Taking the Risk of Enemy Love for the Kingdom

“So I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” (Matthew 25.15)

This week, I’m not going to write to you for long. I want to focus on a single parable told by Jesus and then some quotations that I believe are relevant.

First, I believe a conventional, domesticated reading of the so-called parable of the talents misses a lot. Let me see if I can explain. There are two things to keep in mind as you read this parable. (1) Jesus wasn’t talking about his second coming yet here. The disciples still didn’t even get that he was leaving , much less would they have had the capacity to understand if he had begun talking about coming back. He was speaking much more about the establishment of his own Kingdom right then, at that point in history. The coming of “the Son of Man,” as used by Jesus, was a direct reference by Jesus to his own understanding of Daniel 7.13–14 and the establishment of his Kingdom through his life, death, and resurrection. (See Matthew 25.13; 26.45, 64; Mark 14.41; John 4.23; 5.25; 12.23, 27; 16.32; 17.1) (2) The story is not so much about using your “talents” (that’s the domesticated way to read the story) as it is about taking risks, risking everything, for the Kingdom.

Two ways are contrasted: the way of circling the wagons, protecting that which remains, and safeguarding the parameters versus the way of taking chances and risking everything for Jesus’ Kingdom to be established. What was it that Jesus was asking them to risk in following Him? Jesus was asking them to risk their most cherished hopes of Israel being restored some day. Jesus was asking them to risk their precious eschatological understandings. Jesus was asking them to leap off a cliff with him into the space of actually loving their enemies, including the Romans, the Seleucids, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians. They were genuinely afraid that if they followed this nonviolent, enemy-forgiving, enemy-embracing, enemy-loving Messiah (instead of holding out for a militaristic Messiah at some point in the future), it would only embolden the Romans to abuse them even more. They were afraid that if they followed this Jesus, they would <I>never</I> see Israel restored. Yet, Jesus was giving them, in all actuality, a way to heal the world, but they doubted it would really work. They doubted it would awaken the sympathy and compassion of Rome and its citizens. It was, for them, far too risky a move. It was in this context that Jesus told the following parable:

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves [the nations, cf. Amos 9.7] and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

“Then the one who had received the one talent [Israel, cf. Amos 9.7] also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 25.14–30, emphasis added.)

What Jesus is looking for are not those who are brave, intelligent, beautiful, or charismatic, but those who are actually just crazy enough to risk it all with him, to go for it with him, to take the leap with him.

What is it that Jesus is asking you to risk this week by entering the narrow gate and embracing the narrow path of enemy-love? We all have “Romans” in our lives. Enemy-embracing love may not turn out as bad as you’re afraid it will. It might just set in motion the healing of the world.

Here are a few comments from Thomas Merton’s Seeds that I felt were appropriate to Jesus’ parable about taking the risk of loving one’s enemies this week.

“Do not be too quick to assume your enemy is a savage just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy because he thinks you are savage. Or perhaps he is afraid of you because he feels that you are afraid of him. And perhaps if he believed you were capable of loving him he would no longer be your enemy.”

“”Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. Perhaps he is your enemy precisely because he can find nothing in you that gives glory to God. Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.”

“Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.”

Much to ponder.

Remember, Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us. He came to change our minds about God and about one another.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want you to think of five genuine fears you presently have, fears that keep you holding Jesus’ teachings on enemy-forgiveness at arm’s length, preventing you from fully embracing Jesus’ way of nonviolent enemy-love. Five, if you can.

2. I want you to go through an exercise with me. I want you to sit down with Jesus, in your prayer time, and present each one of these five (or however many you can come up with) to Jesus, one at a time, not all together, but one at a time. Once you present each fear, stop, pause, listen, and watch. Listen! What is he saying to you about that specific fear? Watch! What do you see Jesus doing with each of those fears?

3. Share what Jesus shows you this week with your HeartGroup.
Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns, keep living in love and loving like Christ.

I love you guys.
See you next week.

Doctrinal Unity in the Midst of Doctrinal Ambiguity

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. (Luke 16.22-23)

This week I want to share a few thoughts on a topic that I have found almost impossible to get people to see, until it finally just “clicks” for them. I believe it offers a path toward doctrinal unity (for those to whom this is a priority) in the midst of very real, and for some very frustrating, doctrinal ambiguity. First, doctrine is defined as a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party, or other group. But what I want to help us see this week is that there are really two types of “doctrine.” My hope is that we can rally around the one “type” or “kind” of doctrine while tolerating and even embracing the ambiguity that exists with the other “type” or “kind.” Let me use the story above, which was told by Jesus, to illustrate what I mean by all of this.

The best way to see what I’m talking about this week is to ask, “What was Jesus’ purpose in telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus?” What we do know is that this story was not a historical retelling of two actual persons but rather a folktale that had been told and retold within many cultures of that day. “In order to understand the parable in detail and as a whole, it is essential to recognize the first part derives from well-known folk material…. This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois, to the under-world…. Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan.” (J. Jeremias, <I>The Parables of Jesus</I>, page 183.) Numerous versions of this story are found in the ancient world, including the one told by Jesus.

So what was Jesus’ purpose in telling (or rather, retelling) this story?

Was it to give us a detailed exposition on the doctrine concerning what takes place in the “afterlife”? As one who rejects the doctrine of eternal torment (and has openly done so for the past twenty years), I find it curious that the context of Jesus’ retelling of this folktale was not in response to someone asking Him the question “What happens when we die, Jesus?” Instead, it was in response to being ridiculed by the members of a political party, called the Pharisees, who were lovers of money: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” (Luke 16.14)

So Jesus uses a story that would have been common to them to communicate an ethical “truth,” which may or may not be “true” ontologically. In other words, the ethical treatment of the poor was of higher value to Jesus here than strict adherence to the truest picture of what really happens in the afterlife. You have two types of truth here: ethical truth and ontological truth. (Ontology, in its simplest explanation, is the study of what kinds of things exist.) Jesus met these Pharisees where they were at ontologically—the Pharisees believe in the eternal torment of wicked souls (see Josephus’ <I>The Wars of the Jews</I>; volume II, chapter 8, paragraph 14)—even at the risk of appearing to condone their ontology, to teach them a much more important <I>ethical</I> truth. (Ethics are defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s <I>behavior</I>.)

Some have endeavored to distinguish the difference (although in reality the lines are very blurred!) between these two types of “truth” with the terms “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy.” Orthodoxy is related to beliefs about how we should <I>think</I> about things (e.g., whether or not hell exists and what do we think it will be like). Orthopraxy is related to belief about how we should <I>live</I>. It defines matters of <I>practice</I> (i.e., “praxy”) or conduct. To be fair, Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, in my opinion, is a story rich in establishing the <I>orthopraxy</I> of a Jesus follower, with total disregard for how it may confuse the <I>orthodoxy</I> of a Jesus follower. (I’m sure those of you who embrace eternal torment are not seeing my distinction, but for those of you who feel the overarching evidence of the New Testament leads you to be either an annihilationist or a universalist, both of you can appreciate the distinction. How many times have you wished Jesus had not used the story of the rich man and Lazarus when you were trying to have a dialogue with someone who intensely embraced the doctrine of eternal torment?)

Judaism was largely a strongly orthopraxic religion. It possessed a poverty of theology concerning what the afterlife really looked like for a Jew, compared with Egypt and Babylon, whose afterlife theology was intricate and ornate. It was mostly concerned with how a Jew was to live in this present life. Within Judaism, out of which Christianity was born, you were unlikely to be criticized for <I>thinking</I> incorrectly, but you would most definitely be criticized for <I>behaving</I> incorrectly.

Early Christianity, when one begins with the New Testament and reads all the way through the Patristic writings, emerges as a movement that, like Jesus, placed orthopraxy (doctrinal truth concerning how we are to live) above orthodoxy (doctrinal truth about how we are to <I>think</I> about things). Now this is not to say that orthodoxy was not important to them. Again, it’s not a matter of all or nothing. Both orthodoxy and orthopraxy have their value and importance. But if we have to choose between uniting around orthopraxy versus uniting around orthodoxy, <I>early</I> Christianity was very clear on orthopraxy, while it possessed varying degrees of ambiguity surrounding some issues of orthodoxy.

Let me give you an example. “In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa, or Nisibis) were Universalist; one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.” (From The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, page 96, paragraph 3.) Even within the first three centuries of Christianity you see well-respected “church fathers” within Christianity believing in eternal torment, annihilation, or even universalism. (“The earliest system of Universalistic theology was by Clement of Alexandria, who was the head of the theological school in that city until 202 A.D. His successor in the school was the great Origen, the most distinguished advocate of this doctrine in all time.” (From The New Schaff-Herzog, page 96, paragraph 2.) Yet for the first three centuries of Christianity, do you know what every follower united around, agreed on, without one dissenting voice or disagreement among the church fathers?

The doctrine of nonviolence, the doctrine of helping the poor, the doctrine of enemy love, the doctrine of the golden rule (doing unto others as you would have them do unto you), these were the doctrines that the primitive Jesus movement agreed on. They were able to unite around doctrinal truths in the areas of orthopraxy while tolerating <I>differences</I> (which would be unthinkable in Western Protestantism today) regarding doctrinal truths in areas of orthodoxy. Again, the lines are not always clear. Some matters of orthodoxy parade as matters of orthopraxy, as well as the other way around. Sometimes it’s not always easy to see the difference. But an oversimplified place to begin is to ask “how does this affect the way I treat others?” If the subject’s connection to our treatment of one another is either missing or convoluted, most of the time it’s a matter of orthodoxy.

In all fairness, it’s about balance. True orthodoxy should always support, encourage, and be in harmony with (not contradict) true orthopraxy. Yet it is orthopraxy that should govern orthodoxy, not the other way around. But we’ll get to that in a moment, in the teachings of Jesus.

Today we find ontological arguments abound concerning such topics as hell, the Trinity, eschatology (end-time events), what happens when a person dies, the mystery of the Incarnation, atonement theories—the list could go on and on. Meanwhile, matters of orthopraxy (the manner in which we treat one another) are being entirely ignored or worse. Many times, Jesus’ strict teachings on orthopraxy (how we relate to one another) are being defiantly disobeyed in the name of defending what we consider to be orthodoxy.

It must be remembered that although there were matters of orthodoxy that were deemed heretical within the first three centuries of Christianity, to the largest degree, Christianity did not become a “creedal” religion until the era surrounding the Constantinian shift. Remember, this was a time when the ethical teachings of Jesus became abandoned or marginalized by a church that now favored unity as defined <I>by</I> and based <I>on</I> what people “thought” about “things.” It became an ontologically weighted religion rather than a radically different, ethically based movement. Jesus gave us a way to heal the world. This “way” was centered on the way of love. This “way” was largely abandoned with the union of the Roman Empire and the Christian church in the fourth century. Where the <I>early</I> church was defined as “the Way” to live in relation to others, the church that arose out of the Constantinian shift became the way to <I>think</I> about certain <I>topics</I>, or else you’d be burned at the stake. The doctrinal beliefs concerning certain ethics were significantly marginalized in favor of discussions about the doctrinal beliefs concerning certain ontological realities.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, eloquently wrote. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5.22-23) The fruit of the spirit, notice, is all <I>ethical</I> differences that are made in a person’s life, not necessarily <I>ontological</I>. The Spirit, while giving some measure of priority to doctrines of <I>thought</I>, doesn’t seem to give them the same priority as doctrines of <I>being</I>.

Some will say, “But correct orthodoxy is worth fighting for because it is what produces orthopraxy. What we believe about <I>things</I> leads to and affects how we treat <I>others</I>.” As much as I used to believe this, and would love to again, here are two realities that that kind of thinking ignores. First, in my past twenty years of following Jesus, I have met loads of people who have what is considered by many to be right thinking about topics but are just downright <I>mean</I>. They are <I>unkind</I>. They are right intellectually but dead wrong when it comes to the fruit of the Spirit. They have what is considered by many to be doctrinal truth in regards to how they believe about certain <I>topics</I>, but they are absolute <I>heretics</I> when it comes to the doctrinal truth of how they are to <I>relate to others</I>. If right thinking always leads to right living, then one has to wonder how long that process is going to take for these folks. It didn’t seem to take quite as long in the book of Acts.

The second point tells us why the book of Acts reveals a different experience for the early church. Quite frankly, it’s Jesus. And this is my second and biggest objection to placing orthodoxy above orthopraxy. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not do much ontological correction in regards to how people thought about <I>things</I>. Instead, Jesus spent the majority of His teaching time on matters of <I>ethics</I>: how we are to relate to others. Jesus did not explain the nature of the Trinity, the mystery of His incarnation, what happens to a person postmortem, etc. and say, “If you want to be my follower, believe in these things.” What Jesus did teach was enemy-<B><I>LOVE</I></B> and <B><I>JOY</I></B> in the midst of persecution, the way of <B><I>PEACE</I></B> or nonviolence, <B><I>PATIENCE</I></B> with the way of a mustard seed, <B><I>KINDNESS</I></B> toward the ungrateful and unthankful, <B><I>GENEROSITY</I></B> toward those being marginalized on the basis of being religiously judged as living contrary to the Torah, <B><I>FAITHFULNESS</I></B> to the sacredness of every person, <B><I>GENTLENESS</I></B> toward even one’s oppressors, and <B><I>SELF-CONTROL</I></B> when one wants to retaliate. (cf. Galatians 5.22-23)

And this is where orthodoxy and orthopraxy actually unite. For Jesus, His orthopraxy <I>WAS</I> His orthodoxy!

But what about those other things? Aren’t they important? Of course they are. But what Jesus reveals is that correct orthopraxy does not necessarily flow out of correct orthodoxy. In reality, Jesus taught the exact opposite. If you follow Jesus’ teachings on orthopraxy, it will challenge, influence, and, ultimately, radically change one’s orthodoxy. Jesus asks us to live a certain way, whether that makes sense with what we believe about God, ourselves, and others or not! The magic is that once one embraces how Jesus taught us to live, it challenges and corrects any mistakes we might be holding on to regarding how we see God, others, and ourselves. As just one example, if the Jews of Jesus’ day had embraced how Jesus was saying they should relate to the Romans, that in itself would have demanded a radical change in what they were then believing about God’s character, who they were in relation to others, and who others were in relation to themselves.

My wife, Crystal, often jokingly points out that I invariably always choose the path of most resistance. Whatever the most difficult path is, I’ll take it. The path of trying to figure out ontological truth in hopes of one day arriving at ethical truth is a hard, uncertain, and unguaranteed path. I have discovered this from experience. That was my path for years. But then I saw what Jesus was actually teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and how radically different it was from my present religious experience. Having embraced his teachings there has radically influenced, and in some areas radically changed, what I believed, at that point of my journey, about almost every other ontological doctrine. The path of following the ethical teachings of Jesus, uniting on the doctrines of the golden rule, nonviolent enemy love, generosity to those we used to deem as morally inferior to ourselves, (the doctrines in the Sermon on the Mount), giving these doctrines priority—these are the doctrines that should unite us. These are the type of doctrines that influence what we believe about almost everything else.

Should we have doctrinal unity? Absolutely! Yet let the doctrines we unite on be those doctrines Jesus actually taught, while allowing each person to be in process, wading through the ambiguity that exists on doctrines that Jesus chose not to expound on. This is how I believe we can experience doctrinal unity around certain “kinds” of doctrine, even amidst what, at the time, are very significant amounts of ambiguity surrounding other “kinds” of doctrine.

In the end, we won’t be given a test on our ontology. We’ll be asked how we treated “the least of these.” (Matthew 25.31-45)
<B>HeartGroup Application</B>

In C.S. Lewis’ famous book <I>The Last Battle</I>, Aslan meets a Calormen named Emeth. Emeth has lived his life in service to Tash, the false God of the Calormen. Yet the spirit in which this servant served Tash was so radically different from the character of Tash, much more in harmony with the spirit of Aslan, that Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.”

The point is clear: we can even “cast out demons” in the name of Jesus but one day be unrecognizable to him (see Matthew 7.21-23). And yet there are things done by people in the spirit of love, in ignorance and not consciously knowing Jesus, that John states quite clearly could not be done unless they were responding on some level to God (knowingly or unknowingly) in their lives (see 1 John 4.7).

The way of Jesus defies our labels. We are all on a journey. We are all in process. Be careful how we evaluate ourselves and others. The Pharisees looked at one single focal point in a person’s life and judged whether someone was a living in harmony with the Torah or whether that person was not (“a sinner.”) Jesus, on the other hand, looked at three focal points, at least. Jesus would look at where someone had been, where that person was right now, and Himself. Sometimes completely ignoring the Torah, he would simply look at whether a person was moving toward HIMSELF or away from HIMSELF. And to those who, regardless of where they were in their life at that moment, were moving toward Himself, He said, with open arms, “Welcome to the Kingdom! It is much more radically inclusive than many are comfortable with. It will scare some, but it will be the lighthouse, guiding the rest home.”

This week I want you to spend some time with Jesus, sitting and contemplating with Him three passages:

Matthew 25.31-46
Matthew 7.21-23
1 John 4.7

Journal any thoughts Jesus shares with you as the two of you sit and meditate on these passages and what they are saying.

Lastly, share with your HeartGroup what Jesus taught you this week.

Keep encouraging one another, keep loving one another, all the more as you see the day of universal restoration approaching. (Hebrews 10.24-25, cf. Acts 3.21) Keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys. See you next week.

God Won’t Forgive Me!

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6.14-15)

Hello everyone. This week, you’ve caught me out west, doing a nine-day series in a university town for a small church. I was recently reminded of this verse by a confused (but sincere) soul who was genuinely wrestling with his beliefs. Does God, he wondered, really relate to us in the way we see Jesus relating to those he came into contact with? I can’t tell you how many times over the last twenty years I have met dear people struggling with this week’s verse. So, what do we do? Well, here’s an eSight on it for starters.

First, let’s start off on the right footing. After three years of being mentored by Jesus, one of Jesus’ closest disciples summed up the revelation of God we get through Jesus in three words: “God is love.” (I John 4.8) John goes on to say that “We love, because He first loved us.” This is the principle that love can only be awakened by love. It cannot be coerced, manipulated, or contrived. It can only be awakened, and it can only be awakened by encountering love itself.

This is just as true of forgiveness. We forgive others because He first forgave us. But how many of you reading this week have struggled for your entire lives to believe that God truly forgives you?

Many who read our featured passage interpret it in ways that lead them into a sick, downward-spiraling cycle of thinking: “I can’t forgive. So I know God doesn’t forgive me.”

Let’s back up and make sure we correctly understand Jesus’ words here.

A text that is presented without its cultural context is a sure sign that we are being conned. What was it, exactly, that Jesus was addressing? I want to go on record as believing that Jesus was not speaking about the paradigm our own privatized, individual, and personal sins through which many of us today read this passage. When Jesus speaks of forgiveness here, He is referring to the Hebrew definition of forgiveness in His day. “The punishment of your iniquity, O daughter Zion, is accomplished, he will keep you in exile no longer…” (Lamentations 4.22) When Jesus spoke of “forgiveness,” His audience was not the patrons to the philosophy of Western Individualism that many are today. They would not have heard, “God will forgive my private, individual sins.” They would have understood Jesus as saying, “If we want to our exileto be lifted, if we want the sins of Israel to be forgiven, the pathway out of this is not the road of eye-for-an-eye, militaristic, violent revolt against Rome, such as Judah Maccabee led our ancestors in against the Greeks. The pathway to the restoration of Israel is through embracing the Romans, loving the Romans, and forgiving the Romans, all on our own initiative. This nonviolent Messiah, by preaching restorative justice, is teaching that we are not going to see Israel restored by defeating these Romans, but rather by winning them over, so that they will follow this radically different Messiah too!

Now whether Jesus’ audience would buy into this or not was yet to be seen. But this is what Jesus was saying. Jesus was offering them what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who learned of this idea from Jesus) called a “double victory”—a victory in which Israel would not only win its “freedom,” but would win Rome “with it.” (See King’s A Christmas Sermon for Peace. Sunday, December 24, 1967.)

Yet, the very real fear among those listening to Jesus’ teachings was that Rome, instead of responding to their forgiveness and their enemy-embracing love, would simply take advantage of it, using it to walk all over Israel even more frequently. Jesus’ audience was tempted to fear that Jesus was planning to turn Israel into Rome’s doormat.

As Jesus both assured and warned them, “If you forgive others their trespasses [e.g., the Romans], your heavenly Father will also forgive you [Your exile will be lifted!]; but if you do not forgive others [the Romans], neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [You will remain in your present state or possibly worse.] (Matthew 6.14-15)

We know from this side history that Jesus’ audience chose not to believe in him (c.f., John 3.16-17). They chose the path of violence, of eye-for-an-eye, retaliation, and retributive justice. They chose, instead of following Jesus, to take the broad pathway that ends in destruction. They chose not the way of enemy-forgiveness, but the way of war. From A.D. 66-69, there would be a Jewish-Roman War that would climax in the horrific nightmare of Jerusalem’s destruction in A.D. 70. (See Josephus’ War of the Jews.) Jesus’ words of Matthew 6.14-15 would come true. (See also the parable in Matthew 18.23-35, and remember that Jesus is speaking of His audience’s attitude toward the Romans.)

So if Jesus wasn’t talking about individual, privatized sin in Matthew 6, where does he teach about that?

Well, actually, he spent his whole life putting that teaching on display: from the woman caught in adultery, to whom before she repented, Jesus whispered, “I am not condemning you,” to the woman at the well, to whom he said, “I know everything about you and my offer is still on the table.” Jesus walked the Earth displaying the radical and—to some—“dangerous” favor of God. The God that Jesus reveals is not one who is against us, and who must be won through our groveling and repentance. Instead, Jesus reveals a God who is and always has been for us, on our side. This God forgives us, for we know not what we do, and seeks to win us away from our current path, which will in death, and guide us to the path, narrow as it may be, that resembles Jesus (see John 14.6) and that ends in life.

Wanna know what Jesus taught about individual, privatized sin? Go back and contemplate His words to the paralytic. Jesus offers this man no “if/then” conditions. Instead, He initiates the man’s healing by introducing him to the truth: “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 5.20, c.f., 5.23; 7.48)

What Jesus is offering us in Matthew 6 is the beginning of a whole new world changed by the reign of Jesus. With our forgiving of others, God will make sure that what we have done to others will be forgiven by them. Jesus is not saying that God will harbor ill feelings toward you until you muster up enough strength to forgive others. He is saying that by our letting others off the hook, by believing the best about them, by giving them second chances, and by seeking to restore the rights of other victims rather than always defending our own, we are creating a new world. We are setting into motion a more forgiving world where through our forgiveness, the forgiveness in others is awakened. One day, this forgiveness will work its way back into the hearts of those whom we have offended. Then, God will be able to win them, too, into this new world, so that they may forgive us.

Some will say they highly doubt that they will see such a change in the world in their own lifetimes, and that may be true. But, in the words of the famous Stevie Wonder song, “Maybe not in time for you and me, but someday,” this world will be renewed. We should live our lives, putting on display what a world changed by Jesus will look like, hoping against all hope that Christ will one day reign unobstructed here again: a world where God’s Kingdom of love has come, on Earth, like it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6.10; 5.5) If we have passed on and are not alive to see that day that we have all lived and died to see come to fruition, we need not despair. We have been promised to be resurrected and to live in that Kingdom, here on Earth, forever. (Revelation 21.3)

For today, remember that faith in what we do not see is not about the existence of God or a place called Heaven. It is about believing that Christ’s Kingdom has come, that Earth has a new King, and that one day, the only world that will remain is a world where love reigns. (Matthew 28.18-19) Even when we look around and “see” very little evidence, one day it will all be so. (Acts 3.21; 1 Corinthians 15-25-28)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week, I want you prayerfully come up with five names: five people who are fulfilling the role of “the Romans” in your life today.

2. I want you to dedicate time each day, for the next seven days, to praying blessings on them. You don’t have to feel anything positive for them in your heart, yet. Just pray for them. Take notes of the fears and the “what-ifs” that surface in your heart. Write those down. Submit them to Jesus and then stop, watch, and listen to what He says about each one.

3. Share what Jesus shows you concerning the forgiveness of others with your HeartGroup in this upcoming week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns,

I love you guys.
See you next week.

Jesus’ Power Under Vs. Power Over by Clement of Rome

But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22.25-27)

This week I had the privilege of spending some time, once again, with the first-century writings of Clement of Rome. Clement represents the era of the church during the time the Apostles were beginning to die off; Peter and Paul had already been martyred, and many believed John still to have been alive. (I promise this is going to be relevant to you as a Jesus follower in the 21st century. Just stay with me!) What I find fascinating about Clement’s first letter to the church in Corinth is that we already are beginning to see it creeping in among Jesus followers, and how this relates to our featured text this week by Jesus in Luke 22. Once one sees it, one will be shocked to see communities that bear Jesus’ name today riddled with the same problem Clement addresses too. But what is this it? Well, we are not only going to look at what it is, but how Jesus can remedy it. So first, we must come to know what it really is.

In Luke 22, Jesus draws the attention of his disciples to the office that “benefactors” held in the culture of his day. The relationship between a “benefactor” and their “clients,” within Roman practice, was hierarchical, but obligations were mutual. The “benefactor” was the sponsor or “benefactor” of the “client,” in return for some form of patronage from the “client” toward the “benefactor.” Although typically the client was of inferior social class, a benefactor and client might even hold the same social rank. However, the benefactor would possess greater wealth, power, or prestige that enabled him to help or do favors for the client. Jesus is strictly forbidding this type of hierarchical relationship within the new humanity that he is creating (see Ephesians 2.15; 2 Corinthians 5.16,17, TNIV; Galatians 3.28; and Colossians 3.11). In our passage here in Luke 22, Jesus teaches us to reject “power over” others, and embrace instead the practice of the humble servant “power under” others. Let me make this a little clearer.

As followers of Jesus, we are not to try and come over the top of others and coerce change. We are called, like the Master, to approach others as their humble servant, and seek to influence them through love. The Kingdom of God is without coercion. It is through conversation, community, service, enemy-embracing, love, and (if need be) our own martyrdom that we seek to influence the world around us. We do not seek to defeat others, but to win them. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would often call this the “the double victory” of winning even our enemies to our cause (see A Christmas Sermon for Peace; Dec 24, 1967). Jesus’ instruction to lay down the sword and embrace an enemy-loving cross as the means to win our enemies gives us a radical way—both within the church as well as outside in the broader scope of society—to put on display a living demonstration of what a world changed by the reign of Christ looks like. Even within each of the three examples Jesus gives us in Matthew 5, in his instruction on nonviolent noncooperation, we find this humble servant love (despite being directed toward one’s enemies) at its core.

By each real-life example of the social inferior turning the left check when struck on the right (we have covered this elsewhere in greater detail), or offering the greedily wealthy even your last article of clothing, or (of your own volition) offering to the representative of the terrorist regime of Roman occupation to carry their burden beyond the required one mile to a doubled, voluntary distance, Jesus gives us ways to influence our world around us with the “power” of coming “under” those we seek to influence, changing the world from the inside out, rather than trying to come “over” others and exert coercive power “over” them.

It is true that we have example after example of this in the early Church where they were endeavoring to follow Jesus’ example, influencing this world through their own martyr’s death; that is, the way of the cross—Clement called it “submitting the neck.” (1 Clement 63.1) But what I want to focus on more intently this week is how this “power under” principle functioned within (inside of) the early church itself.

What we find in the New Testament is not, by definition, a hierarchical “power over” organization (Jesus strictly forbid this) filled with “benefactors” and “clients.” Rather, what we find is an organism, a body, where each member was fully and mutually submitted to each other. We do not see those in positions of authority lording “power over” the much larger mass of other Jesus followers. What we find is 1) “power over” forbidden even to the “elders” (see 1 Peter 5.1-3), and 2) a mutual submission of every member to each other, each person belonging to the other (see Romans 12.4-5). This is coming “under,” even within the body, and seeking to influence one another by the humble servant love Jesus taught. And it is the bedrock on which is founded the fifty-plus “one-anothers” of the New Testament church. Here is just a sampling, you can Google the rest:

Romans 12.10—Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Galatians 5.13—You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

Ephesians 5.21—Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Philippians 2.3—Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

1 Peter 4.8—Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

What I believe we see through the first letter of Clement to Corinth, within the latter half of the first century, is the beginnings of a few who were seeking a departure away from the mutual submission of the “one-anothers” to a position of hierarchical authority over others instead. Before we can see it, though, there is a little background that we must first put on the table.

1. Terms

Jesus commissioned his Apostles. The Apostles, in their turn, made more disciples of Jesus among whom they “chose” bishops (episkopos) or elders (presbeteros), and deacons (diakonos). Easton’s Bible Dictionary states, “In apostolic times, it is quite manifest that there was no difference as to order between bishops and elders or presbyters (Acts 20:17-28; 1 Pet. 5:1, 2; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3). The term bishop is never once used to denote a different office from that of elder or presbyter.” (emphasis added.) Bishops/Elders were established as shepherds or guardians, humble servants of whatever small house church the Apostles would establish. There were multiple bishops/elders within each group. They came under and served their fellow followers of Jesus in the role of guarding and protecting as older, more experienced followers. This was not an office where they ruled as overlords above the followers of Jesus who were under them. They did not seek to draw others after themselves (see Acts 20.30), but sought always to direct their fellow Jesus followers to collectively consult their Head, the living Christ, and to practice the mutual, open, participatory principle of the priesthood of all believers.

Peter, in quoting Jesus, gave strict counsel to bishops/elders not to succumb to the temptation of using “power over” others. This was not their purpose, nor their role. They were to be examples, using the “power” of coming “under” others as their humble servants.

“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care,watching [not ruling] over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Peter 5.1-3, emphasis added)

Notice how Peter here is quoting what he had heard from Jesus:

“But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority overthem are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’” (Luke 22.25-27, emphasis added)

2. Problem of Translation

In 1611, King James VI of Scotland commissioned the King James Version of the Bible. This was when the Church and the Empire were united. King James acted in the capacity of the head of the State Church of England. The Church, having been deeply influenced by the Empire ever since the baptism of Constantine, was therefore patterned after the very hierarchical structure of the Empire itself (which was exactly and strictly forbidden by Christ in Luke 22.25-27). History tells us that James VI ordered fifty-four scholars to issue a translation, which did not depart from empirical “terms” but (as many scholars today agree) grossly departed from the New Testament definition of the original Greek words behind those terms as well as their meanings. Bancroft and Erasmus, the architects of the King James Version translation, are today believed to be largely responsible.
The translators were obligated to match the translation with the agenda and beliefs of the Empire and show no conflict between Christ’s Kingdom and the Empire. James VI rightly perceived that if the hierarchical bishops were put out of power (i.e. power “over”), “I know what would become of my supremacy . . . No bishop, no King.” King James believed correctly (see Willson, p. 198, p. 207). King James therefore ordered a translation that would facilitate his control over the church and the masses at large. For this reason, the KJV naturally reflects the Empire’s hierarchical/institutional presuppositions. Words like episkopos (guide), diakonos(servant), praxis (service), and proistemi (guide) were not accurately translated from the Greek, but rather in a way that would be in keeping with the heirarchy of the Empire. Episkopos was translated into bishop rather than guideDiakonos was translated as minister rather thanservantPraxis was translated into office rather than serviceProistemi was translated into “rule” rather than “guidance.”

History also tells us that the Authorized KJV underwent four revisions up until 1769. Yet each revision left this Empire-friendly bias uncorrected. Today, modern translations are endeavoring to correct this endorsement of what Jesus called the “gentile,” hierarchical structures of Empire by translating these Greek terms to be more in keeping with their original use in their own contemporary cultural setting. Episkopos, which means “guide or protector”, is translated as “guide.” Diakonos is correctly translated as “servant.” Praxis is translated as “service” or “function” rather than “office.” Proistemi has also been translated as “guard” or “guide.”

Thanks to the KJV today, many get the false impression that the New Testament actually sanctions hierarchical authority within the body of Christ and His Kingdom. Now, if we are going to understand how this all ties back into Clement, and what we see him endeavoring to address in the church at Corinth, then we have to understand one central term used by him over and over.

3. Hegeomai

Here is a great example from the Book of Hebrews of today’s translations endeavoring to correct the sanctions of the KJV of the empirical authority structures that we have just discussed. Note carefully the differences.

Hebrews 13.7 (KJV)—Remember them which have the RULE OVER [hegeomai] you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.

Hebrews 13.7 (TNIV)—Remember your LEADERS, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

The word “rule” in the KJV of Hebrews 13.7 is translated from the Greek word hegeomai. In contemporary first-century use it did not, however, mean to “rule over.” For there to be Jesus followers ruling over other Jesus followers, even if they were elders, the author of Hebrews words here would indicate a clear dismissal of both Peter’s and Jesus’ teachings, as we as have already seen; that is, if the author of Hebrews were to endorse or approve. Whathegeomai meant in its day was simply to guide or to go before. This is why the TNIV translates it as “leaders.” It doesn’t connote someone over another as much as someone in relation to another being further down the path, leading the way. It indicates horizontal position not vertical. Nevertheless, in his translation of Hebrews, New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce doesn’t feel the term “leaders” entirely escapes the possible hierarchical entrapments. He translateshegeomai as “guides.” This word carries the thought of “those who guide you” rather than “those who rule over you.” Therefore, a more accurate translation would be, “Remember THOSE WHO GUIDE YOU who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13.7) They lead by example, not “power over.” I believe Bruce’s “guides” are an even better translation than the TNIV’s “leaders.” Remember, in accordance with Jesus’ teachings, “leaders” in the early church were not hierarchical overlords, but simply those who were the lowest “servants.” (See Luke 22.25-26.)

Clement’s Letter to Corinth

The word Clement uses in his letter to Corinth is this same hegeomai. Again, we will find some translations of Clement (not all) that, in keeping with the KJV, translate it as “those who rule over you.” But remember the word does not mean “rule over.” It means “guide.”

Clement tells us the situation is bleak in the church in Corinth:

“Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us; and especially to that shameful and detestable sedition, utterly abhorrent to the chosen of God, which a few rash and self-confident persons have kindled to such a pitch of frenzy, that your venerable and illustrious name, worthy to be universally loved, has suffered grievous injury.” (1 Clement 1.1, emphasis added)

There were those in the church, according to Clement, who were headstrong and self-willed, and which the letter will show were seeking to draw the church away from the counsel of its “guides” and to following themselves as hierarchical (rather than servant) leaders instead. This was causing a schism among the believers in Corinth.

Clement reminisces that it was not always like this there:

“For who ever dwelt even for a short time among you, and did not find your faith to be as fruitful of virtue as it was firmly established? Who did not admire the sobriety and moderation of your godliness in Christ? Who did not proclaim the magnificence of your habitual hospitality? And who did not rejoice over your perfect and well-grounded knowledge? For you did all things without respect of persons, and walked in the commandments of God, submitting yourselves [remember the mutual submission we discussed at the beginning? See Romans 12.4-5] to your guides [hegeomai], and giving all fitting honor to the elders among you.” (1 Clement 1.2-3, emphasis added)

Clement later in his letter describes exactly this looked like.

“Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head; yea, the very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. But all work harmoniously together, and unite in mutual subjectionfor the preservation of the whole body.” (1 Clement 37.5, emphasis added)

These older “elders” and guides would have been proponents of the New Testament’s “mutual submission” as well as the open, mutually participatory nature of the church. Remember this was Corinth. Years earlier, Paul wrote to this church describing no hierarchy where the many simply sat passively listening to one, or merely watching a few. Paul describes the mutually participatory nature of the Corinth church, “Each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14.26) These elders would be dedicated to “guarding” this and not allowing the mutually submissive nature of the church to be compromised. In order for this church to be hijacked by those whom Clement calls “envious” or “jealous,” those who rejected the Christ’s teachings of “power under,” those who were desiring to be in a position of “power over” their fellow Jesus followers, those very ones would first need to get rid of the “elders/guides,” the protectors of the “one-another” nature of the community. And this is exactly what was being attempted, and hence the crisis that Clement was writing about.

“Moreover, you were all distinguished by humility, and were in no respect puffed up with arrogance, yielding [to one another] rather than demanding submission, and were more willing to give than to receive? Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, you were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes. Thus a profound and abundant peace was given to you all, and you had an insatiable desire for doing good, while a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit was upon you all . . . You were sincere and uncorrupted, and forgetful of injuries between one anotherEvery kind of faction and schism was abominable in your sight. You mourned over the transgressions of your neighbors: their deficiencies you deemed your own. You never grudged any act of kindness, being ‘ready to every good work.’ Adorned by a thoroughly virtuous and honorable life, you did all things in the fear of God. The commandments and ordinances of the Lord were written upon the tablets of your hearts.” (1 Clement 2.1-4, emphasis added)

Clement explains that the possibility of the present schism was foreseen by the apostles, and that this is why “guides” or “guardians” were chosen by the apostles for when they were no longer alive.

“Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the name of “bishop.” For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect foreknowledge of this, they chose those already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep [die], other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those chosen by them, or afterwards by other men,with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in ahumble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from their service. For our sin will not be small, if we throw out those who have blamelessly and holily offered as a gift of sacrifice the service of bishop. Blessed are those elders [plural] among youwho, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now chosen for them. But we see that you have thrown out some men of excellent behavior from their service [leitourgia], which they fulfilled blamelessly and with honor.” (1 Clement 44.1-5, emphasis added)

It is interesting to note that the Greek term here leitourgia possesses as one of its root words “laos,” from which we get the word “laity” which is also grossly misunderstood today as well. The New Testament does not recognized a “clergy/laity” divide among its community of Jesus followers. Leitourgia, according to Mounce (Mounce Greek Dictionary) in contemporary Roman culture referred to “public service discharged by a citizen at his own expense.” The service Clement is referring to, being fulfilled by multiple bishops/elders in each Jesus community was not originally anything like the paid offices of “bishop” we see after the unification of Christianity with the Empire.

What we find is the recounting by Clement of the Apostles choosing voluntary guides/guardians for the church after they were gone, and this was to continue over and over again in each successive generation. But these were never to be hierarchical lords, but servant guides to the church. Yet what was happening in Corinth is that a few younger ones desired to “take over,” and were convincing the believers in Corinth to forsake their elders as well as their counsel. History tells us that it didn’t take many generations before these “guides” truly were replaced by “hierarchical bishops” who abandoned their “servant” roles and the “power” of coming “under” others. They succumbed to the temptation to embrace instead an office of “power over” ultimately becoming competing overlords for the highest of hierarchical positions/offices of authority. Hierarchical authority would eventually win the day in the history of the church. Eventually, the bishop in Rome would claim authority over the entire Christian church and this would produce the great schism of 1054 A.D. producing Eastern Orthodox Christians (Greek) [who did not recognize the bishop in Rome as being over all others] and the Western Catholic Christians (Latin) under the authority of the Bishop of Rome. This was the same exact temptation the disciples were originally faced with when Jesus gave his rebuke in Luke 22.25-27.

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that.’” (Luke 22.24-25, emphasis added)

Clement wraps up his letter to the church in Corinth by pleading:

“Who then among you is noble-minded? Who compassionate? Who full of love? Let him declare, ‘If on my account sedition and disagreement and schisms have arisen, I will depart, I will go away whithersoever you desire, and I will do whatever is ordered by the people [notice the mutual nature of “people” rather than a ruling over “bishop.”]; only let the flock of Christ live on terms of peace with its chosen elders [guides].’ He that acts thus shall procure to himself great glory in the Lord; and every place will welcome him.” (1 Clement 54.1-2, emphasis added)

How does this apply to us today?

It’s time that “power over” be laid down and rejected by the church, once again, both as its means of influencing society (seeking to control the state so as to control others through legislating outward conformity) as well as its means of governing fellow followers of Jesus. The New Testament does not offer a community, centered in Jesus, where some rule over others. God forbid! The New Testament offers a community, centered in Jesus, where each of us is practicing mutual submission to each other and to the humble, servant power of the “one-anothers.”

“For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12.4-5)

What is the remedy for the rampant use of “power over” we see even today among Jesus’ followers worldwide? Paul gives the remedy to us in his letter to the Philippians. Let’s take a look.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to compare two passages. One is from Paul in the New Testament about Jesus who reveals to us what God is like as well as what we are to be like in his letter to the Philippians. And the other is from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah about the King of Babylon. Let’s look at Isaiah first.

“How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit.” (Isaiah 14.12-15)

Notice the grasping for higher positions along a hierarchical ascent? Now let’s look at Jesus via Paul:

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2.6-11)

One of these is what God is like, the other is not.

2. Let’s begin small. This applies to how we relate to the greater society around us as well; but for now, what does it mean for us to begin relating just to our fellow Jesus followers after the pattern set by Jesus in Philippians 2? Notice, this is the very context of Paul’s passage in Philippians:

In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:” (Philippians 2.5, emphasis added)

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being likeminded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2.1-4)

How do you do it? Paul says it clearly: we must spend time contemplating Jesus and His own humble servant love, which reveals to us the character of His Father while reshaping us into that same image.

This week, spend some time praying about this and ask Jesus what He’d like to revolutionize in how you are presently relating to others in your HeartGroup.

3. Share what Jesus shows you this upcoming week with your HeartGroup.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep enlarging Christ’s Kingdom. Keep living in humble, servant love, loving like Christ, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys,
I’ll see you next week.

A Goat Loving Shepherd

But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5.44-45)

If I could attribute any of the words of Jesus’ awakening my heart twenty-two years ago to a radically different picture of God from what was being presented by my religious community at the time, it would these words right here.

It was a brisk New England morning and I was sixteen. Through a series of events, I found myself early in the morning, at a dear friend’s home, alone with God, on my knees in tears. You see, I was experiencing something very close to what Peter called an ekstasis (see Acts 10.10). Up until that moment, the God I was endeavoring to “obey” was, in my mind’s/heart’s eye, a chiefly retributive God of strict adherence to a system of reward and punishment—punitively. What I received that early morning was an encounter with a God who had never, at any stage of my life, responded to me, nor my actions, retributively, punitively, but had each step of the way been endeavoring to save me, restore me, and heal me—even before any consciousness of my own need for salvation, as well as long before any requests on my part for such a salvation. This was a God who felt deep love and endearment for me; a God moved by such love and endearment to have been convinced of saving me long before I was even interested in being saved.

But I would not be so easily convinced. I had long been entrenched in a religious experience rooted in a very retributive/punitive picture of God. My heart fought back.

“Okay, God,” I prayed, “Let’s say I just take this life you’re giving me and I use it to become your enemy; I simply use You for my own selfish aims. Or worse, let’s say I take this life and use it to curse You and persecute those who follow you. What if I take this life you’re giving me and choose to become your enemy?!” (I was deeply entrenched in the lie that only the belief in a retributive God was powerful enough to affect the choices you make with your life.)

In a voice I still remember to this day, bizarre as it may sound, God spoke these words: “If you choose to take my love and the life that am giving you vainly and choose to hate me in response, I will continue to be good to you. If you choose to spend the rest of your life cursing me, I will bless you nonetheless for it. If you should choose to simply use me and my love and this life for your own self centered agendas, I will continue to intercede for you, leaning into that intercession for you with greater intensity and greater intent. In short, Herbie, if you should choose to take this life and become my enemy, I will love you and continue to love you all the more, because I am a God who LOVES my enemies!” (See Luke 6.27-28.)

It was at that moment I experienced a life-changing, transforming breakthrough deep within my own thoughts and feelings concerning God. I fell to my knees, tears began to flow down my cheeks as I knelt there alone with this God, no longer fearing how this God would treat me if I did not “obey,” but in deep heart-overwhelming awe and wonder at how this God would treat me even if didn’t. What happened next was the defining moment of my life. If this God was going to love me, giving me life, blessing me whether I served this God or not, my heart was overcome by really only one option: What else could I do? How else could I respond to a God this in love with me, but to take this life that was being given to me, no strings attached, and to give it back to this God, offering the rest of my life to helping others see what kind of a being this God really was? I had never seen God like this before, and I had a hunch there might be others like me, who God longed would see Him similarly. It was to this aim that I would dedicate my life.

What does it mean to truly encounter the God Jesus spoke of, as well as the love of this God, as truly being as indiscriminant as the shining sun or the falling rain?

“. . . For [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5.44-45)

In Luke’s gospel, Luke goes a step further and, without the comparison, only mentions Matthew’s “unrighteous.”

“. . . [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6.35)

A passage that is raised often to try and counter this radically beautiful picture of God is the parable Jesus told of the sheep and goats. “See, see, see,” some have said, “there will come a day when God treats two groups of people very differently!” If this is true, it will lose nothing by closer investigation. It is true that different children need relating to in different ways at times by their parents; and there are some differences in the way the sheep and goats are treated in this passage. But the question I want you to ask is whether or not there is a difference in the intended outcome within the heart God in this passage.

Let’s look at the phrase normally used:

“Then they [the goats] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] to eternal life.” (Matthew 25.46)

The Greek Word Matthew chose to place in the mouth of Jesus for “punishment” is kolasis. I will quote the Greek scholar Joseph Henry Thayer D.D., from his famous Thayer’s Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament. The two Greek words Matthew could have chosen for “punishment” were either timoria or kolasis. Matthew chose kolasis. Dr. Thayer states, “The noted definition of Aristotle, which distinguishes kolasis from timoria as that which (isdisciplinary and) has reference to him who suffers, while the latter (is penal and) has reference to the satisfaction of him who inflicts . . .” (emphasis added) .

There are exceptions, but in most occurrences in the ancient world, kolasis (which comes from its root word which means “to prune”) is restorative in nature while timoria is more punitive or penal. (William D. Mounce in Mounce’s Concise Greek–English Dictionary of the New Testament also agrees.)

God’s heart toward both the sheep and the goats is the same. Although the goats requirekolasis where the sheep do not, God’s goal is to restore, heal, and save. (Whether any of the goats will respond to the kolasis of God in the way God desires is not mentioned by Jesus in the parable.)

It is worth noting that the Pharisees, who were the theologically liberal (yet legalistically conservative) group of Jesus’ day, had embraced the belief in a conscious, eternal post-mortem torment. Many scholars today believe this is not found in ancient Judaism but was a belief that entered into Jewish thinking through the influence of the Hellenism of the Greeks. The words the Pharisees used to describe their belief in post mortem eternal torment wereadios timoria [adios—eternal in duration or time; timoria—punitive punishment]. Matthew subversively places two subtly different Greek words in the mouth of Jesus—aionion kolasis[aionion—eternal in quality or nature; kolasis—restorative punishment].

It is also interesting to note that within The Catacomb of Priscilla there is a very intriguing rendition of this parable. The Catacomb of Priscilla is on the Via Salaria in Rome, Italy, and is situated in what was a quarry in Roman times. This quarry was used for Christian burials from the late 2nd century through the 4th century. Within this catacomb we find ancient Christian wall paintings, as with most catacombs. The puzzlement is when we get to the painting called The Good Shepherd. Just as in Mathew 25, the sheep are to the shepherd’s right and the goats are to the shepherd’s left. But what has raised the most questions is that on the shoulders of the shepherd himself, we do not find him carrying his lost sheep; on the contrary, we find him carrying his lost goat. This would have been during a time when Christians needed reminding of one of the central tenants of the teachings of Christ, which was loving your enemy. Every person is sacred, even the goats.

Today there are three paradigms that presently exist within Christianity. For those who believe the fate of the goats will be torment, I’m quite sure the kolasis of God is not pleasurable. The psychological realities that those like Stalin, Hitler, and others will experience when they step into the presence of Him who is love and simultaneously encounter self-realization and the horrors of what they have done, I’m quite sure will be no pleasure cruise. For those who believe the fate of the goats will be annihilation, I’m quite sure that everything that is out of harmony with Christ’s Kingdom will be consumed. But for those who are endeavoring to reconcile the restorative justice Jesus attributed to His Father (rather than the humanly intuitive retributive justice), I’m quite sure that God’s intent in the end will be just what it always has been for both the sheep and the goats: restoration, healing, salvation. Again, the parable leaves unstated whether or not any of the goats will respond. But the difference between a sheep and a goat is not what is in God’s heart for either, but rather the difference is in what God must do to save both.

I’ll close this week with the depiction of the Great Shepherd in Revelation 19.

“Coming out of his MOUTH is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will SHEPHERD the nations with a STAFF of iron.” (Revelation 19.15, emphasis added)

“Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” (Revelation 3.19)

According to Jesus, there are no more “us” and “them” in the heart of God. God loves, blesses, does good to, and intercedes for even the goats.

HeartGroup

1. How we see others directly affects how we treat them. How we perceive God thinks and feels toward others affects this even more.

Take time this week to prayerfully meditate on the picture you find at this link:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Good_Shepherd_Catacomb_of_Priscilla.jpg

What is Jesus saying to you?

2. I have been accused at times of possessing a dysfunction inside of me, through things I have possibly experienced in my life, that give me a disposition, a need so to speak, to see a more restorative picture of God. As if this picture of God isn’t really found within the teachings of Jesus but superimposed on Jesus’ teachings by those who have some deep-seated drive for a God who looks like such. I could not disagree more. The events of my early life actually drove me toward a more retributive picture of God, and God through Jesus saved me from that. What I would like you to consider this week, instead, is what is inside of you that needs God to be a retributive God. What is it inside of you that needs someone somewhere to be punished? What is it inside of you toward those who have hurt you that you need a retributive, punitive God out there to justify the existence of what is in your heart toward them? What is it inside of you that must have God’s wrath, judgment, and punishment interpreted punitively rather than restoratively? What is this reluctance within you to forgive? What is it that you are afraid of?

Then take the time to submit each fear, one by one, to Jesus in your daily prayer time with him. Take time to sit with Jesus this week, and allow Him to guide you into a little introspection.

3. Share what you discover this upcoming week with your HeartGroup.

Wherever this finds you this week, keep living in love and loving like Christ till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys.
See you next week.