A tent and a building

 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:1-10)

              For centuries, thinkers and philosophers have tried to figure out what it is that makes us the people that we are. What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you? We have many words to describe that unique individual experience that belongs to each of us. We speak of the spirit, the soul, the mind, the heart, and the self. In India it is called atman; in China it is called chi. Some people think that only human beings have this individual self; others see the life force flowing through animals, through plants, even through rocks and rivers and mountains. Science has tried to find this self, but it cannot be located or measured or described scientifically. We generally assume that we have a soul or a spirit. Most religious descriptions of people include a soul or a spirit. It’s hard to imagine ourselves without a soul or a spirit. But the information we have about our souls and spirits comes, not from scientific investigation and study, but from the Bible, the Word of God. Since God created us, we willingly learn from him how we are made.

              Since we each have a soul or spirit, we want to know: what happens to that soul or spirit when we die? Does it disintegrate, as a dead body falls apart over time? Does it linger in this world for a while, haunting places as a ghost or a phantom? Does it come back again and again, born in a new body each time, experiencing the world repeatedly through history? God’s Word assures us that some part of us survives the death of the body. It does not return again and again—it goes somewhere to wait for the resurrection at the end of time and for the new creation. For believers, that waiting place is called Paradise. We are with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of God the Father. For unbelievers, that waiting place is called Hades. The Bible describes Hades as an uncomfortable place, but it still involves waiting until the resurrection and the final judgment. On that Day Jesus will divide us into two groups, welcoming his saints into the new creation where we will live with him forever. The other group, the sinners who refused to believe in Jesus, will be locked outside of that new creation, stuck forever in the outer darkness.

              The apostle Paul describes our current bodies as tents. We are camping on a battlefield, dwelling in tents, surrounded by a world polluted by sin and evil. The only existence we know is life in these bodies, but we know that this life is temporary. Even if we survive in this world and make it to one hundred years, that century is merely a drop in the ocean of eternity. We have been promised eternal life in a better world, a world without sin and evil and death. We are looking forward to that new creation. We camp in tents today, but God has prepared buildings for us in the new creation, bodies that will last forever without sicknesses or injuries or allergies. Paul says that today we walk by faith, not by sight. Our hope is not merely to leave these bodies behind and to live as spirits with God in Paradise. Our hope incudes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We eagerly await our final destination, the new bodies God will raise from the grave, changing them so they will last forever.

              Today we cope with what we have. We take care of these bodies, these temporary dwellings, these tents. Consider how much time we invest in our teeth, our hair, our faces. We clean these bodies and then we cover them with nice clothes. We prepare food and eat food and then wash up after each meal. We give these bodies rest and exercise. We shelter them in buildings, and we keep those buildings at comfortable temperatures in the summer heat and the winter cold. God gave us these bodies. Good stewardship includes caring for these bodies, making them fit for the good works that God intends us to do in this world. But many people become obsessed with their bodies, their earthly tents. They forget that we have a heavenly dwelling, prepared by God. While we are in this tent, we groan. We are vulnerable to the many things that go wrong in us and around us in a sin-polluted world. We think about our health and comfort today and tomorrow, investing our time and energy in maintaining these current tents. Meanwhile, we neglect our purpose in this world. As Paul says, we should make it our aim to please God today. We will receive what is due us for the way we have served God while camping in these bodies. Stewardship is more than keeping our bodies fed and clothed and clean and healthy. Stewardship is also living actively in these bodies, loving God and loving our neighbors. Stewardship includes using these bodies to do good works, works that help the people around us and bring glory to God, because we are God’s people. We are Christ’s body, doing his work in this world.

              Doing good works is half the struggle. Camping on this battlefield, we also face temptations to sin. The devil and the sinful world around us are constantly showing us where we can do things for our pleasure rather than for God’s glory. The sin still within each of us would like to follow the path of temptation and sin rather than following God’s path. Different people are tempted in different ways. For some of us, the temptations are different at different ages, different stages of life. But temptation is always available. We aim to please God, but our aim can be diverted by the cloud of temptations that surrounds us.

              We have learned how to protect ourselves from viruses in this world. We wash our hands for twenty seconds; we wear masks in some situations. But how do we protect ourselves from spiritual danger? How do we purify ourselves from threats to the soul? We are under attack. We are constantly being threatened with evil. What mask, what sanitizer, will keep us safe from temptation?

              Martin Luther said this about temptation: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Temptations will surround us as long as we live in this world. Jesus was tempted as we are. How we respond to temptation is what matters. We realize that we should just say no. Many times a day, that is exactly what we say. But it is one thing to say no; it is another to move on past the temptation and not linger in the thought and imagination of what we could be doing. Holding on to our anger can be as sinful as striking out in anger. Remembering and reliving a temptation can be as sinful as giving in to that temptation. But even when we resist temptation, the devil has not finished with us. He can still battle us with the temptation after we have said no. He can make us feel guilty for being tempted. When he tries that attack, we remind ourselves that Jesus was also tempted, that Jesus said no, and that Jesus has given us the strength to say no. We should not feel guilty for being tempted; we should only feel guilty for surrendering to the temptation, for sinning, or for hanging on to that temptation and enjoying the thought of sin.

              When we have resisted temptation, when we have moved on to good works instead of living in the temptation, Satan’s other attack is the sin of pride. He wants us to keep score of our goodness. He wants us to measure how good we are, how many sins we have avoided. When he has us measuring ourselves and taking pride in ourselves, he helps build barriers that separate us from God. Even though, at first, our aim was to please God, soon we are pleasing ourselves by our goodness. We will be in big trouble on Judgment Day when we stand before the throne of God, boasting in our goodness, because our goodness never will be good enough to bring us into God’s perfect new creation.

              We will receive what is due for what we have done in these bodies, these tents, whether we have done good or have done evil. But God’s standard calls for perfection. The smallest sin, the smallest surrender to temptation, can bar us from the new creation. When we think of that Day when we will stand before the throne of God, we must remember how Jesus prepared us for that Day.

              Jesus lived among us as one of us. Jesus resisted temptation in our name. Jesus lived the perfect righteousness that earns a place in the new creation. Jesus then exchanged lives with us. Jesus took upon himself the guilt for our sins. Jesus paid our debt in full on the cross. Jesus has sanitized our lives to make us pure and acceptable in the sight of his Father. What we receive on Judgment Day is shaped by the work of Jesus. God will see no evil in us, because Jesus has removed every sin. God will see only good in us, because Jesus has credited each of us with his righteousness.

              Paying attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, we begin to imitate Jesus. We do good things that help our neighbors and bring glory to God. Again, the devil tempts us to take credit for those good things, to focus attention on our selves, to forget Jesus and the changes he has made in our lives. Our growth comes, not from our efforts to imitate Christ, but from his power working within us. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like seeds that grow. The seed is planted, it sprouts, it produces roots and stems and leaves; eventually a crop appears, whether grain or grapes or mustard or apples or figs. A healthy tree produces fruit: the fruit does not give life to the tree, but the tree naturally produces fruit if it is alive. In a similar way, a Christian life is recognized by good works. Good works do not create Christian faith—faith is God’s gift, and life and growth come from that faith. When we focus on Jesus, these good things happen in our lives. When we focus on ourselves and forget Jesus, whatever good we accomplish is tarnished with pride and self-righteousness.

              Jesus Christ defeated sin and all its consequences, including death. Jesus Christ grants new life to his people. Jesus Christ lives in us, working in us the good things that God had in mind when he created us. Jesus Christ also sustains us in this new life. As seeds, when they have sprouted, need sun and rain and soil and tending, so we need the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. We need his Word, which guides us and also gives strength for our faith to grow. We need his Church, as Jesus works in us to build our faith and to make one another strong in the faith. We need his Supper, as Jesus nourishes us by his own body and blood, removing our sins and guaranteeing us eternal life. God’s Holy Spirit, given to us as a guarantee of all his promises, works through the Word and the Church and the Sacrament to give us faith and to help that faith grow and remain strong.

              We are always of good courage. We live today in tents on a battlefield, at home in the body and away from the Lord. One day we will leave these tents behind—we will be with the Lord and away from the body. We will be with Jesus in Paradise. But the best is still to come. God has eternal mansions for us, new bodies that will live forever in a new creation. Our place there is guaranteed, not by what we do for Jesus, but by what Jesus has done for us.

Advent thoughts: December 21

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2—read Micah 5:1-6).

Once again Matthew assures us that a verse prophesies the coming of the Messiah, even though a quick reading of the chapter would seem to suggest that it concerns the days of the tribes of Israel being invaded by the Assyrian Empire. Matthew even makes a subtle change in his translation of the verse, rendering it, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The shepherd reference is borrowed from Micah 5:4, but the change from “too little” to “by no means least” would seem to be a contradiction and not a paraphrase.

“Too little to be among the clans,” but, “by no means least” fit together because of the meaning of the rest of the verse. Bethlehem was a small town; but it has become the most famous small town in the world because Jesus was born there. The victory Jesus was born to win was far bigger than any victory over an Assyrian army. Jesus defeated all the forces of evil, including our sins and the power of death. For that reason, the prophet Micah looked beyond the fearsome invaders of his time to focus on the victory that matters more than any other, because it defeats the forces that cause wars and other violence on earth.

The Bible experts used Micah’s prophecy to tell King Herod where the Messiah would be born. They chose a simple verse for a king who ruled over the Jews but did not understand their faith. The experts knew that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem, not because of a single verse in Micah, but because of the promise God made to David. God told David that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. To inherit the throne of David, the Savior-King had to be born in David’s hometown. Sharing a birthplace was necessary because of the terms of the old covenant.

God stressed a connection between his chosen people and the Promised Land. Each plot of land was to remain the property of the same family. They could not sell land; they could only rent it out for a time if they needed money. God wanted his people to be good stewards of the land. His concern for stewardship of the land was expressed already to Adam and Eve in the beginning. They and all their descendants were to care for the planet and especially for its living beings. God did not say that people could do whatever they want with the land and with plants and animals. Part of the Judgment to be announced on the Day of the Lord will be the matter of how well or how poorly we have cared for the planet.

We must confess that we have not, for the most part, been good stewards of God’s creation. Some areas have been farmed to exhaustion and have become human-made deserts. Others have been poisoned by human-made pollution. Habitats have been stolen for human use. Habitat loss and careless hunting has driven many species into extinction. When Jesus is seen on his throne of judgment, he will have things to say about the way we treated his world.

Yet the forgiveness of Jesus covers even our sins against the planet. One reason Jesus went to the cross was to pay the penalty for all the times we have damaged and destroyed the world he created.  Jesus is not pleased to see mismanagement of his creation, but that sin is forgiven through his life and death and resurrection. Forgiveness is not license to continue sinning; forgiveness gives us power to reverse our mistakes, to do what is right instead of what is wrong.

The King who inherits David’s throne is also a Shepherd to protect his flock so we live in safety and are not threatened by our enemies. He is our peace—through him we are at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with all creation. Coming from ancient times—indeed, from outside of time—Jesus comes to rescue us and to claim us. We belong to him and his kingdom forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Training and discipline from the Lord’s hand: part one

Some years ago, I attended a conference for church workers with the theme of “Holy Health and Wholeness,” or something along those lines. The featured speaker was a pastor/theologian who was considered an expert on the topic of health and how to be healthy according to spiritual principles. Much of his message centered around maintaining a positive attitude, dealing with stress instead of succumbing to stress, and being good stewards of our physical health.

On the one hand, I agree that each Christian is responsible for being a good steward of his or her body. We all should make good decisions about nutrition, sleep, exercise, and hygiene. We should avoid harmful substances and bad habits. Negative thoughts and poor stress management can lead to physical symptoms. On the other hand, I am skeptical regarding claims that we can be in charge of our own health, that we can be healthy and happy simply by replacing bad choices with good choices. Whether those claims are made by a Christian, a New Age practitioner, or a secular source, I believe that things are more complicated than those speakers picture them. The Bible says more about life than how to be healthy, wealthy, and comfortable in this world. In fact, the Bible more often deals with the problem that, in this sin-polluted world, often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer.

To provide full disclosure: the week of that conference I was suffering from an ear infection. Symptoms included pain, lightheadedness, and distortion of sounds. In that condition, I was hostile toward any suggestion that I was responsible for my discomfort—that if I made better choices, I would not have been battling an infection and needing to take painkillers and antibiotics to make the problem go away. In fact, I was seriously considering questioning the speaker about blaming the victim and making things worse instead of better.

Instead, I began searching the Bible to see if I could find verses that would support the speaker’s point of view. Here are some of the verses I found: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same…. For affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground, but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. As for me, I would seek God, and to God would I commit my cause…. Behold, blessed is the one whom God reproves; therefore despise not the discipline of the Almighty…. If you will seek God and plead with the Almighty for mercy, if you are pure and upright, surely then he will rouse himself for you and restore your rightful habitation…. If you prepare your heart, you will stretch out your hands toward him. If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and let not injustice dwell in your tents. Surely then you will lift up your face without blemish; you will be secure and will not fear. You will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away. And your life will be brighter than the noonday; its darkness will be like the morning…. Agree with God and be at peace; thereby gold will come to you. Receive instruction from his mouth and lay up his words in your heart. If you return to the Almighty you will be built up; if you remove injustice far from your tents, if you lay gold in the dust and gold of Ophir among the stones of the torrent bed, then the Almighty will be your gold and our precious silver. For then you will delight yourself in the Almighty and lift up your face to God. You will make your prayer to him, and he will hear you, and you will pay your vows.”

Before anyone rushes for a concordance to find these verses, I will reveal where I discovered them. They are written in the book of Job—namely 4:7-8; 5:6-8; 5:17; 8:5-6; 11:13-17; 22:21-27. These are the words of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, friends of Job who came to comfort him in his suffering but ended up accusing him. Confident that God makes no mistakes, these three friends told Job that he needed to return to God; if he was being chastened by the Almighty, then surely the purpose was to wake Job from his spiritual slumber and restore him to a right relationship with God. The Lord responded to Eliphaz saying, “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” God called for a sacrifice to atone for their sin and promised to hear Job when he prayed for their forgiveness (Job 42:7-9).

To be continued…. J.

“Your body is a temple of God”–part one

At times Christians say that we should take care of our bodies because they are God’s temples. Now, I am entirely in favor of maintaining our health. That is good stewardship of part of God’s creation. (See note #1, below.) But describing our bodies as God’s temples is a mistake—one which muddles what the apostle Paul wrote. It combines two or more references into a single thought that Paul did not intend.

Paul used the word “temple” in seven places among his epistles (counting multiple uses in the same sentence as one place). Only once does he refer to the actual building in Jerusalem (I Corinthians 9:13). Another time he refers to pagan temples (I Corinthians 8:10). In the remaining five places, Paul uses the word “temple” figuratively to speak about something else. These instances are worth analyzing one by one.

I Corinthians 3:16-17: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For the temple is holy, and you are that temple.” In every case, the word “you” in these verses is plural. If your Bible does not point that out in a footnote, and if you are unable to read the New Testament in Greek, then check out a King James translation. The translators used “ye”—the plural for you at that time. (See note #2, below.) The Christian Church, together, is one temple. Moreover, Paul is writing about Christian unity in this chapter, not about physical health.

I Corinthians 6:19-20: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” This verse comes closer to saying that each of us is a temple of God, but Paul specifies in this case “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit of God does dwell within a Christian, granting saving faith and perseverance and guiding the Christian in doing good works. The topic of this part of Paul’s letter, though is sexual morality. He stresses that visiting a prostitute is a sin against God, especially against God the Holy Spirit. In ancient Greece, as in Canaan, prostitution was part of the pagan religion. Visiting a prostitute was an act of pagan worship. Therefore, it was wrong for a Christian to visit a prostitute. By extension, a preacher might use these two verses to talk about diet and exercise or other bodily matters, but that preaching goes beyond what Paul intended in these verses.

II Corinthians 6:16: “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” Once again, the temple of God is the Christian Church. The pronoun is plural—we, not thou—but the temple is one temple. Together, we are all the temple of God.

Ephesians 2:19-22: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Here Paul expands a simple figure of speech into an entire parable or allegory. Unmistakably, though, he is telling many Christians that together they are one temple.

II Thessalonians 2:3-4: “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that Day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Some people treat the temple in this verse as a physical structure. (See note #3, below.). When we apply Paul’s thoughts about the temple of God in his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians, we see that the man of lawlessness (the antichrist) will be found among God’s people, not actively opposed to the visible Church. Hitler and Stalin were not fulfillments of Paul’s prophecy, nor would Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton qualify as the man of lawlessness. That false leader will draw God’s flock astray by false teaching inside the Church—taking his seat in the temple of God.

Having established the teaching that the temple of God, according to Paul, is the whole Christian Church, I will next explain what it means for the Church to be the temple of God. J.

  1. Stewardship is a technical term describing the way Christians take care of God’s property. It sometimes becomes confused with fundraising for the church, but stewardship involves far more. Adam and Eve were placed in charge of the planet. Their descendants are still in charge of taking care of the planet. Stewardship means meeting our worldly responsibilities—paying our taxes, for example. It includes caring for our families. Yes, taking care of our own health is also part of faithful stewardship. We can do far more to serve God and help our neighbors when we are healthy than when we are sick or out of shape.
  2. English has changed since the time the Bible was first translated into English and Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets. Like many other languages, English had one word for addressing a single person (thee and thou) and another for addressing more than one person (ye and you). That has probably fallen out of use because of the egalitarian nature of American and British society in modern times. You see, in English of that time, as in other languages, people would use the plural pronoun to speak to royalty or to other people of importance. I suspect the origin of that custom is the Holy Trinity. When God spoke to himself, he used the plural (“Let us make man in our image,” for example.), and some ancient rulers may have started imitating the Lord to emphasize their own importance and authority. That last part is mere speculation, but the elimination of “thee and thou” means that we use the same pronoun no matter who we are addressing and how important that person is.
  3. Of course some Christians believe that this verse must be read literally and will be fulfilled literally. They anticipate that the Day of the Lord cannot arrive until a third temple has been built in Jerusalem for the man of lawlessness to defile. These becomes part of an elaborate narrative based on a few verses of Scripture taken out of context—but that can be the topic of another post.