Sunday, July 27, 2014

Prophecy and Typology in 1 Kings 19: Part 1

               A couple of weeks ago, we studied 1 Kings 19:11-21 in Bible Class at my church.  I have some thoughts on the passage, and would like to explore them in a short series of posts.
               The passage begins just after the story of Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal, whom God proves to be frauds and subsequently executes by the hand of Elijah.  God proceeds to finally send rain upon Israel, bringing an end to the three-year drought He has imposed as a judgment upon the land.  This should be a great victory for Elijah, but his triumph is turned to despair when God's victory produces not repentance, but rather greater evil from the queen Jezebel, who vows to kill the prophet.  Despairing of life, Elijah flees into the wilderness.  This passage begins with God first speaking to Elijah, and then sending many signs: fires and earthquakes and tempests.  But God Himself is not in any of these.  Finally, the still, small voice of God comes to Elijah, saying, "What are you doing here," and the prophet responds,
               "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.  For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I onlly, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away."
               God's response is an exhortation to Elijah but also a comforting word of promise that does not merely answer the prophet's situation but also prophecies God's deliverance and provision for believers today.  Let us examine the words of the Lord.
               "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus."
               God  does not say, "Enter the city," but rather, "Return to the wilderness," a distinction that speaks volumes both to the prophet and to the church today.  For, in speaking to Elijah, God also speaks to us, His church.  We have been saved and delivered from sin, death, and the devil; Christ protects us and will not allow anyone to snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28).  He has won the final victory and in Him we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).  But we still live in the midst of great trials and afflictions.  Sins still plague us, evil men still oppress us; the world still hates the Gospel and persecutes the church.  As the hymn proclaims, Christ has "brought His Israel [the church]...through the Red Sea waters" out of slavery in Egypt through His death and resurrection, and yet we still must wander in the wilderness before we reach the promised land: the great city, the New Jerusalem, which Christ will found at His return.  We live not in the bondage of slavery nor in the raptures of paradise, but rather in the wilderness journey.  Thus, we should not seek to avoid the realities of this our present life, but should rather traverse boldly through the wilderness in the confidence of salvation and the hope of future glory.
               "And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.  And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place."
               God does not leave us alone in the wilderness of this world, but rather makes provision for our protection and guidance.  As in the past He anointed kings through His prophets, He now anoints ministers of the Word through His church.  Although this passage foreshadows God's establishment of earthly authorities in our time for the condemnation of evil and the commendation of good (Romans 13: 3-4), it has a higher meaning in that it prophecies the office of the holy ministry, by which Christ comes to us in power through human vessels: pastors who exercise His authority to preach the Word, forgive sins, and administer the sacraments.  In this office, He provides for "apostolic succession," not in the twisted sense taught in the Roman church, but in the sense that each generation, by the grace of God, hands down the faith to the next by the teaching and ministry of pastors and preachers.
               "And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death."
               This apostolic succession will come, not through lineage or institution, but through continuance in the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42), that is, through the Word.  For Peter's confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" is the rock on which Christ has promised to build His church (Matthew 16:15-17), and the sword with which ministers in the church shall put men to death is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:17).  With the stern proclamation of God's Law, preachers will spiritually put to death rebellious sinners, condemning their sin and warning them of judgment, awakening in their heart the terrors of conscience.
               "Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."
               But still, as Isaiah proclaims so often in His prophecies, God will leave a remnant of the faithful who remain steadfast in His Word.  For although the sword of the Law kills, the Gospel has power to raise repentant sinners to life.  When the ministers of the Word put their hearers to death with the sword of the Law, many will remain obstinate in their sins and die eternally.  But God preserves a remnant, those who, having been killed by the Law, are risen again to new life when they repent and believe the Gospel.  This remnant is His church, the Body and Bride of Christ, the fellowship of believers, the figurative "7,000" who bow to the Lord and not to Baal, the "144,000" who have not received the mark of the beast but the seal of Christ (Revelation 7:1-4).  The Church is the assembly of God's people in the wilderness of the world, who endure tribulation in the confidence that they are sealed with the salvation won for them by Jesus.
               These words of the Lord are a prophecy of His Kingdom on earth.  The Kingdom comes by the Word, in the church, through the holy ministry.  This Word, this church, this ministry operate in an alien land, a hostile wilderness.  The work of the church is carried out in enemy territory, amidst all kinds of trials and sufferings and weaknesses and persecutions and tribulations.  It is a dangerous and seemingly futile mission, but not without hope, because our suffering here on earth is a partaking in the cross of Christ, by which He gained our salvation.  Therefore, as to Elijah, so Jesus also speaks to us, saying, "Do not despair: I have won; my story will prevail.  I have established my church in the midst of the wilderness, and have anointed ministers to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.  You are not alone, but a member of my church; you are not helpless, for I am all the strength you need.  Therefore, you also continue in the mission and calling which you have been given, as Elijah did, trusting me in the confidence that I will preserve you to the end."

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Canine Theology

               I have a dog.  Her name is Dozer, and she is a pain in the rear end, but I love her anyway, and that's all that matters.
               Ten years ago, my parents, siblings, and I chose Dozer to be a part of our family.  She had no choice in the matter.  We took her home with us and made her part of our family, and she grew to trust us and to depend upon us for everything she needed: food, water, a place to sleep and play, and most of all, love.  You see, Dozer knows that she cannot obtain the things she needs on her own.  When she is hungry or thirsty, she barks at us.  When she wants attention, she lies on her belly and waits for us to rub her.  When she needs to go outside, she waits at the door.  She does nothing to feed herself, pet herself, or take herself out, but instead calls upon us, and we answer her.
               But, despite being absolutely dependent upon us, Dozer is still a rebel.  When she was little, she would sometimes get out and run around the neighborhood, and we, the owners, would have to leave our home to find the lost and straying dog.  When we tell her "no," as is the daily occurrence when she inevitably asks for far more food than she needs, she barks and complains as if we were doing her harm.  Sometimes, when we do things like try to clean her paws, take something dangerous from her, or take her to the vet, she even lashes out at us and bites.
               Dozer also frequently fails to love her neighbor.  She can be very aggressive, especially in her territory, and has been known to lunge at anyone who comes through our door.  We can't take her to public places because she might become violent, and we can't let anyone in the house without locking her up.
               Yes, Dozer is a very bad dog.  But we love her anyway.  She is part of our family, and that is never going to change.  We constantly make sacrifices for her, handling her craziness, cleaning up her messes, and accommodating her needs.  We chastise her when she does something wrong, but we never forsake her.  Sometimes we have to do things to her that she hates, but it is always for her own good.  Yes, Dozer is a bad dog.  But she is our dog.
               Over the years, Dozer has improved her behavior.  Through our patience and training, she has learned to obey more and to rebel less.  She has become mellower and less volatile in her behavior toward strangers.  She is still a very naughty dog.  She still has problems, and that is not going to change.  But we have nurtured her and guided her for ten years now, and have helped her along the path to improve her behavior. 
               You see, each one of us is Dozer.  Dozer has been saved by grace, through faith, for we chose her and made her our own, and she trusts us and depends upon us.  She did nothing to deserve her "redemption" at our hands, but rather has done many things undeserving of it.  Even her faith in us is not a work on her part, but an act of necessity, for where else can she go, and what can she do for herself?  Even this faith is tainted with rebellion, both in her conduct toward us and toward other people.  But we do not hold this against Dozer.  We do not condemn her for her bad behavior.  Rather, we continue to love her unconditionally, and to give her everything that she needs.  We even stoop down to her level and help her to overcome her fear, her anxiety, and her violent ways.
               If a human family can thus love a dog; if we can redeem, forgive, renew, care for, and sanctify this big bundle of fur who we once received by grace into our home, then how much more will our heavenly Father, Love Himself, save us by His grace, not marking our iniquities but forgiving us, sending His own Son to die for our sins?  We are all like sheep who have gone astray; we are all like dogs who ungratefully bite the hand that feeds them.  But God is the One with the hand that feeds the bite.  We can only damn ourselves by our works, but God rescues us by His grace, receiving us into His family and loving us with the unconditional love of which all human love is but a mere image.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Children of God

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
                                                                                                  Galatians 4:4-5
               And yet it is with no mere humanly defined adoption that God receives us into his family, for He has not only taken us and declared us members of His household - although He certainly has done that - but has made us in body and soul one with Him, not merely as adoptees, but as "biological" children.  For in His Son, who became one of us, He is making us like Him.  And because we are being made like the Son, becoming the brother of the only Begotten of the Father, we are also being made into children of the Father.  For Christ has bound himself forever to us in the incarnation by taking upon Himself our nature, and in His crucifixion has become our blood brother.  We are the Church and thus His own body.  His blood, given to us to drink in the Lord's Supper, flows through our very veins; we are submerged through our Baptism in the water that flows from His side; He sends His Holy Spirit to make His dwelling in our hearts.  We are thus like Him and are being made like Him, the only begotten Son of the Father, that we also might become true sons and daughters of God in every way.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sheath Your Pitchforks, Repackage Your Confetti: Reflections on the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Ruling

             Edit: Apologies for the bad quote formatting, not sure how to fix it.

             Yes, I'm a little late to the party.  Most people are sick of hearing about Hobby Lobby.  Most people are probably ready to move on from the case to the media's new divisive attention-grabber.  But there are advantages to waiting a week or so before writing a piece on something like this.  I know, not very popular in today's "I want it now!" culture, but a better way nonetheless.
               So, if you haven't moved on yet, I recommend that you sheath your pitchforks or repackage your confetti (depending on what side you're on) because the recent Supreme court ruling isn't a landmark decision or a groundbreaking event.  It maintains the status quo rather nicely and will barely affect either women's health or religious freedom at all.
               Let's examine the evidence. 

               1.  Alito's opinion implied that the First Amendment was not broad enough to support Hobby Lobby's claim.  In attempting to interpret the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the law on which the Supreme Court based the ruling, Alito attempted to distinguish its scope from that of the First Amendment by citing a case in which two Native Americans, fired from their jobs for ingesting Peyote (a drug considered a sacrament of sorts in their religion) sought unemployment benefits but were denied because of the criminality of their drug use.  The Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs, claiming that "neutral, generally applicable laws may be applied to religious practices even when not supported by a compelling governmental interest."  In other words, as long as the law doesn't specifically target religion, it should be upheld even in cases where it infringes on religious exercise.  Apparently, to the Supreme Court then and now (for Alito confirms this previous ruling), the decree "Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]" now means that congress can prohibit the free exercise of religion as much as they want as long as the law is generally applicable and doesn't target religion specifically.  This twisting of the founders' words and assault on our rights is an absolute abomination.

               2.  The Supreme Court, instead, upholds RFRA, which, although intended to curb the government in its running roughshod over the terms of the First Amendment, still remains more narrow and restrictive than the true meaning of the First Amendment, which the court refuses to acknowledge.  RFRA states thus, quoted and framed in Alito's opinion:

              "Government shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden               results from a rule of general applicability."  If the Government substantially burdens a                         person's exercise of religion, under the Act that person is entitled to an exemption from the                 rule unless the Government "demonstrates that application of the burden to the person - (1)                 is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means               of furthering that compelling governmental interest.            

               On the surface, RFRA seems to be a good law.  But, unfortunately, there remains that pesky little term, "compelling governmental interest."  Of course, that phrase is never defined, which leaves the door wide open for any interpretation.  Is a "compelling governmental interest" the need to protect people from being murdered and raped?  Is it the enforcement of tax laws?  Of any law?  The wording is so broadly construed that practically any federal or state mandate, however petty or obscure, could be declared a "compelling governmental interest" and used to burden a person's exercise of religion.
               3.  The court merely assumes that forcing a business to purchase insurance for its employees that furnishes contraceptives is a "compelling governmental interest."  This is so absurd that it should require no refutation, but since liberals and radical feminists will certainly claim that contraceptive care is a human right, let it be noted that to establish anything as a human right is to exert an obligation upon every human being.  The right to life, liberty, and property (as Locke codified), for example, does not merely concern the government's obligation to protect its citizens (since each right has as its corollary an obligation, and each obligation a right) but also each human being's responsibility to refrain from harming their neighbor's person, infringing upon his freedom, damaging his property.  Similarly, to claim an inalienable right to contraceptive care is also to impose upon every other human being the obligation to furnish that care.  This is the essential principle behind the liberal argument; Hobby Lobby (or the government) is merely the specific agent carrying out that obligation on behalf of the rest of humanity.  I invite any objectors to support this line of argument by clear reason and not by emotional appeal.  I do not think it can be done, for it is not reasonable.  And before I am accused of misogyny, I would like to point out that I would say the same for men's reproductive care and, frankly, all health care, excepting that necessary to save a life or to treat a debilitating condition.  I am quite willing to admit that the right to life may include a right to life-saving health care, but I refuse to grant anyone the right to live without physical pain, or the right to have sex whenever they please, or the right to live in as much physical comfort as possible.  All this does not even touch upon the abortion issue tied up in this ruling (which I will not deal with here since the issue and the medical debate surrounding it is beyond the scope of this essay).

               4.  The court only upholds Hobby Lobby's claim because there is a "less restrictive" means of furnishing the "compelling governmental interest" of free emergency contraception.  This "less restrictive" method is to force the insurance companies to provide the four objectionable contraceptives free of charge to employees of the plaintiffs.  Although this option does not burden the exercise of religion, it remains restrictive and unjust in that it still coerces insurance companies into giving contraceptives away under the assumption that women are entitled to the four methods under question.
               These four points should be sufficient to demonstrate the true nature of this ruling.  Certainly, it is a small victory for religious freedom, but not for liberty in general, for it merely passes the buck from one company to another.  Since the court assumes that the government has a compelling interest in forcing corporations to pay for contraceptives, someone must pay if Hobby Lobby will not.  Conservatives and libertarians should hardly celebrate this ruling, for it maintains the liberal status quo of entitlement and government coercion.  Similarly, liberals have nothing to be worried about with regard to the ruling, for although it exempts conscientious objectors from the mandate, it gives their opinions no weight in the end of the matter, for it still recognizes the claim of entitlement to the contraceptives in question, in essence excusing the dissenters of their scruples and shoving the responsibility off to someone else in order to appease weak consciences.
               Thus, as it all turns out, not much is different after the Hobby Lobby ruling.  Women still get free IUDs and Plan B/Ella drugs, the government still affirms the claim to entitlement to contraceptives, the state still forces private corporations to buy things, and the Supreme Court still refuses to acknowledge our freedoms under the first amendment.  Hobby Lobby's victory is good, but the alternative proposed by the court is not.  The ruling is a small victory for religious freedom, but will barely make a dent in the status quo.  Statism is still very much alive and well.  Neither confetti nor pitchforks will be necessary; rather, let us put our hands to the plow, for there is much more work to do.