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Where Are You?

Sunday, June 26, 2022

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3.8-11)

The question God directs at Adam is a familiar one, asked for many different reasons in many different scenarios.  In the case of Adam and Eve, God asked them, not because he didn’t know where they were—nothing is hidden to the omniscient and omnipresent God—but in order to play along, so to speak, with his creations’ silly game, and give them an opportunity to own up to what they had done.

At other times, someone might inquire about your location in order to join you there, or to lay plans contingent upon the expected time of your arrival at another location, or still another reason.  But one reason in particular is not so far removed from the cause of God’s question to Adam: perhaps you are lost, and the answer to the question, “where are you?” is the necessary starting point in the quest to find you, or set you back on the proper way.  This happens all the time in the physical realm—getting lost on your way to a job interview in an unfamiliar town, for example.  It also happens in the spiritual realm, in which countless souls wander around, lost in sin.  If you should discover that you’re lost, it’s important to establish a few more facts before proceeding:

Where do you want to go?

The answer to this question may be anything from the broad, “anyplace I recognize!” to something much more narrow, like “the barbecue restaurant on 3rd Street.”  But if you don’t have a clearly defined goal in mind, you won’t be able to really achieve anything beyond becoming lost in a slightly different locale.  It’s important to determine what criteria would make you no longer lost, and to correctly match those criteria to a location.  If you find yourself lost in sin and destined for destruction, finding the barbecue restaurant isn’t going to help you.  You need to find the sheepfold over which Jesus is “the good shepherd” (Jn 10.11).

Do you have a trustworthy wayfinder?

We’ve all gotten bad directions at one time or another.  A generation ago, a slip of the tongue or the memory could easily send the lost soul down the wrong road, or the right road, but the wrong direction; there were even those who would take pleasure in misleading a wanderer.  Supposed shepherds “have been leading them astray, and those who are guided by them are swallowed up” (Is 9.16).  A little more recently, cars started to include GPS navigation, but if the systems didn’t update as roads changed, you could easily follow their instructions to the wrong location, or worse.  Even today, when everyone has a smartphone in his pocket and easy access to constantly updated maps and customized turn-by-turn instructions to get where you want to go, there are occasional mistakes, glitches, and other shortcomings.  This leads, at worst, to a phenomenon called Death by GPS, when someone trusts the phone’s instructions over his own eyes and, for example, turns the wrong way up a one-way street.  How much riskier, when the stakes aren’t just your physical life, but your eternal soul?  Who, or what do you trust to give you reliable instructions?

How do you reach the goal?

With your goal and your wayfinder established, the next thing to define is the pathway.  The exact directions will depend somewhat upon where you are in the first place, which is why it’s so important to assess your current location.  If the goal is Chicago, it matters an awful lot whether you start from 8th St and Broadway, New York City, or 8th St and Broadway, Los Angeles.  But in the spiritual realm, while not everyone lost is lost in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reasons, it’s all due to sin, broadly.  The only destination worth reaching is the kingdom of heaven, and while each person’s journey to find the door will be unique, there’s only the one door!  “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Lk 13.24).  How do you reach that door?  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1.15).

Are you willing to follow the map?

But this isn’t about a half-hearted, dismissive, verbal assent.  Saying, “sure, whatever,” is no indication at all of a genuine trust in the guide.  As James 2.19 tells us, “Even the demons believe—and shudder!”  But why is this belief not enough, when Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5.36), and Paul says, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Ro 10.9)?  For the same reason a person might be lost in a shady part of town, see the signs and maps to guide him back to where the light shines, and choose to stay in the darkness.  Jesus’ and Paul’s statements assume that you want to be found.  But, while this hypothetical person believes he knows the way out of the darkness, he doesn’t believe the light is what’s best for him.  He doesn’t believe the one who tells him there’s a better way.  Like Adam and Eve, he has determined he’d rather remain hidden—lost, in the dark.  What about you?  Are you on the path that leads to life?  Do you really trust your guide?  Are you in the light?  Look around.  Where are you?

Jeremy Nettles

Constant in Prayer

Sunday, June 19, 2022

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” (Luke 18.1-8a)

Jesus’ parable and commentary in this passage is comforting and encouraging.  As he taught on many other occasions, the main takeaway is that we’re foolish to spend our time and effort on worrying, when God himself is watching over us, ready to hear our requests.  Yet, despite what Jesus says here, we surely all know from personal experience that we do not always receive the things we ask of God.  Jesus himself prayed, “Remove this cup from me” (Mk 14.36), meaning the burden of death on a cross, bearing the sins of the world on his shoulders.  How did that work out for him?  Or what about the Apostle Paul?  He suffered some bodily affliction he earnestly desired to be rid of, and reports,

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12.8-9a)

It’s a flowery “No,” but a “No” nonetheless.  So is God on the hook to give us what we ask, or not?

James provides us with two possible explanations for God’s refusal to heed our prayers.  In the first, he tells his audience, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Ja 3.2b-3).  While upholding the general recommendation that we pray, rather than worrying or becoming bitter over wants, he points out that God is not only interested in in granting our requests, but also assessing our motives.  As any parent knows, there’s a vast difference between a child requesting $20 to give to someone who needs help buying groceries, and one requesting that same $20 to spend on a new toy that will be a brief source of amusement, soon forgotten.

The second possibility appears in another of James’ exhortations to pray:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord… (James 1.5-8a)

The one who doubts—not so much that God will give him what he wants, as that God is listening and able to answer—undermines his own prayer.  Do either of James’ helpful notes explain the rejection of Jesus’ or Paul’s prayer?  Not at all!  While they’re valuable lessons for us to learn, they don’t do much to answer our question!

“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1Jn 5.14).  Here’s our explanation.  It was not God’s will that Jesus be spared the full experience he and his Father had planned since before the foundation of the world; neither was it God’s will that Paul’s body be a perfect specimen of health and strength.  God had more important things in mind: “my power is made perfect in weakness.”  God wanted Paul’s fleshly body to be obviously imperfect, the better to demonstrate that the power and glory were from God, not man.

Understanding that it’s not just about our own gratification will help us immensely in our prayers.  God always answers, but often the answer is “no,” and we may not always know the reason why.  But we should remember that the reasons, whatever they may be, are more important than our imperfect, fleshly vision of the world and our place in it.  In fact, even Jesus’ prayer, our first example of God’s refusal to grant a request, acknowledged this circumstance—immediately after begging, “Remove this cup from me,” Jesus concluded, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14.36).

So, how should we pray?  Despite knowing a great deal from what God reveals to us in his word, we don’t always know his will in every minute detail.  How can we avoid asking “wrongly,” as James says?  First of all, we can follow Jesus’ example of acknowledging in our prayers that we don’t know what’s best and yield to our Father’s unimaginably greater wisdom.  But we shouldn’t let this keep us from making requests, nor should we worry excessively about accidentally asking something against God’s will.  His answer to Paul wasn’t harsh, and Jesus reassures us, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6.8), even if we ourselves don’t know.  In fact,

“the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8.26)

He doesn’t expect us to have his level of knowledge, understanding, or wisdom.  We should do our best to emulate his good will, and make our prayers accordingly.  We ought always to pray and not lose heart.  Our heavenly Father loves us, and wants what’s best for us.  “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Ro 12.12).

Jeremy Nettles

Substance and Evidence

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.

        Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. (Hebrews 10.35-11.2, KJV)

These words introduce one of the most justly beloved passages in the Bible, often called something like, “Faith’s Hall of Fame,” consisting of the remainder of Hebrews 11.  But the description of faith as “the substance of things hoped for,” and “the evidence of things not seen,” is somewhat befuddling.  In particular, to call faith “evidence” seems irrational and even irresponsible—faith is synonymous with belief, but what is evidence, if not reason to believe?  If our reason for believing something is that we believe it…well, that’s just circular reasoning.  Someone could proclaim to have faith that the earth is flat, and when challenged, justify that belief on the evidence of his own belief, regardless of observation or reason.  Is faith in Christ adequate reason to have faith in Christ?  Of course not.  The trouble certainly isn’t that the Scripture is wrong; perhaps the translators are at fault?  A comparison with other translations, most of which render the text a bit differently, seems to validate that theory, but it’s not fair.  The translators who produced the King James Bible—in 1611— didn’t get it wrong, but they translated in a way that is easy to misunderstand, especially for us, four centuries later.  Let’s take the offending verse (He 11.1) one clause at a time.

The first reads, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for.”  The Greek word behind “substance” is ὑπόστασις-hupostasis, a compound of ὑπό-hupo-“under” and στάσις-stasis-“standing/position.”  These building blocks translate directly into an equivalent Latin compound, substantia, in which our English word, “substance,” is readily visible.  But while today we generally use this word to mean physical matter, it didn’t always mean this.  In fact, where this Greek word appears elsewhere in the New Testament, the King James translators chose to render it using the English word, “confidence,” in three out of four instances (2Co 9.4 & 11.17; He 3.14).  That leaves one other, Hebrews 1.3, where the author definitely does not mean confidence, but in 3.14 he obviously does, and considering the context, it’s clear that’s what he means here in chapter 11 as well.  It’s not such a drastic difference as we might think—the idea is that, although the object of hope remains unseen (hence “hope,” cf. Ro 8.24), the person with faith behaves as if he sees or holds in his hands the very essence of the things he can’t actually see or hold.

That brings us to the second clause, “the evidence of things not seen,” where our discussion began.  To recap, we think of evidence as a reason to believe—but since “faith” is synonymous with “belief,” we’re running in a circle, saying that belief is a reason to believe.  But that’s not what the author meant, and it’s probably not what the King James translators meant, either.  We could paraphrase their intent something like this: “faith is…treating as evident something that isn’t actually visible.”  This Greek word, λεγχος-elengchos (and its verbal forms) is used more frequently in the New Testament than hupostasis (Mt 18.15; Lk 3.19; Jn 3.20, 8.46, 16.8; 1Co 14.24; Ep 5.11 & 13; 1Ti 5.20; 2Ti 4.2; Ti 1.9 & 13, 2.15; He 12.5; Ja 2.9; Jd 15; Re 3.19).  Like the first example, rendering it “evidence” in this case makes it an outlier.  Everywhere else, the KJV reads “reproof,” “rebuke,” “convict,” or other such things.  Clearly faith is not exactly a rebuke, but how about a conviction?  That makes more sense—being convinced of something you can’t fully know through observation.  Most of the more modern translations not only account for changes in our language, but strive for greater clarity—even as far back as the ASV in 1901, Hebrews 11.1 was translated, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.”  From the standpoint of accurate and understandable translation, it’s tough to improve upon that!

Why does all of this matter?  Well, that much-beloved list of the faithful and their deeds, which fills the rest of the chapter, relies on this definition.  The author of Hebrews is about to use the word, “faith,” two dozen times more in this chapter, and it’s important to understand his working definition of the term, if we want to understand the rest of what he says about it.  There’s plenty for us to learn from each faithful individual; they’re being held up as exemplary for a reason!  But that’s not the point he’s making.  That point is cumulative: these great examples of faith accomplished all these amazing things, or were used or blessed by God in amazing ways, and why?  Because they treated their hope as fact, and lived as if certain things were obvious to them, even though they couldn’t see or touch them.  That’s the pitch the author is making to his audience—and by extension, to us.  It’s hard to feel confident as years go by and we still haven’t seen any sign of Christ’s return; but look what these heroes accomplished, and how long they had to wait, how they persevered, and how highly we regard them for keeping the faith.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith... (Hebrews 12.1-2)

Jeremy Nettles

Higher than the Earth

Sunday, June 05, 2022

Seek the Lord while he may be found;

                       call upon him while he is near;

let the wicked forsake his way,

                       and the unrighteous man his thoughts;

        let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,

                       and to our God, for he will abundantly         pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

                       neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

                       so are my ways higher than your ways

                       and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55.6-9)

This passage reminds of us several important things: first, that God is far wiser and more righteous than we are.  Next, that we have a responsibility to call on him and seek his will and ways.  It further reminds us that, whenever our attitudes and actions don’t line up with his standards, we are obligated to admit it, and change to conform to him. 

When we do this, God won’t ever gloat over us, or call us foolish, or hold our mistakes over our heads.  Instead, he treats us with compassion and abundantly pardons our transgressions.  “Call upon him while he is near,” we are told.  It’s not an unreasonable expectation—that we must search high and low, leaving no stone unturned, and finally, if we work hard enough and are graced with a healthy dose of luck, perhaps we may find him.  Rather, he makes himself accessible to those who are willing to listen and obey.  On the other hand, just because he makes himself available doesn’t mean he’s at our beck and call, or that he’ll be so understanding of our position as to change his mind about what’s right and wrong. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.”  We’re the ones who need to change—not him!  We’re the ones who are easily mistaken—not him!  We’re the ones who don’t really know what’s good for us—God knows everything!  He even knows our very thoughts, and will hold us accountable for which ones we entertain, dwell upon, and pursue.

But while the fact of God’s omniscience scares us somewhat—after all, who hasn’t harbored a hateful, lustful, or arrogant thought?—this very same passage reminds us that God is not sitting in heaven, slowly building up the most damning case possible against each one of us, cackling maniacally all the while.  Rather, like any good father who knows his kids and can read their thoughts, he wants us to succeed—wants us to mature, and grow, and reflect his own good will and character.  “The Lord [will] have compassion on” the one who turns from his sin and seeks God’s will.  If we’re honest with ourselves, and not completely deluded by our own arrogance, it’s difficult for us to believe, or even comprehend that the perfect, righteous, all-knowing, and all-powerful God would feel anything but disdain for such awful people as we are.  The apostle Peter clearly demonstrated this for us, when Jesus performed a miracle that proved to be a great blessing to the fisherman:

And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5.4-8)

If Peter had been an utterly selfish, uncaring sinner, we’d have expected him to see the immense potential for financial gain in Jesus’ great power, and try to build a relationship with him for his own benefit; but no.  For all his faults, when confronted by such power, and having already been told that this man is the Messiah (Jn 1.41), he simply melted and admitted his own great faults, which he couldn’t believe Jesus would tolerate.

Yet, Jesus already knew Peter wasn’t perfect.  “He knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn 2.24b-25). He wanted Peter to follow him, anyway.  He wanted to redeem him, anyway.  God always seeks to show compassion on us.  We have a high priest who’s been through the struggles of human life, and sympathizes with our weaknesses (He 4.15).  He shows us the way through the trials, because he navigated that path successfully, himself. 

This brings us back to our passage in Isaiah, which also closes with a reminder that where we have failed, God has succeeded: “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  We can see the sky, but we can never reach out and grasp it.  We’re simply not built for the heavens.  But God has given us a glimpse of himself through their beauty, order, and complexity.  It’s not a mere accident that even the pagans of the world throughout history have gazed at the sun, moon, and stars, and marveled at them—even going so far as to worship them, in most cases.  We shouldn’t mistake the heavens for God, but he built them in such a way as to teach us, intuitively, that he is there; that he is greater than we are; that, try as we might, we can never lay hold of him by our own power.

It is all the more amazing, then,  that he makes himself known to us, and wants us for his children.  He deserves all our respect and love.  The offer of adoption doesn’t last forever, though.  Judgment is coming, “at an hour you do not expect” (Lk 12.40).  Call upon him, while he is near.

Jeremy Nettles

A Higher Purpose

Sunday, May 29, 2022

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13.1-3)

When reading the words of Jesus, we sometimes get so caught up in the teaching itself, that we fail to consider the details carefully woven into the narrative by the four Evangelists.  Fair enough; if the alternative were to ignore what Jesus tells us and read the Gospels as mere works of literature, then we all ought to be perfectly happy to miss out on a clever juxtaposition from John, or a particularly vivid description from Mark.  But ideally, we would give attention to the details, because understanding them will help us, in turn, to better understand Jesus.  In this case, we make considerable progress toward a firmer grasp of Jesus’ teaching, by beginning with the question: what were the messengers of Pilate’s violent acts expecting Jesus to say about the situation?

We don’t find a clear cut answer in the text, but Luke is a very thoughtful writer (to say nothing of the Holy Spirit!).  It’s reasonable to suggest, first, that he included this snippet of Jesus’ ministry for a profound purpose; and second, that by interrupting a long stretch of Jesus’ teaching with some unnamed persons’ contribution, he invites us to consider their motives.  Perhaps it was as simple as this: the bloodbath was a recent event that shocked the populace, and so naturally it was the talk of the town.  But considering what Pilate represented—Roman dominance—and the general sentiment among the Jews toward it—hatred—it would be naïve to think that the conversation was limited to the facts.  Surely it branched into two related topics: passing judgment, and discussing what should be done about it.  Surely, most people expected Jesus to issue some kind of condemnation of Pilate’s actions, and perhaps the sins of those awful Galileans, too—since most of those outside of Galilee were only slightly more fond of Galileans than they were of Pilate.

But, even though he could have rightly condemned all manner of evil involved in what had transpired, he went a different direction: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  It was common, especially during the final stages of Jesus’ ministry leading up to his crucifixion, for people to approach him with insincere questions.  The Pharisees asked him whether they should pay taxes to Rome.  The Sadducees asked him about family law in the resurrection.  A lawyer asked him about the legal definition of the word, neighbor.  Scribes were involved in asking him whether the law concerning capital punishment for adultery meant what it said.  Usually these people were seeking to harm Jesus, but even that motivation was generally borne of selfishness, because he threatened their status.  For most of these cases, there were two camps, corresponding to two politic0-religious parties, and the goal was to get Jesus to alienate one side or the other.  In all cases, they were seeking to exalt themselves or their group, at the expense of someone else.  In more modern terms, they were seeking to score cheap political points.

Jesus refused to give them what they wanted.  In fact, on occasion he turned their own tactic back on them, asking questions such as, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Mt 21.25a).  The chief priests’ and elders’ internal deliberations illuminate the tactic for us:

And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” (Matthew 21.25b-27a)

In each case, there is, of course, a simple answer to be found.  But they're not after real answers, they’re after status and power.  Jesus knows how the game is played, and refuses to go along.  “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mt 21.27b)

This same game is played, today, and we should learn the lesson from Jesus—first, the lesson about repenting of sin and preparing for a more powerful judge than Pilate; and second, the lesson about the world’s self-serving behavior, often dressed up as compassion, or respect for truth, or desire for justice.  It takes mere minutes for one person’s immense suffering to become a tool for another person’s self-promotion.

This doesn’t mean the politics don’t matter.  Even if you simply refuse to pay attention, you’ll still have to deal with the ramifications of what others say and do.  But Jesus peels back the veneer and shows us what’s really underneath.  The differences between conservative Pharisees and liberal Sadducees were large, and while the Pharisees were wrong about a a great many things, on the whole they were at least closer to the letter of the law, if not the spirit, than were the Sadducees—who were pretty far from both letter and spirit!  What really mattered, however, was God’s will, and neither party seemed to have given very much thought to that!  Instead, they were concerned with their own petty, tribal jockeying for power.

Our society is—once again—in the throes of this same, disgusting, partisan, self-serving conflict, spurred by a horrible act of evil.  There most certainly are answers and solutions to be found, but rather than picking a side of the fight, give your allegiance to a far higher authority.  Concern yourself with God’s will.

Jeremy Nettles

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