Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Paul's Wilderness Experience. A theory based on Gal. 1:18

It appears to me that all great men in the Bible who are chosen by God have some sort of ‘wilderness’ experience or time of testing prior to beginning ‘full-time’ ministry. Jacob was led into the wilderness to ‘wrestle with God,’ John the Baptist also, and of course Jesus, by the Spirit, was led to defeat Satan’s tempting. Paul I believe is no exception.

There are many interpretations of Galatians 1:18 were Paul spends 2-3 years in Arabia. I believe that this was Paul’s wilderness experience. I believe this for three reasons, first the ‘pilgrimage shape’ to his journey as described in 1:13-18, second because of where he spent the bulk of His time, and third, because of His Jerusalem destination.

So first, Paul’s description of his journey is very similar to many Pilgrimage journeys where one reconnects with oneself, with the world, and with God. Paul starts in his dark, confused, cornered life as a Pharisee persecuting the church (vv.13-14) then goes through His spiritual ‘eye-opening,’ physical blinding experience in Damascus. Paul then travels through wilderness to digest this and reflect on it and build a personal relationship with Jesus, and then returns to ‘the scene of the crime’ in Damascus to close the experience and launch his ministry (v.17). His first journey to Damascus was bathed in darkness, blindness of heart, and then blindness of eye. He then repeats the journey to Damascus, this time with both his heart and his eyes open.

Second, Paul did not go straight to Jerusalem, or the other Apostles, or (I believe) straight into ministry. He instead went where the ways of the world are different to his experience. Away from both Jewish culture, and Roman culture, Paul goes into Arabia. He spends three years here, as did Jesus spend three days in a tomb, or Jonah in the belly of a fish. And then at the end of this experience he went on to Jerusalem to receive counsel, advice, and validation from the other Apostles.

Third, and finally, we must consider the journey significance of Jerusalem. Throughout the Scriptures chosen men of God ascend mountains, meet with God, receive instructions, then go on to fulfil their calling. Moses for instance, ascended Mt. Sinai, met with God, received the 10 commandments, and then delivered the Law to Israel. Jerusalem is considered Mt. Zion, the Holy Hill (Micah 4), and Jerusalem is of course also where God’s glory dwells. So Jesus in Mark 1-8 ascends the mountain, Mark 9 meets with God (with the disciples), accepts validation ‘this is my Son’ then goes down to Jerusalem to fulfil His work on the cross. So too, Paul goes up to Jerusalem, meets with God’s chosen, receives instruction, then moves on to the ministry that will occupy the rest of His life.

It is therefore likely that Paul, a man of deep spiritual fever, contemplation, Pastoralness, and a deep relationship with God, foundered this on His own 3 year, wilderness experience in Arabia.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Unlearning of the Will

Don’t you think we spend copious (ridiculous?) amounts of time debating the nature and extent of God’s sovereign will without hardly ever mentioning the sinful mess of our own wills? It appears to me that if the mind really is fallen and sin permeates every part of our wills (Rom. 7:21-25), it’s at very least rather handy and comforting to know that there is an exhaustively sovereign God who ‘works all things together for the good of those who love him’ (Rom. 8:28). I mean, doesn’t falleness necessitate sovereignty in a system of unconditional grace?

Rom. 12:2 tells us not to conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. THEN you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will, [emphasis mine]. Thus in the renewing of our minds to become more like the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) we are transformed to a place where we can truly understand God’s will. Further, becoming Christlike in our minds is shaping our minds like the eternal sovereign mind of God, making our pilgrimage of Christlike holiness an eternal, inexhaustible path… i.e. there’s always more way to go!

In fact, the way in which Paul qualifies the quote from Isaiah 40 in 1 Cor 2:16 seems to suggest that to know the mind of the Lord necessitates having the mind of Christ. This is strengthened by the parallel immediately preceding this. Paul there tells us that no-one can know the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God, then goes on to tell us that we have the Spirit of God within us, thus our words are God’s words flowing from His thoughts/will (vv.10-14).

So it’s possible that the reason we’re so stuck in debating the nature and extent of God’s sovereign will is because we’re not discussing, sharpening, and encouraging each other to submit our wills/minds to God for his sanctifying. This is of course a process of grace.

Grace is unconditional, and entirely unmerited. We cannot earn God’s favour, we in fact are totally blind (2 Cor. 4:4) and dead (Eph. 2:1-5) before we meet God, and then when we meet Him we are His far off enemies (Luke 15:11-31; Rom. 5:10). However, in contrast to blind we have sight, to death we have life, and to our blind, dead will we a have God’s completely seeing, alive will. If God’s will was not all sovereign, then the renewing, transforming of my own will through grace alone and not by any effort of mine, would be impossible.

If we believe in Grace, then let’s begin by submitting our minds to God, becoming holy and blameless through Him in our cognitive self. If we seek to understand the will of God, and be driven by God-glorifying motives, then let’s begin with our sinful state and the work of Christ and submit our minds to Him. God’s exhaustive sovereignty is a sweet taste when it’s not viewed in a test tube but instead experienced as a need, and a cure to our sinful selves. When we view God’s character in a test tube, we approach it with a false objectivity. Lets observe ourselves, and submit to God; not the other way around.

Aggression and John 2.

So I’ve been working a lot recently with my youth groups on the place of ‘aggression’ in the hearts of young men, and what the Bible may have to say about it. A passage that keeps coming up is John 2:13-16 where Jesus cleanses the Temple. (Also see Matthew 21:12-16; Mark 11:12-19; Luke 19:4-47).

A key feature of this passage is it stands in dramatic contrast to the classic, westernised picture of Jesus as the ‘meek and mild, lamb-on-the-shoulder, socks and sandals’ kind of guy. Instead we have a picture of Jesus who makes a weapon, a whip of chords, and drives out those who were buying and selling in the Temple.

One member of my youth group responded to this passage by saying, ‘Well, He didn’t actually hit anybody though did he?’ It’s true, nothing is technically said about him physically ‘attacking’ anyone, however he has a weapon, he is driving people out, turning over tables, and scattering money. Thus it takes a lot for us to think Jesus was being careful not to hit anyone.

This represents much of what is taught to youth and children in churches these days. For instance, if a young person in a Sunday School (particularly a boy) shows any sign of aggression, immediately this young person is told off. Even if this aggression was defence from subtle and more worrying manipulation from another child, the aggression must be immediately snuffed out; rather than contextualised, replaced, corrected, or disciplined.

So because of this, when we get to the Temple cleansing, we need to first say, however obvious it may seem, that weapons making and using, table turning, and money scattering is an act of aggression.

Next we need to affirm that Jesus was totally without sin, never disobeyed the law, and only did what He saw His Father doing. Thus this act of aggression and its origins were not wrong or sinful.

So finally we need to think through the origins/motives of this aggression. Where did it come from, what did it spark? Lets start with what Jesus says…

“My house will be called ‘a house of prayer for all nations’, but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’” [Mark 11:17].

This we know is zeal for His Father’s house consuming Jesus (John 2:17), but His choice of quotation is very important. The Temple was a whole load of things; it was a house of prayer, but perhaps more clearly it was a house of worship, of sacrifice, of meeting, of teaching; it was the house where God’s glory dwelled, etc.; so why does Jesus pinpoint on a house of prayer for all nations?

Jesus focus is on clear communication with God. This is what the Temple was, a place of communication with God. In fact, when you really think about it, all the Temple was was a place of communication with God. Sacrifices, worship, fellowship, teaching, were all used for the purpose of opening the people up to hear God's voice clearly, and then respond to Him appropriately.

In the same way now, Jesus, our Temple, is our place of communication with God. Godward Communication is clear, open, and not cluttered by hidden things. A ‘den’ of ‘robbers’ in contrast to this is a hiding place for people who wish to hide themselves, and hide their loot.

Thus, Jesus’ aggression is driven by responding to a cluttering of the means of communication with God. Its origins are to open up the communication channels.

This is especially important in light of the latter part of the first quote, ‘for all nations.’ All nations includes those outside Jewish nations who understand the Temple, the law, and the language of communication with God. The house of prayer should be so clear a communication space so all nations can find God accessible.

Furthermore, Jesus creates space in the Temple. He doesn’t just drive out the people; he drives out the animals, and turns the tables. He makes space. The aggression in Jesus made space; space for clear communication with God.

This seems to me to be a good parable of and test for Godly aggression. Is aggression always wrong, and where can it be right? Jesus used aggression here; it was motivated by responding to a cluttering of a means of prayer/communication with God. Put another way, it was motivated by seeing a lot of hidden things in a place where everything should be clear; the prayer space.

Jesus aggression came from and concluded with a longing to be close to, talk to, and hear from God clearly. Thus aggression can glorify God if it seeks to make space for God to be God, and to speak clearly. This can probably be applied in a variety of ways; I believe it should validate those who feel guilty because they know that should someone attack their wife/children, they would aggressively respond in order to protect. If it creates space for God’s love of justice, leadership, care, and self-sacrifice, then defending a loved one can be a righteous aggression.

However there is one far more accessible application from the passage and that is aggressively defend your prayer space. This doesn’t mean set booby traps around your bedroom; however it does mean passionately guard your heart and its space. Satan is a robber that desires your heart to be His den, and he will try to clutter up the space in your heart which should be used for prayer. Defend your prayer space. Spend time actively creating -space- to pray; go for walks so you can talk with God, get up the hour early, spend time looking at and mediating on God’s Word and God’s creation. Ask God to talk to you more clearly and show you hindering clutter. Meditate on the God you’re praying to, allow that to fill you up, and believe in the majestic privilege of prayer. Defend your prayer space.

Just one more application linked to this; defend your Jesus. In the same passage (John 2:19-20) Jesus refers to Himself as the Temple. Our house of prayer now is Jesus Christ. He is the Temple, the only way to the Father. It is through Him we come to God. Spend time with Jesus and you will spend time in the perfectly clear house of prayer. So read His word, meditate on His life, and think deeply about His last days on earth.

This deep thinking, meditating, getting up and hour early, forcing our minds on the Bible etc., takes a good deal of heart, and dare I say a deal of aggression also. Godly aggression creates space and that space is space to talk to and hear from God. So don’t simply snuff out aggression, instead ask yourself, ‘does this aggression make things hidden, or create space for God.’ The beauty of this question is it takes a lifetime to work with and grow with; so start with God. Why don’t you pray now that God will teach you about all the areas and reflexes of your heart so you can more fully and completely know Him.