More Blessed to Give

“I think I’m mad at God.” It took less than 7 hours for this anger to turn into grateful joy. My friend texted me this afternoon to say it’s been hard to have faith that God can turn his situation around. “And the more I hear about how good he is, I’m just like, ‘yeah, to you….'”

Last week he was enjoying the freedom of self-employment, until he found his bank account below zero. This brought back a feeling of scarcity that he’s been fighting for a long time. The Lord had allowed him to struggle financially for years, and it was hard to believe that this would ever change.

And so, like Dmitri Karamazov, he went on a desperate hunt for money. He sold a computer monitor and a book to a shop for $6. “Six dollars for a monitor?!” It was hardly worth the gas to get there, but he took the money anyway.

What changed? The first thing is just how you might expect God to turn this around: a $30 tip. But he found that what turned things around the most was not receiving, but giving.

One of my friend’s gigs is motivational phone calls to help people set and keep goals. A potential client has been working to save up money for these calls, and today my friend saw his need and decided to give him a discount. He saw how much his calls could help this person, and realized that the only reason he didn’t offer the discount sooner is that he needed the money.

Later, as he spent some of his little money on gas, a woman approached him and asked for money. He was filled with a desire to help her, and apologized that he only had $10 to give her.

Finally, a man washed his car windows, and when my friend tried to pay him $5 the man said he did it for free. My friend insisted on paying him, saying “My pastor says ‘Show your money who’s boss and give it away.'”

And so he called me tonight to tell me how his day was completely turned around. “The shift was realizing that when I focus on serving, I can see how much I’m blessed.” The call was briefly interrupted as he was almost run over while getting into his car. His car door took off the side mirror of the driver, who just kept driving, and my friend happily told a bystander “The Lord protected me!”

Christians have a natural inclination to give to the needy, and this is the antidote to covetousness. A generous heart sees past the cares of this life, and is glad to be a part of God’s story of redemption. If you’re upset about your financial situation, the strange solution might be to give something away.

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

Acts 20:32-35

Proverbs 30:7-9, Robinson Crusoe on Middle-Class Contentment

Some aim for poverty and some aim for riches, but wisdom teaches us to aim somewhere in the middle. Agur son of Jakeh gives the following inspired advice:

Two things I ask of you, deny them not to me before I die; remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.

Proverbs 30:7-9

The goal is not to have a high or low amount of cash or property; the goal is to be holy. Riches come with temptations to pride, and poverty brings temptations to steal. Inspired by these verses, Robinson Crusoe’s father counsels him against a life at sea.

My father, a wise and grave man, gave me serious and excellent counsel against what he foresaw was my design.  He called me one morning into his chamber, where he was confined by the gout, and expostulated very warmly with me upon this subject.  He asked me what reasons, more than a mere wandering inclination, I had for leaving father’s house and my native country, where I might be well introduced, and had a prospect of raising my fortune by application and industry, with a life of ease and pleasure.  He told me it was men of desperate fortunes on one hand, or of aspiring, superior fortunes on the other, who went abroad upon adventures, to rise by enterprise, and make themselves famous in undertakings of a nature out of the common road; that these things were all either too far above me or too far below me; that mine was the middle state, or what might be called the upper station of low life, which he had found, by long experience, was the best state in the world, the most suited to human happiness, not exposed to the miseries and hardships, the labour and sufferings of the mechanic part of mankind, and not embarrassed with the pride, luxury, ambition, and envy of the upper part of mankind.  He told me I might judge of the happiness of this state by this one thing—viz. that this was the state of life which all other people envied; that kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things, and wished they had been placed in the middle of the two extremes, between the mean and the great; that the wise man gave his testimony to this, as the standard of felicity, when he prayed to have neither poverty nor riches.

He bade me observe it, and I should always find that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind, but that the middle station had the fewest disasters, and was not exposed to so many vicissitudes as the higher or lower part of mankind; nay, they were not subjected to so many distempers and uneasinesses, either of body or mind, as those were who, by vicious living, luxury, and extravagances on the one hand, or by hard labour, want of necessaries, and mean or insufficient diet on the other hand, bring distemper upon themselves by the natural consequences of their way of living; that the middle station of life was calculated for all kind of virtue and all kind of enjoyments; that peace and plenty were the handmaids of a middle fortune; that temperance, moderation, quietness, health, society, all agreeable diversions, and all desirable pleasures, were the blessings attending the middle station of life; that this way men went silently and smoothly through the world, and comfortably out of it, not embarrassed with the labours of the hands or of the head, not sold to a life of slavery for daily bread, nor harassed with perplexed circumstances, which rob the soul of peace and the body of rest, nor enraged with the passion of envy, or the secret burning lust of ambition for great things; but, in easy circumstances, sliding gently through the world, and sensibly tasting the sweets of living, without the bitter; feeling that they are happy, and learning by every day’s experience to know it more sensibly.

Robinson Crusoe, p. 3-4

Robinson’s father has proved by experience that the middle class life allows a man to live virtuously and enjoy God’s creation with minimal hardships. He earned his living by hard work, but he always had enough food, and his problems were much smaller than those of great men. His work did not feel like slavery to man or to ambition. After a life of hard work, he was able to offer his son the opportunity to live the same kind of life.

It is good to aspire toward this middle-class life. It is good to have possessions that can be shared with others in their time of need. It is good to raise children in a stable household. It is good to enjoy God’s blessings and praise Him. And it is good to minimize the various temptations that come from both poverty and riches.

Against Shepherd Book

Book’s last words were refuted by his death: “I don’t care what you believe in, just believe in it.” These words are in line with this pastor’s ministry throughout the one season of Firefly. For example, when River tried to “fix his Bible” by rewriting parts of Genesis, he said “it’s not about it making sense. It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change you.” Does it not matter what you believe in, as long as you believe in something?

Refutation From Serenity

Shepherd Book was killed by an Alliance that strongly believes in something. They wanted to create a universe without sin. They believed in this strongly enough to kill children and pastors to make it a reality. They believed in this even though their first attempt at it accidentally killed an entire planet and unleashed destruction on surrounding planets. The mere fact that they believed in something did not make them better people.

Captain Mal chooses to fight the Alliance precisely because he does not hold the belief that people can be made better. In the end he is willing to die for his belief that everyone needs to know about the Alliance’s failed experiment. Mal has different beliefs than the Alliance, and that makes them mortal enemies.

Refutation From 2 John

John begins the letter by saying that “all who know the truth” love the church he is writing to (2 John 1). This is because this truth is objective and powerful, dwelling with us in the Person of the Holy Spirit (2 John 2, c.f. John 14:16–17). Faith in the truth inevitably makes one a better person.

John does not contrast love with hate, but with false teaching (2 John 6–7). When discussing men who deny the doctrine of the incarnation, John does not consider that their false beliefs might make them better people. Their ministry of deception is wicked works (2 John 11) that threaten to destroy the church (2 John 8).

Just as the different beliefs of Mal and the Alliance made them enemies, the false teachers are natural enemies of the true church. Whoever believes the false teachers “does not have God” (2 John 9). The church cannot receive these men as brothers, nor show hospitality that would support their ministry (2 John 10). This would be like harboring a mass murderer so he can continue his shooting spree.

The plot of Serenity and the Bible agree that false beliefs create enemies, and can send you to the Special Hell.

Can People Be Improved?

In the spirit of confronting false beliefs, I have to mention that Mal and the Alliance were both wrong. The Alliance thought that sin could be removed from the world by science and human power. Mal thought that people could not be improved at all, so they should be left alone. The truth taught in 2 John is that people can be improved, but only by the power of God by belief in the truth. The Bible only has transforming power because it is true. It is powerful because it was spoken by a very real God, who abides with His people forever.

Purposes of Work in Genesis

This post highlights the stories of a few men in Genesis, and the prominent purposes of their work.

Adam: Dominion and Food

Man was made to rule over the earth and the animals. We subdue the earth by working the ground. We rule over the animals by caring for them and directing them. Adam was commissioned not to keep the earth how God made it, but to subdue it. Eden was a uniquely fruitful place (Genesis 2:8–9), and Adam was put there to work it (Genesis 2:5). This would eventually mean the expansion of Eden to fill the whole world. It would involve digging up gold and precious stones (Genesis 2:12) and perhaps building something like the New Jerusalem. God man made in his own image so that he would look at God’s world and understand how to bring it to its full potential.

Working the ground would produce food for man (Genesis 1:29) and for the animals (Genesis 1:30). When the ground was cursed, this function remained, but became more difficult (Genesis 3:19). Man would work to prolong his life, but in the end he would die.

Cain: Worship, Security, and Culture

Cain fulfilled Adam’s calling to work the ground and produce fruit; and this allowed him to give an offering to God. Cain’s offering was not acceptable because of his sin (Genesis 4:7, 1 John 3:12), but if his heart had been in a better state then the offering would have been a good act of worship.

Cain built a city to protect his his family as they pursued creative endeavors. The invention of tents helped some rule over animals (Genesis 4:20), and metal instruments presumably helped others work the ground (Genesis 4:22). Musical instruments were created surprisingly early as an essential component of human culture (Genesis 4:21).

Jacob: Building a Household

Jacob did 20 years of hard labor for Laban, and left with a family and property. 14 years of this work was for the right to marry Laban’s two daughters. At least the first 7 years were a good deal for Jacob, because there was a shortage of God-fearing women, and he couldn’t start building a household without a wife. The next 7 were caused by Laban’s deceit and Jacob’s strong desire for Rachel. This kind of desire is a powerful motivation for young men to work, and it can make 7 years of labor feel like a few days (Genesis 29:20).

When the 14 years were finished, Jacob’s next step in building his household was to acquire wealth-producing assets (Genesis 30:30). God’s blessing turned a few sheep into many, which could provide clothing, milk, meat, and money to Jacob’s family.

Joseph: Using Resources Wisely

Jacob’s family was preserved not only by his own labor, but by Joseph’s wise administration in service of Pharaoh. Joseph managed available resources for the common good. He sold goods and negotiated prices, and this allowed resources to get to those in need.

2 Peter 3 Fulfilled on WordPress

I normally write about how the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament, but something amazing happened today. Most Christians are familiar with Peter’s words from 2 Peter 3:4-11, but today I found out that people actually, and unironically, make the argument that Peter said they would make against the return of Christ. Here is the prophecy, followed by its fulfillment:

They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”

2 Peter 3:4

Given that zero in a billion people have been right so far, you think the Christian would reflect on that a bit and start asking questions. Questions like “since the odds for Jesus coming in my lifetime diminish with each passing year, should I start living like he won’t come and try and be a better person?” Or maybe “Why do I trust people that have been so wrong so many times?” Or something like “Should we care for our environment, because we might be here for a while longer?” Or possibly even “Is this religion wrong?”

Yes, your religion is wrong. And over a billion dead people can attest to that.

The Spartan Atheist, A Billion Dead People

Peter responds to this argument in four ways. Hover over the Bible citations in each point to read his words.

1. Prophets are more trustworthy than scoffers (2 Peter 3:1–3).

The prophets “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21), and Peter is an eyewitness that what they promised has begun to be fulfilled (2 Peter 1:16–19).

Scoffers, on the other hand, are carried along by their sinful desires, defensively justifying their rebellion against God. They are not afraid to blaspheme what they don’t understand (2 Peter 2:12). They say exactly what the Bible says scoffers will say, then they scoff at the Bible:

“And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed.”

2. We are like the generations before the flood (2 Peter 3:5–7).

God’s word is powerful enough to create the world, and to destroy it. 1656 years passed between Adam’s sin and the cataclysmic judgment of the flood. Doubtless, scoffers mocked the idea that they would be punished for their sin. But 120 years before the flood, the word of God made the judgment sure (Genesis 6:3–8). Peter says that in the same way, Jesus will surely return to judge the world, because God has spoken.

3. We are experiencing God’s incredible patience (2 Peter 3:8–9).

The reason that the coming of Jesus might be delayed for thousands of years is the unfathomable patience of God. God has endured mockery about this for almost 2000 years, and to Him it felt like a couple of days.

The reason that God is willing to tolerate so much blasphemy for so long is that He is extending mecy to a world that hates him. He is showing patience toward a specific group of people, “you” (2 Peter 3:9). In the previous verse, Peter calls this group “beloved” (2 Peter 3:8). The beloved group he is addressing is the same group he addressed in his previous letter (2 Peter 3:1), the elect exiles (1 Peter 1:1). This is important to notice because if God is not willing for any human to perish, then delaying Jesus’ coming is counter-productive, as thousands of people perish every day. What Peter means is that God is not willing for any of His elect to perish; they must all come to repentance before Jesus returns. This will happen by the word of God that creates and destroys, kills and makes alive.

So the word of God will surely bring judgment, but this is delayed as the word of God brings salvation to the ends of the earth. Proud and rebellious scoffers who give their allegiance to their Creator are being welcomed into His kingdom as sons.

4. The promise of judgment inspires righteousness (2 Peter 3:10–13).

According to The Spartan Atheist, disbelieving in Jesus’ return leads to increased morality. I’m not sure what the logic behind that is, but Peter has good reasons to see it the opposite way.

First, the threat that our evil works will be exposed and judged is a warning against sin. The antidote to hypocrisy is a healthy fear of the God who sees what is done in secret.

Second, the kingdom that we look forward to is where righteousness dwells. As we look forward to this kingdom, we desire for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. We do not destroy the earth because God is going to destroy it eventually; we take care of it as God told us to in the beginning, and as we will continue to do for eternity in the new Earth.

Isaiah 49:9-13 and the Christian Life

Our security is not found in abundant circumstances, but in the care of our Shepherd. Today we look at the New Testament fulfillment of an Old Testament description of Jesus’ salvation. If you haven’t already, start with Isaiah 49:1-7 and the Servant’s Mission and Isaiah 49:8 and Three Ways Jesus Has Begun to Fulfill the Land Promises.

saying to the prisoners, “Come out,” and to those in darkness, “Appear.” They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture;

Isaiah 49:9

Jesus came to heal those oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38), and the church continues to free people from Satan’s power through repentance and forgiveness (Acts 26:18–20). We come out of Babylon now, so we are safe when she falls (Revelation 18:4–8).

In Isaiah, darkness represents ignorance, sin, and judgment. Jesus is the light who gives us knowledge (2 Corinthians 4:6), righteousness (1 John 2:8–11), and life (John 8:12).

I’m no shepherd, but roads and “bare heights” don’t sound like the best place for sheep to graze. Our security does not come from abundance in our circumstances, but from the care of our Shepherd.

they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun will strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.

Isaiah 49:10

The fulfillment of this verse is explained in Revelation 7:16–17. Our security is not found in physical circumstances, but in God’s seal that prevents us from worshipping the beast. The beast and the harlot might physically starve us or kill us, but we will escape the wrath of the lamb and enjoy the living waters of eternal life.

And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Behold, these shall come from afar, and behold, these from the north and west, and these from the land of Syene.

Isaiah 7:11-12

The Lord will remove every obstacle to His people’s journey. The road to salvation is hard, but nothing can stop us if we just stay on the path.

The final place God’s people come from is unclear. “Syene” (an ancient Egyptian city) comes from the dead sea scrolls. The Masoretic text reads “Sinim,” which might mean China. The Septuagint says Persia. In any case, the picture is of the dispersed Israelites returning from every direction, and the final fulfillment is found as God gathers his elect from the ends of the earth into His kingdom.

Sing for joy, O heavens, and rejoice, O Earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.

Isaiah 49:13

This passage ends with creation worshipping God for the compassion He shows in the salvation of His people. The servant’s work will glorify God (Isaiah 49:3) because it will demonstrate God’s character and inspire everlasting praise. The creation that was cursed because of sin will fulfill its ultimate purpose of glorifying God.

Purposes of Marriage in Ruth

Rest

Naomi urges her daughters-in-law to return to Moab and prays that they will find rest, each in the house of her husband (Ruth 1:9). Like the Israelites found rest in Canaan after their jouney and war, Ruth and Orpah would find security and stability in marriage. As Ruth is laboring to provide for her, Naomi again seeks rest for Ruth in the house of Boaz (Ruth 3:1).

Protection

When Ruth comes to a foreign country with no husband, father, or brothers, she is at the mercy of the men of Bethlehem. Boaz commands his young men not to touch Ruth, and warns her not to go to other men’s fields. Even with this precaution, he warns her to stay close to his young women (Ruth 2:8–9). Naomi explains more directly that if Ruth works in another man’s field, she might be assaulted (Ruth 2:22). The death of Ruth’s husband makes Ruth unnaturally vulnerable, but by the grace of God she comes under Boaz’s protection.

Honor

Boaz is willing to marry Ruth because, literally, the gate knows she is a woman of strength, chayil (Ruth 3:11). Boaz has a reputation with the elders and the other men of the city who meet at the gate, and a woman of chayil brings honor to her husband (Proverbs 12:4). Proverbs 31:10–31 describes a woman of chayil, but begins by asking who can find one! Boaz has found one, and marrying her will bring him honor at the gate.

Name

Similarly, marriage allows a man to perpetuate his name (Ruth 4:5). By marrying Ruth, Boaz ensures that the name of Elimelech will not be cut off from the gate (Ruth 4:10). Just as Boaz is known at the gate, the names of Elimelech and Mahlon would continue to be known through the descendants of Ruth’s firstborn son. This would be their legacy on the earth, so that their lives would not be spent in vain.

The significance of this point is very hard to grasp for me, a modern American. I recently listened to Crime and Punishment, and my mind was blown when Svidrigailov said something to the effect that the last name Razumikhin indicates noble character. Was there really a time when a family name meant something? And wouldn’t this generational reputation be something worth laboring for? Even today, there is some truth to this: for example, it is not a coincidence that we have had two presidents with the last name Bush. A man should not only seek honor for himself, but a name that will mean something when he passes it onto his son.

Chayil

The very masculine transaction at the gate ends with a peculiarly masculine blessing for Boaz’s marriage. The translations of aseh chayil in Ruth 4:11 are all over the place: have standing (NIV), prosper (NLT), act worthily (ESV), achieve wealth (NASB), be powerful (HCSB), produce children (NRSV). All of these translations fit the context, and none of them are wrong. The elders wish for the descendants of Boaz and Ruth to be like the nation of Israel: great, numerous, powerful, prosperous, and honorable. The men at the gate have an interest in Boaz’s family becoming powerful and prosperous, because this will make Bethlehem powerful and prosperous. Boaz’s descendants will work the land, enforce justice, and fight battles. The elders have no idea to what extent God will answer their prayer through the family of David.

Provision in Old Age

When the baby is born, the women of Bethlehem praise God for taking care of Naomi in her old age, and she gladly nurtures the grandson she didn’t expect to have. A stable and prosperous family gives rest and joy to the elderly.

Justin Martyr on Malachi 1:11

Not having read anything by Justin before, I learned tonight that I’ve been missing out. I was getting ready to write something about Malachi, and happened to know that Justin cites this verse in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew. As it turns out, he cites it at least three times, and I thought this was worthy of its own post. I also just converted the whole dialogue from text to speech, so I’ll go ahead and upload that to the bottom of this post. (Pro tip: pasting books from Logos into a text to speech program works really well.)

But though a man be a Scythian or a Persian, if he has the knowledge of God and of His Christ, and keeps the everlasting righteous decrees, he is circumcised with the good and useful circumcision, and is a friend of God, and God rejoices in his gifts and offerings. But I will lay before you, my friends, the very words of God, when He said to the people by Malachi, one of the twelve prophets, ‘I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord; and I shall not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for from the rising of the sun unto its setting My name shall be glorified among the Gentiles; and in every place a sacrifice is offered unto My name, even a pure sacrifice: for My name is honoured among the Gentiles, saith the Lord; but ye profane it.’

Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 28

In response to the story of Justin’s conversion (2-8), Trypho says “first be circumcised, then observe what ordinances have been enacted with respect to the Sabbath, and the feasts, and the new moons of God; and, in a word, do all things which have been written in the law: and then perhaps you shall obtain mercy from God” (8). So Justin argues from the scriptures that the Jews do not please God by keeping the law of Moses, but Christians receive true righteousness through Christ. Malachi 1:11 proves that “our sacrifices [God] esteems more grateful than” those of the Jews” (29). We do not need the Jews’ circumcision, but they need our circumcision. We do not need their baptism, but they need the baptism of the Holy Ghost.

And the offering of fine flour, sirs, which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will. Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [prophets], as I said before, about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: “I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord: but ye profane it.”

Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 41

This passage follows an argument that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills the types of the sacrifices in Jerusalem, which in God’s providence the Jews can no longer offer. Since we are purified by Jesus’ sacrifice, we remember this by taking the Eucharist and thus fulfill the type of the flour offerings. Malachi 1:11 once again judges our sacrifice (the Eucharist) to be more pleasing than that of the Jews (the flour offering).

We, who through the name of Jesus have believed as one man in God the Maker of all, have been stripped, through the name of His first-begotten Son, of the filthy garments, i.e., of our sins; and being vehemently inflamed by the word of His calling, we are the true high priestly race of God, as even God Himself bears witness, saying that in every place among the Gentiles sacrifices are presented to Him well-pleasing and pure. Now God receives sacrifices from no one, except through His priests… Now, that prayers and giving of thanks, when offered by worthy men, are the only perfect and well-pleasing sacrifices to God, I also admit. For such alone Christians have undertaken to offer, and in the remembrance effected by their solid and liquid food, whereby the suffering of the Son of God which He endured is brought to mind, whose name the high priests of your nation and your teachers have caused to be profaned and blasphemed over all the earth… But as to you and your teachers deceiving yourselves when you interpret what the Scripture says as referring to those of your nation then in dispersion, and maintain that their prayers and sacrifices offered in every place are pure and well-pleasing, learn that you are speaking falsely, and trying by all means to cheat yourselves: for, first of all, not even now does your nation extend from the rising to the setting of the sun, but there are nations among which none of your race ever dwelt. For there is not one single race of men, whether barbarians, or Greeks, or whatever they may be called, nomads, or vagrants, or herdsmen living in tents, among whom prayers and giving of thanks are not offered through the name of the crucified Jesus.

Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 116-7

Chapter 117 of the dialogue is entirely devoted to the interpretation of Malachi 1:11, and includes the final citation (which I passed over in my huge quote). First, at the end of chapter 116, Malachi 1:11 proves that all Christians are God’s priests, because we offer sacrifices. Justin describes these pleasing sacrifices as “prayers and giving of thanks” and “the remembrance effected by” the Eucharist. He argues that Malachi 1:11 is about Christians, not about the Jewish diaspora, because Christianity has spread to all peoples and the Jews have not.

This dialogue is full of interpretation of prophecy, so I’m sure this won’t be the last time I quote it here.

Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 1-30
Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 31-60
Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 61-90
Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 91-120
Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, 121-142

The Need for Positive Ethics

The current implosion of Western society reveals that we are great at criticizing cultures, but ill-equipped to present a positive vision of a good life. Philosophies like existentialism, Darwinism, postmodernism, Marxism, and critical theory can tear down ideas, but do not build anything in their place. They criticize the patriarchy and wonder where the fathers went. They criticize capitalists and wonder where the jobs went. They criticize the police and wonder why crime rises. They say there is no objective purpose to life and wonder why the youth commit suicide. They say humans are evolved animals and wonder why they rape and kill.

It may be objected that Marxism, for example, has a clear vision for the future. But Marxist eschatology is merely a daydream that Marxists have no power to actualize. Decades before Russia’s revolution, Dostoyevsky notes in The Brothers Karamazov that socialism isn’t just about labor, it’s an anti-God philosophy; they don’t believe that God will bring Heaven to Earth, so they try to do this by other means. But only God can bring about utopia by making people altruistic, and so Marxists attempt to do it by coersion. The twentieth century shows that this vision inspires more destruction than production.

The effects of these philosophies are beginning to catch up with us. My parents were divorced, their parents were divorced, my step-dad’s parents were divorced, and I never met either of my two step-moms’ parents. In environments like this, is it any wonder that millennials lack direction? I was told that I could be whatever I wanted to be, but I wasn’t told very clearly what a man should be. Public school taught me that I should go to college and get a good job, but it couldn’t possibly tell me why I should do this. When I began to ask these questions as a teenager, I was left with no foundation, and became depressed. I loved Ecclesiastes because of the ways it criticized things that other people cared about, but the only thought that positively gave me a sense of purpose was that the church and my relationship with God would last forever.

In hindsight I see three deficiencies in younger me’s view of Biblical ethics and purpose. First, I started with the end instead of the beginning. Faced with mortality and entropy, I only wanted to know what would last forever. I knew that God is the beginning as well as the end, but it didn’t cross my mind to build my life around a verse like Genesis 1:28. But if God has told us what to do, we don’t have to wonder how to live a meaningful life. When I realized that God doesn’t actually need my help to make disciples, I had to pivot from doing things because they will last forever to doing things because God told me to.

Second, my understanding of ethics was largely negative. I knew that I shouldn’t hate, covet, lie, be lazy, lust, and cheat. But what should I be doing instead? Sure I shouldn’t be lazy, but what should I be working toward? In a healthy culture, people would basically understand what humans are supposed to do, and these negative commands would keep them from going about it in the wrong way. But as the counter-culture becomes the mainstream culture, we need to build our system of ethics from the ground up, which requires a clear positive vision.

Third, my positive understanding of ethics was too vague. Modern Christians know that we should value the weighty things of the law like justice, mercy, and love. But what does this practically look like? Answering this question requires knowing what our neighbor needs, what God’s blessings look like, and the specific moral commands of God’s law. It requires a knowledge of what the good life is and the wisdom to achieve it.

When I started this ethics series, I didn’t realize how transformative it would be for me, and the reason is that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the positive vision of Genesis 1:28. I’ve learned that a lot of my desires, both righteous and sinful, are explained by this verse, because it is a description of what man was made for. With a clear vision of what my life is supposed to look like, it is easier to turn down the counterfeits.

Today I meant to write on the positive vision of ethics taught in Malachi, and this post happened by accident. Maybe in a couple weeks.

Isaiah 49:8 Fulfillment: Three Ways Jesus Has Begun to Fulfill the Land Promises

Thus says the Lord: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages.”

Isaiah 49:8 ESV

The Lord continues to speak to the servant of the Lord. The servant had faith that the Lord was His strength (Isa 49:6), and so the Lord helped him, saved him, and kept him. This is true for Jesus, whom God raised to eternal life and seated at His right hand. But it is also true that the day of salvation is today (see how Paul uses this verse in 2 Cor 5:20-6:2). Whoever will be reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and resurrection will be helped, saved, and kept by God. The mission that looked like a failure in Isa 49:4 will overwhelmingly succeed by the power of God.

Jesus is given as a new covenant, and what may surprise Christian readers is that the blessings he brings are what we normally associate with the old covenant. The goals of the old and new covenants are not different; the difference is that the new covenant enables us to fully reach the goals. “Apportion desolate heritages” means to divide up the promised land between God’s people. But in Isa 49 we’ve already seen that the promised land is not only Canaan, but will grow to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6). So when Jesus says “the meek will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5), he means the Earth.

A notoriously difficult question is whether the land promises have begun to be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. I remember G. K. Beale giving an uncharacteristically weak answer to this question in his New Testament Biblical Theology (I have no idea what page, so just read the whole book): he said the land promises may have begun to be fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection body. That is a glorious beginning to the physical new creation, but is it really the most we can say about the present fulfillment of the land promises? I haven’t given this enough thought to answer that question, but I think it should be raised. So here are a few quick thoughts.

  1. Paul speaks to this issue when he says the Spirit is the down payment of our inheritance (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14). These three verses are looking forward to a future fulfillment of land promises, but see the beginning of fulfillment in the gift of the Spirit. What does the Spirit have to do with land? The land promises will be completely fulfilled in the new creation, and the Spirit has begun the new creation in us (2 Cor 5:17). The blessings described in Isa 49:9-10 will be fully experienced after Jesus returns, but today the Spirit truly gives us spritual sight, light, life, provision, security, and guidance.
  2. The New Testament authors see New Jerusalem as a heavenly city, and in a sense we are already there in Christ (Gal 4:26-7 Heb 12:22-4, c.f. Eph 2:7). We look forward to the same city as Abraham (Heb 11:8-16), and we are already citizens of that city (Phil 3:20). I’ll probably write more on this when I cover the second half of Isa 49.
  3. Most controversially, if Jesus already has all authority in heaven and in earth (Matt 28:18), then can Josh 1:3 be applied to Jesus and therefore the church? “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you” (John 1:3). Just as the Israelites filled Canaan little by little (Deut 7:22), Jesus is conquering the world gradually. Matt 13:24-43 would be an interesting passage to consider, because the parables about the gradual growth of the kingdom are shoved in the middle of a parable that flattens out this age and sees the whole world as Jesus’ kingdom. Finally, if Acts 2:8 is fulfilled in the resurrection (Acts 13:33), then hasn’t Jesus already begun to receive the nations as his heritage (Psalm 2:9)?

I’ve raised the question. Comment if you have an answer.