Monday, 7 July 7777

Welcome to the Musing Monk's blog

I have written extensively about various issues, particularly in the homosexuality debate.

The best way to find these is to use the "tag cloud" on the right to choose your keywords.

All are welcome here, even those who disagree.  My only request is that comments remain courteous and respectful of others.

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God bless


Thursday, 1 April 2021

Love and Sacrifice

In my previous post, I explored how I use the lens of love to evaluate theology (and explored different views of hell/heaven).

There are two passages I referred to that speak deeply to me, and today I'd like to explore the theme of love and sacrifice, using these passages as a focus.

"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Mark 12:28-34

Jesus is not making up a new teaching here.  He is quoting from the familiar Jewish prayer - the Shema, and quoting words from Leviticus and Deuteronomy.  When Jesus said that he had not come to do away with the Law, but rather fulfill it, I believe he is making a point connected to this Greatest Commandments teaching.  The Law and Prophets exist for a purpose, and that purpose is to show God's people how to live as his representatives here on earth, and be a light to the nations.  However, the people were not being true to the covenant, and Jesus criticised the hypocrisy of the Teachers of the Law.  He quoted Isaiah 29:13: 

These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.

As mentioned in my previous blog, both Jesus and Paul explained how the law was fulfilled by loving our neighbours as ourselves.

In Mark's quote above, did you notice the words "To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices"?

This idea is not new to the New Testament.  Jesus himself quoted Hosea 6:6: "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings."

Psalm 40, which is also quoted in Hebrews says: "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire - but my ears you have opened — burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require."

It's my view that the system of sacrifices and offerings were instituted, not because God was like some pagan god who required appeasing by some form of sacrifice, but rather to establish rituals and practices that helped the people focus on their relationship with God (their covenant) and their obligations to love one another.  To remind themselves that acting in selfish ways, oppressing others, failing to live up to their calling as God's image-bearers grieved God, they gave their offerings and sacrifices.  

To think God somehow requires sacrifice and burnt offerings is to my mind, to fundamentally (irony noted) miss the point.  

One of my other favourite passages is from 1 John 4.  The whole letter is a spectacular essay on love.  

A common mistake is to think that when Jesus and other writers talk of "eternal life" that they mean "going to Heaven when we die."  NT Wright goes to great lengths to explain that this is a great misunderstanding of the Biblical message.  John's gospel tells us that eternal life is knowing Jesus.  And in 1 John 3, we read these words: "For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another." and "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him."

Eternal life is clearly not a future destination if it resides within us.

But I would like to focus on a later passage that returns to the question of sacrifice and love.

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us.  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister."

1 John 4: 7-21

I think it's safe to say John cares a lot about love.  In those 4 short paragraphs, he mentions love almost 30 times!  

I have often referred to the short phrase "God is love" from this passage, because it speaks powerfully to me.  God is more than just loving, he is the source of all love.  

However, within this passage, we see the phrase "[God] sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."  Those who believe that God required sacrifice in order to forgive will point to this verse as evidence.  It seems clear-cut.

And yet, to think that John is here making a theological teaching point that focuses on sacrifice is to miss all the context of what he is doing in this carefully crafted wording.  John begins with an echo of the greatest commandments - that we are to love each other, precisely because God IS love.  To know God is to know love.  As John says, we cannot claim to love God if we hate our brother or sister.  

He then uses the atoning sacrifice imagery, not to drive home a teaching about the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, but to talk about what love looks like in action.  

Firstly, note that John is saying God sent his Son INTO the world that we might live through him.  He is talking here about the incarnation, life and ministry, not merely his death.   In John 14 we have the beautiful words of Jesus, promising that by the Holy Spirit, he would come and be in us.  This echoes the idea of eternal life being both defined as knowing Jesus and God (John 17:3), and being in us (1 John 3: 15).

Remember, John is crafting an argument that we are to love each other.  He defines God as love and the source of love.  He then shows that love came into the world in the person of Jesus.  He came to give us life (note: this is not the same as coming to save us from hell).  Jesus himself told us this:  "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10)

John then says that Jesus was sent as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, but immediately goes on to say that just as God loved us, so we must love one another.  NT Wright translates the words as "Beloved, if that’s how God loved us, we ought to love one another in the same way."  John says something similar in 1 John 3:16, when he says that Jesus laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for others. 

I have always missed this subtle message, assuming that John was just giving an example of God's love and then telling us we had to love too, whereas it seems that John is implying that just as Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should lay down our lives for others, and just as God gave Jesus as an atoning sacrifice, so we should be an atoning sacrifice for each other.

In the Atonement sacrifice, the ritual symbolised covering over someone's death (substituting with an animal offering) and the sprinkling of the blood to symbolise cleaning away the indirect consequences of evil (purification).  It's a confusing ritual for 21st century readers, as it's so removed from our experience.  But these symbolic rituals would, in theory, compel people to become people of love and grace also.   The act symbolised the receiving of God's goodwill and favour towards us.  We then carry that forward into our relationship with each other.  This is now celebrated in the act of Communion.  

John is really driving home this point here - just as God loves us with grace and forgiveness, so we are to love others with grace and forgiveness.   Just as Jesus represents an offering of God to make us clean, so we are to offer ourselves for our brothers and sisters.  

The cross means many things to many people, and part of its beauty is that it speaks in different ways.  One thing I believe it does not do, is "appease God's wrath by offering a blood sacrifice in our place."  This is misunderstanding of prophetic words about wrath against God's people being revealed, which took place in this world as a consequence of sinful living and failing to be true to God's covenant - particularly the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. 

When New Testament writers spoke of "coming wrath" it is easy to jump to futurist readings of this meaning some kind of end of the world judgement, rather than miss the end of the age meaning - the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the war with Rome (that Jesus predicted would take place within that generation - and it did, 40 years later).

However, God did not lovingly offer his own Son as a loving gift to lovingly protect us from his own wrath by killing him on a cross.  That is a twisting of the gospel.  When we say that an artist gave his life to a great masterpiece, or an aid worker gave her life to caring for others, this doesn't just mean that they died for it.  It means they lived for it.  To reduce Jesus to a sacrificial animal to avoid God's wrath is to thoroughly miss the point of Jesus.  He came to show us how to live.  And in that, he came to show us how to love.  

John is not writing a theology of atonement here.  He is using a symbol of God's loving grace and mercy, of Christ laying down his life (not just his death), to show us how we are to love each other.  God is love.  We must love one another, laying down our lives and just as Jesus, as God incarnate, came to reconcile mankind to himself, covering over any sin or unintended wrongdoing, so we are to do for each other.  In being reassured of God's goodwill and favour through the atoning sacrifice offering he makes for us willingly, we are to share that bond of love, forgiveness and mercy to each other.   To hate another, for whatever reason, be it their religion, race, opinions, or even theology, is to not know God.

I will finish with words from 1 Peter 4:7: 

"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins."

There's a good video on Atonement and Sacrifice from the Bibe Project:

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Interpreting our own theology

I am a member of various online theology and Bible discussion groups.

I have met some really interesting, educated and passionate people. I have also met people who informed me that my family and friends were going to hell because I didn't evangelise properly to them. Lovely.

One thing I have noticed over the years, is that most people value integrity of ideas. They don't hold a view unless they think it makes sense to them. This is true of most people, religious and non-religious. Debates can get quite fierce, as having someone tell you that your currently held view is wrong is very painful and can be pride-damaging.

This is why HOW we debate is so important. Creating a safe environment of respect for others can go a long way, along with holding an attitude of humility that shows an openness to changing our own opinion. I have my own confession to make - at times, when I meet someone so sure of their own opinion and so hostile towards others, I feel a mission to prove them wrong on some point, just for them to experience what it's like to be wrong and to show humility.*

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - words from the Apostle who wasn't always known for holding his tongue, in 1 Peter 3: 15.

(*it doesn't work, and I don't recommend it.)

Today I was musing on how I interpret my own ideas. When presented with a concept or a theory, how do I weigh it? What measure do I use?

Many in the various groups I belong to would answer that by saying "we believe what the Bible says." However, you don't have to go too far to find another person with a strongly held view, armed with their own Biblical arguments.

The problem with using the Bible to defend your views is that the Bible is such a diverse collection of works written over centuries and you have to select parts of the Bible to make your case, whereas another person will use different parts of the Bible to counter your claims. This might make it sound like the Bible is unreliable, but it's not so unusual if you were to make an analogy. My father died almost two decades ago. My memories of him are varied. Depending on my mood at the time, I can recall him as a gentle, kind man who loved music and had a sense of humour. On other days, I remember him as a man who struggled to show emotion, who frequently criticized and who didn't seem to understand me. This doesn't mean my father didn't exist or that some things I write about him are true and others false. It means that it is hard for me to be entirely objective, as all my evaluation is flavoured by how I feel and my own subjective experience.

I think many of us do this when we read the Bible. If you live under genuine persecution and fear for your life, as sadly many Christians do in this world, then seeing passages of God rescuing his people from oppressors, of restoring justice and of punishing those who harm you can bring words of hope into your life. It is easy for me to write about loving everyone when I haven't seen my wife, daughter, sister getting raped or my best friend being murdered for his beliefs.

In my own experience, while brought up in a loving home, I did often struggle to feel accepted and understood. For me, this is why I was drawn to a loving God who created me and rejoices in me. We all have our own needs, and our own experiences will always shape how we view God. Even atheists who don't believe in the likelihood of God existing can hold emotional views about how they would feel IF God DID exist. That can present a double barrier to belief. Again for me, this is why HOW we discuss is so important. It's not just about being right. It's also about being loving.

I want to share one of the lenses I use when evaluating different theological views. I am not a trained theologian, but I have talked with enough to know that each has their own deeply held views and each can use Scripture to make their case. We all need a framework to help us interpret and navigate ideas. Below is mine:


"Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God, and all who love are fathered by God and know God. The one who does not love has not known God, because God is love."

These words come from 1 John 4: 7-8.  I heard a speaker once point out that this is not just a statement about God being loving (an adjective), but is a rare description of God as a noun.  God IS love.

Jesus was famously asked by a Teacher of the Law to say what the most important commandment was.  His reply (Matt 22: 37-40) is incredibly powerful:

"You must love the Lord your God’, replied Jesus, ‘with all your heart, with all your life, and with all your mind.  This is the first commandment, and it’s the one that really matters.  The second is similar, and it’s this: You must love your neighbour as yourself.  The entire law hangs on these two commandments – and that goes for the prophets, too.’"

The Apostle Paul also refers to this (and Paul had not been a follower of Jesus during his life and had not read the gospels as they hadn't been written - meaning that he had the same logic as Jesus, had heard it from Jesus in a vision himself, or the early Church leaders clearly taught this).

He writes in his letter to the Galatians (5: 14) "for the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.'"

When leaving his disciples, Jesus gave clear instructions... even a command:

"I’m giving you a new commandment, and it’s this: love one another! Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another.  This is how everybody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other.’" (John 13: 34-35)

Now, these aren't just conveniently cherry-picked verses to suit my own theology.  These are foundational statements that I believe summarise the entire Christian faith movement.  Both Jesus and Paul describe the ENTIRE law being summed up by love.  Not just parts of it.  God isn't just loving, he IS love.

Now, normally these statements would suffice, but I have even found people argue over the definition of love.   Some find loopholes in any argument - you have to be cruel to be kind.  How can it be loving if you don't tell someone they are wrong?  If someone is in danger, is the loving thing not to shout at them?  I don't think it takes much discernment to spot an attempt to justify behaviour.  But even if we need a little help to define love, Paul does that very thing in the famous passage 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails."

When encountering a theological view, I find this framework helps in evaluating it.

Take for example the 3 classic views of hell/judgement (with simplified descriptions).

1.  Eternal Conscious Torment.   Those who reject Jesus/God are sent to a hell of eternal conscious torment as a place of judgement.  This reflects the justice of God.  

2.  Merciful Annihilation.  Those who reject Jesus/God are sent to a period of punishment, but as God is merciful, they will cease to exist and their suffering will end.  This reflects the love of God that gives free will, but also the mercy of God.

3. Universal Reconciliation.  One day all creation will be reconciled to God.  The broken relationship between man and God will be restored.

If you are new to these concepts, you will find that each has Biblical support.  Supporters of each model tends to say theirs has the most Biblical support and they have ways of understanding passages differently that seem to disagree on the surface.  I don't have time here to go over this here (hurrah, the reader cries!) but they are well-established views and well debated.  What is interesting is that most western agnostics or atheists probably assume all believers hold to the first model, largely thanks to the influence of Dante and Michelangelo and the medieval church.

But what happens if you read each of these 3 ideas through the lens of 1 Corinthians 13?

Which is patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, not proud, not dishonouring of others, not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, doesn't delight in evil, rejoices in truth, protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres and never fails?

Many 21st Century atheists have been told that if they don't repent of their sins and declare Jesus as Lord/believe in him, then they will go to hell.  Then they are told that God loves them so much that God sent his son to take their punishment, but only if they believe.  Sadly many Christians proclaim this also (and do so loudly).  If this is what I had been told, I am sure I would have been an atheist too.  That god is not patient or kind.  He is easily angered, definitely keeps records of wrongs and only perseveres in punishing.

Realising that the Biblical authors and early Church didn't believe this model either was such a revelation.

My leaning is towards the third model, that of Universal Reconciliation.  Critics of this model often point to the issue of justice.  How is this fair?  And yet, the heart of God and his scandalous grace and mercy is clearly on display in some of the well known stories Jesus told.  The Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son, the Workers in the Vineyard.

However, I have noticed that when many criticise this model, they often do so in shortening the term to "Universalism" and protray it as "everyone is saved" no matter what they do or believe.  This then begs the question of what was the point in Jesus and his life, death and ressurection?  Where is justice?  Does God force people to love him?

Those questions are valid and fair, but to me they point to the second model rather than the first.  They also work on the assumption that hell is a future destination and not a current man-made reality (I recommend the work of Tim Mackie at the Bible Project.  If you haven't seen this, please watch it!

They also show a clear misunderstanding of reconciliation.  Reconcililation is a process that is painful and involves sacrifice on both sides.  Love must be the driver.  Forgiveness is not cheap.  Pain, loss, pride, all must be dealt with.  Reconciliation also often takes part in community.  We adopt a very individualistic western view of salvation that pits one individual against God.  But Jesus declared God's Kingdom to be in our midst and promised that wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in his name, then he would be among them.  I believe reconciliation begins in loving communities.  This is why Jesus commands love to be at the centre of all we do.  We cannot force people to love us back, but we can choose the path of patience, not keeping records of wrongs, always hoping and always persevering.

May we know that love in our hearts today.