We all encounter questions whose answers we don’t know, and sometimes questions for which we can’t even imagine how to find a valid answer. Then, sometimes we face questions where the problem isn’t so much finding an answer, as answering in a way that will satisfy the person who asked.
I encountered a question like this recently, for which the answer was obvious, but it was immediately apparent that the asker would not be convinced by the obvious answer. It was clear that the question came from a bitter and hateful heart, and was not asked in a genuine quest for answers, but as a rhetorical device attempting to convince others of his hateful ideology. It pertained to a specific situation, but it boiled down to this: “why should I care about other people?”
Most of us instinctively respond to such a question with a facial expression of disgust, but if you can think past that gut reaction, the notion that I have no responsibility to look out for anyone but myself does make a kind of warped sense. Certainly, we are all responsible for our own behavior, and that means everyone else is responsible for their own behavior, and it’s not my problem. If we take that a step farther, I am the one who has to deal with whatever circumstances come my way, and I have no right to expect someone else to rescue me; therefore, perhaps I have no obligation to jump into the breach and make sacrifices to rescue others, who are just as much on the hook to deal with their circumstances.
Of course, there is a simple answer to this utterly self-centered view of morality: God demands otherwise. For example,
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2.3-4)
Well, that was pretty clear, wasn’t it? If we wanted to be more thorough, we could list a few others, such as “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1Co 10.24), or “always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1Th 5.15), or “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone” (Ga 6.10). We could even follow Paul as he connects this standard to the Old Testament law:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13.8-10)
This one highlights that God hasn’t changed his mind about this—it was the same for the Jews under that first covenant, when God’s expectations of them were comparatively lower. In fact, you can see this standard made plain throughout the Law of Moses. For example, he commands his people to leave the edges of their fields unharvested and to leave what fell on the ground, for the poor, widow, fatherless, and sojourner (Le 19.9-10, Le 23.22, De 24.19). He commands his people to throw a giant party every third year for these same people, as well as for the Levites, to thank them for their work on behalf of the nation, sacrificing their own interests for the sake of the whole (De 14.22-29). He tells them explicitly that he himself “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (De 10.18), then in the next verse hammers home the application: “Love the sojourner, therefore.”
It’s easy to see from this that he wants his people to imitate him, and that he deliberately sets an example to them of how they ought to act—how we ought to care about others. But until now, we’ve only focused on the argument from authority. That’s fine—God has all authority, and we are obligated to obey his every instruction, whether we agree or not. But often, he does us the additional kindness of telling us why he has given a particular instruction. This is the case In Deuteronomy 10, where a moment ago we cut off verse 18 in the middle. He commands, “Love the sojourner,” and that should be good enough, but he goes on to say, “for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” He says this, and things like it, many more times in Deuteronomy (5.15, 15.15, 16.12, 23.7, 24.18, 24.22), as well as a couple times in Exodus (22.21, 23.9) and Leviticus (19.34). He’s trying to teach them the same thing that is expressed today in the old adage, “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
This line of reasoning doesn’t change when the New Testament comes along. In another exhortation to care for others, Paul says, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Ro 15.2). This is the same instruction we’ve seen several times already, but this time, beyond “because I said so,” an additional reason is given: “For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (Ro 15.3). It’s not substantially different from God’s message in Deuteronomy. So, why should I care? First, because God told me care. Second, because I was in an awful state, with more on the line than just deprivation or starvation, and the only reason I’m not still there is that someone—God—stepped in to clean up my mess, and rescue me from the greatest danger imaginable.
Over the centuries, Christians have devoted a lot of thought and study to the doctrine of the Trinity—the co-equality and oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s pretty much settled at this point, but even now there are occasional challenges to the idea, and they don't generally come from deliberate troublemakers. Some have simply looked at the Scriptures and seen things they struggle to square with the accepted doctrine, and they make their case primarily from the Bible.
This was also the case soon after the Apostles died, and the church wrestled with questions like this one even as the New Testament was solidifying into its final, accepted form. Many different ideas floated around the Christian world in the first few centuries AD, during which period it was obviously the biggest open question among the leaders in the church.
The debate became increasingly complicated, and led to the birth of a rich new terminology, incomprehensible to anyone not well-versed in the topic, and even to some of those who are. Words like ousia, hypostasis, consubstantiality, miaphysitism, subordinationism, and dynamic monarchianism are common in discussions on the Trinity. Then, there are a host of -isms that mean absolutely nothing until you have delved into the bowels of all the increasingly nit-picky arguments. These are tied not to ideas, but to the names of those who taught them; so, we have Novatianism, Eutychianism, Sabellianism, Arianism, Marcionism, and more. Funnily enough, the vast majority of these terms—like the word Trinity itself—are found nowhere in the Bible, and yet, here they are, confusing people since the early second century.
The question was finally settled in the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325—or so they thought. Turns out, there were more objections to come, and they simply couldn’t anticipate all of the new and exciting ways men would dream up to confuse us, and amuse us. There were several successive revisions of the creed they developed, each one custom-tailored to address a new and improved heresy, and generally doing a fairly good job of repeating what the Bible says in order to refute what men said.
My favorite contemporary quote on the course of this debate comes from Gregory of Nyssa (c. AD 385), who wrote of this period:
Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people would stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing. (“De deitate filii et spiritus sancti et in Abraham” in Gregorii Nysseni Opera vol. X part 2 [ed. E. Rhein], Brill, 1996)
It is noteworthy that a full survey of the Bible shows pretty clearly that the eventually-accepted orthodoxy on the Trinity is basically correct—however, it’s also pretty clear God isn’t awfully concerned that we should fully understand his nature, or he would have spelled it out more clearly, and more concisely. It matters, but he has bigger fish to fry, like repentance from dead works, faith toward God, washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment (He 6.1-2). What really stands out about this old debate are the public interest and street-corner discussions. This minor point wasn’t reserved for the elites in their ivory towers, divorced from the real world. It mattered to the little people, enough to discuss it with friends, family, and passersby.
Why don’t people care as much, anymore? Sure, the question is settled apart from the objections of a few wacky outliers, but hardly anyone discusses things of a spiritual nature at all, outside the confines of “church.” Why? The frightening answer is obvious when you consider what is discussed by nearly everyone, nearly everywhere in our society. Suddenly over the last several months, virology and epidemiology have become topics of popular discussion. So has racial injustice and related public policy, as well as economic policy. In short, it’s all about politics.
To be fair, the Trinity had become a political question in the 4th century when Gregory wrote about it being discussed in the bathhouse, but it should still terrify us that much of our society has replaced God with State. Even many churches have done this, choosing to focus on social issues and voter registration campaigns instead of the Gospel. God’s Word should, of course, influence our politics, but that’s often not what’s happening. Instead, many now start with politics, and then paint it over with a thin layer of repurposed Jesus-talk. This isn’t really anything new, but it’s getting worse and worse.
People choose to spend their time, thoughts, and energy on the things that really matter to them. If your conversation day by day is about everything but the Gospel, what does that tell you? Jesus was dealing with essentially the same problem when he told the Pharisees and Herodians, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12.17). The State has a place ordained by God, as we see (for example) in the first half of Romans 13. We live in a system that encourages, and even requires the populace to participate in governance. We should be grateful for this, and oblige. But don’t let politics become the new religion. Get a little less heated about the things that are Caesar’s, and a little more interested in the things that are God’s.
I had the great privilege of growing up in the church, and learning the Bible from a very young age. I remember being in second grade and thinking about how strange it was that the Israelites used to bow down in front of an object and worship it. How ridiculous! God, through the prophets, argued this same point. For example, he describes a man who cuts down a tree, and then
takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44.15-17)
God’s sense of humor is on full display here, as he pokes fun at the bizarre spectacle of a man using his own hands to construct an object he will then worship, treating it as if it had some great power, when it was the worshiper’s own power that brought the idol into existence! Yet, at the same time he uses the very tree that became a “god,” as fuel to cook his food. The scene he has painted is a bit pathetic, depicting of a very confused person. Isaiah laments in verse 19 that none of these poor fools thinks to ask, “Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”
This picture is so clear that even a child can understand, and yet idol-worship was the norm, for most people in the world, for most of history. Why is that no longer the case? Simply because God elevated his people Israel and through them, culminating with his Son, taught the world the truth, that there is one God, not many, and he cannot be adequately represented by any image we could construct—nor does he want to be.
Yet even today, there is idolatry in many places around the world. The three “Abrahamic religions,” Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all shun idols. However, within Catholicism and eastern orthodoxy in particular, many who call themselves Christians are at the very least toeing the line of idolatry, with “icons”—images and symbolic objects used in religious ceremonies—holding prominent positions in both their places of worship and in the worship itself. In fact, one of the complaints that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was the accusation that the Catholic Church practiced idolatry.
Nor is the problem today limited to people just getting a little too close to the line. In many religions still practiced today, chiefly Hinduism and Buddhism, idols are commonplace. This is also the case in many of the African religions and those of the island cultures and American natives, to the extent that their religions are still practiced. In these, manufactured objects are still revered as holy depictions of various gods and spirits, just as was the case when God told the ancient Israelites,
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them… (Exodus 20.4-5)
While it’s easy for us to scoff at these silly people with their silly beliefs and practices, do we consider ourselves? It doesn’t appear in exactly the same way, with blocks of wood and golden calves and so on, but there is much idolatry in the modern world around us, too.
How can an increasingly secularized society be idolatrous? Consider the devotion many show to Almighty Science—not just the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but the idea that Science provides moral imperatives. Or the way many people idolize celebrities, or politicians, or Politics itself. How many people clearly worship sports, their careers, or money? This is more or less what Paul was talking about, when he said,
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. (Colossians 3.5-6)
Are those not among the greatest evils we see in this world today? Clearly, they are, and among them is another sin God was already diagnosing and prohibiting in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet” (Ex 20.17). Paul includes this in an offhand way, almost as if it’s not an incredibly profound statement about the motivations behind people’s actions and the way God looks at them. Covetousness, roughly equivalent to greed, is idolatry, because it is the elevation of something other than God, to the status and devotion that ought to be reserved for God himself.
As we’ve seen, some people put money on this pedestal, but greed is not the only thing in the modern world that is idol-worship, for all intents and purposes. What matters most to you? What keeps you up at night? What gets you worked up? What takes up your time? What takes up your money?
There’s no harm in having hobbies and interests, or in doing your job well, or in having a successful career. But we must be careful not to let any of these things become our idols. As Jesus told Satan when confronted with the opportunity to acquire control of all the kingdoms and glory the world had to offer, “it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Mt 4.10).
Some people get frustrated by the four separate accounts of Jesus’ life on earth found in the New Testament. There’s repetition, but also confusion, as they don’t always include the same stories, or in the same detail, or in the same order. Much effort has been spent trying to perfectly harmonize all four perspectives, but although that’s worthwhile, it’s also a mistake to eliminate the particular flavors that each of the authors infused into the work. These flavors show up in many forms, sometimes giving us insight into Jesus, his teaching, and the Kingdom of Heaven.
One of these little insights comes at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. Of the four, his is the shortest by a longshot. This is mostly due to his concise, just-the-facts approach, and from the beginning it’s apparent that he intends to spend as little text as he possibly can on an introduction. Where Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy back to Abraham, Luke begins by discussing his writing approach and telling us about Jesus’ distant cousin’s parents, and John writes a dense, yet profound assessment of the nature of light and truth, Mark simply says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1.1), spends a few sentences telling us about John the Baptist, and by verse 9 is covering Jesus’ baptism. He picks up 30 years after Luke, 2000 years after Matthew, and eons after John, and rather than slowly developing the character of Jesus, by the end of chapter 1 Jesus has been tempted in the wilderness, begun preaching the gospel, called disciples, and healed a large number number of sick people. He sets a very quick pace, and we’re hard pressed to keep up.
Mark’s favorite word is “immediately.” It’s a fairly common word in the New Testament narratives, often used as a transition to the next episode. Matthew uses it 14 times, and Luke 12 times in his gospel, as well as another 13 in Acts. Mark, in the shortest of the books mentioned, uses it 35 times, and nine of those occur before he’s concluded the first chapter (vv10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 29, 30, and 42). To some extent, that’s just because of their personal preferences and writing styles; but it helps to showcase Mark’s approach toward telling this whole story. Throughout his gospel and especially in the first chapter, he’s deliberately emphasizing how quickly all of this happened. It’s a rapid-fire course of events with very little time in between to process. By emphasizing the speed with which these events took place, Mark gives us a window into the experience of most of the people who heard of them in real time, who weren’t actively following Jesus around, who were distracted by the normal, everyday cares of life, and for whom all of this happened very…suddenly. As Mark tells us after the first healing he records, “at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee” (Mk 1.28).
Why does Mark do this? What is the point of demonstrating more clearly the swiftness of all that Jesus did here on earth? It matches the predictions God makes elsewhere about the judgments he will bring on the wicked. For example, he tells Babylon,
These two things shall come to you
in a moment, in one day;
the loss of children and widowhood
shall come upon you in full measure (Isaiah 47.9)
Speaking of a different “Babylon” several centuries later, a voice from heaven says,
For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,
death and mourning and famine,
and she will be burned up with fire;
for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her. (Revelation 18.8)
More follows in verses 10, 17, and 19, in these cases speaking of “a single hour.” The point in each one is that God has been patient, and has given ample warning of harsh judgments to come. He gave them plenty of time to repent and turn toward him, but now that the day has come, there will be no escaping. In the blink of an eye, everything is changed.
Jesus’ coming did represent a judgment, but it also represented the opposite—good news. That included a need for repentance, as Mark notes in both John’s teaching (Mk 1.4) and Jesus’ (Mk 1.15). But instead of that repentance simply pushing off God’s wrath for a little while, it brought about, for the first time, a genuine cleansing, healing, and God’s favor. He did all of that in a period of, at most, three years. Even in terms of our lifespan, three years is short, and yet in that brief time, while it was never quite like the flipping of a switch, everything changed.
Today, we often content ourselves with slow, incremental progress, or even just managing to keep things steady. While both of those are better than a continuous descent into hell, it’s important that we not become complacent. As Mark records later, referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem, “concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13.32). It’s dangerous to say, “I’ll be ready when the time comes,” either for your death or for Christ’s return. You don’t know when that time will be. You need to be ready, now. If there are still hurdles between you and God, don’t put them off until you’ve figured out every last detail, or mastered the history and philosophy of Christianity in the western world. Perhaps you’ll have time for that later, but for now, you need to deal with whatever separates you from God’s love, immediately.
I occasionally hear people saying they prefer the God of the New Testament over the God of the Old Testament, on the grounds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, judgmental, and ruthless, while the New Testament God is loving and forgiving. This notion ignores, of course, that they are the same God, and ignores that Jesus pronounces judgments in the New Testament that are far more severe than anything in the Old. Jesus foretells about the day of judgment that the King “will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Mt 25.41). This severity is seen even more clearly in John’s Revelation, in which Jesus appears wearing a blood-soaked robe, with eyes “like a flame of fire,” slaughtering his assembled enemies with a sword that comes from his mouth and then calling all sorts of animals to feast on their remains—and that’s just chapter 19! Afterward, the souls of the dead are judged, and those whose names aren’t written in the Book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire.
So, the general impression that God somehow changed, or softened up between the Old and New Testaments is mistaken. However, it is not terribly difficult to see where people have gotten this impression. For one thing, most of them simply haven’t read the whole Bible. For another, they generally focus on the physical, and the punishments incurred in the Old Testament are generally much more physical than those in the New. Finally, the Old Testament prophets tend to devote the majority of their words to judgment, and less space is reserved for restoration and reward.
But in practically every case, God does turn from his wrath. He does explain his long-term goals of peace and restoration, for those who turn back to him. The examples are too many to list, but we can see the pattern by looking at a couple.
In the book of Ezekiel, God tells the Israelites during the early stages of being taken captive to Babylon that worse things are coming, as a result of their sin. The city of Jerusalem will be destroyed (ch5), the idolaters will be killed by sword, famine and pestilence (ch6), the evil rulers will be killed for their sins against the people in their charge (ch11), God will remove his remaining protections from the people of Judah and allow the surrounding nations to treat them in horrible ways (ch23), and then he will turn his wrath against those surrounding nations and punish them for all their evil acts, as well (chs 25-32, 35). Then, beginning in chapter 37, God tells the Israelites, “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” (Eze 37.14). This goes on for the rest of the book, with chapters 40-48 describing in detail the new Temple he will cause to be built in Jerusalem, and the abundant blessings that will flow from its center, his throne.
In Hosea, God describes himself as husband to an adulterous wife, and spends nearly all of the first 13 chapters describing Israel’s sins against him, their spiritual adultery, and many punishments he sends to turn her around, culminating in the most extreme results listed in 13.16:
Samaria shall bear her guilt,
because she has rebelled against her God;
they shall fall by the sword;
their little ones shall be dashed in pieces,
and their pregnant women ripped open. (Hosea 13.16)
Yet, this isn’t what he wants, or where he intends to leave matters. Rather,
I will heal their apostasy;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily;
he shall take root like the trees of Lebanon;
his shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive,
and his fragrance like Lebanon.
They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon. (Hosea 14.4-7)
This pattern continues in Joel, Amos, Micah, Zephaniah, Zechariah, and Malachi, often introduced with some version of the phrase, “in that day” (e.g. Jl 3.18, Am 9.11, Mi 7.11, Zc 3.10). That's not the only way the phrase is used, but it highlights the ultimate plan, the goal that God is pursuing, even in the judgments he pronounces, and the protections he withholds. Over and over again, he reminds his people, it doesn’t have to be this way. It won’t always be this way. There are much better things coming, for those who are patient, who trust the Lord and do his will.
The year 2020, still only two-thirds completed, has been the most tumultuous in several decades, prompting many striking (and often hilarious) comparisons to the Ten Plagues in Exodus, and the Seven Seals in Revelation. Yes, it has been a crazy time. Yes, it seems to be unending. Between political uncertainty, a worldwide pandemic, murder hornets, hurricanes, wildfires, lockdowns, domestic insurrection, rioting, looting, and arson, some days I think I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Ohio River running red (cf. Ex 7.20), or footage of three frogs hopping out of some politician’s mouth (cf. Re 16.13).
But remember, as God repeatedly told his people over the centuries, this will all end. We don’t know the day or the hour beforehand, but it will come. And in that day, none of this will matter anymore. The unrest, the uncertainty, the violence, the strife, the natural disasters, the unnatural disasters… it’s all a tied to the evil of this world, but God is not bound by such things.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6.19-21)
Be ready for that day.