interpretation

Jesus in Cloud City

After Jesus was baptized he went into the “wilderness” to be “tempted.” This is kind of a strange story to me. Throughout the Bible we’re admonished to avoid temptation. A few pages later in the story Jesus is going to tell us to pray that God will keep us from temptation and evil. Yet, Jesus is intentionally walking alone into a place where he will be tempted.

It’s like a scene from a movie. The hero, Jesus, has just been introduced as the hero and the one who will defeat evil. Usually at this point in the story the hero knows just enough to be dangerous. And the hero, prematurely, heads into battle virtually assured a sound thrashing. It’s Luke Skywalker heading to Cloud City to face Darth Vader before he’s ready. In the movies the hero is always defeated. Fortunately for us this isn’t a movie.

Jesus isn’t defeated. Satan does his best to tempt Jesus. But Jesus wins. I’m confident I would have failed the test. I would have failed the first temptation. Jesus didn’t. Jesus never sinned.

So what? Who cares? Why is this important? Looking at the story 2000 years later, with two millennia of church history and theology behind us, it’s no surprise that the God-man didn’t sin. He’s Jesus. Of course he didn’t sin. He’s the guy that really did walk on water.

It’s important because he experienced what we experience. There is no temptation that you or I have ever experienced that Jesus didn’t experience. Every temptation I face Jesus has experienced it. Every temptation you face Jesus has experienced it. Don’t believe me? Take a break and read 1 Corinthians 10:13 and Hebrews 4:15. Jesus faced it all. He faced more and worse than you and I ever will because he faced it all.

Most of the books I’ve read and lessons I’ve heard emphasize Jesus’ success in facing temptation. They focus on Jesus’ magnificence and his divine strength. Or, the focus on his strategy in facing temptation as a model for us. Both of these things are incredibly important, but there’s something even more important.

He was tempted.

Jesus was really tempted.

The temptations weren’t imaginary. They weren’t merely annoying hoops to jump through so that he could get on to the important work of dying and resurrecting. Jesus faced temptation. He knows what it’s like to be tempted. When I’m tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like. When your tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like.

By being baptized, Jesus identified with us. By being tempted, Jesus learned to empathize with us.

How should this inform the life of a Christ-follower?

Empathy is underrated. Empathy is important. Empathy is what moves us from merely identifying with the people around us to loving the people around us. Empathy is a necessary component to loving our neighbor as ourselves, particularly when our neighbor is different from us. Empathy is necessary to express God’s love.

Oftentimes, Christ-followers forget how important it is to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus. We have a penchant for looking down on people that don’t conform to our social/moral standards, whether they’re really Jesus’ standards or not.

We forget that sin is sin is sin. The drug addicted homeless person pan-handling downtown or the power-addicted CEO that ignores that pan-handler everyday as they walk to their office is no worse than you. The fact is, we all have sinned. We’re all tempted. We all need Jesus.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted. Jesus empathizes with us when we’re tempted. Jesus empathizes with them when they’re tempted. Jesus models for us that we need to empathize with people different from us. It’s vital to expressing God’s love.

What barriers do you think people face when it comes to empathizing with others.

It Happens

This week we’re getting back to answering questions from people on Facebook. I’m going to attempt to answer a question that I’ve kind of been avoiding. There were a lot of versions of the question but the basic idea is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I haven’t been avoiding it because I don’t feel like I know how to answer it. I’ve been avoiding it because no answer is satisfying when you or someone you love is experiencing those “bad things.” In spite of my trepidation, let’s dive in.

When things seem to be difficult and it feels like we’re running around in circles, a friend of mine is fond of saying, “How did we get to this swamp in the first place?” To answer that we have to go back to the very beginning. Not only the beginning of this blog series posted on August 16th, but the beginning of everything.

In the post from August 16th, I talked extensively about how through human choice evil (or sin) entered into our experience. When the first humans sinned, evil entered and affected every part of God’s good creation. So because we choose evil, evil affects our existence. In short, bad things happen to good people because there is evil in the world.

Now, there are a couple of major objections that could be raised to that last paragraph. First, I included everyone in that statement “we choose evil.” I don’t know you. How can I say that you choose evil? That’s a very fair question. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’re like. I come to that conclusion through a couple fundamental beliefs to which I hold. (1) I’m a theist. I believe there is a God that created everything. As the creator of everything, he defines the nature of things; including defining what is good and what is evil. (2) I believe that there are two primary ways in which that God communicates with us; the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that all people have inherited a sin nature from our first parents. We, therefore, all sin. A definition of sin is choosing evil, as God defines evil. Now if you do not agree with me on one or both of those points, then you will not agree with my explanation. That’s cool. I’m not presenting myself as an expert on the topic. I’m offering my biblically, theologically, philosophically, and experientially informed opinion. I would love to read yours. Please feel free to share it in the comments below and we can talk about it together.

On to objection number two: If God is really good, as we Christians claim he is, why doesn’t he prevent evil things from happening to good people? I believe there are two reasons. First, if God were to prevent all evil from happening to good people he would have to limit the freedom of choice. He would have to prevent evil people from making evil choices. He would also have to prevent good people from making choices that appear good but have potentially evil consequences. The freedom to choose is important to God. With that said, there is a doctrine known as prevenient grace. There is a lot of nuance in that concept. For our purposes here, prevenient grace means that God does prevent people from being as evil as they can be. If it weren’t for God’s grace, things would be much worse than they are. Even so, there is a line that God won’t cross. He will not totally supersede our freedom to choose. Second, the question “Why doesn’t God prevent evil from happening to good people?” begs the question, “Who is good?” Jesus said that only God is good. If that is true, then anything that does not line up with the character of God is evil. In which case, anyone who has ever willfully done something that violates Gods character is not good. That makes it very difficult to identify a good person. If anyone has lied, cheated, or willfully hurt someone physically or emotionally, they are ontologically not good. If that definition is true, then I’ve never met a good person. In that sense, it could be argued that bad things don’t happen to good people.

Let me be clear about something, I don’t believe that everyone deserves the bad things they experience. Jesus was very clear about that when his disciples asked him on that question. You can read the story for yourself in the Gospel of John chapters 9 – 10. Some people truly deserve the bad things they have to endure. Many people experience evil they don’t deserve.

For many, this post might seem incredibly depressing. Why in the world would anyone believe this or follow a God like this? Here’s why I do. I have experienced some bad things in my life that, in my opinion, can only be explained by the existence of evil in the world. Yet, I have experienced many more good things in my life that can only be explained by the existence of an entity that is powerful and good and loves me. I call this entity God. As I read the Bible, the description of God I find describes remarkably well the God that I’ve experienced. The Bible also says that in spite of all the bad things in the world, this good God who loves me will ultimately conquer sin and evil and those that love him will live with him for eternity. This gives me hope that this life means something and there is value in enduring the evil that will come today because there is a better tomorrow.

What about you? How would you respond to my friends’ questions? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Don’t Obey Every Command in the Bible

Here’s question three in our series on questions from Facebook. This question actually comes from a discussion i had with a friend over lunch last week. In a nutshell her question was “How do you decide which commands to obey in the Bible?”

It’s a very good question. She had observed that there are commands in the Bible that people do not obey. In particular she pointed out the passage where parents are supposed to publicly execute violent children (Exodus 21:15). Clearly no biblical theist, whether, Christian or Jew, in North America follows this biblical command. So, if we say that we believe “the Bible has authority over those who live in relationship with Him” (Check out our “What We Believe” page for more on our beliefs.), why don’t we obey everything in the Bible?

The answer has to do with how we interpret the legal portions of the Bible. The Bible is made up of many genre’s of literature. A majority of the Bible is narrative, but there is also prophecy, poetry, epistolary, and legal literature. By legal literature, I mean the specific laws found primarily in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The Old Testament legal code can be divided into three different sub-sections; (1) moral, civil, and ritual. The moral code covers issues on morality and ethics (i.e. the Ten Commandments Exodus 20). The civil code covers how the Nation of Israel was to be run judicially (i.e. the issue regarding children cited above or provisions to care for the poor Leviticus 19:9). The ritual code covers issues of Israelite religion and worship (i.e. the ritual sacrifices found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers).

Since these three subsets of the legal code have different purposes they should be interpreted accordingly. The moral code is the simplest to interpret. Morality and ethics don’t change with culture or time. “Don’t murder” applies any where at any time. There is very little need to interpret such statements. Christian theologians and pastors believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfills the ritual code. For us, everything regarding the temple and the rituals surrounding it point to Jesus. We, therefore, do not perform these rituals anymore, but we read them and they help us better understand the necessity and efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice.

The civil code is the trickiest to navigate and the one skeptics and people overtly challenging Christianity often use as proof-texts against us. The first thing that is important to realize with regard to the civil code is that it is the laws intended to govern a specific nation, at a specific time, in a specific environment. It’s more like the United States Code, than the Constitution. It lays out how the fledgling nation of Israel will deal with criminal and civil issues. It is a time-bound code. It is not intended to be applied universally. But, the issues it raises are universal. What do you do with a criminal? What do you do with a thief? The civil code lays out how Ancient Israel was to deal with such offenders. In the 1st century a.d. both Jesus and Paul told the early Christians that it was their responsibility to follow the laws of Rome. Throughout the New Testament, there are references to Christians following the laws and obeying governmental leaders. For Christians today, we are to follow the laws of whatever nation in which God has placed us. We are called to be good citizens and do our best to support what ever government is appointed over us.

To bring this in for a landing, it is against U.S. law for me to execute my unruly child. I, however, am not obligated to permit a child committing criminal or abusive acts to continue to do so. In our country we have a host of resources to protect parents and correct extreme behavior. If my child were committing criminal acts they would have their day in court and if convicted would pay the appropriate consequence from community service to juvenile detention.

So no, I don’t obey every command literally in the Bible. I do, however, do my best to live out the spirit of every command as modeled and taught by Jesus.

PS
If you’re interested, there’s a really good book by A. J. Jacobs about his year trying to live literally every command in the Bible including an entertaining anecdote of him stoning a confessed adulterer, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.