Truth and analogy

Part of the challenge Christians face when sharing the Gospel is distinguishing imagery or analogies from literal truth. While Christians (at least the traditional or conservative sort) say that everything in the Bible is true, we stop short of saying that it is “literally true.” Psalm 91:4 portrays God as spreading his wings and covering us with his feathers. We know that to be an image, comparing God to a mother bird protecting her young. We believe in the truth of God’s loving protection; we do not believe that God literally has wings and feathers.

When it comes to the redemption of sinners, it can be hard to sort literal truth from imagery and analogy. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure. He does not represent any truth; he is Truth itself. Historically, he was executed, suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Historically, he rose to life again the same weekend he was killed. Anyone who tries to turn those events into images or analogies is distorting the central truth of the Christian faith.

But the meaning of those events can only be portrayed in analogy. No one image is big enough to cover the enormity of what Jesus accomplished by his death and resurrection. Any single image is open to distortion and misunderstanding. Sometimes, when trying to communicate the Gospel, a Christian must set aside one analogy and turn to another to keep from offending the listener (in the Biblical sense of John 6:60-66, not in the shallow worldly sense).

The image of the suffering and death of Jesus as a sacrifice is common among Christians. Animals sacrificed in Old Testament times were pictures of Jesus on the cross. But are we to say that God approves of human sacrifice? Clearly not—one of the charges against the Canaanites was that they sacrificed their own children to their gods. The sacrifice of Jesus is an analogy of his voluntary acceptance of suffering to redeem sinners. When the analogy is pressed too far—when it is said that God the Father demanded the sacrifice of his Son—we are better off seeking a different analogy.

There are several others to choose. Paul liked to use financial analogies, depicting Jesus as paying our debt so we could be free from sin. He also used legal analogies, showing Jesus accepting our punishment so we could be declared not guilty (that is, “justified”). Yet another common analogy is that of warfare, that Jesus on the cross battled the devil and the evil world and all sins and death, winning a victory that he shares with his people and wants to share with the entire world.

Likewise, when we pursue the warfare analogy, it is important to remember which enemies were defeated. Christians are commanded to love our worldly enemies, but Christians also battle spiritual enemies of great power. Without Christ’s victory, we are easily defeated; through Christ’s victory, we are more than conquerors. The Psalms that call for help against our enemies do not apply to Muslim terrorists or to neighbors with noisy leaf-blowers. They apply to the devil, to the sinful world, and to the sin still within each of us. When Psalm 137 calls for the children of Babylon to be killed in a violent way, that does not refer to historic babies in a historic city. It uses the imagery of warfare to describe the crushing of our sins through the victory of Christ so those sins can no longer afflict us.

We are not free to change every verse of Scripture into an analogy or an image. Statements about historical events should be regarded as factual. Commandments not to sin should be taken seriously. But the greatest truths can only be communicated through imagery. Human language alone does not have the power to describe the splendor of our Savior and the wonder of all that he has done for us. J.

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The last enemy

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26). The devil, the world, and the flesh are traditionally the three enemies of God and of God’s people, but death is also an enemy. Some people try to be philosophical about death, treating it as an inevitable part of life, but the Bible clearly states that death is an enemy, albeit an enemy already conquered by Jesus Christ and forced to serve God’s purposes.

Usually when we speak of death, we mean the physical death of a living body. In a broader sense, every unpleasant separation is a death. Christians speak of spiritual death–separation of a person from God, physical death–separation of the soul from the body, and eternal death–being spiritually dead when also physically dead. In a similar sense, divorce can be regarded as the death of a marriage. Friendships can die, careers can die, and hopes can die. Every unwanted ending is a sort of death and also a reminder of the reality of our enemy, death.

God told Adam that, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. Adam lived another 930 years after eating that fruit, but he and Eve experienced spiritual death in the garden, as is shown by their desire to hide from God. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus told his disciples that the sickness would not end in death. Lazarus physically died, but because of his trust in Jesus he was not in jeopardy of eternal death. In fact, to show his power over death, Jesus called Lazarus back to life.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote. Every sin is part of spiritual death, separating the sinner from God. Physical death is likewise a result of sin; had Adam and Eve never sinned, they would have lived forever. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus before raising Lazarus, because Jesus was facing an enemy, one he would soon battle and defeat on the cross. Christians are right to be saddened by death, although we are reminded not to grieve like people who have no hope. We have hope for ourselves and for our fellow believers in Christ. We are guaranteed the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

While Jesus was on the cross, the thief being crucified next to Jesus confessed his faith, declaring that Jesus was innocent of any crime and asking that Jesus would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, facing his own death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” From these words of Jesus, we know what happens at the death of a Christian. The soul leaves the body and is with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of the Father. This is a spiritual existence; it is not yet the new creation with pearly gates and streets of gold. While it is better to leave the body and be with the Lord, the best is still to come.

On a Day known only to God, Jesus will suddenly appear. The spirits of all believers who have died will be with him. At the command of Jesus all dead bodies will rise for judgment. The spirits of Christians will be united with their bodies, which will have been raised and healed. Even birth defects will be healed at this time. All eyes and ears and legs and minds will work properly, and Jesus will welcome all those who trusted in him to their new home, a re-created Earth that will be as good as it was when God first made it.

How can sinners hope to have that eternal life when their sins have separated them from God? Jesus paid the necessary price to cancel that separation and to reconcile sinners to the Lord. He lived a sinless life, but he transferred the rewards earned by that life to everyone who trusts his promises. In that exchange, Jesus paid for every sinner, enduring spiritual death on the cross. In the darkness of that separation, Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew that the answer to his question was that he was bearing on himself all the sins of the world; but his prayer (a quote from Psalm 22) demonstrates his agony at the separation from his Father that was caused by sin.

Having defeated the devil and the world and the flesh and death itself, Jesus physically died. On the Sabbath he rested–his body in a grave, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. On Sunday morning, Jesus rose, body and soul reunited. His resurrection promises our resurrection on the Day Jesus appears in glory. Death, the enemy, has been defeated. It must now serve God’s purposes as Jesus–the Good Shepherd–leads his people through the valley of the shadow of death so they can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

Know your enemy–the devil

Some people interpret the devil as a metaphor, a personification of evil who does not literally exist. Others picture him as a cartoon character, an archaic mythical being with an overlay of medieval and modern imaginings. The Bible describes the devil as a fallen angel, created by God to be good, but in rebellion against God, at war with all that belongs to God. He has no personal interest in the people living on the planet Earth; but, because God loves us, the devil tries to hurt God by bringing harm upon us.

God is purely good, but pure evil does not exist. Everything evil is something good that has been twisted, distorted, and changed from its original form and purpose. Even the devil was a good angel when God made him. The Bible does not say much about his rebellion beyond attributing his fall to sinful pride. I speculate that the devil understands power and authority, but he does not understand love and mercy. He sees God’s love and mercy as weaknesses, which is why the devil believes that he can run the universe better than God is running it. He is very clever, but he is also foolish. He cannot accept the reality that he is not equal to God. He is not all-powerful, all-knowing, or present everywhere. He cannot defeat God, but that reality does not stop him from trying.

The devil tempts people to sin. When we have sinned, he remembers our sins and stands ready to accuse us of sinning. His name, Satan, comes from a Persian word, a legal term for the prosecuting attorney in a courtroom. Once a person has sinned, Satan considers that person a partner in evil. Every sin is a sign that the sinner belongs to Satan and not to God. Satan is ready to accuse us in God’s presence of all our sins so he can keep us as his property–not because he cares about us, but because he hates God and wants to grieve God.

On one occasion, Satan showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promised to give them to Jesus if Jesus would worship the devil. As laughable as that temptation seems, it was a shrewd offer. Jesus had come into the world to redeem sinners, to reconcile us to God and reclaim us for his Kingdom. His path to our redemption involved suffering and dying on a Roman cross. Satan offered Jesus a shortcut to his goal. Jesus could take charge of all the kingdoms of the world without suffering and without dying. He only had to worship the devil. Had Jesus wanted power and authority, he would have accepted that offer. But Jesus came into the world with love and mercy. It was not enough for him to rule over sinners still unreconciled to God. Jesus refused the devil’s offer and continued his journey toward the cross.

Satan quoted Psalm 91 as he suggested that Jesus jump from the pinnacle of the Temple and be carried by angels. Jesus refused to put God’s promises to the test. Yet Jesus was fulfilling the promise of the Psalm in his refusal–the same Psalm also promises that God’s people will trample the serpent. In the Garden of Eden, Satan had used the form of a serpent to tempt Eve into sinning and joining his rebellion. God responded that Satan was a loser–he would eat dust–and a descendent of Eve would defeat Satan. Jesus would crush the devil’s head, but in the process Satan would bruise his heel. Jesus crushed the devil’s head by his sacrifice on the cross.

Now, when Satan remembers the sins of Christians and accuses us of rebellion, Jesus stands as our defense attorney. He pleads our case before his Father, reminding his Father that our penalty has been paid in full. Satan stamps his little foot and complains, “That’s not fair!” He is correct; God is being unjust by forgetting our sins and receiving us into his Kingdom. In love and mercy, God would rather be unfair to our benefit than give us what we deserve.  Jesus comes like a thief in the night to steal us from the devil. He breaks into the strong man’s house–the world controlled by the devil–and binds Satan so he can take Satan’s property (sinners who have rebelled against God) and bring them home.

When missionaries sent by Jesus rejoiced in the victories they had experienced, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Satan’s fall is not a single event in history; he falls whenever God’s promises are shared and believed. The Word of God binds Satan. His only power is in his words, and when people trust God’s Word, Satan is bound. He is a chained dragon. Satan becomes unbound whenever people set aside the Word of God and fail to believe the promise of redemption. The Bible calls Satan a roaring lion, but he is no more dangerous than the lions in the zoo. So long as we stand where we belong–on the Word of God–Satan cannot get to us. Only when we leave God’s Word and climb into Satan’s territory are we in danger from the devil.

Satan is not God’s equal. Hell is a prison, not a kingdom, and Jesus holds the keys to that prison. The victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection is a victory over Satan, a victory Jesus shares with us. The apostle Paul calls us “more than conquerors” because we participate in the victory without having contributed to the battle. Satan does not have the power to take us out of God’s hands. Nothing, not even the devil, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. J.

 

Know your enemies

Jesus commanded his followers to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Yet the book of Psalms contains many examples of hating enemies, wishing bad things to happen to them, and calling upon God to judge and punish those enemies. Is there a contradiction between the teachings of Jesus and the Psalms?

Viewed in their historic context, the “imprecatory Psalms” at first seem to relate to human enemies. David, the author of many of those Psalms, had many human enemies in his lifetime, including the Philistines, King Saul, and David’s son Absalom. When we read in I & II Samuel about the David’s career, though, he does not seem to glower with hatred against his enemies. Although he exchanged trash talk with Goliath before striking him down with a stone and cutting off his head, on other occasions David was gentle with those who chose to be his enemies. Twice he spared Saul’s life when Saul was vulnerable while pursuing David. He begged his soldiers to be gentle with his rebellious son, Absalom. Before he became king, David even lived among the Philistines and offered to fight with them against Israel. David’s attitude toward those enemies seems more consistent with the teachings of Jesus than with his own poetry.

David seems to have known already what the Apostle Paul would later put into words: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). By tradition, Christians identify our true enemies as an unholy threesome opposed to the will of God: the devil, the world, and our flesh. The devil is Satan, a rebellious angel who tried to take control of the universe away from God and who tempts people to sin, then accuses them of their guilt. The world is the sin that surrounds us during these lifetimes, the many sources of temptation that confront us daily and try to disrupt our Christian walk. The flesh is the sinful nature still within us, ready to cooperate with the devil and with the world by choosing sin over righteousness.

Our problems come from these three enemies. Since they work together, we cannot always say which of them is the source of any particular problem. I know Christians who blame all their troubles on demonic forces. I know others who blame all their troubles on the bad influence of the world. I know still others who blame themselves for every bad thing that happens to them. Most of the time, though, we cannot know the source of our problems. We know only that God has permitted his enemies to bother us, and that he will also never abandon us to their attacks.

Christians need to remember that our enemies have already been defeated. Jesus battled them on the cross and prevailed against them. The devil, the world, and even our sinful natures were beaten when Jesus bore the weight of sin and evil on the cross. When He announced, “It is finished,” one of the things that was finished was the power that our enemies have over us.

Even when we do not feel like winners, we remain more than conquerors through Jesus—more than conquerors because we share a victory we did not fight to achieve. Our enemies are still trying to harm us—not that they care much about us, but because they oppose the God who loves us. During this lifetime we live on a battlefield. We can rejoice with David, though, knowing that our enemies have lost. They are judged and condemned, and God has guaranteed their loss and our victory.

For those other enemies—the members of the other political party, the advocates of social changes of which we cannot approve, the bullies and insensitive neighbors who steal our peace and comfort—we are still expected to pray. We are expected to love them and even to forgive them. Even Muslim terrorists remain missionary opportunities. Our proper prayer for them is that God will show them the error of their ways and lead them to genuine repentance and to faith in Jesus Christ. We rejoice, not in earthly victories over flesh and blood, but in the eternal victory Christ won over the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.