Memorial Day: Celebrating Imperfect Sacrifice

In light of the Memorial Day celebrations, I’m reposting something I initially wrote as a note for Facebook last year.  May your day be a blessed time of remembrance and rest: 

How does one think about and celebrate Memorial Day in light of the Gospel? On a day that remembers those who “gave” their lives in service to this country, how does one think about such sacrifice in light of God’s word? On the one hand, the question is a bit asinine. It’s in vogue these days to question everything, especially anything that seems too pregnant with patriotism or pro-Americanism. On the other hand, the question is exactly the sort a Christian ought to ask. Because we live as God’s people in a strange land, as sojourners whose true citizenship lies in heaven, then we ought to consider how to rightly engage the ceremonies and memorials of a passing temporal kingdom.

If it ever was “impersonal” for me, Memorial Day ceased to be so in 2007. That was the year I deployed to northern Iraq, and the names from that time stay with me; not as a burden, but certainly as a memory. They include Ryan Balmer and Matt Kuglics, two men who died in Kirkuk, Iraq on 5 Jun 07. They include Dave Weiger and Nate Schuldheiss, who both perished in November 2007 near Balad Air Base, Iraq. Finally, I also remember Derek Dobogai, an Army captain who died along with thirteen others, also nearby Kirkuk, Iraq. More than most, these names remain etched in my memory; men whose lives intersected mine in one fashion or another (albeit in relatively tangential ways), and who, ten years ago, paid the final price in service of their country.

How then do I think about such sacrifice? Not all sacrifice is inherently good. With the exception of the God-man himself, Jesus, even the most altruistic of human action finds itself corrupted by human pride. Indeed, Scripture makes it clear that sacrifice apart from the worship of God is an abomination: “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight…The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination, how much more when he brings it with evil intent!” (Proverbs 15:8, 21:27). This is strong language indeed. If wickedness encompasses anything inherently opposed to God, then how should I think about those whose “ultimate sacrifice” of their lives – even in service to their country – occurred as they stood in opposition to their Creator?

And yet, along with language like this, we also hear the Bible encouraging us to acknowledge the good even of imperfect sacrifice. We hear Jesus say things like: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” – John 15:13 (Note: While this statement foreshadows Jesus’ own sacrifice a few chapters forward in John, his statement suggests something profound in any similar act of self-sacrificial love). We hear stories of the Roman centurion whose Godward philanthropy benefited the Jews (Luke 7:3-5). We may even remember the sacrifice of others gladly entered into on our behalf – like a man in southwestern Saudi Arabia sitting in an airport who once directed a clearly “fish-out-of-water” stranger (namely me) toward his flight. In short, life is complicated, particularly when one tries to understand the tangled depths of humanity and its sin nature. Praise God for his wisdom that far surpasses our own!

So then, in light of this complexity, let me offer a few thoughts on how we might think well on Memorial Day:

I can be thankful that it is not mine to judge the heart of another – Rather, I can honor and rejoice over sacrifice that is prima facie “good,” leaving the ultimate judgment of any such act to the wisdom of Jesus.

I can mourn sin that makes the sacrifice of a life necessary, even as I praise God that his justice has, and will, triumph– The fact that we have a day like Memorial Day is a somber reminder of the consequences of sin.

I can remember that even warfare can be a good, holy (dare I say it), and sanctified endeavor, particularly when undertaken by a believer in submission to King Jesus – Undoubtedly this statement requires further unpacking that I won’t attempt here. Suffice it to say, it is right and good that some should study, train, and prepare for difficult service on the battlefield, even service unto death.

I can rejoice over the ways in which the character of God shines through even in sub-standard sacrifice – Laying down one’s life on behalf of another points backward to the cross, whether the one sacrificing realizes it or not.

I can let the Memorial Day of a temporal kingdom raise to mind a cross at Golgotha – Memorial Day in the present is a shadow reminder of the cross-bound memorial God’s people will celebrate for eternity.

I can be thankful for the ways in which sacrifice accomplishes the sovereign purpose of God – God works through sacrifice, often despite the mindset of the one sacrificing. I am thankful that no life is wasted in the unfolding of God’s sovereign purpose for his creation.

I can be thankful for the way in which sacrifices recalled on Memorial Day served to restrain evil – Flawed though they were, the sacrifices I remember on Memorial Day – certainly those noted above – served to restrain great evil. For that I am thankful.

Yes, Memorial Day is a complicated holiday, and our celebration of it must be similarly complicated. But nonetheless it is a day worthy of note, because what it calls to mind is worthy of honor. So, I honor and am grateful for the sacrifice of men like Ryan Balmer, Matt Kuglics, Dave Weiger, Nate Schuldheiss, and Derek Dobogai. May their families this season find the comfort of salvation in the Prince of Peace.

 

The First and Last Step of Obedient Discipleship

A friend of mine and I were talking today about his 5-month old son and the ever-present lack of rest in their household at the moment.  Like most infants, this budding man has yet to learn the obedience and the discipline of sleep.  Sure, sleep is “natural” to a point, but not all that natural.  If you’ve ever cared for a young child, you understand this point quite well.  Children aren’t born knowing how to sleep through the night.  It’s something that is learned, especially through the first baby-steps of parental discipline.

As we talked, it struck me…Learning to “rest” is the first act of obedient discipleship in response to God – in response to how he has created our bodies to work; in response to the authorities he has placed in our lives; in response to his sovereign care and keeping.  The first step of submitting our wills begins as an “unthinking” (I say that tongue-in-cheek) infant who learns to rest through the night.  Ironically, learning to “rest” is also, essentially, the last and greatest act of obedient discipleship to God.  We learn to rest through adulthood, into old age, and even into death itself – to rest in God’s justifying and sanctifying work on our behalf; to rest in God’s plan for each day; to rest in God’s sovereign ordination of each stage in our life, come what may.  We begin life learning to rest, and we end life learning to rest.  I suppose this shouldn’t be any great surprise. After all, Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God was a defiant act of “doing” when they should have been “resting.”

In a manner of speaking then, discipleship in the footsteps of Jesus means learning to love and embrace Psalm 46:10 – Be still, and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!

 Oh Lord, teach me to rest!

A Psalm, a Sword, and the Word

Oh Christian, what is your answer, both to your own heart with all its pressing need, and to an accusing and hostile world?  God’s Word is your answer…God’s gospel (good news) Word is your answer.

Look at how Psalm 149 makes this so beautifully apparent.  There are two distinct halves to this Psalm, bracketed by the phrase: Praise the Lord (Note: For those interested in such things, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the original Hebrew makes Psalm 149 chiastic in structure.  I haven’t tried to work this one out for myself yet).

Here’s the first half (vs. 1-6a, ESV):

Praise the Lord!

 Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the godly!

Let Israel be glad in his Maker, let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!

Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation. 

Let the godly exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their beds.

Let the high praises of God be in their throats…

 

And then the second half (vs. 6b-9):

…and two-edged swords in their hands,

to execute vengeance on the nations and punishments on the peoples,

to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron,

to execute on them the judgment written!

This is honor for all his godly ones.

Praise the Lord!

Now, what cues us to the fact that God’s Word lies underneath these two halves?  Well, in part it’s the phrase “two-edged swords.”  What two-edged sword do all the people of God wield, regardless of culture, time, place, gender, age, vocation, or any other factor?  Answer: The Word of God.  Consider these three passages:

  1. Hebrews 4:12 (ESV) – “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

 

  1. Ephesians 6:17 (ESV) – “…and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…”

 

  1. Revelation 19:11, 13, 15 (ESV) [speaking of Jesus] – Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war…He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God…From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.

In Hebrews, Ephesians, and Revelation, Scripture images God’s Word as a sword, even a sharp and two-edged sword.  This word searches every heart (Hebrews), it is part of the Christian’s battle gear for life (Ephesians), and it proceeds ultimately from the mouth of Jesus himself (Revelation).

Back now to Psalm 149: In the first half of Psalm 149, Christians are people acted upon by the double-edged sword, by the Word of God.  It is God’s Word that releases our heart to the sort of praise enjoined on us by the Psalmist; God’s Word that informs our praise by telling us who God is and how he works; God’s Word that gives language and content to our praise.  The sword we wield is one by which we are first pierced ourselves – pierced for life!

In the second half of Psalm 149, it is God’s gospel Word that becomes the Christian’s testimony to the world.  For some, this testimony will be life-giving unto salvation.  Our great hope and joy is that when we speak his Word, God saves.  When we speak, he makes sinners into “first-half-of-Psalm-149” worshippers.  For others, this testimony will one day become the sword that proceeds from Jesus’ mouth and slays them on the day of judgment (Revelation 19:15-16).  It is this latter function of judgment that appears most starkly in Psalm 149:6b-9.  Our present testimony of the Gospel is the opening statement of God’s judgment pronouncement on unrepentant sin and sinners.  No wonder Paul can say this to the Corinthians: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16a).

With Paul we can wonder, “Who is sufficient for these things?” and with Psalm 149 we can say, “Praise the Lord!” (2 Corinthians 2:16, Psalm 149:9b).

Jesus Was God Long Before Nicaea!

Jesus Was God Long Before Nicaea!: Another Cool Point from Archaeology 

Did you know that the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus as God?  Did you know that they did so long before the “church,” at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, first formally articulated its view as to Jesus’ divinity? I realize my opening sentence here might sound like an elementary statement to many (particularly since we see such worship clearly demonstrated in the New Testament), but one skeptical charge against Christianity suggests that the church didn’t view Jesus as God until nearly 300 years after its founding.  Recently I watched episode #3 of “Digging for Truth,” a half-hour program created by the Associates for Biblical Research.  The first segment of this episode discusses a mosaic uncovered in Israel that clearly demonstrates Christians’ pre-Nicaea understanding of Jesus as God.  Take nine minutes and watch this (see link above).  I think you’ll be edified by the experience.

Thinking About Racism

Of all the various “issue-based” conversations current in the broader evangelical church in America today, it seems that race, racism, and racial equality remain front-and-center.  For instance, this year’s Evangelical Free Church in America (EFCA) Theology Conference had much to say about these issues.  To the degree that I’ve observed, listened to, or participated in the conversation surrounding race, I’ve found it difficult to engage well.  Beyond the fact that I certainly wrestle with my own sin, human-finitude, and blind-spots, I also wrestle with frustration over the way in which discussion often proceeds.  I won’t try to unpack here all of what I mean by “frustration.”  If you’re curious, let’s talk in person.  Instead, what I’d like to do is point you to a very helpful summary article by Kevin DeYoung, posted this morning on the Gospel Coalition website: “Racial Reconciliation: What We (Mostly, Almost) All Agree On, and What We (Likely) Still Don’t Agree On.”  I really appreciate how DeYoung reviews and frames the multiple issues and questions at stake.  His approach helps me to better articulate some of my frustration for the way in which the conversation seems to flow at times.  It also encourages me that my concerns and questions are not mine alone.  Finally, DeYoung does an excellent job of reminding me that questions of race, racism, racial equality, and racial reconciliation are real, important, and pertinent to the church at this moment in history.  I wonder what Jesus is doing by leading us, his flock, into this conversation at this point in time.  What is he preparing us for?  How do we need to strengthen relationships, tear down walls, and build bridges for work that lies ahead?

 

 

Jesus in Ancient History

Among the early extra-biblical historical sources that mention Jesus Christ, a particularly fascinating example is a reference in the writings of the 1st century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (Note: Josephus was a hesitant leader in the A.D. 66-70 Jewish uprising against Roman rule.  In A.D. 67, the Romans defeated forces under Josephus in Galilee, whereupon this former military man wisely changed careers.  He eventually became a historian sympathetic to his captors.  The work I reference below is my source for all the biographical details in this post):

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure.  He drew over to him many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles.  He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.” [Antiquities 18.3.3, in William Whiston, trans., The Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 480.]

This one paragraph provides a stunning account of what Josephus (who was not a Christian) knew concerning Jesus.  Consider this:

  1. Josephus knew the bare facts of the Gospel – Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus lived again.

 

  1. Josephus, by recording the basic storyline in an uncontested manner, confirms the historical context that we read in the Gospels – 1) Jesus undertook a public ministry that gathered Jews and Gentiles alike; 2) Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus at the instigation of the Jewish leaders.

 

  1. Josephus understood the Christian witness of Jesus as God’s Messiah and the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecy.

 

  1. Josephus apparently knew that Jesus’ followers believed him to be more than a mere man (Note: Observe this historian’s caveat, “if it be lawful to call him a man”). Notice how a non-Christian reflects the Christian belief concerning Jesus’ divinity long before the Nicene Creeds of A.D. 325 and A.D. 383.

 

  1. Josephus knew of accounts concerning Jesus’ miracles.

 

  1. Josephus attests to the fact that Jesus’ message was not exclusive to Jews only. Indeed, the transcultural applicability of the Gospel is a prominent theme in the New Testament (see the Gospel of Luke for instance).

 

In other words, Josephus knew much of Christian truth even before, or right as, the New Testament coalesced into its eventual canonical form.  This suggests acute awareness by Josephus both of Christian oral tradition, and Christian writings.  Perhaps the fact that he lived his writing days in Rome gave Josephus (who died circa A.D. 100) access to much of what became the finalized Bible.  Certainly, he learned a great deal from the witness of Christians in the Roman church.

Regardless of how he learned what he learned, this one paragraph from Josephus is a remarkable witness to what the Christian church believed about Jesus from its very beginning!

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

To Fear God Is…

Have you ever wondered what it means to “fear” God?  I have.  Even when I can give an answer, and perhaps a good one, I still wonder, “What exactly does it mean to fear God?  What does such fear feel like?”  Lately, during a study of Luke 4:1-13, I came across an answer to this question that seems to me quite helpful.

In Luke 4:1-13, Jesus encounters Satan in the wilderness.  This is the famous temptation scene.  During one of the three times he rebuffs Satan’s assault, Jesus says the following: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Luke 4:8; English Standard Version).  In the Greek, this statement is a slightly edited quotation from the Septuagint’s rendering of Deuteronomy 6:13 – “It is the Lord your God you shall fear.  Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear.”  Don’t forget, the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) is the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).

Even in the English, perhaps you can see the interesting change that Jesus makes.  The word fear from Deuteronomy 6:13 becomes worship in Luke 4:8.  In the Greek, this is a change from φοβεω (to fear) to προσκυνεω (to worship).  The Hebrew word that underlies φοβεω is ירא, which generally means, “to fear.”  But, as noted in Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, “Used of a person in an exalted position, [ירא] connotes ‘standing in awe.’  This is not simple fear, but reverence, whereby an individual recognizes the power and position of the individual revered and renders him proper respect.”  We move then, from ירא (Deuteronomy 6:13 in the Hebrew), to φοβεω (Deuteronomy 6:13 in the LXX), to προσκυνεω (Luke 4:8).  Along the way, the real meaning doesn’t change at all.  That said, I find Jesus’ word choice strikingly helpful.  In short, even as Jesus quotes the text (namely Deuteronomy 6:13), he also explains (or exegetes) its meaning.

All of this boils down to a simple point.  To fear God is to worship him.  If you worship God from a heart that is genuinely surrendered to him, then you, by definition, fear him.  Of course, for the moment our fear is imperfect, even as our worship is imperfect.  But, we know that God is at work to change this reality in us.  The work won’t be done until we see Jesus face-to-face, unhindered by sin.  Nonetheless, as we grow in our heart-centered understanding of what it is to worship God, we will also grow in our thrilling, heart-centered fear of him.

We truly fear God when we truly worship him; when our whole lives rise up before him as a song of praise and a testament of his goodness and glory.

(Note: Just by way of truth in advertising, I am not enough of a Greek and Hebrew scholar to do this kind of thing on my own.  I use resources!  In addition to the one mentioned above, my resources for this post include:

Logos Bible Software (Version 7)

Biola University’s Unbound Bible program

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (3rd Ed.)

A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament)