Archive for July, 2018

The Apostle Paul is always talking about suffering. It seems like a rather ominous attitude towards life. He says in the same affectionate letter to Timothy, his protégé, “share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”  (2 Timothy 2:3).

Different World Religions have different attitudes towards suffering.

In Buddhism, this is what defines life. Life is dukkha, suffering. The only way to escape suffering is to gain the buddhi, knowledge that in reality life is nothing, shunyata. As long as one thinks life is reality, one will suffer.

In Hinduism, people suffer because of their karma, i.e., the consequences of the deeds they did in their last lives. If only they had lived the right kind of life, according to their caste, they would not suffer in this life. So, one must suffer to bear the consequences of the last life, and go through the cycle of karma and samsara, i.e. the eternal cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. This is re-incarnation.

In Islam, one suffers because it is insha Allah, i.e. it is the will of Allah. Therefore, one must suffer, when one is suffering.

There is much more complexity to the above. But, these summarize the teachings in a couple of world’s religions.

The Apostle Paul and the Bible look at suffering differently. Human beings were not created to suffer. Human beings were created to enjoy the presence of God and the “goodness” of creation, in the Garden of Eden. Sadly, human beings have left the presence of God, and as a result of that, cause suffering to each other, to themselves, and to God. Genesis 3 and the following chapters describe awful “evil” which human beings do to each other. The Greek word used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible is kakos, the same word used by Paul to suffer “evil.” (Genesis 6:5; Genesis 19:9, 19; Exodus 1:11; 3:7, and so on). Each time God sees “evil” he enters into human history to eradicate evil. More importantly, each time God himself suffers with the suffering, as in Exodus 3:7, 8, “Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the “suffering” of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and have come down to deliver them.”

In the Bible, human beings do not suffer because of bad karma; or because life is suffering; or that it is will of God. Human beings suffer because of human evil and sin.

The biblical answer is “God suffers with the suffering.”

Therefore, in a climactic way, God became human, in Christ, and suffered with the suffering. During his life, whenever Jesus the Messiah saw suffering he touched human beings to eradicate suffering. We read this throughout the Gospels. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, healed all those who suffered. Here are a few examples from the Gospel of Matthew (4:24; 8:16; 9:12; 14:35; and so on). Towards the end of his life Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, kept reminding his disciples that he must “suffer” many things, and be rejected by the religious leaders, and finally be crucified. Here are a few examples from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 9: 22; 17:25; 22:15; 24:26, 46).

The biblical answer is also the community of God, in Christ the LORD. The community of God is asked to suffer with the suffering, just like the Messiah suffered with the suffering. Paul himself was told that this must be the centerpiece of his ministry (Acts 9:16). Therefore, throughout his own ministry Paul says, that just like his Messiah, he also must suffer (Romans 8:18; Philippians 3:10; 2 Timothy 3:11; and so on). He also urges the community of Christ to suffer for the suffering, just like their Messiah (2 Corinthians 1:5-7; Galatians 5:24; and so on).

In the Bible, yes, suffering is a reality. It is a reality because of human sin and injustice.  Yet, this reality also has a solution, which is profoundly experienced by the Church in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion. Human beings enter into the Garden of Eden, and participate in the body and the blood of Christ- the central focus of his suffering.

Yet, in the Bible, that is not the final word on suffering. Suffering will finally come to an end.

The Apostle John exclaims,

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. (Rev 21:1-6 NIV)

That will be the end of suffering. It will be the entrance into the Garden of Eden.

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The very first experience that is recorded, before he enters into his public ministry, is the testings or temptations of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4: 1-11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 4:1-13).  All three Synoptic Gospels- Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Jesus fasted for 40 days and forty nights. The number 40 is reminiscent of Noah’s flood (Genesis 7, 8); the wilderness experience of freed slaves (Exodus 16:35; Deut. 2:7; 8:2, 4); Moses’ fasting on Mount Sinai before he received the Torah (Exodus 24:18; Deut. 9:9, 18, 25; 10:10); Elijah, the prophet’s journey back to Mount Sinai (1 Kings 19:8); and so on. So, the early readers would have known that in recording this, the Gospels are underlining that Jesus’s life is a replica of the history of the people of God. It also underlines that they succumbed to the temptations of the devil in the wilderness. Jesus, in contrast, overcame the temptations of the devil, the adversary.

The testings of Satan takes on three forms: one, physical, food, “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3); two, mental and emotional, “throw yourself down,” (Matthews 4:6); three, spiritual, “fall down and worship me,” (Matthew 4:9). In all three kinds of temptations Jesus, overcame Satan, the adversary. Sadly, the people of God, succumbed, time and time again, to the testings of the Adversary.

It is worth mentioning that a Gentile nation, Nineveh also was “tested.” This time it was by the Prophet Jonah. He had a one-line ‘Gospel sermon,’ “Forty days and Nineveh will be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4). Interestingly, the Gentile people, just like Jesus, overcame the testing. “They believed God” (Jonah 4:5), instead of the Prophet Jonah. This is an intentional contrast to the history of the children of Israel.

Just like the testings/temptations of Satan in the wilderness, Jesus was constantly tested by the religious, political, and social leaders of his time. In Matthew 16, they tested him by coaxing him to show a miraculous sign to attest to his divinity. Interestingly, Jesus stressed that the only sign they will see is the “sign of the Prophet Jonah.” In Matthew 19, they tested him regarding his views on social issues like divorce. In Matthew 22, they tested him regarding political and economic issues of his time. “What about political allegiance and taxes?” In John 8, they tested him regarding his views on legal issues like adultery and the death sentence. Each time Jesus is tested, he was victorious over the temptation. He had already overcome the great Tempter, Satan, in the wilderness.

The apostles constantly remind the young followers of Jesus the Messiah, to overcome testings/temptations. Throughout the epistle of Hebrews, e.g., they are reminded, that God became human, so that human beings, who trust in Jesus the Messiah, may be given the supernatural ability to overcome testings and temptations in life. They are reminded, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18 NIV). In the conclusion, the Epistle of Hebrews portrays life like a marathon race. It ends with words like, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3 NIV).

Each generation, in the history of humanity, brings before the disciples of Jesus the Messiah fresh sets of testings/temptations. These are spiritual, economic, political, social, etc. testings.

In the context of these testings/temptations, the Bible urges his followers to “Look to Jesus”- the great overcomer of all testings/temptations. This is the only way to avoid succumbing to testings/temptations.

I teach at a Christian university- North Park University. Liberal arts universities are all about learning in the fields of politics, sociology, economics, biology, chemistry, philosophy, religions, and the such. It seems to me that the perspectives of a Christian university, also, must be guided by the phrase, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Sadly, these fields of learning, in the history of humanity, have often resulted in injustices towards the weak and the vulnerable. The Nazi era serves as an example, and is not too far distant in history.

It seems like the Jesus model of learning, would keep Christian higher education from succumbing to the “testings and temptations” of the recent past.

May we look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of Christian institutions of higher education!

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How one speaks to another says a lot about how one sees the other person, and how one sees oneself.  This is especially true when one speaks in suddenly disastrous or unexpected times.

The Bible says a lot about speaking. It is all about the Word. For this reason, the Apostle Paul says, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Colossians 3:16); and then, “Let your word (Greek, logos) always be with grace.” (Colossians 4:6)

In the beginning God spoke, and brought the world into creation.  In the creation narrative of Genesis 1, God speaks 10 times: “God said and there was . . .” (Genesis 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29).

Here is how the Gospel of John introduces the life of Jesus the Messiah, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God  . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14).

The Book of Hebrews begins this way, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

Jesus’ whole life was a speech. When Jesus spoke words, it was a part of that speech. So, he taught much about speech. In the Sermon of the Mount, he said, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’.” (Mat 5:37). Another time, he said, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:35-37)

In this age of social media, and twitter, the teachings of the Bible are doubly relevant. What one says can have huge ramifications.

Jesus’ teachings on speech are especially crucial to those of us who are pastors and teachers. It is all about speaking and writing.

One’s speech can either build/create the other person, or it can destroy/de-create the other person. This is a question one must always ask oneself, whenever one opens one’s mouth to speak, or to write.

Am I creating/building the other in what I say and write, or am I de-creating/destroying the other in what I say or write?

So, help us all LORD!

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Today is the 4th of July.

It is appropriate that we reflect on another freedom event in the Bible. It is called the Passover.

Jewish people commemorate the Exodus event every year in a meal called the Passover meal. They commemorate the meal while reclining- reclining to the left.

Why so?

In ancient times only the kings and rulers reclined. They were after all gods, and the regular people were forced to worship and serve these gods. This was true in Ancient Egypt; Ancient Sumeria; Ancient Rome; Ancient India; Ancient China; and so on.  Low class people, who were treated as slaves, served these divine beings, who reclined.

Reclining is a special way of eating. It is the kingly-divine way of eating. The low classes of society could never dream of this way of eating. It usually involved a nice sized cushion, or lots of cushions. The divine-kings reclined to the left, so that they would receive the food offerings with their right hands. It was becoming of divine-kings.

The Passover meal, for this reason, thumbs its nose at those divine-kings.  When Jewish people commemorate the Passover, they always recline to the left. This is what the divine beings of the ancient world always did. Now, that the children of Israel were freed from slavery, they reclined to the left, so that they can receive the bounty of God, with their right hand. They are kings, queens, princes, and princesses now. It is like entering into the Garden of Eden, and reclining, to enjoy the joys of the Garden of Eden.

In Hebrew, there is play on words between the salvation that the Hebrew slaves experienced and reclining. They were led (yeseb) out of the enslavement in Egypt (Exodus 13:18), so that they may recline (yesub). The freed slaves are called mesubim, or recliners.

Freedom and reclining go together.

I have recently returned from visits to different parts of the world: the largest refugee camp in the world, Kakuma Refugee Camp, in Kenya; and the war-torn areas in Congo; the outcaste/low caste peoples groups of India, etc. Each of these people are yearning for a salvation experience, yeseb, so that they also may recline, yesub, and be finally called recliners, mesubim.

This is what Jesus did throughout his ministry. He enabled the enslaved people of his time, called the ‘am ha-aretz, to experience freedom and to recline. The most famous is the incident where Jesus saw a huge crowd of people- 5,000 men. The total number, including women and children could well have been 20,000. This event is recorded in all four Gospels- John 6:1-4; Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; and Luke 6:1-14. Obviously, all four Gospels wanted to highlight this event in the life of Jesus.

The following things happened when Jesus saw the crowds of low class people:

One, he was filled with compassion (Matthew 14:14; Mark 6:34). The Greek word for compassion, is splangchna, which is quite descriptive. It is passion that arises from a person’s womb or deep inner being. It then completely overpowers the person. This was what Jesus experienced often, when he saw the injustices encountered by common people. Sometimes this was at the hands of the elite- the Sadducees and the Pharisees; at other times at the hands of the Roman kings and soldiers; at yet other times at the hands of militants, called the Zealots.

Two, he asked Phillip, the pragmatic disciple to feed the 20,000 or so people. Phillip of course, scoffed at Jesus, “Are you crazy or something? This will take thousands of dollars- a whole year’s salary!”

Three, he turned to the simple disciple, Andrew, who responded, “Well there is slave boy! (That is what the Greek word means). He has five simple barley unleavened flatbread, and two fish!” (This was the Passover meal of the poor). But, then he saw the looks of astonishment on the faces of the others, and he said, “But, these are thousands of people!”

Four, Jesus calmly said, “Make the people ‘recline.’ We are going to have a Passover party, with the food of this poor slave boy! These people are not poor people. They are kings, queens, princes, and princesses. It is Passover!”

That is what happened.  The poor, enslaved people had an existential experience of knowing that they were the children of the King. They were royalty.

Jesus did these kinds of things several times in his incarnational ministry. (Matthew 9; 22; 26; John 12:2; and so on)

This is what freedom means. It is to take people who have been pushed into poverty and slavery by society, and give them the freedom to “recline,” and become royalty.

The very last act that Jesus did with his disciples was to celebrate the Passover. In John 13 he helped his disciples experience royalty. They ‘reclined’ like royalty (John 13:23, 28). But, before he did this, he showed them another crucial lesson. He showed them that the only way to enable people to experience royalty, is to become slaves yourselves. He washed the feet of this disciples, with the bucket of water, used only by slave boys; and wiped their feet with the towel, used only by slave boys. He said to them, “So if I, your LORD and your Rabbi, have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet.”

This is what it means to celebrate Freedom!

This is what it means to celebrate the 4th of July!

Happy 4th!!!

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