Archive for September, 2012

Images Continued

Posted in Uncategorized on September 24, 2012 by ancienthopes

It is very interesting that at creation it was God who made the first “image.” The word for image here in Genesis 1:26 is ṣelem and the idea here is that humans, both male and female, were created as models, or replicas, of God. By implication, this means that to look upon a human being is to look upon a sort of “model” of God. The text even suggests that this idea of image includes even our physical features, for even though God is “spirit,” that is, not corporal like we are, He always seems to have an “appearance,” an appearance so bright with uncreated light that human eyes cannot behold it (Ex. 33:20). We conclude that by analogy, humanity and God share an appearance that is somehow comparable and compatible, both spiritually and physically. Of course, this doctrine of man made in the image of God is at the very heart of the Incarnation of our Lord.

This Hebrew word for image ṣelem is also used for idols man makes (Num. 33:52, II Kings 11:18, Ezk. 7:20 and Amos 5:26). The implication is clear; it is good and proper for God to make an image of Himself, but it is a perversion for man to make an image of God. What is at stake here is ownership and control. For man to make an image of God is to create God in his own fallen image, for his own fallen purposes which, as we explained in the last post, is all about magic and manipulation. This command not to bow down and serve images is a summons for humanity not to reduce God down to something of their own imagination, something they then can control and manipulate, and thus, in some strange and ironic way, become subservient to the very creature they have created.

The Church has always used art forms of every type in worship. By this we mean paintings, sculptures, play acting, and just about any way the human imagination goes. The incarnation has sanctified human artistic expression in its search for union with Christ. Of course, there are always dangers. One can carry a religious symbol and treat is as one’s lucky charm. But there are dangers everywhere, for the pagan impulse to control and manipulate God takes many forms other than artistic. For instance, one can give money in the offering and thereby believe that God is bound to bless. The underlying issue with regard to images or anything religious is a heart issue; does my heart belong to God in relationship, or do I avoid intimacy with God through manipulation? Everything else is secondary.

I have a statue of Jesus positioned on a stump of a tree in our front yard. I do not bow down so as to worship it. However, every time I pass by and notice it, a profound peace comes over me, and my love for Jesus springs out of my soul. During one counseling session my father-in-law, at the time a Methodist pastor, suggested to one grieving person to go to the church down the street and sit in front of a statue of Mary. That experience helped that person where words were not able. After all, words themselves are nothing but verbal symbols. Jesus can touch us through many ways and forms, for He is truly human, and anything human belongs to Him.


Posted in Uncategorized on September 17, 2012 by ancienthopes

This second great command is rooted in creation and the created order. In Genesis 1, God created nature in ascending order, from inanimate objects such as the sun, moon and stars on the 4th day, birds and fish on the 5th day, land animals culminating with the creation of humanity on the 6th day. The order is important, for it teaches us that humanity, made in the image of God, is superior to, and responsible for, all the rest of creation. After the fall, there is what we might call a pagan impulse to worship creation rather than the Creator. Humanity has a twisted urge to worship the hosts of the heavens and the multifarious creatures of the earth, and this is done through images made specifically to be a focal point of magical power. Idolatry is demonic, for it reverses the order of creation.

Central to the idea of pagan idolatry, against which this second commandment is specifically addressing, is the idea of magic. We feel vulnerable in this fallen world, and as a result, we try to manipulate the gods through the worship the images that depict them, so as to get our way. Magic is manipulation, and has nothing to do at all with relationship. God was calling Abraham and Israel to covenant. Covenant is the framework by which God and His people can have relationship. Covenant and idolatry are opposing ideas; one is centered on love and relationship, the other is centered on fear and magic.

In this second commandment, God is calling Israel out of this idolatrous atmosphere into which humanity as a whole had fallen into. The point is not that Israel was not to make images at all, but that they were not to bow down to them and serve them like the pagans did. For instance, Moses himself made an image of a bronze serpent, which dangerously seemed like a pagan practice of the time, and ordered the people to gaze and meditate on it to be protected and healed (Numbers 21:4-9). Though it might look like magic from the outside, this episode had everything to do with covenant and relationship. Also, the Tabernacle itself had the images of cherubim artfully woven into its tapestry (Ex. 26:1), not to mention the cherubim that set upon the most holy place of all, the arc of the covenant (Ex. 25:18). What these cherubim looked like we do not know, but one scholar believes that they had the body of a lion, and head of a man, something like the Egyptian Sphinx that guarded holy places. These cherubim were made and placed here not to bow down to or to serve, but to draw the hearts and minds of the people to spiritual realities and ultimately to God.

In the Old Testament, the prohibition to make idols is both to protect Israel from pagan magic and worship practices, but also to protect the idea that God is infinitely above and beyond anything that we can ever imagine. The problem with the golden calf episode (Ex. 32) was not only that the whole atmosphere was pagan and magical, but also that they made it as a depiction of YHWH who is beyond anything in nature (Ex. 32:8). It would be inappropriate in the Old Testament to make any depiction of God at all. However, in the New Testament, YHWH the Lord, the God of Israel, became incarnate in the Son, and was made man. We know that Jesus looked like a man, and the Church from earliest times depicted Him in pictures to draw our love and devotion to Jesus. The pictures and statues themselves were meant to be venerated in that they draw us to Jesus, but not worshipped or served in the sense that pagans did with their idols. Again, true worship of the Lord is all about relationship and covenant, not manipulation and magic. Shall we burn all of our children’s books with pictures of Jesus? We are not, like the Muslims, iconoclasts.

I love to teach this commandment to my students. Many of them feel very comfortable with a plain cross without a corpus, and are satisfied with the argument that their Lord a risen Lord and not a crucified Lord. However, St. Paul Himself tells us that he preaches Christ crucified (I Cor. 1:23). This is indeed a mental image that is as vivid to the mind as a crucifix is to the sight. Why not place in our Churches an empty cross that symbolizes our Lord Risen, and a crucifix symbolizing the price God paid for our redemption? Are not both images true?

You shall not have any other gods in my face!

Posted in Uncategorized on September 11, 2012 by ancienthopes

The Hebrews did not work with abstract ideas; truth is always made vivid by concrete ideas or “motifs” ─ images from nature. So it is here with the Ten Commandments, beginning with the first one. The prepositional phrase often translated “before me” can literally be translated “in my face” (`al-pānāy). I always look on in fascinated horror when angry baseball managers, after chewing tobacco for hours on a hot summer day, stick their faces nose to nose with the umpires and scream at them at the top of their lungs. We use the metaphor “in your face” often in our sports culture when someone humiliates an opponent. We do not like it when someone we do not want gets in our face. On the other hand, we love it when loved ones get in our face! The first commandment has to do with the “face” of God.

Concentrated on our faces are the five senses, making the face the most sensitive place on our bodies. Of course, God does not have a “face” so to speak, like we do, but the Bible has much to say about the “face” of God. Our faces somehow reflect a divine reality. Some theologians think that the human face is the one part of our bodies that reflect most the image of God. Be this as it may, the commandment, seen in this light, is clear. When we love something transient and earthly as ultimate, in place of God, we are actually sticking that thing in the face of God and saying, “this is my God!” This, of course, is offensive to God. Since we are made in His image, we are made exclusively for Him. We are the only ones that are made “to be in God’s face.” Earthly things, no matter how good they may be, cannot be placed between us and the face of God.

Everything transpires before the face of God. In fact, to see the face of God is the ultimate of human experiences. It is what Moses most dearly wants to see (Ex. 33:20). The face of God is terrifying on the one hand (Rev. 1:16), yet transforming on the other hand, for “we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (I John 3:32). When the Children of Israel were blessed by their priest, they received the words “may His face shine upon you” (Numbers 6:25). In the Psalms, when God hides His face, everything becomes a spiritual night. When He invites us back, He opens His face to us (27:8-9). In this life we see God only through a dark glass, but in the end of our journey, “we shall see Him face to face” (I Cor. 13:12). Salvation is to see the face of God.

The first commandment is the negative of the great positive commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all…” To love God is not to place anything temporal or created “in His face.” It is the commandment of competition. God is sensitive; he doesn’t like competing with things that cannot even begin to compare with Him, whether they are material things, persons, family members, or even spiritual things. What a joy it is to have this commandment in our spiritual possession! Oh, how we can meditate on this the whole day long; it gives us life! It informs us who we are, and who God is!

Preamble to Ten Commandments

Posted in Uncategorized on September 6, 2012 by ancienthopes

Law is love; law is foundational to relationship. Law is a good and necessary thing; without it there is chaos. But how do we relate to Old Testament Law today as Christians? What often happens is that theologians divide law into three categories: Moral, civil, and ceremonial. Moral, they say, is timeless and is applicable to all peoples at all times. The Ten Commandments would be an example of this. Civil law has to do with ancient Hebrew society as a Theocracy, and only its general principles offer us any relevance today (The so-called “Covenant Code in Exodus 21-23 is an example of this). Finally, ceremonial has to do with the worship of the ancient Hebrew cult, and this was fulfilled in Christ (e.g. the laws in Leviticus). The outcome of this division is the narrow affirmation, for all practical purposes, of only the 10 commandments as applicable to us today in any meaningful way.

This division merely perpetuates our own deep feelings of alienation we have with the Law in our western society. The Hebrews knew nothing of this division, as is clear by the fact that they freely interspersed these different “types” of law together. If we were to categorize Hebrew law according to its “function and purpose in its own context,” we do better with this classification: Criminal, Case, Family, Cultic (sacrificial and symbolic), and Compassionate law (Christopher Wright following Anthony Phillips’ categories in Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), pp.288ff. All these categories, though they tend to be found in general locations, are freely intermixed with each other.

With this background, we proceed to the Ten Commandments. In ancient Israel, these commandments would be understood in terms of what we would call “criminal law.” That is, those who broke one of these commandments would be considered criminals in their culture, and worthy of severe punishment. Just this statement itself reveals how far our culture, which is very lax in these matters, is removed from biblical culture. The commandments inspired both a deep pleasure and a terrifying fear in the hearts of biblical persons (Ps. 119:120 “My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments). Can the Law, God’s Holy Word, evoke such deep and varied responses in our own hearts? Or, have we shielded ourselves from the law by our superficial theological maxims that the law is practically meaningless for us today?

One such maxim is that we are now under grace, while the Israelites were under the law. However, look at the preamble of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). Redemption is the whole context for the law. God did not come before Moses and the people, give them a law, and then tell them that if they get their act together, then He will save them from bondage and bring them to the Promised Land. Rather, God delivered them first, defeated their enemy, and then, out of a loving desire to enter into covenant with them and be in relationship with them, He showed them what kind of people they should be through law. In other words, He saved them by grace and then opened up to them the wonderful world of His own divine mind and thoughts, that is, His law! We see this same pattern in the Gospel. Jesus brought us out of Egypt (the world) delivered us from our bondage to sin, and then opened up to us all a whole new world of grace and responsibility.

The righteous under the Old covenant never performed the law so as to earn a place before God. They were given a place in God’s family by grace, and strove to please their Heavenly Father by obedience. True, as a nation, Israel failed in obedience. The difference in the New Testament is that we are “in Christ” and empowered to be everything the Old Testament Law envisioned a righteous person to be by the perfection of Jesus who works in us. Rather than being “under” the law, the law is “in us.” Therefore, there is far more unity between the Old and New Testaments than we think.