re planted’ kind of attitude.

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