Out of Context

I got an email the other day asking about certain Old Testament passages that seem to contradict a few of my most recent posts I have written about how Christians ought to view politics and the government.  Below is my response, which has been slightly edited from the original.

When discussing how Christians ought to understand and view their role and responsibility toward politics and government, it is absolutely essential to understand the larger narrative and movement of the Bible. For without backing up and taking a more broad look at the progression of the larger story, there is a real risk of reading the text myopically and out of context. It would be akin to focusing so narrowly on the individual notes of a song that one might actually miss the appreciation and beauty of the song as a whole. 

There is a direction in which the biblical narrative is heading that culminates in the full revelation of God in Jesus, that then helps us understand everything else leading up to that point. That is why picking and choosing verses or chapters of the Bible piecemeal is so unhelpful, because when they are not seen or understood as a progression toward the full revelation in Jesus, they can be narrowly understood and applied significantly out of context to support virtually any argument.

And in my best estimation, that is why Christians are so all-over-the-board when it comes to virtually every issue, but specifically politics and government, because we simply do not approach the heart of the biblical text uniformly. Many pick and choose verses to validate their positions, even if those positions stray significantly from the full revelation of God in Jesus.

There is a more complete and uniform way to read the biblical narrative, that culminates in Jesus, which then becomes the template through which we see all things and by which we live our lives.

The starting point is reading the Bible as a narrative in which God partners with mankind to successively and progressively reveal what it looks like to be a human in perfect relationship with God and other human beings. That is the larger song, if you will.

But how would you, as God, begin the process of writing this song? Where would you even begin? If your starting point is amongst a pagan and barbaric people thousands of years BC, it’s not like you can skip over the introductory notes or the notes that comprise the verses and chorus. For there would not be any appreciation or understanding of how amazing the grand finale in Jesus really is. It would not make any sense to insert Jesus into that context and be like, “Hey, follow and be like this guy.” The primitive heart, mind, and soul would have no appreciation, understanding, or context to understand why loving enemies, forgiving others, going the extra mile, or turning the other cheek is the essential heart of God and God’s deepest longing for humanity.

So how do you meet them where they are at and walk with them, while also preparing them in such a way that when God’s heart and character are fully revealed in Jesus… they will understand it and see the need for God’s heart and character in their lives?  

The answer is slowly, progressively, successively. And that is exactly how we see God working through history up to and culminating in Jesus.

The Old Testament is a step-by-step forward progression toward Jesus. What we see from the beginning is human rebellion, which is a turning from God, and then as a result, people turning against one another. We see steps throughout the OT in which God met the people where they were at in their primitive, barbaric thinking and lifestyle and began to take steps with them to a higher ethic, or higher, more godly consciousness.  

One step in this progression was with Abraham. At a time when a primitive, barbaric people were sacrificing humans for the blessing or approval of their deities, we find that Yahweh instructs Abraham to do the same thing… but then provides a ram for sacrifice instead of his son. In a culture where human sacrifice was the norm, God helped a people take a step away from that kind of barbarism, and a successive step toward valuing human life. Was all human conduct and relationships perfect after that step? No, far from it. But it was a step toward the true heart and character of God. 

Another progressive step was with Moses. In the midst of terrible oppression and slavery, God moved on behalf of the Hebrew people to deliver them out of slavery and bondage… and then, for 40 years in the desert, stripped away the pagan beliefs and practices they had acquired from the Egyptians. And then, meeting them where they were at morally and ethically, God helped them take another successive step by giving them a higher ethic and morality in the 10 Commandments (and the rest of the Law of Moses). This was certainly not the end, but just another step to help a people develop morally and ethically and then to begin to see the “how they fall short” of the Law. 

So while there was another step taken toward helping people begin to see God’s true heart, God’s full revelation had not yet been revealed. But despite God meeting humanity where they were at, at specific moments in history, people still operated in ways that were broken. And we see this all throughout the OT. God wanted to be their only King, but the people wanted a human King and this grieved God. People still offered animal and food sacrifices to God, but all God ever wanted was their hearts. And it goes on like that throughout the entire OT.  

But also scattered throughout the OT, we hear the voices of prophets saying that there will be one who comes who will end all division, who will establish a different kind government, who will be called the King of Kings, whose reign will go out throughout the land and bring together all people, who will lead his people into peace, righteousness, and freedom, who will write the law on our hearts rather than on stone, and who will establish the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

And in Jesus, God took yet another progressive, successive moral and ethical step… from written laws to God’s own Spirit demonstrated in flesh. 

Demonstrating that his character is not one that demands people offer sacrifices to him, but that his character is self-sacrificial in nature. Showing his people the profound limitations and evil that can come from human kings, politics, and governments, and then inviting everyone into a kingdom in which he again is the King of his people. And revealing that, in all the ways humanity has misunderstood his character, the full revelation of God looks exactly like the self-sacrificial, enemy-loving, peaceable, and forgiving Jesus. And it is this step in Jesus, in which God was moving people from hierarchies, dividing lines, social stratification, oppositional thinking… and making a new people, of a new kingdom, with a higher law and ethic of the Spirit, who would become the body of Christ in the world.

That is why Jesus’ primary message of the Kingdom of God is so important, because it is the full revelation of God’s character in human flesh and the perfect union with God and others. It is an invitation away from divisive politics, inferior governmental systems, and tribal thinking and into a new Kingdom in which Jesus is the Lord and King and the values and ethics of this “new country” is the values and ethics of God demonstrated and taught by Jesus (i.e. The Sermon on the Mount). And we, as those who give our pledge and allegiance to this King only, continue the present work of inviting people out of inferior systems and inferior vales into something more fulfilling, more beautiful, and fully of God. In a very real way, we get to experience “a foretaste of what’s to come” or “the first fruits of new creation.”

So the issue with how most Christians read the Bible is this- they do not read or understand it as a gradual, successive, progressive revelation of God culminating in the highest moral, ethical, and transcendent values of God demonstrated in Jesus… but rather as a patchwork in which pieces can be picked at and used when it fits a particular agenda or issue. That’s why it is not justifiable to use the OT as a proof source for how Christians ought to deal with governments or politics or war … because God met those people where they were at with what they could understand at a specific moment in time to help them take another step … but the full revelation of God through Jesus had not yet come to humanity. 

At just the right time in history, humanity had moved enough from an ethical perspective (but still far from perfect) for God to demonstrate what the final step looks like. It’s Jesus. That is God’s full revelation to us! We do not regress into old ways of thinking or old ways of living. The pattern and template for a new humanity has been given to us who are ready to receive it. But unfortunately, many in the Church still want to reside in the old conception of life… the tribal and barbarian way, rather than the way of new creation, the way of the new humanity. And it is difficult to help people understand that in the Church.  

Please understand. If your positions, stances, or beliefs are not rooted in, and do not look like, the full revelation of God in Jesus, then your positions, stances, or beliefs are resting in the old, inferior, animal or social conception of life.  It is time for the you, as a follower of Christ, and your church to take a step forward into the divine conception of life, the life of the Spirit, the life of new creation, the life of the new humanity, which always looks like the full revelation of God in Jesus.

“The whole historic existence of mankind is nothing else than the gradual transition from the personal, animal conception of life to the social conception of life, and from the social conception of life to the divine conception of life. The whole history of ancient peoples, lasting through thousands of years and ending with the history of Rome, is the history of the transition from the animal, personal view of life to the social view of life. The whole of history from the time of the Roman empire and the appearance of Christianity is the history of the transition, through which we are still passing now, from the social view of life to the divine view of life. This view of life is the last, and founded upon it is the Christian teaching, which is a guide for the whole of our life and lies at the root of all of our activity, practical and theoretical.” Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You

I Don’t Need Your Legislation (A Good Friday Litany)

I know who I am.
I know what I signed up for.
I know whose life I have chosen to pattern my life after.
I know that patterning my life after Jesus comes with a cost.

And to that end, I realize and accept the fact that it could cost me everything, including my own life.

But despite that reality, I have chosen, and continue to choose, to bear the cross of Christ and to be led by the Spirit of God.

For it is only at the cross where all that enslaves is crucified. And it is only in the Spirit where I, at last, find freedom.

To that end, I do not need anyone or anything to protect me.

And I certainly do not need any legislation to pronounce the freedom I already have, and will continue to have, despite my changing circumstance or situation.

For if my loving of friend and enemy offends or is a crime, then arrest me.

If praying or blessing offends or is a crime, then imprison me.

If my Kingdom values (which always looks like Jesus) offends or is a crime, then ridicule and ostracize me.

If standing up for the oppressed or marginalized, or by associating with “sinners” and outcasts offends or is a crime, then spit on me.

If honoring God with my entire being (my words, my life, my all) offends or is a crime, then beat and give me your most severe punishment.

If patterning my life after Jesus and going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and giving the shirt off of my back offends or is a crime, then crucify me.

But hear me in this.

I do not need a law to protect me.
I do not need a government to grant me a freedom I already have.
I do not need a legislator to promise or guarantee a freedom that I will continue to have.

My freedom is in Christ alone.

Whether I am poor or rich… I am free.
Whether I am enslaved or emancipated… I am free.
Whether I am imprisoned or liberated… I am free.
Whether I am a servant or a master… I am free.
Whether I am suffering or in comfort… I am free.

For it is God alone who has freed me. And that freedom is enjoyed in any and all circumstances or situations of my life.

I have counted the cost of following Jesus Christ and accepted the freedom he has given me. That is sufficient.

“That’s all nice and good until they come after you and then punish you and make an example.”

To which I would humbly reply, “If punishment for loving was good enough for my Savior and Lord, then may it be good enough for me.”

For it was Jesus who loved, yet faced accusation.
It was Jesus who loved, yet faced the heavy hand of opposition groups, religious groups, and the government.
It was Jesus who loved, and lost everything.
It was Jesus who loved, and was mocked, beaten, and spit upon. It was Jesus who loved, and was put to a wretched and inhumane death.

All of this without legislation to protect his religious liberty.

He made no appeal to the governing authorities for his right to practice his faith. He lived and faced the consequences and said, “Forgive them Father, they know not what they are doing it.”

[We ought to] think of [ourselves] the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. (‭Philippians‬ ‭2‬:‭5-8‬ MSG)

Let his life be our life.
Let his love be our love.
Let his way be our way.
Let his death be our death.

For that is where life and freedom are found.

It is for this reason, that no Christian should hide fearfully behind man-made legislation. For if we live our lives like Christ, ought we not expect to be treated as Christ was treated?

It is only when we face opposition, persecution, threats, and ultimately death, that we can show the world, as the Body of Christ in the world, what great lengths we will go to in order to demonstrate the sacrificial, cross-like love of God.

And that kind of love will never be found in legislation, it can only be found when we pick up our cross.

“Yes, and all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”- ‭2 Timothy‬ ‭3‬:‭12‬


You Can’t Judge Me…

I remember one Monday a few years ago when I received an email from a young lady I really respect in our church. She apologized that she had not taken the opportunity before to tell me how much she appreciated the gifts I bring to our community. She went further with her apology by saying that this particular email was not for the sake of telling me how much she appreciates me, but for the sake of confronting me with careless words that I chose to use one Sunday.

As I think back about that email and the subsequent conversation that resulted from it, I believe it provides profound clarity to an issue so many Christians seem so utterly confused about and divided on- ought we judge others? And then if the Christian ought to judge another then who exactly ought to be judged? And by what standard ought the Christian judge another?

I believe it is safe to say, without making a detailed and comprehensive argument, that anyone who does not ascribe to the way, life, and teachings of Jesus Christ ought not be judged by a standard to which they do not hold to be true in his/her life. Even IF I believe that way to be the most liberating and life-giving, I am in no position to judge a non-follower of Christ by that standard.

We have Christians who bark and complain and judge the lifestyles and actions of people who do not follow Christ. All I would say to my fellow Christians is that these people don’t follow Christ… so quit judging them based on a standard by which they do not even profess to live.

The Apostle Paul echoes this sentiment when he writes to the Corinthian church, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked person from among you.”

What we discover is that those who follow and base their lives upon the liberating and life-giving way of Jesus ought not judge those outside of the church but instead ought to judge those within church.

This is incredibly insightful because it answers very succinctly our question of who ought to be judged- those within the church, or those who have given their lives to follow the way, life, and teachings of Jesus. By simple deduction, if we are not to judge those outside the church by a standard to which they do not ascribe, then the Christian ought to judge those within the church by the standard they profess to ascribe- the way, life, and teachings of Jesus.

Since this is the standard or basis by which we ought to judge followers of Christ within our churches, then how ought it be done on a practical, everyday basis?

There is no question that we are incredibly soft and thin-skinned when it comes to allowing others within the church to judge us. I am guilty as charged myself. But I believe each one of us must be willing to take the first steps toward making this a regular part of our lives- for our own sake and for the sake of our churches, the Body of Christ.

So, it begins with you and it begins with me.

Who are the people who love you and who you trust to surround you in order to speak truth into your life on a daily basis? Who are the people you trust to ask you the tough questions in order to keep you above reproach? Who are you actively seeking and inviting to hold you accountable to the way of Christ and His Cross and His Kingdom? These questions are essential.

How ought we respond to such things as Kingdom people?

Do we get wildly offended that a person would have the nerve to say such things?

Do we get ticked that the person only wants to write us when we do something wrong and not when we do something good or right?

Do we respond in anger, resentment, and hostility toward this person and then try to avoid her in the future?

Do we justify our words, actions, and behavior and then think of the things we could say to retaliate?

The Kingdom answer to all of these questions is an obvious NO.

There is no question that bearing the weight of the cross in our daily lives is a painful undertaking… but it is the cross of self-denial that Christ himself has called us to undertake if we are to follow his way. For the way of the cross means a death to the old person, but it also is the beginning of resurrection into the new person.

By the cross, we recognize our sinfulness and the way we fail not just God, but our brothers and sisters in Christ. We recognize that we are no better than the other sinners in our midst and we join each of them under the foot of the cross, confessing our sins, and asking for God’s forgiveness and for the forgiveness of those we have sinned against.

God uses each of us in Christian community to speak the truth in love to each other. This is one of the ways that God works and moves to refine us into Christ. I am a sinner and far from perfect. I need those who are in community with me telling me when they see the “old man” creeping up and showing his ugly face. You see, I ought to hate the “old man” so much that I seek out my trusted brothers and sisters, who love me, to tell me when they see him creeping back to life in my thoughts, actions, or attitudes. The same holds true in their lives as well. We lovingly and gracefully bear the weight of the cross with each other. But it is a cross we all must bear.

In Christian community, we must all remove the prideful chips that we put on our shoulders. When my Christian brothers or sisters tell me that they see the “old man” in me, it is because they love me and are trying to help me. It isn’t because they are trying to hurt, wound, or offend me. We miss their intentions too many times because of our pride and arrogance.

The way of the Kingdom is recognizing our lowly position below everyone else and then welcoming the loving rebuke of our brothers and sisters.

In my instance, even though the “old man” wanted to creep back to life and fight and justify and self-preserve and retaliate against my dear friend who loved me enough to tell me that the words I used did not sounds like the Jesus I follow… I humbled myself, prayed for the Spirit to teach me the ways of Christ, and then took this low and humble road of Christ and His Kingdom in my response.

I called my friend and told her how much I appreciated her care for me as a brother in Christ. I confessed to her (and then later to the church) my sinfulness, and asked for forgiveness from God, her, and my church family.

Praise God that there are Christian brothers and sisters in my community who love me enough to extend grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the very love of God when I fall short without giving up on me. The more fully hidden in Christ we are, the easier it is for Him to extend His grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love through us in Christian community.

Life in Christian community is far, far from perfect, but it is the place where we display the Kingdom of God for the world to see. It is the place where we make a commitment to stand beside one another, even when it is tough. It is the place where we learn how to be a Christ-centered community, especially when we fail each other. And, it is the place where we give praise to God for the way He works in spite of us.

God, our communities are in desperate need of selfless souls who love each other and seek out the Truth in love and who can hear Truth in love without egos and attitudes. Please forgive us for our arrogance, pride, and love of our sin and waywardness. Give us hearts that welcome the truth told to us in love. Begin with me. Amen.