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Life Theology

Jesus Is More Than a Marriage Ref

When we read Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-9 (or Mark 10:1-12), it’s easy to get bogged down in the details of who can get divorced for what reason. I did that extensively once—I wrote a position paper on divorce in seminary. But I think in the context of what Matthew (and Mark, of course) is doing in his Gospel, this passage goes beyond petty details. After all, the major Pharisaical schools of thought liked to quibble over details. That was their speciality.

But Jesus is more than a marriage ref. He is attacking the very heart of Pharisaism. That’s one of Matthew’s goals throughout the gospels. Look at what Jesus does.

After some Pharisees ask about what constitutes a legitimate divorce (v. 3), Jesus starts by saying, “Have you not read?” Jesus challenges them on the authority of the Scriptures. Haven’t you ever read what God said? Of course they’ve read it. They have it memorized. Every word. But Jesus isn’t looking for information. He knows they’ve read it. But do they obey it? Jesus’ question pierces through their me-centered approach to marriage and everything else for that matter. It’s one thing to affirm the Bible is God’s word. It’s another to obey it.

Then Jesus tells them the word they most certainly have read: “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” The climax of creation is God making humans “male and female.” It’s not one gender or the other.  God’s creative design was for a man and woman to be joined, not separated. “Can I divorce my wife for any cause?” (see v. 3) shows that the Pharisees get God, creation, image of God, and marriage all wrong.

Then Jesus goes for the jugular. The Pharisees appeal to Moses. Well, why did Moses command men to give divorce certificates to their wives? Jesus answers, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” At the heart of Pharisee belief was not self-sacrifice and forgiveness. It was ruthless justice and self-justification through strict adherence to the law. Moses’ law never commanded divorce, but allowed it and did so to keep vulnerable women safe in a society full of sinful Pharisee-type husbands.

This me-centered theology led to me-centered practice: what is the minimum she can do to me so that I can get out of this? That’s the crux. Jesus does say that divorce is allowable in the case of sexual immorality (v. 9), but his point is not so much to preside over divorce proceedings as it is cutting to the heart of a selfless, religious people who think they are honoring God’s law when, in fact, they are breaking his heart.

What’s going on in the bigger picture? The Pharisees are a microcosm of Israel who left their true Husband, Yahweh. And Jesus is going to show them that he is that true Husband. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, after all (16:21-28; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) to die for his Bride, forgive her (even of grievous sin!), wash her clean, and work mightily for her holiness—not kick her out in the cold. This is what Paul makes clear in Ephesians 5.

To the Pharisees, marriage was not about giving yourself up for the good of your spouse. It was about demanding and taking from your spouse so that you would be served. Jesus flips this on its head and shows that the religious elite truly have hard hearts, not obedient ones. Jesus will give himself up so that we come to see what marriage is all about—one man and one woman joined together before God in a loving, harmonious union of self-giving, forbearance, and forgiveness that points to a greater marriage: God’s with his people (cf. Hosea 1-3; Rev. 21:1-4).

Now the application for us becomes a bit more obvious—even for those of us with good marriages. I have never asked what’s the minimum Carly can do to me so I can send her away. But there’s a slice (sometimes a big one) of Pharisaism in my heart—and probably in yours. I too often make my marriage about me and what I can get out of it rather than about us and what I can give to my wife. I confess that my heart (which is Jesus’ point, after all) is all too ready to “send her away.” Not with divorce papers. But in the subtle, mini-divorces of angered silence, frustrated tones, sarcastic comments, and blame shifting.

If you think Jesus’ teaching about divorce is only for those with a marriage on the rocks you are fooling yourself. While we are asking what’s the minimum our spouse can do so we are justified in our literal divorces or metaphorical mini-ones, Jesus goes the distance to love his Bride by giving himself up for her. He’s saying, “It’s your hard heart that moves you send your spouse away when they wrong you. But I’m moved to run toward you and lay down my life for you, though you have wronged me.”

From the beginning, marriage was meant to be a living drama of God’s love for his people. His “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always, and forever love,” as someone once wrote. That’s the kind of love he has for us. That’s the kind of love he wants in our marriages.

Categories
Life

Foot Washing and Cross-Bearing

Have you ever washed someone’s feet? I have. A couple times in various contexts. It sounds gross. But it wasn’t. Really. In our day, our feet are protected from wear and tear. We drive or ride to get to work, school, and home. We rarely walk more than a hundred yards and when we do, we wear Nike or Keen. What’s more, our streets and sidewalks don’t have slop and feces and trash on them. Feet today are as clean and cared for as they have ever been. So washing someone’s feet today is not as offensive and disgusting as it could be.

But back in the first century, it was. It was down right rank chore. It was reserved for the lowest person on the household totem pole. Nobodies, house servants, washed feet. Feet which had more than jam between toes (let the reader understand). If this kind of foot washing was a profession today, you can bet Mike Rowe would give it a shot.

In John 13, Jesus and his disciples eat their last meal together. Things were tense: Jesus said someone was going to betray him. But at one point, it got a little awkward. Master Jesus strips himself of his outer garment, drapes a towel around his waste, gets on his knees and starts and starts scrubbing the filthy, fecal feet of his disciples. And then he says, “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Everyone is offended. Or perplexed. Later in John 13, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (v. 34). As a matter of fact, if the disciples love as Jesus says, the world will know they follow Jesus (v. 35).

So what’s this all about? Was Jesus really telling his disciples to become literal foot washers? Didn’t Jesus know that shoes and boots would be invented and our feet would be protected and clean(er)? Is Jesus saying that the ultimate sign of love is to wash someone’s dirty feet?

Foot washing is a parable. An illustration. A foreshadow. Of what?

The cross, of course. That’s where John’s story is going. On the cross, Jesus goes low in humility–much lower than he deserves–and deals with all the muck and mire and trash and feces in the disciples’ lives and ours. That is “how” Jesus loved the disciples. Not merely by washing feet but by washing them in giving himself up for them. Elsewhere, John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sin” (1 John 4:10). As a servant who washes feet strips down and forfeits their personal dignity, Jesus was striped of much more than his robes and dignity. He lost his connection to the Father because he became sin, a curse for the disciples, for us so that we might come to God. He washed away the muck, yes. But he became the muck. He lost it all. He radically gave himself up. In washing their feet, he gave up his rights to be “the man,” and he became the servant. In dying for their–our–sins, he became the man on the cross. That is love. Foot washing equals cross-bearing.

But Jesus doesn’t just give up himself so we don’t have to. He gives himself up so that we can. And if the disciples, if we, love this way–radical, self-giving for the good of others–the world will know we belong to Jesus. You want to follow Jesus? You get to wash feet. You get to die. That’s what true love is. We love without any fanfare. Without any recognition. Without anything in return. Friends, this is a high calling. May God help us!

And then there’s that word in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The world might be able to argue against our doctrines and worldview, but it will not be able to argue against our love. The world may object to justification by grace and prayer to a God we can’t see, but it will not object if we lay down our reputation, power, control, resources, comfort, convenience for others. The world may not like the idea of a Triune God being worthy of all glory and praise, but it will always be attracted to radical, humble, everyday self-sacrifice.

People may not join us, but they will know we have a different Master. A Master who serves. A Master who washes feet. A Master who bears a cross. Let’s be people who follow our Master.

Categories
Reviews Theology

Review: Wesley on the Christian Life

Fred Sanders. Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. $14.79 (Amazon). 262 pp.

When I was first introduced to Reformed theology, I quickly labeled John Wesley as a no-zone for developing my beliefs. This was due mostly to the waywardness of many Wesleyan and Methodist churches today. Associating Wesley with his followers was unnecessary and unfortunate. After reading Wesley on the Christian LIfe, the newest book by Fred Sanders in Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series, I have since repented of my theological bigotry. If you stop reading this review now, know this: this book will “strangely warm your heart” (as Wesley was famous for saying), no matter your theological persuasion.

On the whole, this book is flat-out good. Sanders does a wonderful job of presenting Wesley to us. In each of the ten chapters, he walks through one focus of Wesley’s teaching. Sanders resists theologizing and exegetes Wesley on Wesley’s terms, not his own or what he would like Wesley to say. What’s even better is that Sanders provides an accessible (read: non-academic) introduction to Wesley’s life and writings, primarily his sermons. Kudos to Sanders, and Crossway, for giving the church an even-handed account of this giant in church history.

With this on the table, here’s three elements that make this book worthwhile.

Heart Religion or Bust
Wesley may be thought of by some as a preacher who was sub-theological and merely focused on pragmatism (he is the founder of “Method-ism” after all). However, Wesley’s preaching was not sub-theological, but rather “something more immediate than a systematic theology” (44). It was theology that made you sing—what all good theology should do.

Wesley was saved from being a self-righteous church boy. He was devoted to external, religious forms that never went more than skin deep, but after his conversion to real Christianity, Wesley knew that to be a Christian meant more than behavior modification. It meant “heart religion.” This means, among other things, that the Christian recognizes sin is rampant and pervasive, but God’s grace is sufficient and complete (84).

Most of Wesley’s teaching in general and on heart religion in particular flowed from his understanding of the new birth (77). Wesley hammered home justification by faith (see ch. 5), but the new birth makes justification experiential. Justification is something God does for us; the new birth—regeneration—is something God does in us (78). Justification brings us to God; regeneration makes us want God. And this new birth is not just to holiness; it is also to happiness. True joy for the believer is only found when we worship God from the heart.

Gospel-Centered Before It Was Cool
It’s pretty popular to be “gospel-centered” nowadays. Wesley was gospel centered before there were conferences for it. He held firm the truth that we need the perfect righteousness of Christ if we have any hope of standing before God (133). He valued the sheer grace and favor of God in the salvation of sinners (148). Wesley knew that personal holiness could not be the ground of one’s relationship with God (108). At the same time, he knew that the gospel demanded a response of nothing less than full surrender and devotion. Grace cannot be earned, but it can be cultivated by means. Here, Wesley is solid on the traditional “means of grace” that both Reformed theologians and Catholic mystics love to talk about (ch. 7).

Chapter 6 is called “Grace First, Then Law.” For Wesley, the law makes us see our need for Christ. Then, Christ, in the gospel, leads us to radical obedience to the law. Sanders writes, “He was always on guard against a certain kind of evangelical preacher who never preached anything but free forgiveness, and who never brought the word of the law to his hearers” (157). In this, Wesley would be welcomed by even the most faithful Lutheran theologians.

Serious Sanctification
Wesley took sanctification seriously. Period. Wesley is firm on grace, but he teaches that grace leads to transformation, and whatever transformation happens is owed to God (169-170). Because this is true, no one should be “content with any religion which does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil” (203). Wesley simply preached what he practiced—even those from other traditions commending him for his holiness.

Of course, Wesley muddied the waters with his doctrine of Christian perfection. What is it? Perfection is being perfected in love, yet it is not infallible, nor is it sinless, and it is improvable (208). It is capable of being lost (Wesley also believed one could fall from grace), and it is a progressive work (208-209). It is never self-sufficient and always dependent on grace (210-212). While I am thankful for Wesley and his ruthless commitment to holiness and “growth in grace” (196), I am confused by this doctrine. It’s too simple to find fault with Sanders for not explaining this doctrine well enough. While at times I think Sanders could be more critical of Wesley, the fault really lies with Wesley. Wesley tries to do justice to the biblical word “perfect” (e.g. 1 John 4:17), and I commend him for this. But it seems like sloppy exegesis and a poor biblical theology of sin to me. 

In the end, Wesley calls for a complete and full deliverance from sin (217). That’s not a bad thing. While this doctrine may not scratch where I’m itching, Wesley himself is still a prime motivator for holiness in light of God’s grace. And for that, I’m thankful.

Categories
Theology

Maundy Thursday and Trinitarian Love

Today is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means mandate or command. On Thursday night before his Friday crucifixion during his final meal with the disciples, Jesus gave them a new mandate, a “new commandment,” to love as he had loved them (John 17:31-35).

Sometime after the meal and this newly given command, Jesus prays something profound for his disciples. Like the rest of the prayer, he says it is meant for future disciples as well: “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).

Jesus says the remarkable and unthinkable: he has glorified us with the glory God gave him. He tells us why he has done this: so that we may be one just as the Father and Son are one. Then he tells us what the purpose of this oneness is: so that the world will know the Father sent the Son, and that the Son loved his church with the love of the Father. This is stunning.

Why does Jesus say all this? Jesus prays this so that the Christian community will be a living testimony to the Trinitarian nature of God. Though God is Father, Son, and Spirit, he is yet one. In the same way, though the church is many (i.e. made up of different individuals, personalities, nations, ethnicities, ages, denominations, etc.) she is yet one. One how? One in the fact that they have the same Lord, same faith, same baptism, even the same Father (Eph. 4:5-6). This separates Christianity from other religions or belief systems. Christianity has a common confession, yet many cultural expressions. Because God is a diverse unity of persons, Christianity can reject blanket uniformity while maintaining unity.

But the purpose of this oneness, as Jesus says, is not an end in itself. Oneness exists to deflect glory and honor back to God. Oneness will show the world that the Father sent the Son and that the Son loved his own as the Father loved him. In other words, the church is also a living testimony of the Trinitarian love of God. How? Just as Jesus submits to the Father and the Members defer to and glorify each other (John 16:14; 17:1, 4), so Christians serve, defer to, and glorify (i.e. make much of) each other. This is love, and love is God’s very essence (1 John 4:8). The church then reflects this–a community of persons who are self-giving lovers.

Do we reflect this Trinitarian God perfectly? Of course not, so we are not welcomed in by birth or religious activity or our moral effort. Even as a Christian, struggle to serve and defer to others. I struggle to love Christians who are different than me. If we do not reflect this God perfectly, then we do not deserve him. We have spit on his love rather than bask in it. You may be saying, “This sounds so good though! I want to know a God who gives love and defers and shares. The gods I serve only steal from me. How can we be welcomed by this God and enter this community?”

Just hours after his prayer, on Friday, on a hill called Golgotha, on a Roman cross, the Son was cast away. The Father removed his loving gaze from the Son and poured his wrath on him–the wrath you and I deserved as enemies of the Trinitarian God. The simple yet mind-boggling truth is that Jesus was cut off so you and I would be brought in. The Father did this so that all who trust in the Son’s finished work on the cross–not their own works–would be given the Spirit in order to be brought into this community as a true child and share in this eternal love.

We marvel. We wonder. We praise. We tremble. We sing,

What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

This wondrous love could only be Trinitarian love. O what love it is!

Categories
Theology

Monday Miscellanies: The Love of Christ

A guest post by Jonathan Edwards

189. The Love of Christ

We see how great love the human nature is capable of, not only to God but fellow creatures. How greatly are we inclined to the other sex! Nor doth an exalted and fervent love to God hinder this, but only refines and purifies it. God has created the human nature to love fellow creatures, which he wisely has principally turned to the other sex; and the more exalted the nature is, the greater love of that kind that is laudable [commendable] is it susceptive [receptive] of; and the purer and better natured, the more is it inclined to it.

Christ has an human nature as well as we, and has an inclination to love those that partake of the human [nature] as well as we. That inclination which in us is turned to the other sex, [but] in him is [it] turned to the church, which is his spouse. He is as much of a purer and better and more benevolent nature than we, whereby [by which] he is inclined to a higher degree of love, as he is of a greater capacity, whereby [by which] he is capable of a more exalted, ardent and sweet love. Nor is his love to God, in him more than in us (nor half so much), an hindrance or diversion to this love; because his love to God and his love to the saints are an hundred times nearer akin than our love to God and our love to the other sex. Therefore when we feel love to anyone of the other sex, ’tis a good way to think of the love of Christ to an holy and beautiful soul.