Last Sunday, I began my descent into a world heretofore largely unknown. A world of smashed graham crackers, Brio trains being fought over like a seat on the last chopper out of Vietnam, and detailed conversations about superhero comic picture books that I’m apparently supposed to be intimately familiar with. Welcome to the 3 year old’s Sunday School. I’ve been around 3 year olds before, plenty of them. But it’s always been in numbers of 1 or 2, not a whole herd.
During our singing time, our fearless leader Joe led the kids in a song that I haven’t heard for 15 years but found still imprinted deep within the recesses of my mind.
I may never…
March in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o’er the enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s Army.
Looking back, I had three distinct thoughts about this song, written here in order:
1) How do I still know this?
2) This is a rather curious song. Following Christ is equated with being a member of an army that is not exactly an army. The etymology of this song would be an interesting study. It bears a marked resemblance to the “muscular Christianity” societies of the early 1890s – 1920s, connected with the Salvation Army and other movements that used militant metaphors to describe spiritual pursuits. Songs such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Soldiers of Christ in Truth Arrayed, and Onward Christian Soldiers grew out of this culture milleu, which was also rather postmillennial. What was this song’s sitz-im-leben? (A German higher critical technical term meaning setting-in-life.)
3) What the heck is seminary doing to me, that I’m analyzing a six-line children’s jingle for it’s socio-religious heritage?
As I’ve grown in knowledge of the content of the Scriptures and the various moods of interpretation that have swept Christianity throughout the ages, I’ve discovered just how dangerous knowledge is. Seminary is full of deconstruction. We tear apart a passage, learning the possible translations and the various interpretations of the passage held by those men that we would consider theological mentors. We take history classes and learn how cultural pressures oftentimes drive hermeneutics, giving rise to both good and bad perspectives on the Scriptures. We counsel people from the Scriptures, helping them connect dots within their own lives that they’re not able to connect themselves.We have no reason to wonder that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 8:1? “[K]nowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Last summer I read Black Hawk Down, the account of a failed military expedition deep within the heart of Mogadishu by a large contingent of Army Rangers. Embedded with the Rangers, who are the Army’s elite and specially trained soldiers, were a company from Delta Force, the “D-Boys.” The D-Boys are America’s most highly trained soldiers, the kind who are given a blank check by the government and told “buy whatever you want to carry into combat.” The arrogance of the D-Boys did little to diffuse any sense of competition between the two units. One sentence in particular crystallized the attitude of the camp: In the minds of the highly-trained D-Boys, the Rangers seemed like little more than an untrained rabble fresh from boot camp, a liability in the field who were certain to get themselves killed.
Do we do this as we complain about how many seminary students are at a church, then proudly proclaim we go to a “real” church, intimating that the reality of a church is defined by the lack of formal theological education in the pew rather than the one being worshipped? Do we do this as we contemplate how much more deserving we are of accolades than the man or woman who is recognized for their service to the Lord, cynically attributing their success to inside-track relationships? Do we do this as we write people off mentally for their weaknesses, believing them to be little more than barely-cognizant rabble fit for only the thirty-five person church that is simply delighted anyone would want to come and minister amidst the cornfields?
Love builds up, says Paul. Sometimes it’s harder to rejoice with the rejoicing than weep with the weeping, especially when they’re rejoicing for something you want but was given to them instead. A great test to see how much we truly love our brothers and sisters is to see how easily our heart bursts forth into praise when the Lord uses them in some great opportunity that we were not given. A competitive heart will seethe with envy, though the lips may be smiling. A Christlike heart actually feels those statements of congratulation that are necessarily being offered.
I looked it up, and I’m in the Lord’s Army was written anonymously and has no known copyright. I can’t prove it’s origins. And a wonderful thing of working with the 3 year olds is that they don’t care. They want me to untangle their hair from their nametag, give them their graham crackers, and help them memorize their verse. They want me to read them a story about Jesus, play with the Hot Wheels with them, and demonstrate that I care. There is no theological arms race in the 3 year old classroom. It’s kind of nice. And it calls me to be better than I usually am.
Theology was made for man, not man for theology. Jesus said something along those lines at one point, taking aim at a group of conceited religious leaders whose gaze had drifted from the bright light of divine revelation to the dim and smoldering wicks of human thought. They thought that they were safeguarding the Law of God. In reality, they were keeping people from knowing the God of the Law through their doctrines of men.
We are conditioned to think of the Pharisees as bad guys. So when we hear that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees we hear something along the lines of “Your righteousness must exceed that of Mao.” The Pharisees after all, killed Jesus. Mao did the same to Christians. Or maybe “Your righteousness must exceed that of Eminem.” After all, the Pharisees were blasphemers of the worst kind. Eminem probably gives them a run for their money.
But the Pharisees were not bad guys to the people of the day. They were us. They were the conservatives of their day, abominating the spiritual liberalism of the Sadducees who denied the resurrection from the dead and dismissed every Scripture after Moses as being uninspired. They hated the Herodians who loved favor and pomp above worshipping Yahweh, allying themselves with the perverted Herods for the sake of temporal gain. And they weren’t the Essenes, who responded to corruption with complete withdrawal from society in an attempt to create a pure society free of doctrinal corruption at the expense of any kind of care for the world.
So when Jesus speaks to the crowds “I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20), they gasp in horror, for they know that righteousness above that of the scribes and Pharisees was impossible. If the entrance exam for heaven required such precision that men who spent their entire lives copying, reading, and interpreting the Torah could not pass it, then all were to be damned.
But all was not well for the Pharisees. Under their care, the people of Israel were as sheep without a shepherd. Not that they were without men who claimed to be shepherds, but that the Pharisees were nothing more than the tattered clothes of a scarecrow flapping in the wind. Under their care, the people constantly heard their phrase uttered with great gravity and pomp: The burden of Torah is weighty. Under their care, the people were made doubly sons of hell, for they imagined themselves to be pleasing the Lord through enslaving ritual.
“I am the good Shepherd.”
“Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Few instances highlight the oppressive dogma of the Pharisees and the joy-filled liberation that Jesus brings than a showdown over the Sabbath. After hearing them condemning the disciples for their picking grain heads to ease their hunger on the Sabbath, Jesus turns to the Pharisees and poses a question to them. Did David sin when he ate the bread that only the priests were supposed to eat?
And then the line “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The Pharisees did not understand that the ritualistic provisions of Torah were made for their own good and betterment. They were incensed when on the Sabbath Jesus restores the shriveled arm of a man long crippled. Because it was work. And good Jews don’t work on the Sabbath.
I don’t think the Pharisees and Jesus would have disagreed over which commandments could lay claim to being the greatest and second greatest. After all, it is a scribe who declares that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and that the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. But I do think that Jesus and the Pharisees would have disagreed about the definition of love. Jesus seems to define it by compassion, and the Pharisees seem to define it as minute theological precision.
For Jesus, to love God means to love God. For the Pharisees, to love God means to be as nuanced as possible in your theology about him. For Jesus, to love neighbor means to love neighbor. For the Pharisees, to love neighbor means to condemn them for failing to live up to the Pharisees’ own doctrinal systems. If man didn’t match up with their theology, then man was not to be loved.
And this is what I mean by “Theology was made for man, not man for theology.” The revelation of God as found in the Scriptures is so that we might know and love God. This is its purpose. Jesus Christ, the Word himself, came to reveal to us the Father through his life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Our theological systems exist as gasoline on the fire of love and devotion, not as the fire itself. They are the points on the scoreboard that make up the victory, but they are not the trophy hoisted amidst the shower of champaign. God does not bring us to himself to give us information, he gives us information to bring us to himself. That’s the nature of revelation–How will they believe (greater end) in him whom they have never heard (lesser end).
Our pursuit of doctrinal purity and precision is a good thing. The higher the octane, the hotter the fire. But doctrinal purity is not the goal. We were saved to do something, and that was to love. As hesitant as we are about the word, love is the only verb in both the first and second greatest commandment. Man was not made for theology, but rather it was made for us, that we might experience the joy that is loving God and those whom he has made.
It is humiliating to have my identity be Jesus Christ. I am not Jesus. I am Nate Brooks of Atascadero, California; not Jesus of Nazareth. Nate Brooks won the AWANA clubber of the year award at the C&M Alliance church in Elma, Washington in the 3rd grade. Jesus of Nazareth did not. Nate Brooks’ first theology book was RC Sproul’s Chosen By God, picked up and devoured in the 10th grade. Jesus of Nazareth’s was not. Nate Brooks was named Most Inspirational Player on his high school basketball team, Jesus of Nazareth was not. Nate Brooks graduated as valedictorian of his high school. Jesus of Nazareth did not.
Nate Brooks stayed up late into the night with his friend, watching the deepening shadows of the evening describe yet again the deepening clouds of depression begin to eclipse the wonders of the gospel in his affections. Jesus of Nazareth did not. Nate Brooks cut his teeth in preaching before a crowd of rehabilitating drug addicts, listening to the most off-key praises sung to the Lord you could ever imagine, but with a gusto that brought tears to his eyes. Jesus of Nazareth did not preach there. Nate Brooks served alongside a very faithful pastor for a year, teaching the youth group what it means to be wise in a very unwise world. Jesus of Nazareth did not do this either. And Nate Brooks is in seminary, writes a blog and gets good grades. Jesus of Nazareth scores a zero yet again.
Jesus of Nazareth is a man who lived and died 2000 years ago in a place of the world I’ve never been and will probably never visit. His life bears very little resemblance to mine. I drive, He walked. My days are spent with books and conversation, his were filled with stonecutting. I’ve driven over the western part of the United States. He never ventured more than a 100 miles from the place of his birth. And most strikingly I’ve never even received a speeding ticket. He was crucified as an insurrectionist.
It is humiliating to have my identity be Jesus Christ. Seen through the eyes of unbelief, my life is virtuous. It’s moral. There are no glaring weaknesses or dark stains to hide. But seen through the eyes of true understanding I’ve left a wasteland in my path. I wreak destruction upon the universe, and if I was the only one upon the earth, it would groan for release from me. Even after I accepted Jesus Christ ten years ago, even after my heart has been regenerated and I have been given the desires to do what is right every footfall sounds insufficiency.
This is why I have been bought with a price. And that price was not something trifling like silver or gold, the metals that men give to those they care most about, and the metals that men fight and kill each other over. A price of gold or silver would have been insufficient. “You were ransomed” says Peter, “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). And how does this reshuffle my identity? “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Either Jesus Christ is my entire identity, or I am hopeless. My only hope lies in having an intercessor, a man who can stand before the great Judge and say “Count my life, not his.” This is humiliating. Absolutely humiliating. The kingdom of God is home to no self-made man. It is home to men and women who have renounced their own identities, their own claim to having anything within them or done by them to qualify themselves to stand before the bench and be sentenced to anything other than death. Jesus Christ is our identity or we are undone.
Matthew 23 is a terrifying passage. I used to read it with relish, delighting in Jesus’ dissection of the Pharisees in front of his disciples and the weighty masses. Now I read it with tears and trepidation, sorrowful over the deluded state of the blinded Pharisees and grave over the realization that self-deception is a terrible master.
Self-deception as a category is horrifying. It does not equate to blindness, for the blind know they lack something others possess, even if sight is an imaginary concept to them. They understand they’re missing something. It does not equate to slavery, for the slave understands that he is not free, that he is doing the bidding of another man. Rather it is blind slavery, as the hapless victim of self-deception is blind to the reality that he is not as free as he thinks. He is bound by heavy chains and thinks them wings.
Which means no man ever considers himself to be self-deceived. The second comprehension of his self-deception flashes across his mind, it transitions from self-deception to choice. Will he continue living in willful servitude, or will he cast off the cords that bind him?
The Pharisees were convinced of their rightness. They were convinced their rules and regulations pleased God, served God, worshipped God. They judged the liberal Sadducees as playing fast and loose with the Law, rightfully condemning them for their faithlessness. And so the seas watched the Pharisees skate across them, men on a mission to save their brothers. And they were saving them into deeper slavery, self-deluded men making others self-deluded as well.
This is haunting. What if I am self-deceived? What if I either do not trust the gospel or have misread the gospel and stand therefore condemned? What if what I call sincere devotion to the Lord is not that at all, but genuine affection for Him is something that I cannot even conceive of, for no one can picture life with God as Father without actually being in that relationship?
These questions could be paralyzing. But being paralyzed by them would not answer them. My answer to them is simple, and it is the cornerstone of the gospel. God did it. Dive deep into the soil of my faith in Jesus Christ, and there rests as absolute bedrock the belief that I am reconciled to God because God wants me to be reconciled to Him. And what God wants will happen. My hope is in God, not in myself. And anything other than that could never be considered to be good news, for I look at the train wreck that is my desires, my thoughts, my actions and realize that who I am could never please any deity.
Assumptions must exist for believing the gospel. I trust that the Bible is divine, that it is God’s communication to mankind for the purpose of making himself known. I trust that a straightforward reading of that book will yield an understandable message, which is the hope for humanity as a whole and myself as a person.
And so I believe that Jesus Christ is God become man for the purpose of buying back a people from enslavement to sin. I believe that he stands as an intercessor between the Father and me, absorbing all the wrath and providing a way for my adoption as a son of God. I believe that it is through the renouncing of any work I could do and placing my singular hope upon Christ’s intervention for me as sufficient that His work is applied to me. And I pray that if there be self-deception in this that God would be merciful to reveal it to me, that I might indeed know Him.
The wise men worship Jesus before he has done anything or said anything that would make him worthy of worship. Unless he was God. Then such worship would make sense. Worship antecedent to his salvific work demands that Jesus in his being be intrinsically worthy of worship.
Though a heavy distinction between who God is and what he has done cannot be maintained, for his character compels his specific actions, we fundamentally worship God because he is inherently worthy of being worshipped.
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they was the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Matthew 2:10-11a
It often takes a long time for our emotions to catch up with our theology. When catastrophe strikes, we know the right answers but rarely feel the comfort we know they should produce. Such is the role of the subservient being called to place faith in the merciful and loving Father. Even Jesus knew the gulf that can exist between what we know we ought to feel and how we truly respond to past, present or future calamity.
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will. (Matthew 26:29)
Obedience and faith are beautiful qualities when they face the raging storm.
It has become rather trendy to portray Jesus as a homeless indigent whose radical bent towards the kingdom of God led him to pursue a life of poverty and transience, eschewing any touches of comfort. Such interpretations of the life of Jesus might have problems with the rather innocuous verse of Matthew 9:1:
And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.
Jesus was from somewhere. Certainly he was well travelled, but he had a city that he called his own. This reality doesn’t make Jesus any less driven to break forth the kingdom of God in a new way into human society. It does mean that we must be careful not to take our own self-conceived notions of what the most radical expression of kingdom looks like and attribute them to Jesus. Jesus was the most faithful expression of kingdom living, and Jesus had a home.