From Glory to Glory

Adam and Eve lived in a walled garden, with one entrance on the east side. It was a high place, for out of it flowed the river of Eden in four heads. These rivers hint at traffic with the lands beyond, with abundant food in the garden and gold and precious stones downstream. As the high place, it was the meeting place of God and man, the first sanctuary. Adam was placed in the garden to serve—to tend and cultivate—and also to keep—to guard the way to the Tree of Life and the Word. The fall removed this foretaste of glory, exiling man from the direct presence of God. An angel and a flaming sword were set where Adam should have been. And there was evening and there was morning.

For centuries, men had no sanctuary. The Sons of God, the godly line of Seth, walked with God. The prophet Enoch called the wicked to repentance. But there was no place where men could approach God, no place where God caused his name to dwell with his people. God gave Noah plans for the ark, a temporary sanctuary from the coming flood. The world was taken apart and a new world was built. And there was evening and there was morning.

The patriarchs still operated at a far remove. Their sanctuaries were open-air affairs gathered around not flowing water but oases or wells dug in the wild land. Here Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob called or proclaimed the name of God—the Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. The people around recognized the blessing and wisdom of God on them, and many of those who believed were gathered into the household of the Hebrews. After the move to Egypt, the glory of the patriarchs was broken, hammered and flattened out so that it was no longer a blood dynasty ruling over the household, but one people advised and led by their elders. And there was evening and there was morning.

God, with his strong arm and outstretched hand brought his people up out of Egypt and showed Moses the heavenly pattern for a new sanctuary, the Tabernacle, the dwelling place of God with men, built from the spoils of Egypt. Now again they had a walled and guarded sanctuary, but only the house servants, the priests, could come near. The angel stepped aside and men once again took up the role of guarding the way. Any who would enter must pass through the knife and the fire. God lived in the midst of his people Israel, visibly manifest in the cloud and fire. I will be your God and you shall be my people. But the way of approach was still [mostly] barred. The water no longer had to be dug out of the ground but was collected above the bronze firmament in the courtyard. The near-bringings were washed with water from above.

In the judging of the judges, the people wandered from their God, casting a sidelong glance toward their neighbors and their neighbors’ gods, taking their yoke upon them and languishing under their hand. The High Priest and his sons were killed. The Tabernacle, the center of the world of the Hebrews, was dismantled, the tent in Shiloh, the ark in Kiriath-jearim, and the ephod with a wandering priest. And there was evening and there was morning.

God gave the kingdom to a shepherd warrior and showed him the pattern of the new glory. Your son shall build a house for my name. And so he did, with the spoil of David’s battles with the Egyptian Philistines. Solomon also traded the abundant food of the land for stone and timber floated down river. The house was glorious—no longer a skin and cloth-covered tent, but a solid house of stone and timber, gold, silver, and bronze, four times larger than the Tabernacle. Flowers, palm trees, and fruit were carved into the gold-covered walls; giant lilies wrapped in pomegranates adorned the entrance, all recalling the ancient garden sanctuary. The bronze firmament was expanded to hold a sea of water above, supported on the strong backs of the tribes of Israel. Stationary but wheeled water-chariots lined the courtyard, hinting at a flow of water from the sanctuary. It did not yet leave the courtyard. As the time of the kings went on, the glory of the temple became like a worn out garment, the gold and silver stripped and replaced with bronze. The kingdom fell apart, northern Israel carried away by Assyria and southern Judah by Babylon. And there was evening and there was morning.

Seventy years Jerusalem lay in ruins. Ezekiel’s vision of the restoration temple, or rather the heavenly pattern and spiritual reality behind it, was another increase in glory. Rather than just the one eastern entrance, huge gates opened east, north, and south, with palm trees carved in the jambs. The temple had the same dimensions as Solomon’s, with the same garden-themed carvings of palm trees and cherubim, but the surrounding courtyard was larger and was surrounded by another courtyard for the people. The inner and outer courts, and the whole city itself were all square, extending the holy place outward, making the whole temple mount holy. The city had three gates on each side, each named for the tribes of Israel. There was no bronze sea, and the water chariots had now become a river flowing out and growing deeper as it went. It made salt water fresh, drinkable, life-giving. The fish of the rivers and sea were to live by it. Fruit trees with leaves of healing grew on its banks. The water had indeed begun to flow. Daniel was the chief advisor to the king of Babylon, Nehemiah the cup-bearer to the king of Medo-Persia. Cyrus and Darius sent the Jews back to the land loaded with provisions to rebuild the temple and then the city. The outward glory of the Restoration temple was not as grand as that of Solomon, but the spiritual reality behind it, given in Ezekiel’s vision, was far more so. The life and influence of the sanctuary of God was beginning to flow outward toward the lands beyond. Synagogues grew up in nearly every city throughout the empire. In time this, too, waned. The Jews, not seeing the glory they had been given, lusted after the power and glory of Rome. They knew not the day of their visitation. And there was evening and there was morning.

Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Jesus came not to restore the kingdom to Israel but to inaugurate a new and final kingdom and sanctuary. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again. The vision given to John in the Revelation of Jesus Christ of the Bride, the Church, the New Jerusalem is not merely a return to the garden sanctuary, but is the culmination, the wrapping up and gathering together of all the glory of the sanctuaries that have unfolded in history. It is a glorious garden city, foursquare and mind-bogglingly enormous, some 1500 miles to a side and walled all around. The tribe-of-Israel gates always stand open, allowing the faithful of the nations to enter. The city has no temple; there is no longer one place where God has chosen to cause his name to dwell, no more house of timber, stone, and metal, but a house of living stones. The people of God are built up to be the house of God. This is a mutual indwelling. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the sanctuary of the people. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. The bridal city is the city on the hill that gives light to the earth. The river of the water of life flows out from the throne in the midst of the city. Along the river grow trees of life with leaves of healing for the nations. The way to the tree of life is restored to men.

Thoughts on Pain and Suffering

How could a good God allow so much pain and suffering?

I wonder how often this is asked in earnest. It seems to be a trump card, a get-out-of-thinking question, one that is played as unanswerable. The typical answers are something like either God is good but is powerless to stop the bad things, or he is powerful enough but indifferent (or worse), or there is no God and all things are without meaning.

This begs the question though, are pain and suffering necessarily incompatible with the existence of a good God? Is there any place for pain and good to live together? We could start by looking at some cases where pain itself could actually be considered enjoyable. Eating spicy food, for example. This causes mild physical pain in the mouth but is often desirable. Hunger itself or thirst is a kind of pain, or discomfort at least, but without it could we approach a meal with zest and delight, or even gratitude? Exercise also causes pain, but is considered a good thing that benefits both bodily and mental health. A hard day’s work is difficult and painful and if not done grudgingly can be very rewarding. Ah, but I see I’m beginning to stray already from pain itself as desirable to working in spite of pain toward some good end. Still, the pain in these kinds of activities is not altogether unpleasant, and may even be how we know the thing is working properly.

Let us then imagine some alternatives. Perhaps the world and all things are just as they are, but we can’t feel pain, physical or mental. This immediately reveals itself as not good. If we could not feel pain we would destroy ourselves. We would be cut or burned or crushed or shot and carry on as if nothing of consequence had happened. This is the problem with leprosy or Hansen’s disease. Something as simple as an unnoticed blister can turn into a limb or life threatening infection. The ability to feel pain in this case is good and necessary, alerting or drawing attention to injury so something might possibly be done to help or fix it.

So why is there even the possibility of injury, disease, decay and the like? Another alternative could be that the world could have been such a place where pain and suffering were not possible, or we could have been built in such a way that we would be invulnerable to any hurt whatsoever. Maybe this would be better. We would have no fear of danger, hunger, or death. War would be ineffectual. Murder and  rape would be impossible.  Sounds good so far, but what about the equally human counters to these evils? Without even the possibility of hurt or injury where would be the opportunity for courage or bravery or daring? If we have no want, where is compassion and charity and kindness? If we know we cannot be hurt, where is prudence and self-control? Where would be endurance and patience without the chance to overcome trials? With the loss of difficulties and trials that bring pain and suffering, we lose also the opportunity to be virtuous. Would this be a cost worth paying?

Even if this cost is acceptable, this still leaves room for mental anguish. In our lives, the greatest and most devastating cause of suffering is typically not physical. People can survive and even thrive through very difficult things. Nearly irrecoverable suffering comes from malevolence, or worse still, infidelity or betrayal. This is world shattering. This cannot be. We must eliminate this possibility also. How? What could it mean that there is no possibility of betrayal or malevolence? As is manifestly obvious by looking at ourselves, alone or in society, now and throughout history, no external law can keep us in line. Even when, by our own standards, we know what good ought to be done and even when we want to do it, we do not always do so. We can be lazy and apathetic, even toward doing things that would benefit ourselves. We don’t exercise enough, or eat the way we know we should, or take our medicine, or sleep or wake when we should, or any number of other things we know we ought to do. How much less do we look out for the good of others? But maybe this is jumping too far ahead. Perhaps at this point, the concern should be just not harming others. Even without the ability to cause physical harm, we could (do) invent ten thousand ways to inflict mental anguish on one another. Picking, nagging, fretting, belittling, arousing suspicion, lying—any place we know our own vulnerability, we can (will) use it to exploit the same in others. This is the cost; this is what we would have to get rid of to remove the ability to harm one another—our self-awareness, our knowledge of our own weaknesses. As long as we have self-awareness, we have the knowledge and means of exploiting weaknesses in another.

This is not to say that pain and suffering are a necessary part of existence. So  much of it is caused by our own ignorance or poor decision making, or plain malevolence. But, so much of what is good in humans, what is true and noble and beautiful (and despite all the wickedness, there is tremendous good), is dependent on the possibility of choosing evil. If we didn’t have the option to do wrong, we wouldn’t really be doing good, only what we must. It isn’t the same thing. Doing good is knowing the difference between good and evil, rejecting the evil and choosing the good. Thus, Adam is given the possibility of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. After Adam ate, God acknowledged he has become like us, knowing good and evil. God knows and chooses the good. This is precisely what we are to aim at. This is what it means to have the mind of Christ, to be remade in his image, to become the sons of God. The telos that God has for his children is to be like him, to know good and evil and to choose the good always. This is the true and good elimination of suffering, the wiping away of every tear.

Good and Evil and Sports

I have for a long time thought of the watching of competitive sports as mere idolatry. It may be idolatry or it may not, but I failed to realize there is more going on, and it has to do with the way God has structured the world and time as an unfolding story. At the most basic, it is the story of light swallowing up darkness, of good overcoming evil. We eat and drink this story every day. It is so much a part of who we are and how the world is made that we often don’t even notice. Every time we move into some unknown thing and overcome the it, every time we learn something, every time we enter a new situation and come back from it having changed, we are acting out this story. The world is a little less dark to us.

At a very basic level, this is what team sports is. When the players enter the field, they are entering as warriors into battle. They are superhuman (god-like) actors acting out the great drama of the struggle between Good and Evil. When our team (the good, of course) wins, the world is a little more full of light. But woe when the other team wins. Even the sun is darkened in our eyes. This also explains why people are so attached to their respective teams. In terms of the great drama, it makes a big difference which side wins. The same seems to be true of individual competitions as well. The lone hero-to-be faces a host of antagonists and emerges victorious, or is relegated to the ranks of the common man. More or less. None of these games are to the death, so they can play out the drama over again while millions watch and await the triumph of the good.

A Kingdom that Cannot Be Shaken

Daniel chapters 2 and 7 both relate dreams that cover the same progression of kingdoms from different perspectives, and both serve to contrast the succession of fleeting manifestations of the City of Man with the solid, eternal City of God.

In chapter 2, Daniel interprets a dream that troubled Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. The dream was of a great image, a giant metal man with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, and legs of iron. A stone not cut by human hands struck the image and crushed it all to pieces so that it blew away like chaff in the wind, and then the stone grew to be a mountain that filled the earth. Daniel tells Nebuchadnezzar that he and his kingdom are the head of gold and that after him would arise other kingdoms: a kingdom of silver, and one of bronze, and one of iron that would break in pieces and shatter all things. But after these, Daniel says, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. [This kingdom] shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and [this kingdom] shall stand forever.” This kingdom is the stone that grows to be a mountain that fills the earth.

Daniel 7 is a parallel passage, a dream that comes to Daniel and troubles him. He sees four beasts rise out of the sea: the first, a lion with the wings of an eagle to whom is given the mind of a man — this again is Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon; the second, a bear raised up on one side — the coming Medes and Persians; the third, a leopard with four heads — four stages of the Greek Empire; and fourth, a great iron beast that devours and breaks in pieces all things — Imperial Rome. He sees a court of judgment set up and books opened and the iron beast killed and all their dominion taken away. The he sees one like a son of man presented to the Ancient of Days and to him is given a kingdom and dominion that will not pass away and will not be destroyed.

This “one like a son of man” nearly jumps off the page as a reference to Christ, but it is explained in verse 18 that, “the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever,” in verse 22, “judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom,” and again in verse 27, “the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them.” It is true that this is Christ, but it is the total Christ, the head and the body.

Paul, writing to the saints in Ephesus, says that we are blessed in Christ and adopted as sons; the saints are made sons of the Most High God. The church is both the “one like a son of man” who obtains an inheritance and the one who is given as a glorious inheritance to the Son. The power of God raised Christ “from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This is an amazing statement: the church, the body of Christ, is the fullness of Him who fills all in all. The total Christ, the head and body together, is the mountain kingdom that grows to fill the earth, a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

Heart of Flesh

Ezekiel 36 talks about the uncleanness of Israel, not just in the land but in the presence of all the nations to which God had driven them out. This uncleanness is not dirtiness but death, the death of empty idolatry, of exposed flesh, the death that Jesus says comes up from the inside, from the heart, and flows out to defile a person (Mat 15:1-20). They had defiled the land and the name of God, carrying His name in vain, profaning it among the nations. But God says that He will vindicate His holy name by gathering Israel again to her own land, cleansing her from her uncleanness, removing her heart of stone and giving her a new heart, a heart of flesh, and blessing her in the land with abundant fruitfulness. He will vindicate His name by restoring His covenant with His people.

About this new heart, God says, “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The Word of God had been given to them, and this was their heart: statutes and rules written on stone tablets. But now we have the Word written in human flesh, the very Son of God incarnate, and the Spirit of God indwells us and causes us to walk uprightly. And this is what Paul is addressing in Galatians 3. How can we, who have Christ and His Spirit in us, return to the stone law? How can we expect to merit our own perfection? Can we make this stone heart alive? Life is given in Christ and we receive it through faith. Just as God established His covenant with Abraham, so He establishes His covenant with us through baptism. What was promised to him — that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed — is fulfilled in us. We put on Christ and in Him we are heirs.

For the Body

Exodus 3 and 4 recount Moses’s encounter with God at the burning bush. God tells Moses that He has heard the cry of His people and He knows their sufferings and that He has come down to deliver them from the Egyptians. He said to Moses, “‘Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.’” Moses understood the enormity of this—Go, gather up a nation of people who have been settled in this place for a few generations and have homes and families and who are being held as slaves under the Egyptians. Gather them up and bring them out here.

Moses said, Who am I? “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” God answered, “But I will be with you.” God gave him a name to stand under, the authority of the name of Yahweh, and signs to authenticate his standing. He gave Moses his brother Aaron to be his mouth.  So Moses went back to Egypt as the messenger of Yahweh to tell Pharaoh that Israel is the son of God, the firstborn son of Yahweh, and He says, “let my son go.” When he went back to Egypt, he told all of this to the elders of Israel and showed them the signs, they knew that Yahweh had visited His people.

What God gave to Moses—authority, signs, the Word of God, the message of deliverance—was not given to Moses for his sake. These gifts weren’t for Moses to keep; the only benefit they were to him at all was in their service for the whole body. Paul talks in Romans 12 about presenting your bodies as a living sacrifice. He doesn’t say, “present your bodies as living sacrifices,” but rather, “a living sacrifice.” We are all members of one body. What we are given, we are not given just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the body. He says that everyone should not “think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” This is not a call to some sort of manufactured self-effacing. He says instead, “think with sober judgment,” that is, think rightly; understand your place in the story and in the body. The same thought is expressed in Philippians 2 as, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.“ We aren’t to think of ourselves above one another because we are all members of the same body. Romans 12 is a fantastic exhortation and encouragement toward this kind of thinking. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.”

Covenant King

2 Samuel 7 is a passage we hear frequently. It is an important passage because it is God’s establishment of His covenant with David. The chapter is divided into two sections. The first section starts with the king sitting in his house and goes through the vision that God gives to Nathan the prophet. Yahweh had given David rest from all his enemies, so David decided to build a house for God. Yahweh came to Nathan that night and told him that He would build a house for David; that He would establish David’s son after him as king over His people forever and that the house of David and his kingdom would be made sure forever.

The second section opens with King David sitting before the ark of Yahweh. This is the only time in scripture that sitting is described as a posture of prayer, but it is fitting. This is David’s coronation prayer as the enthroned Servant-King. He prays in response to the word that God had given and is staggered that God would choose him and his house. He says, “You have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and this is instruction for mankind, O Lord Yahweh!” God had already shown throughout Israel’s history that He is God and there is no other; that He both shatters nations and raises up a people for His own name. When He establishes His King and His Kingdom forever, it means that all kings and nations must bow to Him. “Kiss the son lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

God’s promise to David that his offspring would be established after him included Solomon, who built the temple, the house of God. It included the whole Davidic line of kings, some of whom were great and godly men, and others who were scoundrels that Yahweh disciplined with the rod. The promise finds its apex in Jesus Christ, of whom, even before His conception, it was said that “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

But it doesn’t end with Jesus receiving the kingdom alone. We are also included as heirs in this promise. In 2 Corinthians 6, Paul quotes from the Davidic covenant, but includes all of us in it, saying, “as God said… “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me.” This is true of all the promises that God established with His people; what is true of Jesus is true of His bride. As Paul points out in Galatians 3, because Jesus is the singular seed of Abraham, we are all seeds of Abraham. Jesus is raised from the dead, so we have a sure hope that we will be raised with Him (1 Cor 15). Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, and we are seated at the right hand of the Father in Christ (Eph 2). Jesus is king and priest, so we are a nation of kings and priests (Rev 1). Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, and He sets us about the business of discipling the nations in His name (Mat 28). All things are His and He freely gives us all that He has (Rom 8).

So All Will Know

Leviticus 19 includes the phrase that Jesus quotes as the second great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” God gives examples of what this means, anticipating the pharisaical question, “Who is my neighbor?” He includes the poor, the sojourner, the hired worker, the deaf, the blind, the great, the one living near you, and any of the sons of your people. This would pretty much include anyone you might happen to meet or do business with in your daily life.

The whole passage is structured with the refrain, “I am Yahweh.” Why do we love our neighbor? Because Yahweh is who He is and we are His people. In Exodus, Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews go, saying, “Who is Yahweh? I don’t know Yahweh.” When Moses brought this to God, He responded, I am Yahweh; I have heard the cries of the people of Israel in their slavery and I have remembered the covenant I made with their fathers. I am Yahweh; I will deliver you from your slavery. You will be my people and I will be your God. I will bring you to the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I am Yahweh.

God’s deliverance of His people — the exodus from Egypt — was an answer to the question, “Who is Yahweh?” He does this so Israel would know Him, so Egypt and the surrounding nations would see and know that He is God over all. Likewise, when He says, “You shall be holy, for I Yahweh your God am holy,” or, “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh,” it is a reflection of His character, a witness to us and the surrounding world that He is who He says He is. Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Paul says it this way, “We are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” We love one another because we are one body. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The gifts we’ve been given, whether it’s service or teaching or generosity or any other thing, are given for the benefit of the whole body. The hand has the gift of grasping and the eye the gift of seeing, but these only make sense in the context of the body. The eye doesn’t see just for the sake of the eye, but for the rest of the body. So we love one another because we are members of one another. We love one another so that the world will see and know that Jesus is Lord over all.

Though He Slay Me

The book of Job fits in with the book of Proverbs as a book of kingly training. It begins with the familiar story of this great and wealthy man who loses everything he has — his family, his home, his servants, animals, and crops — all in one day. He is plagued with sores from head to foot and his friends, the advisers or counselors of this great, powerful man, come to sit with him and comfort him. But they don’t. They sit with him for seven days without saying anything. When Job finally speaks, saying, It would be better if I’d never been born, they pounce on him and begin to attack, accusing him of unbelief and unrepentance. The innocent are not torn down like this, they say; you are guilty of sin. Repent! “God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” A man reaps what he sows.  This at least is certainly true. But Job’s friends reason backwards. If we sin and try to cover it up, we can expect trouble to find us. But it doesn’t follow that if we have trouble, then it means we must have sinned.

Job maintains his innocence, rejecting their false accusations, and longs to plead his case before God, the Judge. The beginning of the story — the part we get to see that Job didn’t, the conversation in heaven between God and the Accuser — shows us that Job is not just being caught in the machinery. “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” He is not being punished for sin. He is not being crushed merely on the whim of a capricious devil. God initiates and maintains a watchful eye over the whole process. The trials that He sends Job, and the accusers He sends to wrestle with him, are for his training in kingly rule. Job gains his victory by clinging to God in trust. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh.” “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” “Though he slay me, I will hope in him”

Certainly Paul recognizes this same progression in his trials. “I am being poured out as a drink offering… I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness.” Victory and kingship come through our suffering, our struggles, our wrestling because in our suffering we follow Christ. He has gone before us in this; He leads the way, and He is our hope.