Iron sharpens iron
The political season is heating up in our country—although it’s worth asking, does it ever really cool down anymore? With the latest “most important election of our lifetime” looming near, Christians ought to recognize, and by repulsed by one particular aspect of the great political debate, because it stands directly opposed to God’s wishes and plans.
An easy way to see the problem is to look at Israel’s experience with king Saul. God had appointed Samuel to judge the people, but as he got older and shifted more of that responsibility to his sons, the people noticed flaws in their leadership and so told Samuel, “appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations” (1Sa 8.5). Setting aside the problem of the Israelites taking their cues from the nations that surrounded them, God had Samuel tell the Israelites that they would regret pursuing this idea, saying, “you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1Sa 8.17-18).
It’s not as if the people’s desire to have a judge and military leader were unreasonable—God had been appointing just those sorts of leaders for…well, for longer than our own country has even has existed, as a matter of fact. Yet, these leaders weren’t invested with the same authority or power as a king, because they were supposed to be agents of the true king, God himself. When Samuel took the people’s demand before him, God responded in part by saying, “they have rejected me from being king over them” (1Sa 8.7). This arrangement hadn’t been very successful for a long time. Since the start, the people had routinely rebelled against God and his law, leading to the sort of barbaric conduct recorded in the last five chapters of the book of Judges. There, the author is careful to note on four separate occasions that these horrible events occurred at least partly because “there was no king in Israel” (Jdg 17.6, 18.1, 19.1, 21.25). He further notes in both the first and last of these explanations that in the absence of a king, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
That wasn’t supposed to be the way it worked—if they had obeyed the law even somewhat consistently, loving God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves, God would have seen that they had little need for great warriors to lead them into battle, or for judges with ever-expanding powers. But, they rejected the best king they could ever have served, and demanded a flawed, fleshly one to save them from the very same problems brought on by their own disobedient, immoral behavior. God chose Saul, and although he didn’t want this position of great authority, Samuel anointed him and told him, “you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies” (1Sa 10.1).
Well, he did do that. He turned out to be (with God’s help) a very successful military leader. But power opened the door to temptation, and before long Saul was ignoring God’s instructions and doing “what was right in his own eyes,” like the nation had done in the days before they had a king. When it was expedient to keep the army from scattering before a battle, he assumed the role of priest, contrary to God’s express commandments in the law (1Sa 13.8-12). When God told him to put an end to a nation that had persistently troubled Israel, without profiting from it, Saul plundered them and then blamed it on the people, while also saying he intended to sacrifice it all to God (1Sa 15.1-21). When God selected David as an eventual replacement for Saul, he spent most of his remaining years trying to murder David, even though he treated Saul like a beloved father. Saul was the ruler appointed by God, but although he fulfilled his role, we’d be right to pity his subjects.
Today, modern, educated people who would scorn those simpletons of the past, are following in their footsteps. They clamor for a ruler who will fix all of the problems they themselves have created by rejecting the instructions of the king of creation. For some reason, although it happens over and over, they still don’t learn, and expect this new ruler to be the perfect one—the chosen one—the Anointed One.
They don’t use the term, but many people continue to search for a Messiah. He already came, and when he did, we nailed him on a cross. Humanity doesn’t really want a perfect ruler, who judges justly and behaves righteously in all things. If you need further proof, just consider what type of people have generally floated to the top of the political pool over the past several decades. They tend to be less like the cream that floats to the top of the milk pail, and more like the film of putrid algae that floats to the top of the pond.
No, most people think they’re looking for someone to protect the good, destroy evil, and be a perfect judge between the two; but in practice, they reject that very ruler, every day. Instead, they’re looking for a club to swing at their enemies—someone who will do what is right in their own estimation, just like the ancient Israelites. Keep this in mind, when you participate in the political process, and remember the rulers are appointed by God are nothing compared to the ruler Anointed by God. Make sure you don’t reject him from being king over you.
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.