Speaking of violence and Christianity

Yesterday I gave a forty-five minute presentation to a few dozen people about violence and Christianity. My talk was part three of a four-part series, held on Thursday mornings, which the organizer called “Strange Bedfellows: Religion and Violence.” The first speaker was a retired rabbi, representing Judaism, and the second speaker was a Muslim. The organizer plans to speak at the fourth session next week, wrapping up the series.

It only struck me after the presentation what an honor it was to be the sole voice speaking for Christianity to this particular group. I would have been a lot more nervous if I had thought about that before I spoke. Many people in the audience had heard me speak before, but more as a teacher about history or about religion, not as an apologist for Christianity. I attended the two previous sessions so I would know what had been said about violence and Judaism and about violence and Islam.

I began by displaying the words, “NO JESUS = NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS = KNOW PEACE.” I said that Christianity presents itself to the world as a religion of peace, from the benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you… and give you peace.”) to the messianic title “Prince of Peace,” to the song sung by angels when Jesus was born (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace…”) and Paul’s favorite greeting in his epistles (“Grace and peace to you…”). My next slide showed the words of Matthew 10:34: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” From there I went on to talk about the Christian life as living on a battlefield—not a Manichaean battlefield in which God rules heaven, Satan rules hell, and they fight as equals on earth, but a war of rebellion in which Satan and his allies resist God even though they are doomed to lose. I spoke of the three enemies—not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces—faced by Christians; namely, the devil, the world, and our flesh. I included death as a fourth enemy, and I explained the Christian belief that Jesus came into the world to fight and defeat these enemies.

Next, I quoted Jesus’ parable of the strong man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger: he breaks into Satan’s house, binds Satan, and robs Satan of his possessions; namely, sinners. I pointed out that we are all sinners; I gave the example of shouting an insult at another driver on the highway, which Jesus considers equal to murder. Having shouted such an insult, I made myself property of the devil rather than a child of God. But Jesus came, not to destroy me but to rescue me. He came, not to destroy the sin-polluted world, but to rescue and remake the world.

My next point was that forgiven sinners become saints. They are called to imitate Jesus, helping those who need help and forgiving those who sin against them. But, being like Jesus, saints will be persecuted like Jesus. I cited several examples, from Roman persecution of the Church to recent events in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Christians are victims of violence and will be until the Last Day. The devil and the world target Christians for persecution.

But the big question that I was expected to answer was this: what happens when Christians are violent towards others? I approached that question with this saying: “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT; JUST FORGIVEN.” I acknowledged that Christians can be guilty of violence. I described Luther’s vitriolic words about Jews, saying that Luther was wrong to write such things, that he had fallen victim to the flesh (as all Christians do), and that the good things he wrote should not be discounted because of the bad things he wrote.

From there I went on to talk about witchhunts, the Crusades, pogroms, and forced conversions. Each of them, I insisted, was sinful behavior by Christians for which they needed Christ’s forgiveness. I followed that with a more detailed description of the Spanish Inquisition, which was the effort of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to ensure that every citizen of the nation they ruled was a genuine Christian. Jews and Muslims were given a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Inquisition attempted to ensure that those who did not leave had sincerely converted. Of course the Inquisition hunted down other groups of people, including Protestants, sexual deviants, and even common criminals. But it was a branch of the government that dealt with crime and that treated certain religious groups as criminal.

This introduced the idea that every Christian has a dual citizenship: loyalty to the kingdom of God and also loyalty to a nation on earth. I am a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of God’s kingdom. Quoting Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar… and render unto God…” I also mentioned Augustine’s two cities, Luther’s two swords, and the American concept of “separation of church and state.” In each case, a dual loyalty is seen. But both are loyalty to God. The state enforces the law, protecting citizens and punishing criminals. The church shares the gospel, offering forgiveness to sinners. The church does not punish sinners; the state does not forgive criminals.

The Crusades are an example of the Church trying to do the job of the state; the Spanish Inquisition is an example of the state trying to do the job of the Church. Much of the violence for which Christians are blamed (and of which some Christians were guilty) results from crossing the line between Church and state. I reminded the group that the Muslim speaker had said that violence is a political problem, not a religious problem (even when committed in the name of religion) and I said that I agree. I indicated that Christians need to honor, respect, and obey their leaders, whoever those leaders are. I named President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and President Donald Trump as men who represent God’s authority by their office and deserve the respect of all American Christians.

I then spoke briefly about the Theory of Just War, one of the special interests of the series’ organizer. A government has an obligation to protect its citizens from attacks coming from other nations or groups of people. But some reasons for starting a war are just and others are unjust; some methods of waging war are just and others are unjust.

My final topic was Christian apocalyptic hope. I mentioned Armageddon, which the book of Revelation describes as the devil gathering all the sinners of the world to oppose Jesus Christ. When Christ appears, though, there is no violence. No bombs are dropped. No guns are fired. Jesus simply wins. In fact, he has already won, suffering violence on the cross and reversing death Easter morning. His picture of the new creation is not a military picture: it is the picture of a wedding reception. This new creation, I said, is marked by peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with all creation.

The audience was very quiet during my presentation. I wasn’t sure whether the silence was rapt attention or smoldering hostility. But their questions were friendly, their applause was warm, and those who spoke with me afterward said I had done a good job. I cannot say that my words converted anyone to Christianity or even whether they enriched anyone’s faith. But, for forty-five minutes, I represented Christ and his Church in an official setting. I am grateful to have had that opportunity. J.

 

Advent thoughts: December 22

“The latter glory of this house [the Temple] shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:9—read Haggai 2:1-9).

When they sacked Jerusalem, the Babylonian soldiers destroyed the glorious Temple that Solomon had built for the Lord. Seventy years later, the Persians sacked Babylon; the Persian emperor allowed the Jews to return and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Some of the elderly Jews could remember Solomon’s Temple, and they wept, seeing the far more plain Temple that was being erected on the same spot.

God sent his prophet Haggai to comfort those who mourned over the simpler second Temple. Speaking for the Lord, Haggai promised that the glory of the second Temple would exceed the glory of Solomon’s Temple. God promised that he would be present in this new Temple. He said that he would bring the wealth of nations into the new Temple. He said that in that place, the new Temple, the Lord would give peace.

All these promises were fulfilled when Jesus came into the Temple. His first arrival was as a baby, forty days old, when Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to fulfill the ceremonies required by the old covenant for the birth of a first-born son. Simeon and Anna both recognized their Savior in that infant, and they spoke to others about the promises of God that were being fulfilled in their time.

When he was twelve, Jesus spent three days in the Temple, discussing Torah with the Bible experts and amazing them by his wisdom and understanding. During those three days Jesus was missing, lost to his family as far as they knew. This loss was a picture of the Passover when Jesus would be arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. Once again he was lost to his family and friends for three days, but on the third day he rose from the dead, and they found him alive, just as he had promised.

As an adult, Jesus taught in the Temple and debated his enemies. Once again, by his presence Jesus made the Temple holy. Its glory was greater than the glory of Solomon’s Temple, not because of silver and gold, but because the true Temple was making his presence known in this new Temple in Jerusalem.

Both Solomon’s Temple and the second Temple were pictures of Jesus. A god dwells in a temple and is accessible to his people in that temple. In the Person of Jesus God dwelt among his people, and Jesus still makes his Father accessible to those who come to the Father through Jesus. The Church is the body of Jesus and is therefore also his Temple. In the Church the nations have entered the Temple, bringing their silver and their gold, making a far more glorious Temple than Solomon’s one building in Jerusalem.

The nations of the world still suffer strife and violence and war. The nations gathered in the Temple—the Church, the body of Christ—have received peace. The Prince of Peace bestows his blessings to all who come to him in faith. Peace on earth is promised by angels. Through Christ we receive the peace that surpasses all human understanding. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 14

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1—read Isaiah 11:1-10).

Jesse was the father of David, who became king of Israel. David was promised that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. But Isaiah foresaw a time that Jerusalem would be conquered and the king, the descendant of David would be made a captive in Babylon. Seventy years later the king’s grandson Zerubbabel would return to Jerusalem, not a king but a subject of the Persian Empire. For centuries the Promised Land would belong to other governments. The royal family would be a stump, the remnant of a tree that had been chopped down and removed.

Sometimes a new shoot comes from the living roots of a stump. Left to grow, that shoot can become another tree. Isaiah promised this for David’s family: when the time was right, a branch would grow from David’s family, and that branch would be the fulfillment of the promise God made to David, the promise that his descendant would rule an eternal kingdom.

Jesus is that branch. He was born in Bethlehem so he could inherit the kingdom of David. He grew up in Nazareth and was called a Nazarene—a name that sounds like the Hebrew word for “branch.” The Holy Spirit led Jesus—the sevenfold Spirit described by Isaiah. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. All these qualities Jesus possesses, and he is the King who judges with righteousness as Isaiah also described.

Isaiah proceeds to picture the Kingdom of peace ruled by Jesus. Once predator and prey, now animals become friends and dwell together. Nothing in all creation is harmful; everything is at peace with everything else. This perfect peace, this Shalom, is the gift of Jesus. The new creation that begins on the Day of the Lord will be marked by that Shalom. From that time on, there will be no danger. Nothing will be poisonous; we will have no allergies. Fleas and ticks and mosquitoes will not annoy us, and we will finally learn God’s intention in creating these creatures in the first place. The balance of bacteria in us and on us and around us will be perfect; no germs or viruses will sicken us, but even the tiniest living creatures will act for our benefit.

This new creation will have no sin and no death. All people will live together in harmony with God and with one another. Many of our current occupations will not be needed. We will not need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or therapists. We will not need police officers, lawyers, judges, or prison guards. We will not need pastors, because everyone will have direct and continuous access to the Lord.

Yet there still will be occupations and callings. Some will tend the plants and others the animals; others will work in art or in technology of various kinds. People will prepare food for others to eat. People will honor God and serve each other in a variety of ways. Probably the things you most enjoy doing now, those things that absorb your attention so much that you lose track of the time, these are the things you will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

All this is guaranteed to us by the root and branch of Jesse, by Jesus the King who rules eternally. He was once mocked as King of the Jews, given a crown twisted out of thorns, a reed for his scepter, and a purple robe that was just a scrap of spare fabric. But this mocked and abused King is the Prince of Peace, the one who brings his people into a new creation to live with him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

PS: When I got home, I found that a circuit breaker had tripped, interrupting power to the modem, computer, and a few other outlets. I turned it back on, but it tripped again, with a popping noise in the dining room. It appears that rain water has gotten into the wall of the house and is interfering with the electricity. We are leaving that circuit off for the time being and will have it examined next week. Meanwhile, I have an extension cord crossing the room to bring power to the computer and modem.

Advent thoughts: December 13

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….” (Isaiah 9:2, 6—read Isaiah 9:1-7).

We all began in darkness. We all started as enemies of God, blind to his truth, unable to comprehend the things God was saying to us. Our nature was to be selfish, to demand what we wanted when we wanted it, to be unconcerned about the inconvenience we caused anyone else. We were at the center of the world. We were our own gods, and we demanded that everyone worship us and serve us.

It is one thing to teach people to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you,” to have good manners both in public and at home. But good manners do not dispel the darkness. They may hide our selfishness from others, but they do not cause our selfishness to disappear. Only the light can dispel the darkness. Only the light can clear away sin and cause people to be truly loving, true servants to God and to their neighbors.

That light has come. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome the light. Whenever light and darkness battle, light wins. It is the nature of light to shine and to remove darkness. It is the nature of darkness to be beaten whenever it confronts the light.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. He is not born only to Mary and Joseph; he is not given only to the two of them. He is born to all of us. The angel told the shepherds, “A Savior has been born to you.” As Mary represents all the believers of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church in declaring herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord, so she is in the place of all believers when she gives birth to her first-born Son. For the timeless Son of God was born once in time to redeem people from every time, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to the last child conceived before Christ appears in glory to make everything new.

When Handel wrote music for these words of Isaiah, he put a musical pause between Wonderful and Counselor. They belong together as one name: Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor who tells us the truth we need to know because he is the Truth. He deserves our wonder, our awe, our amazement at who he is and at what he has done for us. Because he has redeemed us, we now receive his counsel to guide our lives and to grant us eternal life.

He is also the Mighty God. The child lying in the manger is running the universe at the very same time. All things are possible for him, but he only does the things that are right, that match his Law, that benefit the people around him. When Jesus began to work miracles, he only worked them for other people in need. He fed thousands in the wilderness; but when he was hungry, he did not feed himself. He healed others, but he allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. He stopped storms, but he did not stop the crowd from arresting him or the Roman solders from mocking him.

He is the Everlasting Father. In the timelessness of God, relations are changeable, so the Bride of Christ can also give birth to him. We are all children of God through the work of Jesus, making Christ our Father as well as our Brother. Because he is the Son of God, God calls us sons—we are adopted into his family through Christ’s work. Because we are children of the Church, Christ’s Bride, Jesus is our Father just as his Father has become our Father.

He is the Prince of Peace. His entry into this world meant war with the devil and with the sinful world and with sin in general, but Jesus won that war. We started out in darkness as enemies of God, but through redemption God has made peace with us. That peace is Shalom—not merely an absence of conflict, but the presence of goodness: a place for everything and everything in its place. Peace is not boring: it is harmony like a symphony orchestra; it is a blend of colors like a painting or like a flower garden.

All this Jesus has done for us. He is all these things to us. Because of what he has done, Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom, and we belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Contentment

Several times this month I have tried to write about contentment, but I was never satisfied with what I wrote. This might be an example of irony. It might be evidence that I do not heed my own advice. It might affirm the proverb that says, “Those who cannot do, teach.”

The Bible describes contentment. “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Proverbs 19:23). Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:6-8). “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).

In these verses contentment seems to rest in satisfaction with what possessions one has in this world—enough food, enough clothing, enough money, but none of these things in excess. Lotteries thrive on the lack of contentment in our society. Advertisements would not work if most people were content. Lack of contentment seems to be a driving force in many of the decisions people make every day, and in the large lifetime decisions people sometimes struggle to make.

The opposite of contentment is coveting. God has forbidden coveting in his Ten Commandments. Coveting is not merely wanting something; coveting is seeing what another person has and desiring it for one’s own. If you are happy to see your neighbor with a new car, you are not coveting—even if you admire the car and wish you could have one like it. When you see your neighbor’s new car and grumble, complaining how unfair life is, then you are coveting. When you are angry at people who have good things you do not have, then you are coveting. Coveting is a sin because you cannot love your neighbor while you covet what belongs to your neighbor. Moreover, you do not love and trust God when you are angry and unhappy because of the things you do not have.

God tells his people not to covet their neighbors’ house. This includes anything that can be bought with money—not only the building next door, but also the car, the clothing, the concert ticket or season ticket, or the winning lottery ticket. Whenever you ask, “Why him and not me?” you are in danger of coveting. God also tells his people not to covet their neighbor’s husband or wife, not to covet their neighbor’s workers, and not even to covet their neighbor’s work animals. This includes anything that is tied to a person by loyalty—pets and friends as well. In junior high school, people are sometimes very open about coveting each other’s friends, to the point of crying because “Susie likes Jane more that she likes me.” As adults we are more subtle about the way we covet, but sometimes we are still unhappy and even angry because of the friendships and relationships other people have that we do not have.

Contentment does not mean that we cannot plan for improvements, work to earn money to buy the things we want, or hope for a better life. We are content, not only with what we have today, but also with what is available to us in the future. Contentment does not mean being satisfied with mediocre work. A content person has done his or her best at a task, and when the task is finished, the content person is able to move on to something else. Contentment does not require us to tolerate evil. When we see wickedness and evil, these things should make us angry. Accepting evil and not resisting it is not being content—accepting evil and not resisting it is being calloused and cold.

Contentment is easier to define in negative ways than in positive ways. Yet contentment is not an absence of desire or of anger. Contentment is a positive state. Contentment is “peace at the center.” Contentment is confidence that God is working all things for good. Contentment is trusting God, while also working to serve God by loving him and by helping our neighbors. Like peace and joy, contentment is a deeper quality than happiness or pleasure. Contentment does not disappear even when things are going wrong. If a Christian is struggling with credit card debt, if a Christian is struggling to pass a difficult class, or if a Christian is lonely and looking for friends, that Christian can still be content. The forces of evil hate to see God’s people having peace and joy and contentment. They fight to strip these qualities away from the Christian. Yet peace and joy and contentment are rooted in God’s gift of faith, which is the very reason that our enemies cannot take away our peace and joy and contentment.

I have seen an inspirational poster that says, “Living in the future is anxiety. Living in the past is depression. Living in the present is contentment.” In part, I disagree. Happy memories and nostalgia also involve the past—not all thoughts of the past are depression. Hope and eager expectation also involve the future—not all thoughts of the future are anxiety. The only time in which a Christian can live, though, is today. God has guaranteed our future. He has already taken care of all our past problems. Now Jesus teaches his people to pray for daily bread, for daily forgiveness, for the ability to forgive others each day, for daily guidance, and for daily protection. Because of the work of Christ, we do not have to pray about the past. Because of the promises of God, we do not have to pray about the future. Jesus teaches us to live one day at a time, praying that day for that day’s needs.

This, I think, is the secret of being content. It starts with knowing God, trusting God, and loving God. It continues by living one day at a time, neither frightened of what is past or worried about what is to come. Living one day at a time, though, we can still thank God for the good things of the past, and we can hope for (and plan for) good things to come in the future. Before writing about his contentment, Paul first gave advice telling how to be content. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

I know one more secret about contentment. It cannot be pursued successfully. What a Buddhist says of enlightenment, I say of Christian contentment: the harder you seek it, the harder it is to find. You only receive it when you are not looking for it or trying to get it. When I was a boy I used to chase butterflies, but I never captured any. Now that I am a man, I sometimes sit in the garden, and butterflies land on my knee. May contentment come to you, not through your striving, but rather when you are least expecting it. J.