The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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A Biblical fundamentalist, responding to my last blog, asked me to explain John 1:1-14.

Apparently he thought the picture (with the Bible telling a worshipper that it can’t save them) meant that I didn’t believe the Scripture and went on to declare the Bible as being “the only road map we have to salvation.”  Which, ironically enough, is in direct contradiction to what is actually recorded in Scripture.

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, that the “Spirit will teach you all things” and that he (not a book) was the only way to the Father.  It is a very clear pattern, throughout the Gospels and Paul’s letters, that it is the Spirit that “quickens” (John 6:63, Romans 8:11) and that it was the Spirit that led Jesus (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), and this:

But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. […] But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. (John 16:7‭, ‬13‭-‬15 NIV)

If you believe in the Spirit then you won’t settle for a road map.  If you believe that then you will receive the GPS—which is to say the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and the only thing that will make Scripture useful.  Because, lest we forget, those who rejected Jesus also believed in the Scripture and looked to it for their salvation:

And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40 NIV)

These people “diligently” studied the Scriptures yet did not have “his word” dwelling in them and rejected Jesus as Savior.  They were using Scripture as their “road map” and failed to recognize Jesus as Lord.

How can it be?

Well, it is simply this: The Bible, while “inspired by God” according to 2 Timothy 3:16, does not provide its own interpretation.  Scripture is written in human language, translated by human translators and requires the reader to correctly understand the words which it contains.

Peter warned the early church:

[Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:16b)

Think about it.

Again, Scripture does not provide its own interpretation.  It can be misunderstood and distorted.  It did not lead those who diligently studied it to recognize Jesus as the source of life and the book itself testifies that we should expect something much greater than a book to lead us to all truth.

What is the most misunderstood word in the Bible?

There are many things in the Bible that are difficult to understand.  There are many words and phrases in it that are misunderstood and misused.  But there is one word that stands out above the rest.  It is the “Word” found in John 1:1-14:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. […] The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1‭-‬5‭, ‬14 NIV)

First off, we should consider the intent and context.  John, in this dramatic introduction to his narrative, is making a thesis statement that establishes the divinity of Jesus.  He uses “Word” to create a link between the Spirit of God that was present from the beginning of time to the perfect incarnation in Jesus.

Second, John wrote in Greek, not English.

The “Word” used by John is “Logos” in the Greek.  It does not mean the same thing as the English word used by translators.  Logos is a word originally coined by Greek philosophers; it is a word used to describe the order of the cosmos, spiritual principles or divine reason.  John, borrowing the terminology of the Greeks, used “Logos” to describe God’s divine reasoning that created the universe, that is behind all events, and became flesh in Christ.  To reduce such a rich and powerful concept to merely written text is a crime against language.

Logos ≠ Bible

John says that the Logos “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” but he never claimed that it became text.  Nowhere in the Bible is “Logos” described as being synonymous with Scripture.  Many, their assumptions formed by an English translation and fundamentalist commentators, read “word of God” to mean Scripture.  However, there is no evidence in the Bible to support this assumption and an unbiased look at the descriptions of the “word of God” in Scripture would lead one to believe otherwise:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

Do an experiment: Take your Bible, set it on a shelf and don’t touch it for a week.  

Will it be “alive and active” if you do that?

No.

The book will not chase you or cause you to do anything unless you read it and that is quite different from what we read about God’s word.

The “word of God,” according to Scripture, is something that can’t be shelved.  Jesus once said that “the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40) if his disciples were to remain silent about his being Lord.  We read about Balaam’s donkey speaking in Numbers 22:22.  There is also the amazing conversion of Saul, whose vast knowledge of Scripture had prevented him from accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior.  He was confronted on the road to Damascus by a light from above and a voice.  The “word of God” is clearly not a kind of word that is constrained to a page.

The “word of God” is something heard and obeyed, not read and studied.  Again, in John 5:37-40, we read where Jesus confronts those who diligently studied Scripture and yet never had “his word” dwell with in them nor did they “hear his voice.”  If the phrase “word of God” was synonymous with reading Scripture then Jesus would be contradicting himself by saying what he did.  Scripture is “inspired” by God, but it is not God.  God’s word, according to the book of Isaiah, does not “return void” and we can’t say that about the Scripture read by those who rejected Jesus.

The Word is God

This is where the rubber meets the road: To claim that Scripture is equivalent to the Logos of John 1:14 is to claim a book is God.  To do that is idolatrous.

The Bible is inspired by God, a written testimony of his work throughout the ages, but it is written in human language and depends on our ability to interpret it correctly in order for it to be profitable.  Correct interpretation of the sacred text is virtually impossible without the “mind of Christ” or promised Spirit of truth.

The Logos is infallible.

All human language is fallible.

Human language is dependent on words and words are basically metaphors and never actually the same thing they describe.  Words are only an arrangement of sounds and symbolic representations that are assigned to or associated with meanings.  These sounds and symbols representing the sounds require proper use and interpretation—words are not always understood as originally intended.

Human language is fallible because it depends on humans for interpretation and we are fallible.  Our words fall empty and void of meaning unless our readers or listeners make the same assumptions of meaning that we intend for the representative sounds or letters we strung together.  How much we understand depends on both parties “being on the same page” or, in other words, sharing the same assumptions about their words.

So how do we get the correct assumptions about Biblical language?

Correct assumptions come from relationship with the writer or speaker.  The better we know a person the more likely we are to understand the language they are using and come to the correct conclusions.  However, since even close friends occasionally have moments of confusion, having absolutely correct understanding requires that author and receiver literally share the same mind.

That is essentially what Paul is trying to communicate:

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him— these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.  The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:6‭-‬16 NIV)

Paul emphasizes the need for the Spirit as a prerequisite for understanding Scripture, but Biblical fundamentalism gets that in reverse and tries to find God’s living word through diligent study of Scripture.  Yet no amount of study can help a person who stubbornly holds to an incorrect understanding of the words in the book—their study could be a path to destruction.

It is the Spirit that conveys the meaningful content of Scripture.  And we don’t receive the Spirit through our own diligent efforts.  It is a gift of God’s grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8) and if we aren’t “quickened” (made alive) by the Spirit we will remain dead in our sins and ignorant.  Our salvation is fully dependent on God’s grace and therefore is not a product of anything else we have done—that “anything else” including our own human ability to read and comprehend Scripture.

A person can’t understand Scripture without having God’s word dwelling in them first.  One must be brought to life through a work of the Spirit because it is humanly impossible to bridge the gap between God and man.  There is no theological or intellectual tower tall enough to reach God.  God must first reach us and that is something done through his own mysterious means.

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse and think they save themselves through their reading Scripture.  However, if they understood what they read they would know that Biblical language does not provide it’s own interpretation they might be more humble and give God all the credit for their conversion—afterall, we are saved by grace, through faith, and not by our human knowledge or abilities.

Bibliolatry: A modern bull calf of Yah?

Remember the story in the book of Exodus where Aaron, pressured by the people, helped to create a golden calf as an idol to worship?

What you might not know is that in the original Hebrew they used the proper name of God (Yhvh) to describe their idol.  In other words, their idol was a false representation of the true God and not necessarily made in honor of false gods.  Note what Exodus 32:5 tells us:

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord. (Exodus 32:5 NIV)

They were using the correct word for God (Lord = Yhvh) in their worship before their idol and it seems very likely that they realized the calf was an object constructed as a symbolic representation of God and not God.  But their worshiping this representation in an object was idoltarous because it diminished God—it did not truly bring honor to God.

Modern religious people may think it is absurd that people would worship a golden bull on a pedestal.  Sadly many today worship a symbolic representation of God constructed out of human language.  Unfortunately, for them, in the same way that Yahwah is not a gold bull, the true “word of God” is not merely language.  We are in grave danger of falsely representing God if we turn to written symbols as our path to salvation rather than rely on the Spirit of the living God to guide us.

A person who can’t see the absurdity of putting written text of the Bible on the same level as the one who inspired it doesn’t understand language or God.  The Bible does not save anyone and we should never settle for a “road map” when we were promised a navigation system.  We need to consider thay 2 Timothy 3:16 and other passages written for the benefit of believers who already had the Spirit—the Bible is only profitable for those who have already been made alive.

In conclusion, we dare not confuse a symbolic representation of God created in human language with God.  The Bible should be venerated as something inspired by God—but never worshipped or made equal to God and his Logos.  To reduce God’s Logos to the text of a book is idolatrous.  It is putting human comprehension first and God second.

Do People Get What They Deserve?

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In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner.  It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful.  In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.

zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.

The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation.  They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have.  This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.

However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple.  We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks?  I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?

Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough.  Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?

Do people get what they deserve?

We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned.  This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt.  This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.

Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.

That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him.  They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.

People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes.  When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man.  He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1‭-‬5)

His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor.  He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation.  He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43‭-‬48)

It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect.  Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message.  I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.

The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve.  He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.

Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference.  Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love.  We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.

That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us.  We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge.  If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well.  If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.

If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?

Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right.  No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever.  Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.

A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin.  Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.

True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others.  Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd.  No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.

It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God.  Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan.  Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.

True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love.  If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us.  It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee.  Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin.  In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.

Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them.  No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves.  True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.

Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?

Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?

So, anyhow…

Shut up about your good life—people already know!  Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.  

Actions speak louder than words.

Truth: A Concept Bigger Than Words

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A couple Sundays ago I was riding along with a some church friends on our way to a hymn sing (something us conservative Mennonites do) and we came upon a hitchhiker.

The hitchhiker, a young man, was strumming some sort of ukulele.  He had a sign asking for a ride west.  We were going west.  We conferred quickly, decided to make use of our extra seat and soon were on our way with one more passenger.

The young man, a friendly nineteen year old from Raleigh, North Carolina, has spent nearly two years on the road and told us of his nomadic lifestyle.  He relies on the hospitality of others, often sleeps under the stars, and is on his way to California.

Being that we are religious and on our way to a church service, the conversation turned to religion.  He explained that he is uncomfortable with the “Christian” label.  He described himself as “a follower of Jesus” and later that evening mentioned the influence of Taoism.

We invited him to church.  He accepted the invitation and soon he was amongst us Mennonites as we sang acapella music.  To my ears we sounded pretty good.  He stayed until the end of the service and soon enough was being introduced by me to others in attendance.

One of those introduced, after some friendly chat (the usual Mennonite game banter and assessment of pedigree) ended by quoting John 14:6 at the young man, “Jesus is the way and the truth and the life” and emphatically stating this is the only way… 

As we paused with this sort of nonsequitar concluding statement, presented in such a religiously cliché way, I almost asked this ordained Mennonite man if he knew what it meant.  But, fearing he would try to answer if I asked, I restrained the impulse and smiled.

I have no idea what my guest was thinking, he was courteous and didn’t seem too uncomfortable in our midst.  And so the evening went, some polite conversation and some awkwardly presented evangelical dogma, me holding my tongue with slightly annoyed amusement and answering his questions.

Incidentally, nobody offered this young man shelter for the night (one of those asked apparently making excuse for himself because of his wife) and so we took him a few miles further west to ‘civilization’ where he would have more options.  We prayed with him, gave him some cash and bid him farewell before returning east again.

What is truth?

The incident above, especially the quotation of Scripture, seemed like a good basis for a blog and reason to consider the meaning of truth.  Truth, in this case, the idea of truth (alétheia) found in the passage, the truth of Jesus, that was partially quoted at my young hitchhiker friend.

The words “I am the way and the truth and the life” are cherry-picked from the Gospel of John.  It is a part of a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about imminent events.  The disciples, as usual, were bewildered and asking questions:

“Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’

Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.'” (John 14:6-7)

Philip was still confused.  He goes on to ask Jesus to reveal the Father to them. 

Jesus responds to explain in further detail, stating that he is one with the Father, that his words are spoken by the authority of the Father and telling them that the Father will be revealed to them through obedience to his teaching and by the Holy Spirit.

The truth of Jesus is more than book knowledge.

It is interesting to note that Jesus did not tell his followers to diligently study Scripture.

Instead Jesus told them to obey what they knew and that more would be revealed by the Spirit after their obedience.  It might seem backwards, but faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26) and salvation is a gift from God:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

That is not to say that the Scripture is unprofitable, it most certainly is profitable to a believer.  It is “through faith in Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 2:3-15) that Scripture is able to make us “wise for salvation” and only through this truth of faith can we ever understand.

Book knowledge is not the same as correct understanding and those who opposed Jesus most vehemently had a great knowledge of Scripture.  In fact, it was because of their own understanding of Scripture (and dogmatic literalism) that they rejected Jesus.

The truth of Jesus is something more than mere book knowledge, it is more than religious devotion to the study a text or a theological proposition.  The truth of Jesus is something more profound and powerful than words on a page.  It is a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than fallible human knowledge or our finite ability to understand.

The truth of Jesus is something beyond description in words.

Truth is a word, but truth itself is not a word.

We use words to paint pictures in the minds of our audience.  Words are symbols used to describe ideas, they are things we use to describe other things and yet words are not themselves the thing being described.  Words are not truth of themselves anymore than a portrait in acrylic color on canvas is the actual person being portrayed.

Words depend on the ability of our audience to understand them.  One could tell their cat to “take out the garbage” and the poor critter would stare at them blankly.  Language, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and depends on the interpreter to understand the word usage correctly.  Communication is an interactive affair requiring both parties to be on the same metaphorical page.

Furthermore, talk is cheap, words can also be used to construct a false image of reality and deceive.  Jesus warns of false teachers, people who profess with their mouths to be faithful, who present themselves as sheep and yet are inwardly wolves—We are told we can know people by their good or bad fruit. (Matthew 7:15-23)

So truth is more than words.  Truth is an abstraction, it is something greater than the sum total of words and language used to describe it.  Truth is something bigger than us and beyond our own concept of reality.  Truth is trancendent and still it is something that can be fleshed out and represented.

The truth of Jesus is God’s word and a living testimony about a greater reality.

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, a Roman civil authority, to be judged.  The Gospels give slightly different versions of the events.  In summary, the religious leaders accuse Jesus, they say he claims to be their king (a crime amounting to sedition against the established state) and insist that he is evil.

Here’s one account of the beleaguered governor questioning Jesus and trying to get the bottom of the issue:

“Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’

‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’

‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’

‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him.'” (John 18:33-38)

This conversation is interesting and especially when Jesus claims to have come to “testify to the truth” and says those on the side of truth listen to him.  It is reminiscent of when he told the religious dogmatists that his sheep hear his voice and makes an incredible claim:

“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Jesus answered, ‘I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,  but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.  My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.'” (John 10:24-30)

For this Jesus is accused of blasphemy.  But to that charge he replies by quoting their Scripture to them.  He quotes from Psalms 82:6, where it says “I have said you are ‘gods’,” and uses that to argue against their idea that his claim of divine sonship was blasphemy.

Pilate seems agnostic about truth and exasperated by Jesus.  He is dealing with a contradiction, he sees an innocent man not worthy of punishment and the religious crowd sees a man guilty of blasphemy against God who deserves death.

Pilate ultimately bends to political pressure and, while washing his own hands, complies with the demands of the crowd.  However, both Pilate and Herod (who’s part is described in Luke 23:8-12) seem to see Jesus as a curiosity rather than as a direct threat to the state.

The truth of Jesus is found in our following his example and being a self-sacrificial testimony of God’s grace.

The truth of Jesus is not a reasonable or rational proposition by worldly human standards.  It is only understood through spiritual means, through having the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2) and a process that starts in the heart (2 Corinthians 3) rather than through outward means.

It is transformative, as Paul explains:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The Orthodox Christian tradition would call this theosis or divination.  Unfortunately my own Anabaptist tradition has picked to focus on the other negative end (the “be not conformed” part) and the result is an idea of “non-conformity” that usually amounts to a reactionary worldly effort to control outward appearance. 

The truth of Jesus is about more than our ability to conform to a man-made list of requirements.  It is a truth that transcends all worldly means and is expressed in our unrelenting, unapologetic and uncompromising pursuit of the divine.  The truth is a positive vision.  The truth is God’s grace made manifest in us.

The truth of Jesus is a path we walk that leads us to greater life and the perfection of divine love.

The words “the way” (hodos) refer to a journey.  It is a path to walk and live out.  The trail was blazed by Jesus who died for our sins, but it is lived also by those who truly believe and wish to be disciples.  As Jesus said:

“Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.'” (Like 9:23-24)

Jesus is using the cross as a metaphor.  A cross, in human terms, represented suffering and shame.  However, in following after Jesus, for a believer this is not useless suffering, it is not pain for the sake of pain or self-flagellation, it is suffering for the good of others or making a path to something greater.

Jesus promises a more abundant life (John 10:10) to those who follow him.  In this he is not promising material or worldly wealth.  But he does say that we should use our worldly wealth to gain friends and gain true riches (Luke 16) which is to prioritize God through our loving people:

“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21)

Jesus said we can know the truth of a person’s profession of faith by their fruit (Matthew 7:15-23) and that the fruit of the Spirit is described by Paul “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)  Our truth must be more than words.

So what does ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ mean?

To understand this we need to understand the context.  The context is the last supper, it is during the Passover feast, the night Jesus is betrayed and an intimate moment.  In these passages of Scripture (John 13 and 14) the implications are clear. 

Jesus explains that his disciples will be known by their love for each other, he says he must go so they may know the truth more intimately (promising the Spirit to those who obey his instructions and example) and then goes on to demonstrate a truth of love worth dying for.

The truth of Jesus is not a theological proposition, not a religious profession or book knowledge. His truth is not a product of human reasoning and founded on scientific research or evidence. The truth of Jesus is something found in our walking in the Spirit, it is demonstrated in our love for others and bringing the dead to life.

Truth is living a reality greater than our reality, something that transcends worldly knowledge and human understanding. Truth is both known and still yet to be known, it is reality that goes beyond the currently available evidence and is something that can only be experienced through a true walk of faith.

The truth of Jesus transcends religion and is a walk of faith.

In some respects it seems my hitchhiking friend may have a better grasp of faith than his religiously indoctrinated counterparts.  He is more literally taking no thought for tomorrow (Matthew 6:34) and depending on God to provide.  By contrast we too often rely on our own understanding, planning and abilities.

I wish my traveling friend well on his journey and pray that the truth of God’s word (Jesus) is made manifest in him.  May God’s truth of self-sacrificial love and spiritual life be found in us who claim to know Jesus.

What’s in a word?

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Words are interesting things.  The word “gay” for example.  According to my grandpa it once just meant happy and excited.  In Webster’s 1828 edition dictionary it carries the same basic idea.  However, compare that definition to those found in modern dictionary and the change is significant.

Words change in meaning.  Words like “retarded” to describe a person have been replaced with terms like “special needs” by those trying to soften the label.  But as a result, now saying “he’s ‘special’…” takes a whole new meaning and doesn’t imply greater or better.  Changing the labeling word has not removed the stigma associated with mental handicap.

Are Black Men Thugs?

The word “thug” is another word that has seemed to have evolved in meaning.  It once meant “ruffian” or a murderous criminal and yet lately it is often used for a much more specific group of people.  Thug seems the new favorite word to describe a young black person involved in a violent confrontation and that has raised the hackles of numerous social commentators who say it is a racist code word.

Richard Sherman, the ever so outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback, put it plainly when he suggested that the word “thug” is the new N-word. 

I do not go as far as some do, I do not believe it is a word used exclusively for young black men, and I do not believe all who use it intend it with a racial connotation.  I am doubtful President Obama or Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore, meant their usage of “thug” as racist and believe we should give all people the same benefit of doubt regardless of skin color.

That said, that doesn’t mean those who are describing “thug” as a new racist code word are totally wrong either.  I myself began to suspect something amiss with the word before it became a topic of widespread outrage and media hand wringing.  It was because of overzealous spam posts of conservative (white) friends that I began to wonder about the usage.

Will the Real Thug Please Stand Up!

A story, “INSTANT JUSTICE: Black Thug Tries to Bully ‘Little’ White Teen…BAD IDEA,” links a video showing a white teen mercilessly beating a black teen.  I can hardly see the justice in it.  Furthermore, if “thug” is just a general term for a violent person, why is the more violent of the two in the video only a “white teen” and not also a thug?  Hitting a dazed opponent seems thuggish behavior to me.

Another story, “High School Thug Bullies Classmate for ‘Talking White’ — Doesn’t End Well for Him,” shows one black teen harassing another and things turn violent.  Again race is the topic.  Again the one delivering the beating is the “classmate” and not labeled as a “thug” like the other guy.  It is a bit murkier because both involved are black.  But nevertheless you have “thug” versus “white” in the title and a curiously sympathetic accompanying article.

A third video, “NY Thug Picks Fight With Wrong Trucker, Gets Beating Of A Lifetime,” also starts after the fight has already began (removing context) and again the word “thug” is only used to describe the black participant.  Again the suggestion seems to be that the beating was a justified response.

Why is a young man described as “black thug” or “thug” and not just as a bully, harasser, instigator, etc?

I can’t read the minds of those who posted the videos.  But the framing of these stories does cause me to wonder about the intent in sharing them.  It would be as strange as a title, “Offended Young People Provoked by Thug Police,” to a story about the Baltimore rioters pummeling officers with rocks.  There would seem to be an intent to bias the reader at very least.

The (Thuggish) Hypocrisy on Both Sides…

Not every use of “thug” carries an extra racial overtone.  I believe it would not be fair to characterize it as a racist term or all those who use it as racists.  It is unfair to assume every person who uses a certain word has loaded it up the same as you do.

The word “racist” itself can be used in a prejudicial and unjust way.  The usage of the term “racist” to describe an offending white person is probably as damaging to them as any other contemptuous and derisive term.  Words like “privilege” and “redneck” are also questionable.  They are words used to categorize people and often unfairly.  Sure, many people use those terms as descriptive or even as terms of endearment, but the same is also true of “thug” and the N-word. 

In fact, the popularity of the word “thug” used to describe young black urbanites could have come in part to use of the word as a self-description: 

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Understandably is is different when a word is used as derogatory and not as a term of endearment.  But it should also not be a surprise when descriptions we use for ourselves are picked up in popular dialog and become a nucleus for stereotypes.

Making ‘Thug’ a Taboo Word Is NOT the Answer.

I am reminded of the wise words of W.E.B. DuBois in reply to Roland A. Barton in 1928 about the topic of names (please take the time to read the whole letter) and his solution:

“Your real work, my dear young man, does not lie with names. It is not a matter of changing them, losing them, or forgetting them. Names are nothing but little guideposts along the Way. The Way would be there and just as hard and just as long if there were no guideposts, but not quite as easily followed! Your real work as a Negro lies in two directions: First, to let the world know what there is fine and genuine about the Negro race. And secondly, to see that there is nothing about that race which is worth contempt; your contempt, my contempt; or the contempt of the wide, wide world.”

As an alternative to abolishing words (that will soon replaced by new words to fill the vacuum) and being offended at every turn: Be the solution.  The solution, of course, is to live outside of the labels used to box us in and beyond identities built around race.  The solution ultimately is for everyone to do unto others what they want others to do to them (Luke 6:31) and abandoning their right to retaliation.  Be what you want others to be.

Words come and go, so don’t let them define you!

What’s in a name?

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Words, the glorified sounds we use to describe our thoughts, are always a matter of interpretation.  For the most part we are able to communicate our ideas accurately enough to have meaningful conversation.  However, language also changes over time, definitions evolve and words find new uses from their original uses.  Language is seldom (if ever) as simple as black and white.

Things get especially complex when we take ideas written in one language and try to translate them into another language.  It is exponentially more difficult when the original language is now archaic and the exact inflection or intentions of the words lost to time.  Certainly there are clues, languages follow patterns or hints from context and translators follow these leads like detectives.  But there’s always that left which remains open to interpretation.

Is it a description or is it a name?

Biblical descriptions of “God” present a challenge.  Here’s the attempts of various translators to take writing in an ancient Hebrew book and convert it to English that illustrate the point:

“And the angel of the Lord said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?”  (Judges 13:18 KJV)

“He replied, “Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding.  (Judges 13:18 NIV)

“Why do you ask my name?” the angel of the lord replied. “It is too wonderful for you to understand.  (Judges 13:18 NLT)

“And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?”  (Judges 13:18 ESV)

“The angel of God said, “What’s this? You ask for my name? You wouldn’t understand—it’s sheer wonder.  (Judges 13:18 MSG)

So, according to the King James translation, we either have an angel named “secret” or an ‘angel’ with a name that is beyond our words.  I would go with the latter judging by the context as I see it.

Taken together different translations give us wonderful, too wonderful to understand, beyond understanding, secret and means “incomprehensible” according to Strong’s concordance.  I do get the impression the meaning is truly incomprehensible, truly something beyond words or human naming and mysterious.

Can God be properly named?

The three letters ‘G’ and ‘o’ and ‘d’ have come to represent the supreme being and divine entity of the Christian Bible.  It is a noun, used like a proper name and a word loaded down with preconceived ideas.  One of those ideas is that something that is the secret mysterious beyond comprehension power behind the entire universe is something that can actually be named.  It is certainly useful to have a placeholder name or common description, but any word used is an infinite understatement.

This is why God was not named openly.  Naming potentially lowers this dimensionally unlimited and timeless being that can be understood with our finite minds.  But it is not blasphemy that concerns me.  What bothers me is that words evolve, words can begin to carry new meaning or different assumptions and be misconstrued.  It seems better that we leave God something beyond comprehension than to ignorantly ‘box in’ the infinite.  At very least we would be wise to see a God beyond our own understanding of a three letter word.

God is not a noun, not a verb or a man…

“God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?”  (Numbers 23:19 NIV)

That “not human” in verse above is rendered “not a man” in another common translation and ome have taken issue with the New International Version for the departure from gender specific descriptions of God.  But that’s straining on gnats (Matt. 23:24) and making God the equivalent of a homo sapien male is giving men infinitely too much credit and God way too little. 

No, not that I’m saying the Spirit (or Word) of God could not fill the form of a man like a hand in a glove or an avatar becomes a representation of a human being on an internet forum.  But making God just a man is also a vast understatement.  Humanity may bear the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27) and yet we aren’t the beginning and the end, omniscient, sovereign or infinite.

God of the paradox...

Western thinking likes binaries.  The logic of this is true thus that can’t be true is natural for us.  A person can either be alive or dead from our perspective and never both.  Yet, as science takes us to the furthermost ends of the universe, to realms of the almost incomprehensibly large to the infinitesimally small, our normal scientific assumptions break down.

The most brilliant scientific minds of our time have established with convincing theory that both logic and reason taper into oblivion at the bookends of time and space.  On one end a brilliant flash of light, energy and expansion from a source beyond human comprehension.  On the other end black holes both infinitely massive and infinitely small.  At either end there is what appears to be irrationality of something from nothing returning to nothingness.

Matter itself is a mysterious and seemingly impossible duality when brought into focus.  Not only is there is less and less as we zoom in to the level of quantum mechanics, but what is left that remains is a seemingly impossible duality where clearly distinct categories of particle and wave merge into a seemingly irrational both.  It is a paradoxical dualism that demands we look beyond normal scientific assumptions.

There is something incomprehensible.  There is something beyond my understanding and beyond the collective understanding of humanity.  We try to name, explain, categorize the universe.  We attempt to peer around the corner of space-time with theories, mathematics, scientific instruments, reason and logic.  But in the end we live in the mystery of our own existence and we also can live beyond it.

God who is both/and…

Both skeptics of religion and the religious are guilty of creating a God in their own image.  If you’re concept of God is an equivalent to a ‘flying spaghetti monster‘ then you have a small god perspective.  If your idea of God is limited to descriptions and language found in the Bible then you too have a small God perspective.  God is more than the information used to attempt to define God.  God cannot be reduced to mere attributes or human moral constructs.

God is incomprehensible.  Yet, God’s work is also personal, knowable and…

“Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.  Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names…”  (Philippians 2:6-9 NLT)

…a sheer wonder of a paradox beyond mere human words.

Pie in the sky…when you die…

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The expression “pie in the sky” is used to describe an impractical idea.  It originated in the lyrics of the song, “The Preacher and the Slave,” that was written to the tune of a populis Christian hymn:

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
But when asked how ’bout something to eat
They will answer with voices so sweet:

You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and Pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

If you are familiar with Christian hymns, you may recognize it as the same tune as “In the Sweet By and By.”  It was written in 1911 by Joe Hill as a protest song reflecting the frustration of those who were looking for something now. 

Hill pokes fun at Salvation Army street evangelists for their impracticality. His lyrics are cynical, self-interested and agnostic, but honest.

The critique of Christian evangelical efforts is stinging.

True evangelical faith…cannot lie sleeping…

Evangelical Christianity has earned a reputation.  It has frequently centered on condemnation of what those ‘outside the faith’ are doing wrong and yet lacks the introspection to know it is failing to live to the example it claims to promote. 

Jesus did more than sing happy hymns or preach sermons about future glory; he also healed, provided food, wine and urged his followers to give selflessly of themselves. The words of Jesus are reflected in this poem:

True evangelical faith cannot lie sleeping. It clothes the naked and comforts the sorrowful.
It gives to the hungry food and it shelters the destitute.

It cares for the blind and lame, the widow and the orphan child.
It binds up the wounded man and offers a gentle hand.
We must become everything to all men.

Abundantly we have received and gratefully we will respond.
So overcome evil with good and return hatred with love.
That is true evangelical faith.

That is the writing of Menno Simons (1496–1561) urging a Gospel that met real needs today.  It was put to music by Larry Nickel and would be much harder to parody as a message of pie in the sky only.  Each line can be traced to something Jesus told his followers.  It is a evangelicalism of practical value rather than only immaterial abstractions.  It promotes a faith of concrete action in contrast to words-only ministry.

A message that focuses on being a solution…

The mocking words of Hill point to a purely human effort.  While the ‘love’ of too many who profess faith is empty of real sacrifice and true empathy for human need.  Both are an incomplete message.  One piously over-spiritualizes faith while the other is dripping with resentment and bitter carnality.

The true evangelical faith of Jesus is bread today, shelter today and clothe today.  The example is a love of substance and help today rather than of just pleasant words.  It is so much more than impractical pie in the sky promises of something tomorrow.