Listening: Our first duty to God and Neighbor

Two ears and one mouth, many have rightly observed that this innately places listening before speaking. We are to be hearers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Life Together captures the first duty of human beings to God and neighbor as an act of the ear.

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them.”

This is on target—listening is an expression of love, honor and respect. It conveys authentic interest, the placing of another above our concerns.

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A Short Theology of Marriage

I recently wrote a paper summarizing issues of marriage, divorce and remarriage. This is an excerpt of the paper that captures the theological meaning of marriage.

Genesis 1-3 is the fountainhead of marital theology. These chapters reveal the Creator’s original marital design, the nature of marriage and the consequences of sin on marriage. Both testaments draw deeply from these theological waters.[1] In particular, Genesis 2:24 has been termed the “paradigmatic statement about marriage for Judaism, Jesus and Paul.”[2] Significantly, two of the most important theological statements on marriage are found in this text: the one flesh principle and the mystery of Christ and the church.

Genesis 2:24 lays down three marital distinctives that contain great theological import: leaving, cleaving and becoming one flesh.[3] First, leaving equates to forming a new family and “giving up loyalty to one’s father and mother as the closest of human relationships.”[4] Second, cleaving to one’s spouse communicates transference of the “most fundamental of loyalties to one’s spouse.”[5] Marriage creates a new situation where all previous ties must submit to this new devotion.[6] Third, leaving and cleaving culminates in becoming “one flesh” through sexual union.[7] Language used for gluing and welding is employed to describe the permanence of the one flesh relationship.[8]

One Flesh. Jesus draws heavily from Genesis 2:24 to assert the theological significance of marriage. In Matthew 19:4-6, he teaches the math of marriage (cf, Mk 10:6-10). Marriage erases two and creates one. One husband plus one wife equals one flesh. Marriage is an indissoluble oneness created by God that reflects the union, co-inherence and intimacy of the Triune community.[9]

Christ and the Church. Paul also builds his theology of marriage on Genesis 2:24. He asserts that leaving, cleaving and becoming one flesh is a profound mystery that ultimately refers to Christ and the church (Eph 5:31-32). Marriage is fundamentally a gospel parable with a theological design.[10] It points to the fierce love of Jesus and the glad loyalty of his bride while anchoring a married couple in the rhythm of forgiveness, reconciliation and gospel grace.

[1]Matt 19:5, Mk 10:6-7, 1 Cor 6:16, 11:3-9, 2 Cor 11:3, 1 Tim 2:13-14.

[2]Klyne Snodgrass, “Divorce and Remarriage,” Covenant Publications (1989), 5.

[3]Craig L. Blomberg, “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Celibacy: An Exegesis of Matthew 19:3-12,” Trinity Journal, 11:2 (1990), 166.

[4]Ibid.

[5]Blomberg, “Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Celibacy,” 167.

[6]John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, (Albany: Books for the Ages, 1998), Kindle, Chap. 2, 75.

[7]Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992), 481.

[8]R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 717.

[9]Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 461-471.

[10]Richard D. Patterson, “Metaphors of Marriage as Expressions of Divine-Human Relations,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society, 51:4 (2008), 699-702.

What Vulnerability Creates

I have been thoroughly enjoying Richard Beck lately. I read his book on the Slavery of Death and found it to be challenging and compelling. He discusses at length the linkage between vulnerability, understanding our frailty, embracing our mortality and the possibility of love marking our relationships. Check out what he has to say.

“Notice in Acts 4 that there were “no needy persons among them.” Why? Because they shared with “anyone one who had need.” The expression of neediness in the community allowed the economy of love to flow. But in churches in America and other places where affluence poses special problems, the situation is very different. These cultures are enslaved to the fear of death and death avoidance holds serious sway. In these cultures the expression of need is taboo and pornographic. What results is neurotic image-management, the pressure to be “fine.” The perversity here is that on the surface American churches do look like the church in Acts 4 – there are “no needy persons” among us. We all appear to be doing just fine, thank you very much.

But we know this to be a sham, a collective delusion driven by the fear of death. I’m really not fine and neither are you. But you are afraid of me and I’m afraid of you. We are neurotic about being vulnerable with each other. We fear exposing our need and failure to each other. And because of this fear – the fear of being needy within a community of neediness – the witness of the church is compromised. A collection of self-sustaining and self-reliant people – people who are all pretending to be fine – is not the Kingdom of God. It’s a church built upon the delusional anthropology we described earlier. Specifically, a church where everyone is “fine” is a group of humans refusing to be human beings and pretending to be gods. Such a “church” is comprised of fearful people working hard to keep up appearances and unable to trust each other to the point of loving self-sacrifice. In such a “church” each member is expected to be self-sufficient and self-sustaining, thus making no demands upon others. Unfortunately, where there is no need and no vulnerability, there can be no love.”

A Million Little Boring Things

Richard Beck, psychology and theology professor at Abilene Christian University wrote a helpful blog post on the mundane nature of following Christ. I found his perspective to be refreshing and spot on in many ways. Check out what he has to say.

I was talking to one of my students recently about the temptations of youthful spirituality, how when you are young you get addicted to the buzz of the worship high and then go searching for a more intense fix. You become a worship junkie.

From your high school youth group on being close to God is being ON FIRE! Because God is AWESOME!

That’s the temptation for youth, being trained to associate God with adrenaline and the Spirit with excitement.

What I told my student was this.

What no one ever shares with you when you’re young is that Christianity is boring. No one tells you that. That Christianity, for the most part, is boring.

No one tells you that Christianity is a 70 to 80 year grind in becoming more kind, more gentle, more giving, more joyful, more patient, more loving.

You learn that God isn’t in the rocking praise band or the amped up worship experience. What you learn after college is that Holy Ground is standing patiently in a line. You learn that Holy Ground is learning to listen well to your child, wife or co-worker. Holy Ground is being a reliable and unselfish friend or family member and being a good nurse when someone is sick. Holy Ground is awkward and unlikely friendships. Holy Ground is often just showing up.

Being more and more like Jesus is a million boring little things.

No one ever tells you that when you’re young.

Just like no one ever tells you just how risky and revolutionary it all is.

That a truly radical life of following Jesus is made up of a million boring little things.

Oh God, Help Me!

Two words—HELP ME. These words are no stranger to these lips. They are the words heard by the Domino’s delivery man on the other end of the phone when my wife Elizabeth is gone for an evening and its my turn to feed the kids. The auto mechanic probably knows my voice well—he definitely knows these words from my lips. Help Me. Tax season comes around, yep, two words.

My wife knows all too well, I’m not the mechanical guy. Most men have Honey Do Lists, I have Honey Don’ts! It’s probably best that we rent and not own. Help Me. These may be the two most common words on my mouth when I speak to God. In my falling short as a husband, a father a human-being—HELP ME. In my sin, my failure to obey, my brokenness. HELP ME. I desperately needed Christ’s help before I was a believer, and it is no different today. If you ever whisper this in desperation to God, you’re not alone.

HELP…the word occurs 187x in the Bible. It is strewn through the whole storyline of Scripture. The stories of the Old Testament are filled with individuals needing help and asking for it. We are not alone. The Exodus event is one of the most significant saving moments in biblical history. Have you ever noticed the catalyst for such a saving action? Look at Exodus 2:23.

“During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God.”

HELP. That was the catalyst. God’s people cried to God for help, he heard them and he moved. It was no different when God’s people were in danger in the wilderness, when they took the promised land, when they were in danger from other nations, when they were in exile or any other time they were in need. They cried for help and God answered.

The Psalmists exhaust the vocabulary of help. They teach us that we are not alone, they embolden us to call for his help. The create confidence in the reality that “there is none like God…who rides through the heavens to your help” (Deut 33:26). The Psalmist poses the question in Psalm 121:1: “I lift my eyes up to the mountains where does my help come from?” The most profound answer to that question is of course, Christ. 

Hebrews 2:14-18 uses the language of help three times. It speaks of a help in the face of death, in the face of satan, in the face of sin and in the face of temptation. It is a help that requires a birth, a death and a resurrection. God helps us in Christ. He deals with our greatest needs assuring us he will help us with everything else.

If you have ever wondered: Will God help me? Does he care? Is he interested in helping me? Does he here when I cry for help? The crib, the cross and the empty tomb are God’s definitive YES! He has helped us and he will continue to help us. Let those two words move from your heart to your mouth: HELP ME. God will not fail you.

 

The Roots of Sin

What is the root of all sin? Is there a root, a foundational sin that led to all others? What was the driving force in Adam and Eve’s choice to make that first fateful choice? This is a question that has been wrestled with throughout church history. Theologians have landed in different places on the question.

Augustine, the early church father (350-434) wrote a book called “Faith, Hope and Love.” In his book, he argues that the tree of sin does not consist of a singular root. He suggests that sin has an entire root system. We are talking about roots rather than a root according to Augustine. Check out what he says.

Still, even in that one sin–which “entered into the world by one man and so spread to all men,”…one can recognize a plurality of sins, if that single sin is divided, so to say, into its separate elements. For there is pride in it, since man preferred to be under his own rule rather than the rule of God; and sacrilege too, for man did not acknowledge God; and murder, since he cast himself down to death; and spiritual fornication, for the integrity of the human mind was corrupted by the seduction of the serpent; and theft, since the forbidden fruit was snatched; and avarice, since he hungered for more than should have sufficed for him–and whatever other sins that could be discovered in the diligent analysis of that one sin.

Augustine identifies no less than six “separate elements” to the Adam and Eve’s first sin. He calls the first sin a “plurality of sins.” When you look closely, he suggests you can discern various roots or underlying factors that marked that first act of rebellion. He identifies these elements.

  • Pride- man preferred to be his own ruler
  • Sacrilege- man failed to acknowledge God
  • Murder- man cast himself down to death
  • Spiritual fornication- man’s mind was corrupted by the serpent’s seduction
  • Theft- man snatched the forbidden fruit
  • Avarice- man hungered for more than should have sufficed

He leaves the list open-ended as he suggests that further analysis would yield even more results. It is not surprising then to find that Martin Luther suggested another “element” when he drew attention to the first sin as an act of unbelief and trust in God’s word. John Calvin argued that unfaithfulness was the root of that first act. Elsewhere, Augustine suggests that disobedience was at the heart of Adam’s sin.

Meditating on this question is helpful for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the interlocking nature of sin and rebellion. In one act, we may well be motivated by pride, fear, theft and unbelief. Meditating on this reality drives us to a deeper appreciation of depravity, which in turn leads us toward intelligent repentance. Second, the movement toward owning our depravity and embracing repentance pushes us toward Jesus. The greatness and diversity of sins roots points us to the glory of God our Savior. If sin is made up each of those components—salvation is the remedy for each and everyone of those failures. Such great sin leads us to such a great Savior.

God’s Surprising Help in our Vocations

When you think about the work of the Holy Spirit, what comes to mind? We rightly connect his work to our faith in Jesus, our transformation, sanctification and spiritual gifting. These are prominent themes in the Scriptures. There is another dimension to his work: equipping us vocationally.

The Spirit is deeply interested in giving us the abilities, capacity, skills and understanding of our various vocations for the purpose of doing what we do with excellence that God might be magnified through us. Here are two wonderful examples of this

Oholiab and Bezalel

Oholiab and Bezalel The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you: (Exodus 31:1-6 ESV)

Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded.” And Moses called Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whose mind the LORD had put skill, everyone whose heart stirred him up to come to do the work. (Exodus 36:1-2 ESV)

Notice the language of this passage of Scripture. God called these men to a particular work—the work of fashioning the tabernacle for the nomadic journey of Israel to the promised land. He takes these craftsmen and readies them for the tasks ahead. He fills them with four distinct things: ability, intelligence, knowledge and craftsmanship. This is incredible. The Holy Spirit is providing intellectual capacity, wisdom and practical skill. The end result of this is that they would devise and produce beautiful art, skill working with all sorts of materials and capability in many skills.

Two more times in the narrative flow we see God “putting” skill and intelligence into men to fulfill their particular vocation. He also stirred their heart to the work he called them to. God is in the business of equipping us for our vocations—this much is clear!

King Solomon

And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. (1 Kings 3:7-12 ESV)

The story of King Solomon reveals this same pattern. He is stepping into a new vocation, he is about to take the mantle of a King in the context of this passage. He seeks God’s help and God’s response is instructive. He gave him a “wise and discerning mind” that will be unmatched by any before or after him. God equipped him with the capacity of mind, the discerning judgment and the skillful wisdom necessary to govern his people. This teaches us that we will run up against the boundaries of our own wisdom and ability in our vocations, but God has the ability to increase those boundaries. He can provide us what we simply do not possess. He does this in the context of vocation in both of these passages.